Child Survival as the Cutting Edge of Human Rights and Human Development

By Kul Chandra Gautam
2009 Rabbi Marshall Meyer Great Issues Lecture on Social Justice
(Co-sponsored by the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding and William Jewett Tucker Foundation)
Dartmouth College, Hanover NH
2 February 2009

Thank you, for this enormous honour to deliver the 2009 Rabbi Marshall Meyer Lecture on the Great Issues of Social Justice, as we conclude two weeks of extraordinary celebrations recognizing the life and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

These two weeks also coincide with the good vibes being sent around the world by President Barack Obama, who came to power, we would all agree, not because of the colour of his skin, but because of the content of his character, as Martin Luther King had dreamed.

Rabbi Marshall Meyer had been another one of those dreamers – much less known than Martin Luther King – but championing similar causes of human rights and human dignity in a different context.

To be honest, I had not heard of Rabbi Marshall Meyer when I was at Dartmouth in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As it has been said, I came to Dartmouth from a small village in the mountains of Nepal, and my world view then was still quite limited – though perhaps not quite as limited as that of an average American citizen then, or even now.

I first heard of Rabbi Meyer when I read the book Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number by the Argentinean journalist and human rights activist Jacobo Timmerman.That amazing book was dedicated to Rabbi Meyer who had brought much comfort to Jewish, Christian and atheist prisoners, and to thousands of people who had “disappeared”, during “the dirty war” of the brutal military regime in Argentina.

I feel so honoured to follow Ambassador Hector Timmerman, son of Jacobo, who delivered the Rabbi Meyer Lecture at Dartmouth last year.

Although I did not know Rabbi Meyer when I was at Dartmouth, my interest in Latin America developed and deepened when I was here.

President Salvador Allende of Chile was one of my favourite world leaders when I was at Dartmouth. In my youthful exuberance, I was also fascinated with Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and the Colombian liberation theologist Camillo Torres.

Along with protests against the overt US war in Vietnam, the covert US attempts to overthrow the popularly elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile, were two major issues that turned me into a student activist while I was at Dartmouth.

My involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement while at Dartmouth, eventually led me to join the UN and to serve in Indo-China. And my interest in Latin America, nurtured here at Dartmouth, led me to spend a considerable chunk of my time at UNICEF dealing with the plight of children in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Rabbi Meyer dedicated his life to fighting for human rights and social justice in Latin America and elsewhere in the world. He challenged the Jewish establishment for its conservatism and insisted that social justice be at the center of religious consciousness.

He was a leading American supporter of the Israeli peace movement. Were he still alive today, I am sure he would have spoken out against the carnage of so many innocent children in Gaza during the recent war.

At first, my lecture this evening entitled, Child Survival: the Cutting Edge of Human Rights and Human Development, might seem a bit removed from the legacy of Rabbi Meyer, but I hope that we will be able to see that it is – or ought to be – at the very centre of all human endeavours, including the humanistic vision that Rabbi Meyer championed so eloquently and passionately.

Let me start with a provocative question: why should child survival – or reducing child deaths – be such a high priority when there are so many other pressing problems in the world – from rapid population growth to climate change; from eradicating poverty to combating HIV/AIDS; from preventing wars to promoting human rights?

Why should child survival be a priority?

Well, without being exhaustive, let me share with you a couple of reasons.

First, protecting our young and vulnerable citizens is the very essence of human life and human civilization.

Instead of thinking about the billions of people in the world and millions who die, let us think about our own families. How much importance would each one of us give to saving the lives of our own children, if they were at risk of dying?

I bet that most of us would give it the highest priority.

If saving the lives, protecting the health and maximizing the wellbeing of our own children is so important for each of us, shouldn’t child survival and wellbeing in the world be our collective priority as well?

And look at it from the point of view of the child: if you don’t survive, nothing else counts.

Of course, mere survival is not enough. We also want our children to survive and thrive. We want them to be healthy, well-educated and productive. We want them to grow up to their full human potential.

But a dead child cannot grow up to his or her full potential. Survival is the first step to fulfilling human potential.

Besides being the morally and emotionally the right thing to do, promoting better child survival also helps address many other problems that we worry about.

I will not dwell on the economic arguments for investing in child survival, which are plenty.

