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[casi] Children of Iraq

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What About Children in Iraq: A report from the UN Special Session on
Children, May 8-10, 2002
by Claudia Lefko

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the most widely endorsed
human rights document in history, yet most people in the United States have
never even heard of it. 
Adopted  by the UN at the 1990 World Summit for Children,  the CRC, as Kofi
Annan recently summarized it,  was a promise by world leaders  ?
protect children and to diminish their suffering; to promote the fullest
development of their human potential; and to make them aware of their
needs, their rights and opportunities. uphold the far-reaching
 principle that children would have ?first call? on all resources, that
they (world leaders) would always put the best interests of children
first--in good times or bad, in peace or in war, in prosperity or economic
distress.?  Only two countries have failed to ratify this document: the
United States and Somalia.  
Some ten years later, just this past  May, 2002,  sixty  heads of state,
1800  delegates from non-governmental agencies (NGOs) , and 400  children
and young people from around the world met again at the UN in New York  to
assess the  progress made in achieving the seven goals agreed upon in
theCRC.  This follow -up meeting,  the UN Special Session on Children, was
organized to highlight and give support to national and regional efforts to
?put children first?.   It was the largest gathering for a special session
in the history of the UN; organizers took this as a positive indication of
just how important children?s issues are in the world today.  I am a
preschool/kindergarten teacher, parent, activist and advocate for children.
  My work on behalf of Iraqi children  brought me into contact with LIFE
for Relief and Development, an NGO based in Michigan; I was one of their
delegates to the Special Session.

A lot of work had been done in preparation for this historic meeting. 165
countries  carried out national reviews to assess their progress on behalf
of children. Regional mini-summits were held in Africa, The Middle East and
North Africa, East Asia and the Pacific South Asia, Europe and Central
Asia, and in  the Americas and the Caribbean.  My work, in preparation for
the meetings, was to go looking for any statements,  information,
assessments or analysis that might have come out of the regional meetings
describing how children were faring in the current trouble spots in the
Middle East--particularly in Iraq and the Occupied Territories.   While the
main stream media tends to focus on the numbers of deaths in these conflict
areas, it is the children  who are living with the daily disruption of
their lives, with deprivation--lacking enough food  and water,  adequate
shelter or health care-- with violence, suffering and death, who should be
the focus of media attention and the focus of our concern.  They are, for
the most part, being denied the most basic human rights guaranteed  them
under the CRC.   You don?t have to be a pediatrician, a teacher or child
psychologist to know that children living in these circumstances are at
great risk--in the present moment, and throughout their lives.  I was
curious to see if and how the Arab summits dealt with this issue.

The Arab Regional Civil Society Forum on Children, held in Morocco in
February, 2001, issued  The Rabat Declaration in which the 250
representatives from 21 countries ?...renew(ed) their commitment to working
towards lifting sanctions and boycotts, advocating the cessation of wars,
armed conflicts and occupation and alleviating their devastating effects on
victimized children in Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Libya Somalia, the Occupied
Golan Heights and elsewhere.?   The Arab High Level Conference on the
Rights of the Child, held in Cairo in July, 2001 proclaimed 2002 the Year
of the Child in the Arab World. Learning this,  I anticipated  hearing some
very serious, high level discussions about the plight of children in the
Middle East... discussion that would lead to a commitment on the part of
world leaders to take concrete actions to protect and guarantee children
their basic human rights--for health, safety and overall well being --
throughout the region. I am particularly concerned about Iraq where UN
Sanctions are responsible for the suffering and deaths of so many children.
 I was hoping the well-intentioned, well-informed and in some cases,
powerful people gathered at the UN would not turn a blind eye to those
children. For the most part I was disappointed.  However, in a strange and
wonderful twist of fate, something extraordinary and quite unexpected  made
it nearly impossible to ignore at least one Iraqi child at this Special

A woman at one of the first  briefings for NGO delegates, asked about the
poster child for the Special Session; no one on the podium could give us
any information. But, a man in the audience answered, saying it was an
Iraqi Kurdish child.  Indeed, when I looked, I saw the information for
myself in very small print on some of the posters, and her nationality was
later confirmed   by Ellen Tolmie, Photo editor at UNICEF. She told me in a
phone interview that they had looked for a photograph of a child whose
ethnicity was not obvious, one who could most easily be seen as
...?emblematic of all children.?  

