|United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children, New York, 2002|
Following a strenuous three-day negotiation, a UN General Assembly Special Session on Children, held May 8-10, 2002 in New York, agreed on a global action agenda for the health, development, and rights of all persons under 18. The final document, "A World Fit For Children," clearly reaffirms agreements reached during the past eight years that richly detail adolescents' rights to sexual and reproductive health information and services.
The Bush administration delegation—aligning itself with the Vatican, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Sudan—used its superpower status to try to undo these agreements. It was thwarted by governments from around the world, including all of Latin America, Canada, the European Union, and other industrialized nations. Sub-Saharan Africa and Asian countries remained uncharacteristically quiet during negotiations, but supported the final outcome document.
More than sixty heads of state and representatives of nongovernmental organizations—3,000 in all from 170 countries—attended the Special Session, first scheduled for mid-September 2001, to review the achievement of goals set at the 1990 World Summit for Children and chart a course for future action. For the first time, young people—more than 350 of them—attended a UN conference as participating delegates. They spoke loudly and clearly about the devastating realities of children's lives. They talked not only of war and violence but also of the millions of girls around the world who are at great risk of HIV infection, unwanted pregnancy, and unsafe abortion. Moreover, they advocated strongly for young people's involvement in the search for solutions. In the words of Willemijn Aeirdts, a young Dutch delegate, "We are experts in our own field. Our participation here is only the beginning."
Despite strong-arm tactics, the Bush administration could not secure the inclusion of language promoting "abstinence-only" sex education. Since 1995, the world's governments have agreed five times that health services and comprehensive sexuality education must be provided to young people, recognizing that evaluations demonstrate that such programs work. By contrast, there is no evidence that abstinence-only programs delay sexual initiation or have any value for adolescents who are already sexually active. There is evidence that young people who complete abstinence-only programs are far less likely than those who have comprehensive education to practice safer sex. In the words of Nicole Bidegain, a 17-year-old participant in the Special Session from Uruguay, "We are told the only way not to get AIDS or to be pregnant is abstinence. But the reality in my country is that young people are sexually active."
The U.S. delegation was equally unsuccessful in its attempts to characterize the family as marriage between a man and woman only, and to weaken statements on children's rights relative to parental rights. Similarly, progressive delegations blocked U.S. efforts to include wording that would only have recognized couples' right to information about family planning but not access to contraceptives. Prolonged wrangling occurred over whether the phrase "reproductive health services" should, as the U.S. delegation asserted, be redefined to exclude legal abortion. The majority of delegations agreed that reproductive health services for adolescents should remain as defined in earlier UN conference agreements.
Success had a price. The final document that emerged from negotiations is not as inspiring as women's health and youth advocates, and many governments, had wanted. It lacks a paragraph detailing the components of comprehensive sexuality education. Nevertheless, its endorsement of prior global agreements can be used to garner support nationally for adolescents' right to comprehensive sexuality education programs and health services. The rights of young people are not affirmed as strongly as they would have been had the Bush administration agreed to describe the Convention on the Rights of the Child as the framework for "A World Fit For Children." With Somalia expected to ratify shortly and East Timor having just attained statehood, the United States now stands alone among the world's governments in its opposition to the Convention. The Administration's stance is rooted in the erroneous belief that the Convention infringes on parents' rights and is inconsistent with state laws. The US delegation also succeeded in substantially weakening a paragraph calling on governments to eliminate the death penalty and life imprisonment for people who commit crimes under 18. (Twenty-three US states allow minors and people who committed crimes while minors to face the death penalty.)
As in past UN conferences, IWHC used a multidimensional strategy for the Special Session on Children. We shared our expertise with the Rio Group (18 Latin American governments) as well as governments of the European Union and other industrialized countries before and during negotiations. Twenty representatives of nongovernmental organizations—among them seven young people-from 11 countries attended the Special Session with IWHC's sponsorship. The presence of so many nongovernmental organizations and their concrete, country-based experiences made them strong advocates and spokespersons, both with delegates and the media. Like many others, Grace Osakue of the Girls' Power Initiative in Nigeria attended the Special Session to "see that a supportive document emerged that could continue to contribute to our work on the ground."
IWHC served as a facilitator for the International Sexual and Reproductive Rights Coalition, twenty organizations and networks working together to ensure that the consensus agreement reached at the Special Session did not reverse gains made at past UN conferences. We also co-convened daily strategy sessions for more than fifty NGO lobbyists. A technical panel we co-organized with the World Health Organization, the United Nations Population Fund, and the World Bank featured speakers who lead innovative sexuality education programs in Mexico, Mongolia, New York City, Nigeria, and Pakistan (to read their speeches, click here). Finally, through our extensive press outreach we were able to raise substantial media interest in the Special Session and influence the coverage in print and on air.
Postscript: The U.S. delegation to the World Health Assembly, held May 13-18, 2002 at the World Health Organization in Geneva, tried to water down prior global commitments on reproductive health in similar ways. The U.S. delegation again failed, but this experience demonstrates that constant vigilance and mobilization are required.
Click here to read "A World Fit for Children", the outcome document of the Special Session (8-10 May 2002), in English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, or Russian.