But let us take an issue like global warming and climate change – the hottest topic of our times. Why do we care about climate change? Isn’t it because we are worried about the world our children will inherit?

Or put it another way, if you were a parent who cannot even ensure the survival of your own children, would you / should you be expected to care about protecting the earth and its environment?

We care about the earth, the climate change, saving the forests and the endangered species, and about human rights and human wrongs, because we care about our children – and their future.

How about population growth? Well, experience shows that people begin to have smaller families, and fewer children, only when they are confident that their first children will survive. Thus paradoxically, improving the chances of child survival actually leads to slower population growth rather than to population explosion.

Child survival and well-being are indeed the central concerns around which much of the whole human civilization revolves.

That is why child survival and development are such a central part of the Millennium Development Goals which today comprise the most universally accepted human development agenda promoted by the United Nations.

Now, how are we doing on child survival globally?

The short answer is: better than ever before.

But the longer answer is: not good enough; and certainly not commensurate with our capacity in this 21st century.

UNICEF started keeping score of how many children died globally every year in the 1960s. At that time 20 million children died in a year.

Last year, UNICEF came out with the latest data, which showed that for the first time ever, since we started keeping global data, the total number of deaths among children under five fell to just over 9 million in 2007.

With the tremendous population growth since the 1960s, if there had been no progress, child deaths would have increased to 25 million by last year, instead of decreasing so spectacularly.

While we celebrate this achievement, the continuing loss of over 9 million young lives each year – 25,000 deaths every day, more than 1000 children dying every hour – is a blemish on human civilization in this day and age.

This death toll is unacceptable because, most of these deaths are in fact readily preventable or easily treatable.

There are many and complex underlying causes of child mortality, but there also are many very simple and low-cost interventions to dramatically reduce child deaths. Simple diarrhoea, pneumonia, malaria and measles continue to be the major killers of children, accounting for half of the world’s child deaths. Infections, malnutrition, neonatal conditions, accidents and injuries, and in some parts of the world, HIV/AIDS, occurring singly or in some combination, account for the rest of child deaths.

Most of these deaths can now be prevented for pennies or at most nickels and dimes a day.

The survival and well-being of children are, of course, intricately linked to the good health and well-being of mothers, and both depend on the “continuum of care” that ensures the survival and health of newborns, access to health care for young children, and their mothers before, during and after pregnancy.

We now know much about effective interventions that not only prevent child deaths but also reduce maternal mortality and morbidity.

High priority interventions that need to be implemented at scale include:


  • Newborn care, as part of the continuum of care following a life cycle approach;
  • Infant and young child feeding, including micronutrient supplementation and de-worming;
  • Provision of maternal and childhood immunization and accelerated introduction of new vaccines, in particular against pneumonia and rotavirus;
  • Prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV;
  • Prevention of malaria using insecticide-treated bed-nets (ITNs) and intermittent preventive treatment of malaria (IPT);
  • Management of common childhood illnesses applying the Integrated Management of Childhood Illness (IMCI) strategy;
  • Providing reproductive health care and meeting the unmet need of family planning.


All of these interventions are proven and affordable, and none are going to bankrupt any country’s treasury. With modest technical, policy and financial support from donors, even the poorest countries in the world can launch such programmes.

Indeed, many already have, with good results.

In recent decades, progress in reducing child mortality in Latin America, CEE/CIS, and East Asia and Pacific has been quite spectacular. Most countries in these regions and in North Africa and the Middle East are already on track to achieve MDG #4 on reducing child mortality.

A number of developing countries have made particularly dramatic progress in reducing under-5 mortality in the last decade. Among them Thailand, Vietnam, Maldives, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nepal in Asia; Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Oman in MENA; Brazil, Peru, El Salvador, Ecuador in LAC; Albania, Azerbaijan and Turkey in CEE/CIS have reduced their under-five mortality rates by more than 60 %, and are thus all poised to achieve the MDGs well ahead of the 2015 deadline.

Since 1990, under-five mortality rate in the most populous countries of China and India declined substantially, 51% in China, and 38% in India.

