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World: Children's Human Rights Still Widely Ignored

Prague, 27 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - A report to be published next week says that the first nearly universally ratified human rights treaty in history -- the 7-year-old U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child -- is increasingly being ignored.

The assessment comes from the London-based group known as Index on Censorship, which recently studied the convention and accompanying figures from various international aid agencies, including the U.N. Children's Fund, Britain's Save the Children, and the U.S. Children's Defense Fund.

Caroline Moorehead, one of the report's authors, said the convention has become "something of a sham." She writes that the convention is violated "systematically and contemptuously" by many countries, none more energetically than those that were quickest to sign. At the same time, Moorehead writes, the world has never had more human rights organizations devoted solely to the interests of children.

But to understand the shortfalls and abuses facing the world's youth, one must first understand the inherent rights of childhood. According to the Convention, these rights can be divided into basically three categories: social and economic rights, cultural rights, and civil rights and leisure.

The social and economic rights include the right to survival, health care, education, and social safeness. The cultural rights are those to one's own language, identity or culture. And the basic civil rights and leisure include fredom of speech, thought, religion, and peaceful assembly.

Index on Censorship begins with Russia, where,it says, statistics show some 700,000 children are on the streets, 400,000 more are known to be orphaned. In addition, 30,000 each year are listed as "disappeared" and another 150,000 run away from home. None of these figures, according to the report, take into account the war in Chechnya.

There, countless children now fend for themselves in the cellars and shattered apartment blocks of Grozny. During the war, many had the job of cycling around the city to check out the numbers of Russian Federal troops, their position and ammunition stores. These days, they rummage for unused shells in the cellars and ruins and sell them on a market for the equivalent of a few U.S. dollars a piece.

Across the rest of Russia, hundreds of thousands of kids simply prefer the allure of the streets to frequent abuse, violence and general economic hardship at home, with eight out of ten Russian families living below the poverty line.

Statistics acknowledge that between 1992 and 1994, child crime more than doubled in Russia where, if convicted, adolescents have to endure educational labor colonies. These colonies are reportedly ruled, more often than not, by internal hierarchies in which inmates are classified within their own community as masters, lackeys or slaves, based on strength, wit and will. Slavery, according to the report, implies routine taunts, humiliation and rape.

As the report's authors put it,"the investigation cells and educational labor colonies are as much of an insult to East European democracy today, as labor camps were to the communist utopia."

According to the report, the tales Russian street children tell of violence, sexual harassment or arbitrary detention find easy echo in Bucharest, Budapest, Sarajevo or Sofia.

Bulgaria, just weeks earlier, came under strong criticism from the international human rights watchdog Amnesty International, when seven inhabitants at a home for mentally handicapped children died from malnutrition and hypothermia. Amnesty condemned their deaths as "totally unacceptable" and said the action constituted extreme neglect on the part of the government, as well as cruel and inhumane treatment.

Amnesty called on the government to take immediate steps to prevent further deaths by initiating a prompt and independent inquiry into conditions at the home, where 81 children currently reside. It also called for the basic requirements of food, clothing and heating to be provided.

The chilling effects of war, meanwhile, effect children in places as far flung as Chechnya, Bosnia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Index on Censorship says some two million children have been killed in wars, six million seriously injured or disabled, and almost 30 million turned into refugees. In Sarajevo, it is reported that more than half the childen were shot at during the course of the war and that 66 percent of young people found themselves in situations in which they expected to die.

Death is no stranger to the children of Chernobyl -- children like Volha Hancarova of Belarus. She lost her father to spinal cancer, allegedly brought on by his work in the 30-kilometer "exclusion zone" around the plant, in the first hours after the world's worst nuclear disaster.

Hancarova writes,"Chernobyl took away my Dad. And it took away my birthday too; Dad died exactly on the day I reached 14."

Kiryla Kryvanos of Nasieta middle school in Belarus writes, "Chernoybl is in my blood...." This, after a team of doctors came to her school from the Ministry of Health, and diagnosed her and many others with cancer of the thyroid.

A decade after the series of explosions and fire at Chernobyl, on April 26, 1986, the true cost of the disaster remains to be uncovered. Among those who responded to the SOS to "save the Children" was Adi Roche, a former airline marketing executive and volunteer with the campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Ireland. Roche, from her home in the Southern Irish town of Cork, runs what has been called the largest single non-government aid initiative for victims of Chernobyl.

The project has treated about 1,000 children from radiation-contaminated parts of the former Soviet Republics of Belarus and Ukraine to "rest and recuparation" breaks in Ireland. Removed from their heavily-contaminated environment, the children -- many suffering painful illnesses -- enjoy the benefits of a healthy atmosphere and untainted food, while their damaged immune systems get a chance to recover.

Elsewhere, the report cites violations of child slave labor in Azerbaijan, where children are kept as unpaid house servants. Other youngsters fall into drug smuggling, prostitution, or fruit-picking in the isolated Central Asian outback, where children are said to work for 14-16 hours a day under armed guard. There was no mention in the report of the situation in the Baltics.

The report concludes that child victims of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union face an increasingly vacuous and uncaring world and that their circumstance is perhaps the most powerful reminder of the collapse of the communist dream. But with perserverence and compassion, the next generation could see a better day.

A future not unlike that envisoned in 1880 by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in "The Brothers Karamazov" when he wrote,"We shall prove to them that they are mere pitiable children, but that the happiness of a child is the sweetest of all."