The picture they chose is a black and white photograph by Sebastian Salgado
of a ten or twelve year old girl standing in front of a  stucco wall with
her hands  clasped together.  Her face is framed by short, dark curly hair.
 Her equally dark eyes stare-- more than look --out at us;  her mouth is
unsmiling.  She is bundled in a striped sweater under a tattered dress. The
 poster, which is the picture of this girl, was hanging from lamp posts up
and down 1st Avenue; it was on the walls inside  the UN and  on countless
pamphlets and brochures.  There was a certain, sinister irony in this. The
child whose photograph is used to symbolize a commitment to ?put children
first?,  the child meant to ?move? the world to care about children and to
take  action on their behalf... this very child is beyond our reach.  Even
if we wanted to, it would be difficult for any of us to  do anything on
 behalf of this Iraqi girl under the current sanctions policy. 

Something about the expression in the child?s eyes  reminds me of the
Afghan girl whose picture appeared on the cover of National Geographic
magazine  in 1985, and then again in April 2002. The eyes of the Iraqi girl
are not friendly or warm, they don?t seem to connect her--even in that
instant-- with the photographer, or the viewer.  Although she is obviously
posed,  she looks almost startled.  National Geographic photographer Steve
McCurry called his Afghan girl?s eyes, ?...haunted and haunting, and in
them you can read the tragedy of a land drained by war.?  A photograph can
be very powerful.  While the camera freezes just that one fraction of a
moment,  the image is not necessarily static for the viewer. Certain images
stay with us,  provoking speculation about  the circumstances of the
photograph. What happened before; what came afterwards. What ever became of
that child so many of us  remember, for instance, the naked girl running
down the road after a napalm attack.

Steve McCurry went looking for the Afghan girl 17 years after taking her
picture, and he wrote her story in the April 2002 issue of the magazine.
Apparently moved by the photograph, and the story associated with it--both
past and present-- National Geographic set up an Afghan Girls Fund
to?...develop educational opportunities for the girls and young women of

And I, seeing the photograph of this Iraqi girl... wanted to go looking for
her, so I could  tell her story.   Because, I think-- in some fit of absurd
optimism-- that if I find her and tell her story, it may somehow,
miraculously,  open the door to help for her and for every other child in
Iraq.  The photographer, Sebastian Salgado, is away and  could not be
reached.   The UNICEF Photo office could only tell me she was a displaced
person.  They don?t know where or when the photograph was taken .  And
anyway, Ms. Tolmie said  ?...the particulars relating to this girl are
unimportant?   I happen to disagree.  I think the particulars might be very
 important , but I don?t know them.   What I do know, however, is  ?the
story? of children in Iraq.

Iraqi children are seemingly out of the reach and perhaps even out of the
minds of the international community.  The United Nations, the organization
that focused the world?s attention on children,  drafting the Convention on
the Rights of the Child and hosting the Special Session ----is the very one
 enforcing a brutal sanctions policy that is, by its own estimates,
 resulting in the deaths of 5,000 children under  the age of five every
month.   More than half a million children have died over the last decade.
And using its influence to ensure that sanctions remain in place is the
United States.  The wealthiest and most powerful country in the world
insists on continuing a policy that has  killed more than half a million
children. Our government  knows who is paying the price in our ongoing
struggle with Iraq, and according to  former Sec?y of State, Madeleine
Albright , ?... we think the price is worth it.? 

