The Present Condition of Child Rights and What Should be Expected of Religious People


Honourable Reverend Takeyasu Miyamoto, President of the Arigatou Foundation, honourable leaders, respected children present at this forum, office-bearers and members of the Foundation, distinguished representatives of other organizations, distinguished speakers and delegates, friends:

It is an honour and a great pleasure for me to stand here before you today, and a challenging opportunity for me to offer you this first opening keynote statement. I thank the Arigatou Foundation for having given me this rare privilege, and I thank the World YWCA for having nominated me to represent the world’s largest membership movement of women at this most important forum.

The subject before us this morning is two-fold? and neither of its dimensions is simple. What is the condition of child rights? It is a little like what Jean? Jacques Rousseau said: “Man is born free, and everywhere is found in chains.” We have the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed, ratified and accepted by every nation under the sun except two (the United States of America, and Somalia), and everywhere we find children in peril for one reason or another. This forum aims to consider four key rights of every child:

  • the right to grow up free of fear;
  • the right to a dignified and wholesome life;
  • the right to receive a proper education;
  • the right to a healthy growth environment.

What should be expected of religious people?

What could such people do that they have not already tried? Are religious people miracle workers?  For what is needed is transformation. And for this we must upset and upturn our understanding of what is acceptable in our world. Not just as it affects children, but for everyone.

I hope to focus my enquiry on a new indicator of worth rather than on the specifics of the various rights. My hypothesis is that it is not only the little world of the child’s immediate survival, health and safety that has to be changed; it is the world’s overall character that cries out to be rescued and transformed.

The present condition and future prospects for children depend on more than the Convention that has been written for them. Much else must change. Otherwise we help our children through their childhood years but leave them a damaged world to live in, with a poisoned manifesto on how to run it.

What is gained for either the world or its people — save for physical and material life — by ensuring some children good food, secure shelter and a cheerful schoolroom, and filling their minds with hatred and disdain for anyone unlike themselves?

I use the term ‘challenging’ because I feel I am at risk as I speak. The child lives in a world, not in a separate space. The world is beset by many sicknesses, and four of the worst ills are hatred, arrogance, greed and division. If the world cannot be helped to seek a cure, humanity will fade and human rights will founder. The pursuit of child rights is part of a larger effort for a deeper cause. Development with justice cannot be based on feeding the greed of a few but disregarding the needs of the many. Peace cannot be gained if the weak must compromise their hopes.

The world needs builders. For renewal, not repair. In proposing this approach, I am proposing that we look at what children should inherit from us. My task is to offer you more than just words. We have had enough of words in years past. We have had enough of  mere prayer. We have had enough of not doing what we know to be good. Children deserve better than this.

So we challenge ourselves, by seeking a dedication to prayer and practice for their sake. I will focus on practice.

I want to provoke you. I want this forum to cross new boundaries. I hope I can also make you a bit angry today. Not at me? Although I will accept that too — but at the basic fact that a conference like this should be necessary at all. It is the same kind of anger that moved nations and people through the 1990 World Summit on Children, the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, the 1995 World Summit for Social Development and Fourth World Conference on Women? and was frustrated at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. It is the same kind of anger that makes people like Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela give up whatever were their conventional career paths and start to upset the status quo. It is the same kind of anger that moves ordinary people to march out to work for change.

I think it was Gandhi who called it ‘constructive anger.’ Such anger is necessary. Despair is no use, and we are not ready to despair anyway.  And passive hope is also no use. Even when the times demand it, bad things do not go away by themselves.

Passive hope ranks high among the risks I fear. Another risk is that of falling into limiting our vision to a narrow understanding of what some people in the United Nations call ‘doable.’ This ugly word carries some problems for me. The chief of these is that it can make us accept partial justice. Equally, it can make us focus our energies on symptoms instead of whole issues and underlying causes. But dealing with symptoms does not suffice. The real sickness persists, and recurs.

