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The United Nations has decided that the world’s 2 billion youngest citizens need healthier, more peaceful lives. To do that, member states last week cobbled together an action plan that sets ambitious goals — yet failed to create a consensus on how to get there. It will take considerably more than lofty rhetoric and good intentions to make the world a better and safer place for children.

In an era of unprecedented wealth, 1.2 billion people — half of whom are children — live on less than $1 a day. Even in the world’s richest countries, one in six children lives below the poverty line. Nearly 11 million children die each year before the age of 5, many from preventable causes. A lack of basic health care and drinking water are the primary contributors to this deplorable situation. Nearly 150 million children are malnourished, and 120 million do not go to school. By 2000, an estimated 13 million children had lost one or both parents to AIDS.

During the 1990s, armed conflicts killed some 2 million children, and left millions more physically and psychologically scarred. About 300,000 children are fighting in wars around the globe. At least 10,000 others are killed or wounded by land mines each year. About 250 million between the ages of 5 and 14 work, and the International Labor Organization estimates that 50 million to 60 million work in intolerable conditions. About 30 million children each year are exploited or involved in sexual trafficking and abuse.

Given this appalling state of affairs, the results of the three-day Special Session on Children — the first General Assembly meeting devoted exclusively to children — were predictable. The representatives from more than 180 countries agreed on 21 new goals in such areas as health, education, combating AIDS and protecting children against abuse, exploitation and violence. The objectives included reducing malnutrition among children under the age of 5 by at least one-third and increasing the number of children who receive a primary education to at least 90 percent by 2010.

Some may well ask, why all the fuss? The statistics are grim, but there has been marked improvement in every important indicator in the last few decades. Infant mortality is falling, as is the number of malnourished children; access to health care and education is rising, and perhaps most important, fertility rates are dropping in the developing world.

The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child was designed to set global standards for children’s issues. That document has been ratified by 191 countries — all nations except Somalia and the United States. (Somalia is set to ratify the convention soon, leaving the U.S. as the only holdout.) Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton signed the document, but he never submitted it to the Senate, fearing that conservative opposition would block ratification. Those opponents claim that the treaty would undermine the rights of parents; that logic prevails in the current U.S. administration, and its efforts kept the Special Session from adopting language that would set the convention as the standard for children’s rights.

U.S. obstinacy — along with that of the Vatican and Islamic countries — also obliged delegates to water down provisions on other key points. Those governments split with other delegates on issues concerning reproductive health. They wanted to ensure that there would be no language that could be construed as supporting sex education, contraception or abortion. In addition, the U.S. won exemption from provisions that bar the death penalty or life imprisonment for individuals under the age of 18. Another paragraph allowed for differences on “cultural and traditional practices,” a concession to Islamic countries that allows males to dominate women in the family.

The result was considerable backpedaling from rights already won. One envoy complained that the document “falls significantly short” of reaffirming the right to high-quality family planning and counseling and information for adolescents, a view that was seconded by many other delegates present.

Such compromises are inevitable in any political process. But concessions on language need not be reflected in the policies that follow. That is the real test. A good place to start is in budget priorities: Developing countries need to spend less money on defense and more on their citizens. Developed countries must recognize that human security is the best form of national security, and development aid is the best means to that end. The time has come to close the gap between the pious words of those who sing the praises of children and the sad reality in which millions of the world’s youngest citizens are forced to live.

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