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

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  ³…to 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. …to uphold the far-reaching  principle that children would have Å’first call¹ 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.²  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 ³put children first².   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 children¹s 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 don¹t 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 ³…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.²   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 Session.

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 …²emblematic of all children.²  

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 ³put children first²,  the child meant to ³move² 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 child¹s 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 don¹t 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 girl¹s eyes, ³…haunted and haunting, and in them you can read the tragedy of a land drained by war.²  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 to²…develop educational opportunities for the girls and young women of Afghanistan.²

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 don¹t know where or when the photograph was taken .  And anyway, Ms. Tolmie said  ³…the particulars relating to this girl are unimportant²   I happen to disagree.  I think the particulars might be very  important , but I don¹t know them.   What I do know, however, is  ³the story² 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 world¹s 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 Sec¹y of State, Madeleine Albright , ³… we think the price is worth it.¹ 

 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 now.  

We can see the magnitude of the disaster  in their latest analysis, the Official Summary, The State of the World¹s 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 ³… the single most significant  indicator of the state of a nation¹s children  is the under five mortality rate (U5MR).²  It measures the ³end result of  the development process rather than an Å’input¹ such as school enrollment level, per capita calorie availability or the number of doctors per thousand population …²   The figure represents the impact of  the many, many factors– including maternal health, availability of clean water and income–that contribute to a child¹s 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 ³improvement²  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 ³improvement²: – 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 it¹s children.  This was the reality in Iraq  throughout the 60¹s, 70¹s and 80¹s.   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 ³…  the single most significant  indicator of the state of a nation¹s children…²   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 atrocity.  

 For those few days in New York,  the well-being of the world¹s children had the attention of the main stream media–they were center stage.  The community of  leaders and children¹s 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… ³Assess 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.²   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 day…day after day…month after month…year after year. ..to warrant action. And so, we must take it.

The children in Iraq cannot wait any longer.  The time for ³urgent and effective measures² 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 America¹s 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 campaign.    

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