Unfortunately, because of civil wars, poverty and heavy burden of HIV/AIDs, progress has been slow in sub-Saharan Africa. A number of countries, including Kenya, Congo, Cameroon, Chad, Zambia, and Zimbabwe are actually going backwards – i.e. child death rates are going up rather than down in these countries. Similarly, the status of child survival remains very precarious in Afghanistan, DPRK, Burundi, Rwanda, Swaziland, etc.

Still even in sub-Saharan Africa, there are hopeful signs of progress in countries like Angola, Benin, Cape Verde, Comoros, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Niger and Togo, which have all reduced under-five mortality by more than one-third in the past half decade.

In my home country of Nepal, 40 years ago when I left for Dartmouth 400,000 children used to be born every year, and of them 100,000 died before reaching 5 years. Last year when I returned to Nepal, 800,000 children were born, but only 50,000 died.

Now, what do these figures tell us? On the surface, it seems that Nepal has done a good job in child survival but a bad job in family planning.

But hold it, behind these figures lies another deep truth – not widely understood: that parents tend to have many children when child mortality rates are high. And they begin to voluntarily reduce family size only when they feel confident that their first children have a good chance of survival.

In Nepal, we began to see this parental confidence that their first children will survive around 1990 when child mortality rates had declined by 50 % compared to those of the 1960s. Then, we started seeing a steep decline in both fertility and mortality rates.

Thus, a typical family had 6 children in 1960, 5 children in 1990 but only 3 children by 2007. Steady decline in child mortality rate therefore had quite a direct, though slightly delayed, impact in fertility rates.

What is especially remarkable is that during the last decade, when Nepal had a terrible civil war, with thousands of civilian deaths each year, destruction of infrastructure, interruption of many basic services, both child deaths and child birth rates, and even maternal mortality rates continued to decline sharply.

And luckily, Nepal, one of the least developed countries in the world, is today on track to achieve quite a few of the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Much of this progress in child survival in Nepal and elsewhere is the result of increased use of basic health interventions such as oral rehydration therapy, exclusive breast feeding, immunizations, Vitamin A supplementation, use of insecticide-treated bed nets (ITNs), and very importantly increase in girls’ education and women’s empowerment.

You might legitimately ask, if such proven, low-cost technologies already exist to dramatically improve child survival and development why are they not being widely applied? What are we waiting for? What is missing?

In the world of international development, we have learned that existence of proven technologies, cost-effective solutions and common sense approaches are not enough. We also need visionary leadership, strategic management and popular participation for common-sense programmes to be widely applied.

I have had the good fortune to work for over 3 decades with one of the most effective branches of the United Nations, UNICEF, in a global movement for child survival and development which embodied these elements of strategic management and popular participation, initially under the inspiring mentorship of an amazingly charismatic and visionary leader named James P Grant.

This evening, I would like to share with you some highlights of what I learned, and why as the title of my lecture says, child survival can be the cutting edge of human rights and human development.

Jim Grant was one of the true giants of public health in the 20th century. He was a quintessential humanist and development professional. He came from a family of medical missionaries. His father John Grant was a pioneer of a public health approach in China that came to be known as “barefoot doctors”, and later became the inspiration for what is now known as the primary health care approach.

During 15 years of Grant’s leadership, UNICEF articulated and led a movement for child survival and development with relentless energy and unflagging commitment. It made child survival not just a health issue, or a development issue but a matter of children’s human rights with great political appeal and payoffs for wise political leaders.

UNICEF helped devise a unique strategy emphasizing simple, low-cost, low-tech interventions like immunization, breastfeeding, growth promotion, and oral rehydration therapy that could produce quick and tangible results.

The genius of this approach was to demonstrate the power of skillful advocacy, communication and social mobilization to take public health to the door-steps of ordinary people on a massive scale.

When he took up UNICEF’s leadership, Jim Grant found it unconscionable that 15 million children were dying every year – 40,000 everyday – in a world which had the knowledge and means to prevent most of those deaths.

He led UNICEF to advocate for a massive increase in coverage of such life saving interventions as immunization and oral rehydration therapy.

Immunization coverage in developing countries was less than 20 percent in the early 1980s. UNICEF argued that the world needed to increase it to 80 percent by 1990. Many thought that such an increase was unrealistic. Indeed, if we followed the normal incremental approach such acceleration would have been impossible.

Most ministries of health did not have the manpower, financial resources and organizational outreach to make a quantum jump in immunization services. Recognizing this, UNICEF developed a two-pronged strategy to overcome this constraint.

