Because of an editing error, the title of Ronald Roskens, administrator of the Agency for International Development, was incorrect in a report yesterday on the World Summit for Children. (Published 10/2/90)
UNITED NATIONS, SEPT. 30 -- The leaders of more than 70 nations embarked today on a global campaign to erase the hunger, illness and continuous poverty faced by tens of millions of the world's children.
Repeatedly describing the plight of poor children as the world's most chilling depravity, participants in the first World Summit for Children agreed to goals -- including reducing infant mortality by one-third and malnutrition by 50 percent, and eliminating polio -- that organizers said would save the lives of more than 100 million children by the end of this decade.
"Children need not die for lack of immunization or clean water or adequate food," said Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a co-chairman of the conference, which concluded here today. "Children need not grow up illiterate, neglected and abused. These are ills that can be remedied."
Like many in attendance, however, Mulroney cautioned that good intentions voiced on a single day would do little to reduce the appalling -- and easily reversed -- death toll among the world's youngest and most vulnerable citizens.
"Resources always seem to be scarce," he said. "The 'peace dividend' many expected from the end of the Cold War has already been diluted by aggression in the Persian Gulf. Once again, the neediest children have lost."
Throughout the day presidents and prime ministers, speaking for less than five minutes each at a forum where leaders have been known to rant for hours, delivered the numbing statistics about the state of children across the world.
Diarrhea kills more than 2.5 million children each year, but could be eradicated with 10-cent packages of oral rehydration salts. Measles, on the rise even in the United States, killed nearly 1.5 million children last year although a single-dose effective vaccine costs less than 12 cents.
"The children of the world are innocent, vulnerable and dependent," the final declaration of the statement, "Survival, Protection and Development of Children," said in part. "Each day millions suffer from the scourges of poverty and economic crisis -- from hunger and homelessness, from epidemics and illiteracy, from degradation of the environment."
President Bush spoke early in the day before rushing back to Washington to announce a deficit-reduction agreement with congressional leaders.
To many here, his comments were most notable for what they did not contain. The United States is one of the only industrialized countries to refrain from signing the U.N. convention on the rights of children. Conservatives have opposed provisions in the charter that would prohibit execution of those whose crimes were carried out before they reached age 18. They also object because it does not oppose abortion.
Almost every leader who spoke today related the plight of children to problems in his or her part of the globe.
Joseph S. Momoh, president of Sierra Leone, said child mortality was particularly acute in Africa because the continent has so few discretionary resources. Vaclav Havel, president of Czechoslovakia, delivered a passionate attack on dictatorship and political repression. Vitaly Masol, chairman of the council of ministers of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, spoke of the special dangers of Chernobyl, where a nuclear disaster occurred in 1986.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, after demanding extra time for her talk, stressed the importance of family life.
Child welfare advocates generally gave a restrained endorsement of the summit, saying it would almost certainly raise consciousness about an issue that is so painful many people simply ignore it. Some activists, however, said they are curious to see if the commitment will last after the day's rhetoric faded from memory.
"Will this be just another public relations event?" asked Harry Belafonte, entertainer and goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF). "God, I hope not. I like to look at this as an important first step. But I know we will have to work like dogs to keep on walking."
A film produced by UNICEF, shown at the opening ceremony, reminded all the delegates that 14 million children under age 5 die each year, one every two seconds. Most of the deaths -- from diarrhea, measles, whooping cough, tetanus and pneumonia -- could be avoided with even minimal effort.
"At times it is frustrating how little attention has been devoted to children's issues," said Pete Teeley, Bush's former press secretary and the U.S. representative to UNICEF, which sponsored the summit. "Forty thousand children and infants die each day from preventable maladies. If I told you that 40,000 spotted owls were going to die tomorrow there would be an uproar in this country."
Bush, in his speech, said he will dispatch a delegation led by Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan and Ronald Roskens, Agency for International Development assistant administrator, to Africa on a fact-finding mission to see whether the United States could contribute more to the world's fight against AIDS in Africa.
AIDS activists have been urging such action for years. Michael H.L. Merson, director of the World Health Organization's Global Program on AIDS, said he is delighted.
"What I understood President Bush as saying is that he would like to see if more can be done," said Merson. "Believe me, more can be done."
The conference delivered a unity of purpose rarely attained among the diverse and often antagonistic nations of the world. Participants readily acknowledged that the development and health of nations are far more dependent upon the vitality of their children than on any physical structure or political goals.
Staff writer Ann Devroy contributed to this report.