Save the Children

Following is the text of Archbishop Renato Martino's Oct. 30 presentation before the general assembly of the United Nations in New York on the “Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Children.” The archbishop is apostolic nuncio and permanent observer to the United Nations.

Throughout the world, the Catholic Church is one of the major providers of aid and care for children. The Holy See is therefore pleased to be able to participate in this discussion of … the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Children.

It is inconceivable that any child would grow up with the dream of becoming a prostitute, a drug addict, or a child soldier. It is just as inconceivable that a child would ever dream of being separated from his or her family, forced to labor in conditions that are harmful or exploitive, being sexually, physically or psychologically abused, or dying as a result of armed conflict. No child would ever hope for such a life, but this is the tragic reality that confronts too many children in the world. For them, life is not a dream but a nightmare. In fact, 650 million of the world's children “are living in conditions of almost unimaginable suffering and want.” An estimated 2 million are involved in prostitution, and over 230 million children throughout the world are working in situations that place them at risk from hazardous and intolerable forms of labor. How many more die each week from malnutrition and disease, from a lack of the basic elements of life such as clean water and sanitation, or from the ravages of drug abuse and life on the street?

Clearly many of the problems facing the world require long-term and difficult solutions. However, it is high time that the problems and difficulties that threaten children be addressed effectively. The international community must demonstrate the resolve not only to seek out the causes of these violations of the rights and dignity of children, but also to bring itself to implement the solutions which we know exist and which will work.

Whenever we confront situations which involve a violation of rights, we are faced with an unjustifiable domination of the strong over the weak, of the “haves” over the “have nots.” It is because children are some of the weakest and most defenseless in our society that they become frequent victims of the abuses of human rights in many forms. For this reason, even before policies to rectify such abuses are considered and proposed, we must first have a clear understanding that children are the bearers of rights precisely because they are human persons. As such they have a claim to our respect and they share fully in human dignity as do all human beings from conception until natural death.

My delegation is convinced that the solutions to abuses against the rights of children must be rooted in the family. That basic unit of society is the natural and primary locus where children develop an understanding of themselves and of the world. It is undeniably clear that where there are strong family ties, the children grow to have greater personal stability, less vulnerability of all kinds, and a more effective enjoyment of the natural rights which are theirs, including the right to life itself and the right to education. Further, it is in the context of the family that children find those who most willingly and effectively afford them protection from the many threats which life can present. For this reason, great care must be taken to assist parents in all circumstances so that they are enabled to exercise their rights, duties, and responsibilities in caring for and rearing their children.

This reality was eloquently captured by Secretary General Kofi Annan in his message issued last May on the Observance of the International Day of Families. He said, “From Bosnia and Herzegovina to Zaire, we have seen how conflicts assault the very foundation of society—families. Whether it is fathers sent off to war never perhaps to return, or mothers left defenseless before advancing armies, or children made orphans by massive dislocations and refugee movements—the ruins of war are the ruins of families.” And he continued, “We must restore the sacredness of the family as a bedrock of humane values everywhere, in peace as well as in war. The future of peace and prosperity that we seek for all the world's people needs a foundation of tolerance, security, equality, and justice. That foundation is the family. It is only by protecting families, from famine as well as from fragmentation, that they can prosper and contribute to the family of nations that is the United Nations.”

The Holy See is convinced that the abuse of the rights of children, including exploitation and neglect of all kinds must be addressed and brought to an end. In the words of His Holiness Pope John Paul II, “There cannot and must not be abandoned children, nor children without families, nor street children. There cannot be and must not be children used by adults for immoral purposes, for drug trafficking, for petty and large crimes, for practicing vices. There cannot be and must not be children in reformatories and correctional institutions where they do not have true upbringing.… [T]here cannot be and must not be children who are assassinated, eliminated under the pretext of crime prevention, marked for death.”

In strengthening and protecting the family and the role of parents, we protect the world's children from many of these threats and evils, and we provide them with a real cause for hope in their future.