On the one hand we would approach, not just ministers of health but also the presidents, prime ministers, governors and mayors to adopt immunization (and other child survival interventions) as their own programmes and not those of the ministry of health.

Leaders were persuaded that provision of such life-saving services would give them great political dividends at minimal financial cost.

On the other hand, UNICEF would approach religious leaders, the mass media, film stars and sports personalities, and non-governmental organizations, to promote immunization, ORT and other child survival actions.

We enlisted Audrey Hepburn and Peter Ustinov, the James Bond Roger Moore and football star Pele, singer Harry Belafonte and actress Vanessa Redgrave, as we do today with Roger Federer and Ricky Martin, Shakira, Bono and Angelina Jolie to promote the cause of child survival and human development.

Such outreach and social mobilization greatly reinforced and energized the usually weak and lethargic health ministries.

As a result, the actions or inaction of health services came under national spotlight. This helped to revitalize health services by giving them unprecedented political visibility and subjecting their performance to public accountability.

Grant was masterful in generating a healthy competition among countries, provinces and municipalities to outperform their neighbours. If an economically poor country like Sri Lanka could reduce infant mortality to a low level why was not a much richer country like Turkey or Colombia or Indonesia doing better?

UNICEF used such public comparisons not to humiliate countries but to motivate them.

In the name of child survival, UNICEF was even able to help stop wars and create “corridors of peace” and “days of tranquility” to immunize children and provide other basic services.

In the mid-1980s Grant persuaded the President of El Salvador and got the Archbishop of San Salvador to broker an agreement with the leftist rebels to stop the war for a few days each year so health workers could travel throughout the country, without any restrictions or fear, and vaccinate children.

Such “days of tranquility” became a model and were used in many countries at war, including Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Congo, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and elsewhere, including in the polio eradication campaigns of recent years.

In the name of child survival, UNICEF was able to convene the largest gathering of leaders in history, the 1990 World Summit for Children.

I personally had the honour to help draft the Declaration and Plan of Action of that Summit which adopted ambitious and measurable development goals for children. It was that Children’s Summit which paved the way for the major world conferences and Summits of the 1990s on population, environment, women and development, etc. culminating in the historic Millennium Summit in 2000.

Indeed, the origins of today’s Millennium Development Goals can be traced back to the goals originally set by the World Summit for Children.

The advocacy, implementation modalities and monitoring system for the MDGs are also greatly inspired by the experience of the Summit for Children.

The child survival and development revolution that UNICEF spearheaded under Jim Grant’s leadership, between 1980 and 1995, was credited with saving the lives of an estimated 25 million children, protecting the health of millions more, and putting child rights high on the political agenda of the world.

There were some critics who argued that Jim Grant and UNICEF over-simplified the world’s development challenges by boiling them down to just a few vertical, technical interventions aimed at reducing child mortality.

After all, development is much more than reducing the quantity of deaths. How about the quality of life, social justice, gender equality, economic development, human rights, protection of the environment, and building of systems and infrastructure to sustain development gains?

Those of us who knew and worked with Grant knew that far from being simplistic and narrowly focused, he had a broad and holistic vision of development. UNICEF was very aware of the multi-faceted nature and complexities of development. We spoke forcefully on issues ranging from the need to end the “apartheid of gender”, to reducing military expenditures, providing debt relief and fair terms of trade for developing countries.

UNICEF argued for restructuring foreign aid and national development budgets in favour of basic social services. It challenged the prevailing orthodoxy of powerful international financial institutions and called for “adjustment with a human face”.

Let us recall that in the 1980s, the structural adjustment policies imposed by the World Bank and IMF forced many governments to balance their budget by cutting expenditures on health, education and social services.

The consequences were immediate and devastating – rates of malnutrition increased, governments were unable to replenish essential drugs or even pay the salaries of health workers and teachers. It was the poor people, and especially children, who suffered most from such cut-backs.

UNICEF protested loudly, and made a well-reasoned and passionate case for protecting the poor and vulnerable in designing structural adjustment programmes. Its call for “adjustment with a human face” gathered strong support from development activists, and eventually forced the World Bank and IMF to change their policies.

