UNICEF's 'Rights' Focus Is All Wrong

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The United
Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has just released its annual “The
State of the World’s Children”
report for 2005.

Using words
like “catastrophe,” UNICEF’s Executive Director Carol Bellamy warns
that the “triple whammy” of AIDS, conflict and poverty has reversed
previous gains on children’s survival, health and education.

But critics
of UNICEF claim the agency and Bellamy
have contributed to the crisis by focusing on political causes and
steering UNICEF away from the “core business” of ensuring children’s

Richard Horton,
editor of the prestigious medical journal The
, has published a
editorial, which calls Bellamy’s direction “shameful.”

Bellamy’s “rights-based
approach” (focusing on children’s “rights” as opposed to their simple
physical survival), Horton said, has also been devastating to children,
an estimated 10 million of whom die from preventable causes before
the age of five every year.

Horton noted,
“All the indications are that the fourth Millennium Development
Goal of reducing by two-thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the under-five
mortality rate will not be met in many countries.” No sub-Saharan
country in Africa, he said, appears to be “on target to reach that

What is the
“rights-based approach”?

created in 1946
to provide emergency aid to the children of Europe who were starving
after World War II. In 1989, however, the U.N. adopted the Convention
on the Rights of the Child,
a legally binding, international
document that extends to children “civil and political rights as
well as economic, social and cultural rights.”

The CRC launched
fundamental shift
away from UNICEF’s original role of ensuring
children’s raw survival. This steady drift away from UNICEF’s core
purpose can be seen in two protocols added to the CRC in 2002. One
addresses the issue of war; the other, child prostitution and child

Horton said
the “language of rights means little to a child stillborn, an infant
dying in pain from pneumonia or a child desiccated by famine.”

He urged a
“reorientation” toward the child-survival policies of Bellamy’s
American predecessor James Grant. Grant’s “Child
Survival and Development Revolution”
stressed “four simple interventions:
growth monitoring, oral rehydration therapy, breastfeeding, and

The Lancet
credits Grant with saving the lives of over 20 million children.

UNICEF’s implementation
of its “children’s rights” vision is also vulnerable to criticism.
Indeed, UNICEF’s Medium
Term Strategic Plan
is more of a blueprint for social engineering
along radical feminist lines. The plan states, “UNICEF will advocate
for legal reforms and adoption of policies and programs that will
raise the status of girls and women both in the family and in society.”

Often, the
programs it champions seem to have little connection to basic rights.

A specific
example of how UNICEF’s vision is being implemented under Bellamy
is the International Children’s Day of Broadcasting. This program

There is clearly
a conflict in Bellamy stating, “We believe AIDS is the worst catastrophe
ever to hit the world,” yet having UNICEF focus on programs such
as ICDB.

In a world
of unlimited options and bottomless pockets, there would be no conflict
between pursuing children’s health and children’s rights. But UNICEF’s
new report cries out for increased funding precisely because money
is limited and all goals cannot be pursued in tandem. Indeed, overall
funding to the U.N. may well tighten due to the backlash surrounding
recent corruption scandals, especially the Oil-for-Food

Horton’s criticism
of UNICEF is not merely a statement of conscience. It is also a
matter of strategy. Next year, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan
will appoint a new leader for UNICEF. Traditionally, the appointment
has gone to an American. (Even though the U.S. is not a signatory
to the CRC, it is the U.N.’s largest donor.) The appointment is
made basically at Annan’s discretion and the selection process is
not publicized.

As Horton commented,
“This mysterious procedure leaves open the possibility of crude
political deal-making in identifying an acceptable candidate.” Clearly,
Horton wishes to surround the appointment with a
heated enough to melt away mystery and permit no deal-making.

Bellamy’s appointment
was controversial and occurred only after a campaign on her behalf
by President Clinton. Then-Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali had preferred
a European candidate.

Next year’s
appointment may be the most controversial in UNICEF’s history. In
part, it will be a struggle for the soul of the agency. But, as
in all things U.N., it will also involve jockeying for political
position. Members from the European Union seem particularly eager
to diminish America’s role in UNICEF without, of course, diminishing
its funding.

Horton’s concern
that “the next executive director of UNICEF is likely to be an American,
irrespective of the person’s skills or experience” is understandable
given how ill-equipped Bellamy was for the job. But it would be
easy for the goal of saving children to become lost in the politics
of the U.N., especially with its increasingly anti-American atmosphere.

It will be
interesting to watch events unfold.

26, 2005

McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

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