William J. Clinton photo

Remarks in New York City on the United Nations Optional Protocols on Children's Rights

July 05, 2000

Thank you very much, Ambassador Holbrooke. That generous introduction confirms one of my unbreakable laws of politics, which is, whenever possible, you should endeavor to be introduced by someone you have appointed to high office. [Laughter]

I thank you, Deputy Secretary-General Fre´chette, for your welcome and for hosting me here today, and I'm delighted to see Olara Otunnu, Carol Bellamy. And thank you, Jim Wolfensohn, for being here and for your truly visionary leadership of the World Bank. I thank the members of the Security Council and the other Ambassadors who are here.

It's a special honor to have the President of Mali, President Konare, here, as well. I thank Secretary Summers for his work, and for coming here. And I'm delighted to be here with three Members of the House of Representatives: the chairman of the House Committee on International Affairs, Mr. Ben Gilman from New York; and Representative Carolyn Maloney, who represents the district in which the United Nations is located; and Sheila Jackson Lee from Houston, Texas, who did so much work on these subjects we're here to discuss today.

I also appreciate the presence here of members of the NGO community and members of the State, Defense, and Justice Departments' negotiating team who worked on these agreements. I'd also like to acknowledge the leadership of the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff who worked hard to ensure that we could sign the child soldiers protocol in good faith, without compromising our military readiness or our national security in any way.

Let me begin just by expressing a general word of appreciation, if I might, to the United Nations for the work that you have done. You mentioned the 500 multinational protocols that have come out of this organization since it began. We are grateful for the attention that you are now devoting to the world health crisis and for the opportunity that we will have to introduce this resolution tomorrow, for the work you are doing for peacekeeping, most recently in Sierra Leone, and in so many other ways. It's a profound honor for the United States to host the United Nations, especially in this millennial year, and I'm looking forward to coming back for the millennial summit.

These two protocols today, I believe, are very important statements that go beyond their very terms. With the Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor I signed last year, they form a trio of vital protections for children, and they must be signposts for the future of the global society.

To give life to our dream of a global economy that lifts all people, first we must stand together for all children. Yet every day, tens of millions of children work in conditions that shock the conscience. Every day, thousands of children are killed and brutalized in fighting wars that adults decided they should fight in. Every day around the world, and even here in the United States, children are sold into virtual slavery or traffic for the worst forms of sexual abuse.

Think about what has been lost for the future because roughly 2 million children have fought in wars over the last two decades. In Sierra Leone today, as many as half the rebel forces are under 18, some as young as 5 or 6. In Colombia, guerrillas have taken thousands of children from their villages to serve as soldiers.

Two years ago, when we went to Africa, Hillary met with Ugandan children who had been abducted and heard their stories of unspeakable horror—of children forced to kill each other, family members, even their own parents. In Africa and around the world, she has been an eloquent and strong and consistent voice on behalf of our children, those who have been abused, exploited, and forced into war. And I wish she could be with me here today, because she's an important reason for why we're all here. This morning she reminded me that I should say, again, there is no worse sin in life than sending a child to kill the people who gave him life.

The optional protocol on children in armed conflict sets a clear and a high standard: No one under 18 may ever be drafted by any army in any country. Its signatories will do everything feasible to keep even volunteers from taking a direct part in hostilities before they are 18. They will make it a crime for any nongovernmental force to use children under 18 in war. And they will work together to meet the needs of children who have been forced into war, to save a generation that already has lost too much.

What happens to the world's children in peacetime can be just as shocking. In the 21st century, it is difficult to believe that the global traffic in human beings is the third-largest source of income for organized crime, hundreds of thousands of children bought and sold, exploited and prostituted every year. Yet many countries don't even have laws against this kind of trade.

The optional protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography will do a great deal to change that. It specifies that child pornography, prostitution, and enslavement are crimes everywhere. It provides better tools for law enforcement to extradite and prosecute those who profit from this dirty business.

Already we are waging a firm fight against those who traffic in children, but this protocol will make a big difference. And I was glad that the Deputy Secretary-General invited other countries to sign this and other outstanding protocols when they're here for the millennial summit.

Every American citizen should support these protocols. It is true that words on paper are not enough, but these documents are a clear starting point for action, for punishing offenders, dismantling the networks of trafficking, caring for the young victims. They represent an international coalition formed to fight a battle that one country, even a large country, cannot win alone. They represent a worldwide consensus on basic values, values every citizen of our country shares. In short, I believe they represent the United Nations at its very best. And they remind us why, at a time when crime, disease, and hate can spread faster than ever before, we need a strong United Nations more than ever before.

The United States has already passed a sense of the Senate resolution in support of the Protocol on Children in Armed Conflict. I will send both protocols to the Senate this month, and I hope very much that they can be ratified this year.

Both agreements are stand-alone documents; they create no obligations to other agreements which the United States has not ratified. They speak to an international sense of justice and to the belief profoundly shared by our people that children deserve love and protection.

During one of the darkest moments of the 20th century, the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us that "the test of the morality of a society is what it does for children." Today more than ever, this is a test the world cannot afford to fail. The United States should always be at the forefront of this effort.

I am grateful for the opportunity Americans had to take a leading role in negotiating these agreements and to be among the first nations to sign them. I pledge my best efforts to see that we are also leaders in implementing them and, in so doing, in granting the world's children a future far better than its recent past. I thank all of you for your support as well.

Thank you very much.

NOTE: The President spoke at 3:35 p.m. in the West Foyer at the United Nations. In his remarks, he referred to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard C. Holbrooke; U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette; U.N. Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Olara A. Otunnu; UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy; and President Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali, president, U.N. Security Council.

William J. Clinton, Remarks in New York City on the United Nations Optional Protocols on Children's Rights Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/228666

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