UNICEF advocated for the child survival revolution with a small number of highly “doable” interventions, not as a simplistic formula for just reducing mortality, but as a “Trojan Horse” for combating poverty, accelerating economic development, and promoting democracy by empowering people.

Let us not forget that nothing is more disempowering to parents than to see their children die. Inability to save and care for their children makes parents feel powerless and fatalistic. On the other hand, when parents feel that they can take action to save their children’s lives, they feel a sense of empowerment rather than helplessness.

When parents know that simple, low-cost actions can save their children, they begin to demand such services. Once basic health is assured, parents begin to demand basic education, water and sanitation, nutrition and other social services. Thus starts a virtuous cycle of empowerment and upward mobility.

Child survival need not be – must not be – a matter of charity or simple vertical medical interventions. When pursued by unleashing the power of social mobilization, moral persuasion and behaviour change, it can become a powerful force for social transformation.

Now, many of the diseases that kill children in developing countries are also found in the rich countries.

It is not uncommon for children in rich countries also to get diarrhea, pneumonia and infections of various kinds. But because they have proper immunization, better nutrition, and access to clean water and sanitation, children can withstand these diseases and do not die.

But the same diseases and infections can be fatal in poor countries.

In other words, it is not really diseases that kill, it is poverty that kills children.

The association between poverty and child mortality has long been recognized.

Indeed in poor countries and communities, U5MR is often an excellent proxy indicator for the measurement of poverty.

Today over 90 percent of the world’s child deaths occur in 60 countries – all of which are low-income or least developed countries, or the poorest areas of middle-income countries.

These same countries also account for the vast majority of maternal deaths, malnutrition and lack of safe drinking water and sanitation.

Indeed, much of the world’s greatest tragedies befalling children are concentrated on the bottom billion people of the world, who subsist on less than $1 a day.

Please close your eyes for a moment, and imagine what would you do if your income was just $1 a day, or $5 for a family – for food, for shelter, for clothing, for education, for health care, for festivals and for funerals?

It is such degrading poverty that kills 25,000 children every day from causes that are readily preventable.

It is poverty that keeps 93 million children out of primary schools, the majority of them girls.

It is poverty that lands millions of children in child labour, often in hazardous circumstances, when they should be going to school.

It is poverty, debt and unemployment that lead desperate parents to even sell their vital organs like kidneys through unscrupulous middle-men to provide for their children.

And when all else fails, parents are even forced to abandon their children, sell them to brothels or bonded labour to work in slave-like conditions.

Because children bear the heaviest burden of poverty, all efforts to combat poverty must give the highest priority to children.

Remember, 80 percent of human brain is formed in the first 18 months of a child’s life. Whether a child will grow to live up to his or her full human potential, whether a child could ever aspire to attend a great college like Dartmouth, or the child will be condemned to be a slow learner, and poor achiever in life, is largely determined in the first few years of a child’s life, before the child even enters school.

The damage caused by malnutrition, infection and poor child care in early childhood often lasts for the whole life, and it cannot be easily reversed later.

Now, some say that poverty has always been with us, and it will never be completely eliminated. That maybe true in the case of relative poverty, but we simply cannot and should not accept the indignity of absolute poverty as the unavoidable fate of humanity in this world of incredible wealth and prosperity.

Today, in spite of the global financial crisis, we live in the most prosperous of times in human history. World economic output reached US$60 trillion last year, and according to the Forbes magazine, the number of billionaires in the world in 2007 reached a record 1,125.

At this time of unprecedented global prosperity, we have the contrasting situation of nearly 1 billion people living on less than $1 a day; 800 million people going to bed hungry every night; 1 billion people without access to clean drinking water, and 2 billion people without access to proper sanitation.

What an incredibly unequal and unjust world we live in!

Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights often says that poverty is the greatest violation of human rights in the world today. And children are the greatest victims of this violation of human rights.

The time has come for all of us, to consider the struggle for child survival and the fight against child poverty everywhere, in rich as well as in poor countries, not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of human rights, and a foundation for human development.

We now have a global plan of action to fight poverty in the form of the Millennium Development Goals. It is estimated that to achieve these goals, it will take massive efforts by developing countries, backed up by an additional investment of about $50 billion a year in external aid.