People who perceive the need for a revolution do not dream or plan at a strictly doable level. They have another understanding of the horizon. They set out to do what seems to be impossible, or at least unlikely. In matters of the human will and spirit, we all know that the horizon is never the final line. It is only the limit of our present sight. A genuine vision sets new horizons. It redefines the destination. It is for something like this that we must strive. If we do not, we have condemned this 21st Century from its birth, and sentenced our children to a bleak and bitter future, full of poisons with no antidotes. It is a dangerous moment in our lives, and in the history of our world. We cannot just hope to pass through it. We must become constructively angry.

At what should our anger be directed? To put it very simply, at the fact that development has become a business matter instead of a matter of justice. At the fact that war and peace? And the choice between them — have become a business matter. In both arenas, people have become a commodity. This is unacceptable. Why do we accept it? Are children a commodity? Why do we accept that they be treated as such?

How strongly do we feel about this — and how strong do we feel at the prospect of  acting for change?  I am not alone in sensing danger.  We are all of us at risk at this first forum of the Global Network of Religions for Children. The world’s past performance in making the planet a better home for our children is not good.

As the future opens before us, we must turn back for a clear look at what we have done and see what has brought us to this present day. I speak from the record. Our personal experience is of the Twentieth Century. It was a century of great discovery, and many marvelous milestones of knowledge. But was it a century of wisdom? Was it a century of love? Was it a human era?

So many pages of the book of the 1990s record mistakes. We tried, twice, to unite the world’s nations? And how many times did we go to war, in big and little battlefields? We created the phenomenon of mass populations of refugees, and made portraits of starvation and high-tech ‘smart’ bombardment  into new art forms for families to enjoy as they sit before  their TV sets at home. We comforted ourselves with occasional charity, but lost compassion. We found the word ‘solidarity,’ but failed to recognize what it means.

We gave development into the hands of shopkeepers, and war and peace into the hands of arms manufacturers. We adopted the idea that a unifying world order could be born, but are condemning the new infant to malformation and sickness because we have mistaken ‘global’ to mean the same thing as international.

What is the difference? ‘International’ states the character and possibility of coexistence without surrendering individuality. The sovereignty and integrity of many nations is at stake, because of debt, because of economic or political pressure. Children and adults alike are in jeopardy. Countries whose own sovereignty is unassailable say nationalism with borders is out of date. Who will preach the UN Charter to them? Is it not we who must do this?

What is the present condition of child rights?  Since the early 1980s, world reports from UNICEF have given us annual reminders of unmet needs, gains and gaps. The challenge list persists: primary education for all, polio eradication, eliminating measles, overcoming Vitamin A deficiency, combating anaemia, beating maternal mortality and low birthweight, refocusing family planning, salt iodisation, access to sanitation, HIV/AIDS.

Since 1996, UNICEF has highlighted the problems children face in industrialized countries, with absent fathers, sexual exploitation, solo mothers struggling on the poverty line, mounting crime and violence, and child abandonment. Also in 1996, it announced its ‘anti-war agenda,’  underlining the growing risks to children in conflict zones. In 1998, it reported the fifth consecutive year of ‘aid fatigue’ in the industrial nations, and falling figures in development assistance. As the 1990s ended, UNICEF data showed much of Africa, Asia and Latin America living on less than a dollar a day. It also reported 27 per cent of Russian children and 26 percent of United States’ children living in poor families, and 21 per cent in Britain and Italy. About 540 million children are reported in areas burdened by conflict, post-war insecurities or natural disasters.

I do not want to list for you the statistics of suffering, want and denial. I do not want to tell you in which countries an eight-year-old child can be forced to testify in court. I do not want to tell you of the country where under-five mortality from diarrhea and water-related gastric ailments has risen 1,400 per cent in 10 years because of economic sanctions.