 The US is not alone, though.  Everyone--at least every government and
probably every government official, or elected representative to
government-- knows  the devastating impact of sanctions on children in
Iraq.  UNICEF has been gathering and releasing this information  for years

We can see the magnitude of the disaster  in their latest analysis, the
Official Summary, The State of the World?s Children 2002, produced  by
UNICEF for the Special Session. In the very last pages, is Table 8:
Measuring Human Development.   The introduction to Table 8, explains that
?... the single most significant  indicator of the state of a nation?s
children  is the under five mortality rate (U5MR).?  It measures the ?end
result of  the development process rather than an ?input? such as school
enrollment level, per capita calorie availability or the number of doctors
per thousand population ...?   The figure represents the impact of  the
many, many factors-- including maternal health, availability of clean water
and income--that contribute to a child?s overall well-being. The vast
majority of countries--173-- saw, as might be expected in the last decade
of the 20th century, an improvement in their U5MR. Seventeen countries lost
ground;  ten of those are in Africa where HIV/AIDS is pandemic .  So, the
?improvement?  for those 17 countries is listed as a negative
number--indicating a decline in overall well-being:  South Africa is listed
as -17%;  Zimbabwe  -46%.     Botswana, where the rate of adult HIV/AIDS is
38.5%, the highest in the world,  has the second highest negative figure
for ?improvement?: - 74%.

The country whose children  experienced the greatest decline, however is
Iraq, with a  -160%.  160% DECLINE in  the overall well-being of children
during the last decade of the 20th century. .. in a country with the second
largest oil reserves in the world, where the relatively  well-educated,
 well-fed and healthy civilian population that made up the pre-Gulf War,
pre-sanctions society would have predicted the possibility  of continuous
and steady improvement for it?s children.  This was the reality in Iraq
 throughout the 60?s, 70?s and 80?s.   The U5MR  fell from 171 deaths per
thousand in 1960,   to 50 per 1000 in 1990.   This is well below the
Regional average for the Middle East and North Africa, which was 80 deaths
per 1000, and  two times better than  the  average in, what UNICEF lists
as,  Developing Countries, where the average number of deaths  in 1990 was
103  per 1000 children.   By 2000, however,     the U5MR in Iraq had
climbed back up to 130 deaths per 1000 children.

One would think this shocking statistic ?...  the single most significant
 indicator of the state of a nation?s children...?   would have provoked
enormous concern among the delegates . One might have  even expected that
the catastrophic decline in overall well being of children in Iraq would
have been a primary topic for discussion at the  Special Session. But It
was largely ignored; there was little or no talk about the  tens of
thousands of Iraqi children who are under the weight of this ongoing

 For those few days in New York,  the well-being of the world?s children
had the attention of the main stream media--they were center stage.  The
community of  leaders and children?s advocates gathered at the UN for this
historic meeting could have taken the high moral ground for Iraqi children,
and children living in the Occupied Territories. Using The Rabat
Declaration and capitalizing on the  Arab High Level Conference which
declared 2002 the Year of the Child in the Arab World they had the
opportunity to highlight the life-threatening conditions that exist for
children in the Middle East .  For the most part,  it was a lost
opportunity...except, perhaps,  for one small item.

While it did not exactly grab headlines, there is a small reason for hope.
A tiny window of opportunity may be open to Iraqi children  in paragraph
41, xxvii of the outcome document from the UN Special Session on Children.
 In it, delegates make  a commitment   to... ?Assess and monitor regularly
the impact of sanctions on children and take urgent and effective measures
in accordance with international law with a view to alleviating the
negative impact of economic sanctions on women and children.?   Monitoring
the impact of sanctions on the civilian population --especially children--
has been going on since they were first imposed in 1991.  We have
well-documented evidence that children in Iraq are suffering and dying by
the hundreds every after day...month after month...year after
year. warrant action. And so, we must take it.

The children in Iraq cannot wait any longer.  The time for ?urgent and
effective measures? has surely come; it is  2002, the Year of the Child in
the Arab World.   The civil society of the world at large, the United
Nation,  and those heads of state who have recently signed onto the outcome
document at the Special Session on Children,  must take the actions they
are now legally obligated  to take.  They must insist on  an end to
 economic sanctions and develop a viable plan to end to the suffering and
death  of Iraqi children. They must intervene to facilitate a negotiated
 settlement of America?s dispute with Iraq.  We cannot have another war in
that country. Everyone--children, parents, grandparents-- has suffered more
than enough. 

It is very late, but never too late to begin.  We know that one detail of
our work is already taken care of.   We have a poster child for this urgent

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