Now, $50 billion is a lot of money. But consider that in the context of the world’s military expenditure of $1 trillion per year, or the US military spending of some $150 billion a year right now in one country – Iraq – alone.

Or consider that in the context of $1 billion per day in farm subsidies that tax payers in the US, Europe and Japan pay all year around to protect their farmers against – guess what? – competitive international trade, mostly with poor farmers in developing countries!

Or consider that in the context of hundreds of billions of dollars that are being allocated to bail-out huge Wall Street firms, banks, and automobile companies.

Friends, as you can see, it is not that the world does not have enough resources to fight child poverty; it is more likely that leaders of the world – and we the citizens – do not give enough priority to combating such poverty.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said so eloquently, “There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will.” Or as Mahatma Gandhi put it, “The world has enough for everybody’s need, but not enough for everybody’s greed.”

Dear friends,

I began this lecture by saying that the vast majority of the world’s child deaths were due to a handful of diseases that could be readily prevented or treated with some proven, low-cost interventions.

I then went on to say that actually, what kills children is not really diseases, but poverty, which is a little harder to tackle.

Now, upon further reflection, I must confess to you that what kills so many children in the world today in such massive numbers is neither disease nor poverty. So what is it?

It is in my humble opinion, our non-recognition and non-respect of children’s basic human rights.

What we desperately need today is to invoke the spirit and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Marshall Meyer and emulate their stubborn and relentless struggle for human rights against all odds – now on behalf of the world’s children.

And at this historic juncture, when the whole world is looking to Barack Obama, with so much hope and expectation of a renewed American leadership to help tackle the major problems facing humanity, I hope we can all press for America to put the survival, development and protection of children at the centre of its international development agenda.

To their credit, the successive US governments of different political parties in recent decades have been great supporters of child survival. There has been commendable bi-partisan support in the US Congress for global child survival programs, and for UNICEF.

But in the eyes of the rest of the world, the United States of America also stands out as a country that has so far failed to ratify the world’s most universally embraced human rights treaty dealing with children – the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

I do not know how many of you in this audience have read the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I would commend it to you all. It is one of the most progressive, and one of the most balanced and thoughtful treaties that deals with both the civil and political rights and social and economic rights of children.

It was written with great care, deliberation and strong participation and leadership of distinguished American scholars and experts.

Since the UN General Assembly adopted it in 1989, CRC became the world’s most rapidly and universally ratified human rights treaty in history. A record 193 States parties have ratified it. Only 2 countries have not done so yet – Somalia and the USA.

Somalia is understandable. As you know, it has been a failed state without an effective government for over 2 decades. But the US does have a functioning government, which claims to be a great champion of human rights in the world. It baffles non-Americans, and even many Americans, as to why the US is reluctant to ratify this Convention.

Not only has the US failed to ratify CRC, but whenever there are important negotiations at the United Nations on various development and human rights issues, and other Member States try to put in a strong reference to child rights and CRC, the US delegation always tries to delete, weaken or water down the references.

As a senior UNICEF official, I have been witness to many inter-governmental negotiations at which the US delegation and those of other Member States were at loggerheads on the issue of CRC. I must confess that I found most of the arguments put forward by the US delegates in opposing the CRC rather flimsy, unconvincing and driven by narrow domestic political considerations of the most un-enlightened kind.

It was very sad for me as a friend of America, who studied at great American universities like Dartmouth, Princeton and Harvard, and who is greatly inspired by the ideals of US democracy and commitment to human rights, to see my American colleagues, including my American bosses who were Executive Directors of UNICEF – like Jim Grant and Carol Bellamy – deeply frustrated and embarrassed by the US government’s reluctance to join the CRC.

Now, to be fair, there have been many leaders in the US government – including at the highest level, who have been very supportive of the CRC. I want to recall and share with you a most touching episode.

In January 1995, Jim Grant, the then head of UNICEF was hospitalized with terminal cancer. From his death-bed he wrote to President Bill Clinton, pleading with him, as an American citizen, that the US government sign on to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. He died a few days later.

The following month at a memorial service for Jim Grant at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, the then First Lady Hillary Clinton came with a message from the President. She said that in response to Jim Grant’s last wish, President Clinton had instructed Madeline Albright, the US Ambassador to the UN to sign the Convention. The whole Cathedral erupted in applause at this news, breaking the tradition of an otherwise serene and somber occasion.

