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1998 | 50th Regular Session of the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights

International debt as an obstacle to the realization of children's rights

August 3 – 28, 1998
Palais des Nations, Geneva

Mr. Chairman,

Franciscans International and the Dominicans in conjunction with the International Catholic Migration Commission would like to address the situation of the full realization and protection of children’s rights. Many of our members are working with hundreds of thousands of children and youth throughout the world, children who live in secure environments and children whose lives are very much on the edge of existence. Members of our communities and organization teach children in cities as diverse as New York, Sao Paolo, Aachen, Gaza, Pretoria, Karachi, Novosibirsk, Hankou, Seoul and Vancouver to skip quickly around the globe. Many of our members are involved with health care programs, clinics and hospitals in as many local communities where they are teachers. And the International Catholic Migration Commission, in particular, has settled over 200,000 children and their families in dozens of countries throughout the world.

Many of these children are disadvantaged in terms of health care and educational opportunities. We enjoy the children and our work and are very close to the families. We work in very practical ways with youngsters. Our daily schedule is consumed with the preparation of residency forms, class preparations, counseling, medical treatments, etc. Human growth and maturation naturally present problems and challenges for all people and families. But we wish to point out two profound difficulties that confront us daily.

In many countries for various reasons there is cruel and blind neglect of the education and intellectual development of girl children. Frequently there are cultural and religious excuses for this abuse. Also, many of the children with whom we work are traumatized by their family’s need to migrate. We can and do address these issues in our work but there is a greater systemic burden, beyond our control, that is bleeding our families and children beyond endurance. The payment of external foreign debts by our people in heavily indebted poor countries is causing untold damage to families, their children and future generations within the larger human family.

International debt is a serious obstacle to human development, forcing the world’s most impoverished countries to use scarce resources to pay their debt rather than invest in the well being of their children. International debt is a complex policy issue that carries with it a profound moral challenge. This challenge is based on how the international debt affects the human dignity, human rights, and human welfare of some of the most vulnerable women, men and children in the global community.

Heavily indebted poor countries have higher rates of infant mortality, disease, illiteracy, and malnutrition than other countries in the developing world, according to the UN Development Program (UNDP). Six out of seven heavily indebted poor countries in Africa pay more in debt service (i.e. Interest) than the total amount of money needed to achieve major progress against malnutrition, preventable disease, illiteracy, and child mortality before the year 2000. If governments invested in human development rather than in debt repayments, an estimated three million children would live beyond their fifth birthday and a million cases of malnutrition would be avoided. The UNDP estimates that sub-Saharan Africa governments transfer to Northern creditors four times what they spend on the health of their people. (Human Development Report, 1997). “Debt servicing cannot be met at the price of the asphyxiation of a country’s economy, and no government can morally demand of its people privations incompatible with human dignity.” Cardinal Roger Etchegaray.

The UNDP estimates that in the 1980’s the interest rates for the poor countries were four times higher than for the rich countries due to inferior credit ratings and the expectation of national currency depreciation.

International efforts to relive the debt burden of the poor nations such as the Structural Adjustment Program have mixed results at best. Ten years ago Zambia had one of the highest primary school attendance rates in Africa. Due to the SAP’s in place by agreement with the Zambian government and UN agencies (World Bank and IMF) fewer than half the children attend school. Because families cannot afford the fees for all of their children, girls stay at home, marry earlier, have more children, and are less likely to send their children to school than if they would have received/acquired one or two years of school.

Also, SAP’s can create an environment which values global competition above all else, resulting in lower wages and worsening labor conditions for workers. Frequently profits are maximized by sweatshops. Women and children, the majority of sweatshop workers, are hurt the most by starvation wages, long hours, and unsafe or unsanitary conditions.

The World Bank and IMF’s debt reduction plan the Heavily Indebted Poor country (HIPC) Initiative is a good idea but it is not enough. It is too difficult for a country to qualify for this program and it provides too little relief, which is often too late. Of the 41 HIPC’s that are listed by the World Bank only 8 qualify for the Bank’s relief initiative. We strongly recommend that Zambia and Honduras, at least, will quickly receive clearance as eligible for the HIPC initiative.

Several Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) are also countries of origin (Somalia, Burundi, Liberia, Sudan, Sierra Leone) and countries of asylum (Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda) of major refugee and migrant populations in the world. It is clear that economic conditions contribute to migration, and migration in turn affects families and their children.

It is inadmissible that most HIPC governments spend over 20% of their revenues on debt servicing while they are confronted by pressing human needs. Long-term development programs that address education, hunger and public health stabilize families, enhance people’s security and empower them to better able endure difficulties that would otherwise force them to flee their homeland.

For the sake of the children, their human rights and for the future of the poorest countries we join with Caritas Internationalis and the international Catholic development organization “International Co-operation for Development and Solidarity (CIDSE) to ask that the countries and organizations of the United Nations:

  1. Cancel the unpayable debt of the HIPCs by the year 2000. We appeal specifically to the governments of the United States, Germany, Japan, France and Italy to alleviate the debt relief.
  2. Improve the HIPC Initiative by shortening the time frame, broadening eligibility, redefining debt sustainability, providing more relief and consult the civil society on the conditions for relief.
  3. Link debt cancellation with investment in human development.
  4. Ensure that decisions on debt relief are made in a transparent way, such as having a policy of participation by beneficiary groups in the project approval cycle.
  5. Change the structure of international financial relations to a framework for fair and equal relationships between debtors and creditors.


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