This week marks the first-ever United Nations Special Session on Children, which will bring hundreds of government leaders, heads of state, non-governmental organizations and children's advocates to New York with a single purpose - to change the way the world views and treats its most precious resource, children.

In the ten-year period between 1986 and 1996, war claimed the lives of approximately one million children. Another two million were orphaned. Six million were seriously handicapped. More than 60 percent of the world's refugee population are children.

Olara Otunu, the U.N. Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflicts, calls these numbers "sobering figures." But he is enthusiastic about the upcoming Special Session on Children and its capacity to bring about change.

He said, "The good news is that we can transform this situation. Each of these things which is going on - whether it is child soldiering, sexual abuse of girls, displacement of kids or denial of education - all of these are things that, with a resolve and in concert, we can remedy. It is not a foregone conclusion that children should be condemned to this hell."

The summit is meant as a follow-up to the 1990 World Summit for Children, and key issues from that meeting remain central - reducing infant and maternal mortality rates, increasing access to clean water and sanitation and establishing universal primary education.

According to UNICEF Director Carol Bellamy, significant improvements in the welfare of the world's children came in the wake of the 1990 meeting; more than 60 countries, she says, have reduced their under-five infant mortality rate by one-third. Child deaths from diarrhea are down 50 percent worldwide. She says successes like these should help stoke the flames of this week's Special Session.

"Children are better off today," she said, "than they were 10 years ago. These meetings that come out with concrete goals, as I believe this plan of action ultimately will, they can make a difference - if those leaders go back and do something about it. And that is the reason for having this meeting."

There are also some new issues taking center stage at this Special Session. One is HIV/AIDS. Children are considered both the primary victims of the disease, and the key to stopping its transmission.

Another, to Mr. Otunu's satisfaction, is the protection of children in armed conflict. And he hopes that specific issues, like the rampant use of children as soldiers, will be more than simply discussed. Mr. Otunu said, "I also hope that this will be the occasion when those in a position to do so will make commitments about resources, material resources, earmarked for the benefit of war-affected children - not just words."

Over 1,000 non-governmental agencies from around the world will participate. There will also be a "public-private dialogue" between government and business leaders. Chief executive officers from India, Switzerland and the United States - including Bill Gates, the head of software giant, Microsoft - will participate. Nearly 50 heads of state will attend.

Perhaps the most notable presence at the event, however, will be that of children themselves. More than 300 children will serve as delegates at the summit. They will have the opportunity to interact with world leaders, prepare positions on the main issues and present the outcome of their consultations to the General Assembly.

Ms. Bellamy calls the involvement of children "essential." Their presence and participation in the event will remind attendees and the public at large - of the summit's vital mission.

She said, "I am asked this question sometimes, 'Why are they focusing on children when there are real things out there, like peace and security?' And I would like to suggest that one would have a better chance of achieving peace and security with somewhat more investment in children. If you want to avoid growing terrorists in the future, you should grow fully-healthy, educated people, and that is the reason to invest in children."

The Special Session on Children, which will be held at the United Nations in New York from May 8 through May 10, was originally scheduled for September of last year. It was postponed due to the September 11 terrorist attacks.