The following week, Madeline Albright did sign the Convention.

However, fearing that many conservative Senators would not support it, the Clinton administration did not forward the Convention for ratification to the Senate. When President Bush took over, the new administration made it clear that it had no intention whatsoever to pursue ratification of the Convention.

Now that the Barack Obama administration has committed itself to regain the lost American moral leadership in the world, and to follow a more multilateralist approach, and honour US commitment to international conventions, all of us, child rights activists all over the world, are hopeful that the US will finally ratify this important Convention.

In a statement at Waldon University in October 2008, Presidential candidate Barack Obama said:

“It is embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land. It is important that the U.S. return to its position as a respected global leader and promoter of human rights. I will review this and other treaties to ensure that the U.S. resumes its global leadership in human rights.”

I hope President Obama will keep this campaign promise, and we will all help him to do so.

Certainly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should need no reminding of the importance of CRC. The new US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice is equally committed to the CRC. There is a US Coalition for the ratification of CRC involving many enlightened American civil rights organizations, child rights-oriented NGOs, religious groups, and academic institutions that are keen to re-energize the campaign for CRC ratification which was largely dormant during the years of the Bush administration.

I would hope that Dartmouth College, the Dickey Centre for International Understanding, the Tucker Foundation and others would take up the issue of US ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Nearly 30 other universities have already joined the Campaign for the US ratification of CRC. You can check the list at I urge Dartmouth to join this group and take the lead.

After all, Dartmouth is famous for taking up the cause of little guys, small institutions, and the underdogs. Every member of the Dartmouth community knows Daniel Webster’s memorable defense of Dartmouth – “It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it!”

In that very tradition, it would be so fitting for Dartmouth to take the lead among America’s academic institutions, the cause of the little guys and gals – the rights of children.

The very essence of human rights, as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Marshall Meyer taught us, is to protect the weak and the vulnerable, the disempowered and disenfranchised, from the tyranny of the strong and the powerful.

Children cannot vote, and their voices are not heard in the councils of power where policies are made and resources are allocated. Protecting their rights is, therefore, the obligation of all enlightened adults, and of all democratic states.

In a very fundamental sense, human rights begin with the rights of children. And a society that does not invest to the maximum extent of its available resources for their survival, protection and development, really fails to honour its

human rights obligations.We know passing a law or a Convention alone does not solve all problems. But it provides the framework and imposes an obligation on all of us to do our maximum so that ours might become the first generation in history to aspire to end child poverty and build a world that is truly fit for children.

With the backing of the world’s most powerful and influential State, and its citizens, the CRC can become a bulwark for the defense of children’s rights and a beacon of hope for the world’s children.

Yes, the world has many other problems, and Dartmouth has many other priorities. But most other problems can wait, children cannot. They have only one chance to grow – and we all have a duty to help them survive and thrive.

As a proud alumnus of Dartmouth, who devoted all his professional life to promoting child survival and defending child rights, I would urge you all to take up the challenge of securing full US support for the CRC in the same spirit as Daniel Webster and our predecessors took up the defense of Dartmouth College itself.

After all, there is no nobler cause than the survival, development and protection of children, who today represent half the world’s population, but all of its future.

Thank you.

We know passing a law or a Convention alone does not solve all problems. But it provides the framework and imposes an obligation on all of us to do our maximum so that ours might become the first generation in history to aspire to end child poverty and build a world that is truly fit for children.

With the backing of the world’s most powerful and influential State, and its citizens, the CRC can become a bulwark for the defense of children’s rights and a beacon of hope for the world’s children.

Yes, the world has many other problems, and Dartmouth has many other priorities. But most other problems can wait, children cannot. They have only one chance to grow – and we all have a duty to help them survive and thrive.

As a proud alumnus of Dartmouth, who devoted all his professional life to promoting child survival and defending child rights, I would urge you all to take up the challenge of securing full US support for the CRC in the same spirit as Daniel Webster and our predecessors took up the defense of Dartmouth College itself.

After all, there is no nobler cause than the survival, development and protection of children, who today represent half the world’s population, but all of its future.

Thank you.

(Mr. Gautam, Dartmouth College alumnus ’72, and a citizen of Nepal, is former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF.)