I do not want to give you data on the places where little boys are conscript soldiers and little girls are slave labour in the sex trade. All of these terrible facts and figures are true. Some of them are true because of poverty and rising debt burdens, and economic constraints that some societies and nations face. Some of them are true because of persistently negative culture and tradition. The data I share with you is only illustrative of the condition of children in different parts of the world. The advocacy role of religious leadership in pushing for changes in law, policy, programme and investment in these areas is self-evident. Informed pressure is possible and necessary.

But these poor conditions are effects, not causes. The little boy soldiers forced into uniform and taught to kill, and equally the children who play video war games are also products of societies that teach them how to hate. The legacy of hate education does not go away by laying down a rifle or switching off a game. Little children who only watch warfare on television in the safety of their homes are learning that it is right for ‘bad people’ to die for their sin of being ‘other.’ The most sinister world order is not new: it is the order of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ And there is never any room in our chosen space for any of ‘them.’

So, what I would rather do is to place before you some different questions, and look at the whole issue of the child’s condition as a facet of the human condition, position it in the frame of values, and measure it as a spin-off of the basic issue of human worth. The Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out four spheres for action: survival, development, protection and participation. But I propose to you another frame: the essential terms here are humanity, justice, respect and love. This is a frame that tells us how the inhabitants of Planet Earth regard one another. This is our territory, as religious people.

Seldom named or stated, these four factors are determinants of the paths chosen by communities, societies, governments, nations, intergovernmental bodies. Our socialization leads us to include or exclude others in the purview of each of them. For ourselves, for the in-group, we demand and expect all three; for others, we select, and reject.

Can the Convention really address this? It seeks to change behaviour toward children; that is its mandate. But is this enough? It is something we should discuss and consider. Who is to preach equality, humanity, love? Love is not a word governments and corporations use.

The Convention also assumes, as do many contemporary international instruments and statutes, that  adults will continue to clash between and among themselves. It assumes violence and the use of force. It assumes that might and material power will often prevail. It assumes race and class divisions and disparities. This is probably mature and realistic. It then goes on to seek assurance that no matter how many heads are broken, and who oppresses whom, children should be protected from the worst effects. Conflict and brutality are not suitable for children. Seen from the child survival standpoint, this is a life-saving, life-guarding measure. The world will not change by our being kind to children. If the world changes, we will be kind, and fair, to children too. But who is preaching dialogue, and mutual respect, and non-interference? This is what religious people must address.

The principle of profit, with its side-bars of profitability, cost-effectiveness, economic viability and respect for market forces, has pushed aside the principle of well-being. Good management of development services is an undisputed need, but the social sector and the State’s obligation to serve the people carry their own kinds of profit. Is the good health of a child profit? Is the money and time spent in a government clinic to save the life of a sickly infant born to impoverished parents in an overpopulated country cost-effective or profitable? Is it efficient and cost-effective for an education ministry to pay extra for a woman teacher to be posted to a remote village so that the little girls there can get five years of schooling? Is it more efficient to save that salary and let the girls learn cooking at home instead?

Is such investment profitable? Profitable to whom? Profitable in what sense? Are we human if we have to ask such questions? And are these the kind of values children should absorb, and is this the kind of system that is best for their care and protection? Justice? social, economic, political? has to be declared profitable. Who will make this declaration? We have to have the courage to speak out. And pray for the determination to keep on speaking out. Children become what they learn. Family, home, neighbourhood, school, these are their learning places. What is it that we are teaching them? Adults also reflect the assumption that competition and either physical, material or political force are necessary tools for a changing world. They apply these tools. Their children witness and learn. When we practice hatred, arrogance, force, duplicity, that is what we teach. Places of worship, and the words of our preachers present other more humane ideas — but at times of strife, they too invoke God and ask for prime time attention to our cause and death and destruction for our foes. Where does the child’s right to human values survive in such a climate? The Convention seeks redressal for the child victimized or threatened by callousness. It does not question callousness. But should someone not do so?

