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UN Special Session for Children Opens in New York - 2002-05-08

A United Nations special session devoted to children's issues opened in New York Wednesday, with hundreds of young people from around the world attending. The idea is to ensure governments provide children with a healthy, safe environment, free from disease, ignorance and war.

The special session is all about children. It is historic, in a way, because it is the first time that children are being allowed to speak up at such an event. And they have, some 400 children from around the world.

They have delivered eloquent messages about the horrors of war, the uncertainty of life without parents, about little brothers and sisters who were dead before the age of five.

Still, it is the grown-ups who really occupy center stage in New York, government leaders and ministers who have the power to bring about change.

According to the testimony of many of the children, the grown-ups have not been doing such a good job of it. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan agrees. In his opening remarks, Mr. Annan noted that too many of the world's children live without basic human rights. He said, "We, the grown-ups, have failed you deplorably in upholding many of them. One in three of you has suffered from malnutrition. One in four of you has not been immunized against any disease. Almost one in five of you is not attending school. So many of you have seen violence that no child should ever see."

The objectives of this three-day meeting are not in dispute. Governments agree the list of failures toward children must be reversed. They expect to adopt a plan of action at the end of the session.

This is where the controversy comes in. Different governments advocate different approaches. The United States, for example, sides with the Vatican and Muslim countries in opposing anything that might imply abortion, or sex education for children.

U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson told delegates the Bush Administration is focused on discouraging children from having sex. "Our efforts," he said, "include the delay of sexual activity and supporting abstinence education programs. Abstinence is the only sure way of avoiding sexually transmitted disease, premature pregnancy and the social and personal difficulties attendant to non-marital sexual activity."

The special session is tackling some powerful issues, including how to deal with HIV/AIDS, which has victimized so many of the world's children, especially in Africa.

On the table also is the age-old problem of financing projects in developing countries. Donations from most rich countries have fallen to new lows over the last 10 years. So far, no hard pledges have come in to change that.