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Youth and Human Rights

Remarks by Hon. David Kilgour, M.P. Edmonton Southeast, Secretary of State (Latin America & Africa)
Youth and the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Holy Trinity Catholic High School, December 7, 1998

It is a pleasure to join you in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has said: "Human rights are what makes us human. They are principles by which we create the sacred home for human dignity."

You are privileged to have grown up in a world where there has been widespread acceptance of the concept of human rights. In the past fifty years many countries have become committed to human rights, but there are still abuses that go on in many parts of the world.

Youth are among those often most affected by human rights abuses, but they also represent our greatest hope that the progress made in the past 50 years will continue. Young people are often those most victimized by war, whether as passive victims, or as child soldiers coerced into fighting.

Despite great advances, child labour remains common in many parts of the world. Eradicating it is not as simple as passing laws or declarations – many families depend on child breadwinners, but children forced to leave school early to support families do not achieve their full educational potential.

Child prostitution and sexual exploitation is rampant in many parts of the world and is often fed by a sex tourism industry rooted in the so-called "developed world." Its victims may not be victims of classic human rights abuse – by governments against individuals – but they are victims nonetheless, robbed of their youth.

It is now up to your generation to continue to promote the values set out in the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights in hopes these rights will become more than merely words on paper, but a global standard.

As Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa I have visited many countries that have made enormous strides in recent years. I have seen firsthand evidence of the return of human rights in countries where equality and justice were all but forgotten.

In September, I was in Nigeria and saw recent changes that give us hope that human rights are returning even to that tragic country. I was amazed at the turnaround compared to just a few years ago when writer Ken Saro Wiwa and eight of his young colleagues were murdered by the military dictatorship. Nigeria’s generals, in recent years, thumbed their noses at world opinion and the government stole millions from their country’s people. Now, Head of State Abubakar seems to be genuinely committed to returning Nigeria to democracy.

At the end of a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone, the elected government is back in control. But its problems are far from over, especially for the children.

During the war as many as 5,000 children were involved in the fighting. Children as young as seven patrolled the streets of the capital clutching AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Often they were kidnapped from their homes and marched to isolated areas where they were physically and psychologically terrorized. Innocent children were turned into desensitized killing machines.

Now the country faces the challenge of reintegrating these child soldiers into society. Many of them are permanently scarred by violence, disowned by their families and communities or orphaned.

The children of Sierra Leone are not alone. It is estimated that 250,000 children under the age of 18 were involved in 32 global conflicts last year.

Around the world, thousands of children are mistreated and exploited each year. Children are beaten or sexually abused by parents, turned into killers by war, forced to survive on the streets, and are exploited as child labourers and prostitutes. Often they are denied an education, food and adequate health care.

The UN Convention for the rights of the child aims to address these problems by protecting a child’s civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights.

It intends to ensure that every child grows up "…in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity."

Many children worldwide are still seen as cheap labour. They are subject to poor conditions, meagre pay and are exploited. In Canada we recognize that this is not the way a childhood should be spent.

Eliminating hazardous and exploitative child labour is one of Canada’s immediate priorities. It is hoped that through preventative measures such as poverty alleviation, access to basic education, policy advocacy and increasing awareness of the Convention Rights of the Child, child labour will end.

Children’s charities estimate that nearly a million children enter the global sex market each year and in Asia alone more than 650,000 children under the age of 16 work as prostitutes.

Some of these children are lured away from their homes by promises of money and jobs in the city and then are forced into prostitution. Others are forced into it by their parents who are desperate for ways to earn extra money.

Whatever the case, vulnerable, innocent children are stripped of their self respect and safety. Their lives are often cut short by HIV or other diseases. The average rate for HIV infected children rescued from brothels is 50 per cent and some rates are as high as 90 per cent.

Child-sex tourism, where tourists travel to foreign countries for the sole purpose of obtaining sex from children, is a growing concern in Asian countries facing an economic crisis.

In Bogotá, Colombia, I met an amazing former British Journalist, Timothy Ross, who has established Fundación Renacer, a project to help get child prostitutes off the streets. Timothy has scars on his neck from enduring knife attacks, but he is very committed to finding new vocations for the young women and men he has helped off the street. He tells me the only really effective way to combat child prostitution in countries such as Colombia is to stop the demand for sex tourism.

Last year Canada brought in Bill C-27, that allows Canadians who engage in child sex tourism abroad to be prosecuted in Canada. Over the years I have tried to bring in legislation as a private member to allow criminal prosecution of Canadians engaging in sex with juveniles abroad.

These examples of human rights abuse, often directly affecting young people, remind us that we can’t rest merely because we have a Universal Declaration that is fifty years old and a Convention on the Rights of the Child. Instead, they remind us of how far is left to go to see human rights universally adopted and valued.

As young people there are many ways to make a difference. CREDO, the Department of Canadian Heritage’s initiative encourages young Canadians to share their views on human rights. And there are organizations such as Amnesty International, the United Nations Association or Coalition on Children’s Rights where youth can be directly involved.

Human rights issues are many around the world, and often young people are among the most affected. If the progress made in the first half century of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is to continue to flourish for another fifty years, the future is in your hands.

Thank you.

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