The quality of life is governed by the quality of the people who have the power and the authority to direct it. It is influenced by the resources they have, and how they choose to use them. It is influenced by the values that guide their thinking. Even in the poorest communities, we often find that children and other weak members of the group can be safe and secure because the strong take the trouble to care for them and give them the best of whatever they have, meanwhile teaching them by example what principles should govern the act of sharing. And even in the wealthiest settings, children and the weak can be mistreated, and desperately wrong guidelines can be established.

Nations that have pledged to invest in their children can be handicapped by economic reforms that imperil their poorer citizens’ livelihoods, and make a mockery of their socio-economic policies. The condition and the prospects for children’s rights are affected by such factors. Many nations of the South will be trying to report this slide-back next month at the UN five-year review of what happened to social development and poverty eradication since 1995. Who will speak out for a restoration of justice to the development agenda? Is this not the task before people of good conscience?

It is surely because we lack basic humanity that there has to be a convention specially framed for the child. And for the woman. The rights of children are enshrined in every human rights statute, civil rights  manifesto and every positive law ever enacted on human rights, social equality or justice. But not upheld. Let us distinguish between the de jure and de facto status of human beings; this is what the reality is. At root, it is often people rather than the laws that have been at fault.

Society, and often the State as well, do not apply the same standards to the powerful and the powerless, rich and poor, politically visible and invisible — and international bodies have fallen into their own version of double standards. The children of the deprived live in different worlds in the same territory as the affluent. Children under sanctions or debt regimes live in special versions of hell. The underlying fault lies in the fact that the nations and governments, societies and communities, and the international bodies have not been able to deal with the issue of human worth.

Perhaps it is in the realm of socio-cultural values and religious teaching that human rights, justice and love must be propagated? and have not been. The concept of one humanity is far more important than that of one economic order. This concept is critically linked to the concept of diversity.  The equal worth of diverse peoples, cultures and systems is crucial to recognise. One humanity cannot mean everyone should be the same and live uniform lives based on uniform rules? but that their value should be equal and equally acknowledged, and equally protected.

At the international level, the UN Charter is the instrument of protection ? but only de jure today. The UN Covenant on the Right to Development exists, but has not risen to statutory force. The 1948 UN Declaration on Human Rights, its strength reinforced by the 1993 Vienna Conference, stands as the international safeguard for the equal and inalienable human rights and fundamental freedoms of the individual. But people oppress people, and nations oppress nations. Who speaks out? Who preaches and propagates equal worth, at any level? The hour has come to renew? or even create? the gospel of coexistence, without compromise.

In 1945, at the newborn United Nations, we enshrined in proud stone the promise that we would convert swords into ploughshares. But we developed amazing and terrible new weapons instead. We promised to save the earth and its natural resources, but we allow the buying and selling of rain-forests, and the stealing of ownership of seeds from poor men’s fields and trees. We kept up the claim that the pen is mightier than the sword but we discovered that we could slit our enemies’ throats just as effectively by waging media wars that could damage and destroy without firing a shot. And we have continued to fight over who owns God, and who defiles His name — as if any of us had been given the divine right to decide this. The Christian scripture says that God’s house has many mansions, suggesting room for all. The Muslim scripture tells us that God opens many doorways, suggesting that there may be many paths. Who preaches these texts? If we believe at all in the dream of harmony, we must do this.

Somewhere along the hundred years, we have lost respect for each other, and take pride in the rejection of our own fellow humans. We have suppressed our own humanity, and we have almost succeeded in disguising the suppression as justice. That is the tragic face of the century just ended.

But perhaps the real tragedy has been that we do not even read those dark episodes as mistakes. We look back at some of them as victories? and we tell our sons and daughters to celebrate them. This is a perilous and potentially fatal form of illiteracy, and it can pass from generation to generation. In this setting, with these chapters recorded of a history that is still being written, we speak of defending and securing children’s rights. We can do this only if we are capable of restoring respect to human affairs.

Now we have opened the next book. As we start to write in it, we do recognise that this new beginning of a new century is not automatically the dawn of a new age of happiness and prosperity. But do we recognize it as a pivot, a turning point? As I said, it is a dangerous moment in time.

