Prague, 6 April 2009
Embargo until delivery / check against delivery
Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear children, dear friends,
Let me start by thanking the Czech presidency of the Council of the European Union for having organised this conference on “child-friendly Europe” and for having brought together so many competent persons determined to bring about this kind of Europe.
Most species have developed strategies to avoid extinction.
The sea turtle lays her eggs in the sand and then abandons them on the beach,. She lays many eggs so that at least a few will grow into adult turtles. The female seahorse does not leave her eggs in the water; she lays them in the male’s pouch. When they hatch, thousands of tiny sea horses are left to fend for themselves, but they still have a better chance to survive than other fishes’ eggs. The female cuckoo lays her eggs in the nest of another bird, so that an adoptive mother will feed her baby cuckoo. Ants and bees have very well organised nurseries to care for their babies. Female koalas give birth to tiny babies, known as joeys, which will stay snuggled in their pouch for around 7 months. After an 18-month pregnancy, a killer whale gives birth to a calf that she will nurse for two years. All killer whales pod members, including males of all ages, participate in the care of the young.
So you see, most mammals spend a great deal of time with their offspring, protecting them while they are too small to survive on their own, teaching them to find food, recognise and hide from danger, heal their wounds. The outside word is not always a friendly place and the newborn must learn how to live (or rather survive) in it.
“Homo sapiens” are said to have a highly developed brain that is capable of abstract reasoning, language, introspection and problem solving. Our desire to decipher the world around us, to understand how it works and influence it distinguishes us from other living species. Our natural curiosity has led to the development of advanced tools and skills.
These exceptional skills mean that we have the ability to make this world friendly and safe for children, yet we struggle to do so. This is simply unacceptable.
During its 60 years of existence, the Council of Europe has strived to make this wild world of ours more “human”. We have put our wisdom to work and identified a large number of measures to provide for the needs of each single member of our species helping them to fulfill their individual, legitimate aspirations, enjoying life along the way. At the very basis of this lies what we strive to guarantee: respect for human rights, democracy and rule of law. And because children are vulnerable and dependent, we have invested in the development of specific standards, policies and practices that, if applied, would guarantee them the best possible start in life.
Child-friendly justice, integrated strategies against violence and child participation are the three pillars of the Council of Europe strategy for the years 2009-2011. These may seem like luxury items in light of today’s dire economic situation, but the reality is that they respond to the urgent need to guarantee respect for our children’s rights and this is something that is long overdue and that has long lasting effects.
Most of our countries are facing the additional problem of having to tackle a worrying decrease in the birth rate. One explanation for this is that couples are less confident in the future and find it increasingly difficult to cope with social and economic stress. Family-friendly policies can create conditions that will allow people to fulfill their wish to have children. Such policies aim, for instance, to reconcile professional and family life, support families in need and improve day care facilities. It is, however, important that all of these policies be informed by children’s needs and rights. They should be a part of a wider strategy aiming to build a genuinely child-friendly society.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Most of the dangers threatening our children have been identified; we know how to fight even the most challenging of them. Our convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, for instance, contains a complete set of measures that, if implemented properly, will be effective in the fight against all forms of sexual violence against children, included those facilitated by Internet. The ratification and implementation of this treaty should be a priority for all countries in Europe. This is an area in which the European Union and the Council of Europe should work hand in hand.
But there are worrying developments which make me fear our continent is turning into a truly child-hostile Europe. Aging Europe is becoming increasingly intolerant of our children and this is sending us a signal that we cannot choose to ignore. “Children-free” hotels, cinemas and city centres, along with other devices and pretexts used to keep children out, just for the sake of “more peace and quiet”, are popping up across Europe. Children are still beaten Europe-wide in the name of discipline. The same society that failed miserably to provide its children with a childhood free from violence is now sending them to jail in the name of making society safe. I cannot think of a single species that would do that to its offspring.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Human kind cannot afford to sit back and wait the few hundred thousand years needed for evolution to kick in and guarantee our survival as a species. We have the capacity, skills and power to bring about change now. Let’s use our wisdom for the benefit of the present generation. To build a child-friendly society is to build a world that is profoundly more “human”, in the noblest possible way.