Why Protection & Participation of Children Must be Elevated at the UN Summit of the Future

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KATHMANDU / NAIROBI, May 31 2024 (IPS) – The United Nations will hold the Summit of the Future on September 22—23 this year, during its annual General Assembly. Heads of state and government and their representatives will gather at the UN headquarters in New York, to discuss, agree on, and endorse a multilateral, action-oriented “Pact for the Future” intended to “protect and enshrine the rights of future generations”.

With the draft document of the pact already detailing fifty-two sets of actions around sustainability, peace and security, science and technology, youth, and governance, the Summit is being called a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

Indeed, with post-pandemic political, economic, security, and social dynamics (and realignments) redefining world order, torpedoing trust in multilateral organizations and exposing the limits of international law, urgent action is needed to put humanity on a path to justice and equity.

The world is at a tipping point and multilateralism — the very vehicle of the Pact for the Future — is at risk of being ditched for expediency.

As advocates for a better world for children, including through interfaith collaboration, we applaud the worthy intentions behind both the Summit and the pact. However, the current draft of the pact leaves much to be desired. Children — the very essence of the future — are acknowledged only tangentially or conflated with young people, youth, and future generations.

The pact focuses squarely on adults, youth and young people. The protection and wellbeing of the most vulnerable infants and young children who are unable to articulate their unique needs and rights are not prioritized explicitly.

The fact that children make up a third of the world’s population and that 4.2 billion children are expected to be born over the next 30 years, ought to make it self-evident that protecting their rights and promoting their wellbeing must be at the very heart of any pact aimed at ensuring a better future humanity.

No future without children

We live in a world of incredible scientific breakthroughs, tremendous economic prosperity, and greater gender equality than ever before. Yet the number of children globally who are hungry, displaced and in desperate need of protection, has never been higher.

According to UNICEF, nearly one billion children live in multidimensional poverty with another 333 million children living in extreme poverty. These shocking, historically unprecedented figures are being exacerbated by growing inequality, the COVID-19 pandemic, devastating food and energy crises, a climate emergency, and new and protracted conflicts.

In the last year alone, more than 10.5 million children were forced to flee their homes mainly due to conflict and violence. The number of displaced children around the world is now estimated to be over 50 million, while the number of those living in conflict zones exceeds 460 million.

Even in supposedly “normal,” stable, and peaceful settings, children are routinely exposed to the dangers of a rapidly expanding digital environment, discrimination, inequality, abuse, and exploitation, some of it in the name of religion.

Without explicit mention of children in the Pact for the Future, their specific rights and unique perspectives risk being forgotten. As the former Chairperson of the Committee on the Rights of the Child emphasized in February, “If the UN is truly committed to becoming a more inclusive multilateral platform for partnership and solidarity having people at center (…) – children cannot be excluded from the process for the Summit of the Future (…). Children should be both subjects of the Summit and the resulting Pact for the Future, and active participants before, during and after the Summit.”

The child is calling

Shortly after the UN Summit for the Future, leaders from major world faiths and spiritual traditions and representatives of governments and international organizations will convene in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, from 19 to 21 November for the Sixth Forum of the Global Network of Religions for Children.

Hosted by the Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities, the forum will amplify the voices and rights of children — the architects of the future — as it tackles the issues of building a safe, secure, and sustainable world for children from an interfaith perspective.

With the greatest tragedy in recent memory involving children unfolding in Gaza, there could not be a more fitting theme or a more appropriate place for the world’s religious and secular leaders to congregate, offer prayers and catalyze action to “never again” allow the senseless killing and maiming of children we are witnessing today.

The forum’s ‘building a safe world’ theme will cover the dignity of the child in the digital world; role of families and collaborative communities; building resilience; and strengthening mental health in the face of global shocks, emerging crises, and pandemics.

Under ‘building a secure world’, the forum will address the root causes of conflicts, wars, xenophobia, hate crimes, and extremism; building resilience to conflict; the impact of conflict and war on children; and building a peaceful and inclusive world for children. The last theme – ‘building a sustainable world’ – will tackle responsible lifestyles; hunger, child poverty, and inequality; ethical values and education; and climate-conscious stewardship.

The forum is expected to foster intergenerational dialogue, mutual understanding, collaboration, and adaptive capacity to advocate for and with children for a future where children can grow and thrive without fear or limitation, regardless of their faith, cultural, racial, economic, or social backgrounds.

If we fail to put the rights and voices of children at the heart of the Pact for the Future, we will be failing one-third of the world’s population today and billions of children who are born in the future. The child is calling! We must unite our efforts, intensify our actions, and put the child’s voice at the center as we all come together to build a safe, secure, sustainable, and hopeful world for all.

Kul Gautam is a former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, the Chair of the Arigatou International Advisory Group, and the Chair of the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC) Sixth Forum International Organizing Committee.

Dr. Mustafa Y. Ali is the Secretary General of the GNRC and Executive Director of Arigatou International – Nairobi.

IPS UN Bureau