How will we address it? We ask this question today in the specific context of ourselves. What should be expected of religious people?

Let us examine the definition ‘religious people’ — whom are we including in this? Leaders of religious communities or institutions? Leaders and members?  People who belong to a formal religious order? Declared ‘believers’ in some school of faith? People whom we describe as spiritual? Ordinary men and women who believe in a Greater Force or Being and who strive to work for the good of others? I come in the category of ordinary people, and in the category of those who believe in an Almighty who stands for love and justice? and in the category of those who try, and often fail, to work for the right things.

I believe that there are those among us in every assembly or edifice of any faith who take the role of leaders, whether by choice or compulsion, and whether by an office they hold or by what they might dare to do, and who therefore must exemplify and uphold the principles of love and justice. They are flag-bearers, and we need them now. Those who are true leaders walk with the ordinary people, but at times they must walk before us.

I believe that this forum addresses itself to all people of good conscience, to each one of us who has any sense of outrage at the state of the world and  the condition of human affairs, and therefore the  prospects for children. But it addresses a special message to the flag-bearers — those already in leadership, as well as those who do not as yet quite know how they will be moved by anger. Who will lead the way forward towards the light that we all want to believe is there at the end of the tunnel? Apart from all else, they could perhaps turn out to be new role models for the children to follow too.

So what is expected of us, if we do believe we can restore the human spirit?

What do we write on our flag for the children?  We cannot expect to leave the past behind, and move entirely free of burdens into a new age. Can we at least carry forward some lessons — and some genuine learning?  Where are the wise men and women now who must come forward to tell us what we should learn, and what we should do with what we have understood?

We are here to declare our faith — in humanity and in the future — and our loyalty to the child’s cause. We are here to make promises. This calls for vision, courage, honesty, wisdom, and commitment. The risk is that we could fail to have enough of these. It is honesty and wisdom that have most often eluded us, and this can again lead us to a faulty vision.

In formulating a mandate for ourselves that would serve children, we must  identify a set of principles by which we could work. In 1998, the Baha’i International Community proposed three spiritually based indicators for development: equity and justice, unity in diversity, and gender equality. It called for adherence to trustworthiness, moral leadership and independent investigation of truth. We could discuss these ideas. We know as we set out on these days of dialogue and introspection, that we seek much more than words.

The words themselves are of course also necessary. We want to restore a vocabulary for justice and humanity and renew the validity of love and respect as serious principles for human attitudes and human dealings. We have to retrieve the world’s affairs from the traders who have taken possession of them. The only way this can be done is by moral force. Can we pledge to exert this?

Our final risk at this forum, as at all such fora, is of not becoming angry enough to mean what we say, and then not being determined enough to act upon it. That is far more dangerous than believing that our collective effort could bring about the re-evaluation of human worth and the restoration of love and justice, and then taking courage to join together and set out — once again — to save our world for the children. I have the hope that when the Arigatou Foundation convenes its next international gathering here in July, to work with delegations of children from around the world, they will be able to discuss our manifesto, and also to have some confidence that we will live up to it.

All this time I have trying to generate constructive anger among you. I should tell you something about myself. I want you to know that while you may see some other official title below my name, I am by profession an instigator. When I feel there is reason for anger, I light small fires. I have tried to light one here today., and will keep trying in the days that we spend together. Believe me, I am not an arsonist. But I do hold that fire can have a cleansing power. And there are some structures that deserve to be burnt down. I hope I have given the forum a small flame to carry forward.

I want to end by quoting from the words of a renowned poet of South Asia—who really was a poet of the whole world — Rabindranath Tagore.  He once said: ‘Every child that is born comes into the world with the message that God has not yet despaired of mankind.’ I think he may have been addressing us. We cannot, must not, let our world continue to be such that God might well feel justified in despairing of us.

I thank you for listening to me so patiently.

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