GENEVA (18 September 2014) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said Thursday that the State has a moral and legal responsibility to take measures to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, preventable mortality and morbidity of children under the age of five.
“Each year, 6 million children lose their lives before their fifth birthday – equivalent to the entire population of Nicaragua, Norway or New Zealand, every year,” Zeid said.
“A harsh reality makes a calamity of this tragedy – the reality that, in our hands, we have the ways and means to prevent at least 50 percent of these deaths and more. That we fail to take the steps necessary to protect our children from the devastating consequences of these conditions constitutes grave violations of the child’s rights to life, survival, development, and the highest attainable standard of health.”
Zeid stressed that when the State is not doing what it can to prevent such deaths, it is defaulting on its legal and moral obligations to its own people.
“State officials are answerable to the public when children die of preventable causes. If local officials, relevant ministers, heads of government or heads of State are not doing what they should to uphold the rights of these – the smallest, most vulnerable of their people – then such omissions may well amount to criminal negligence,” he said.
“For human rights not only connect us all. In this instance, they implicate us all. If a country is committed to all reasonable steps to prevent infant mortality, having established the right set of priorities, but is lacking the basic resources needed to take those steps, then the burden of public duty and gaze of public scrutiny must be on the international community.”
Zeid stressed that critical inequalities are at the root of preventable child deaths. The issue thus must be addressed through its root causes such as: gender inequality; harmful traditional practices including genital mutilation; forced, early and child marriage; gender-based violence; stigma; discrimination; unsafe households and environments; denial of the right to safe drinking water and sanitation; denial of the right to health; and women’s enjoyment of human rights.
High Commissioner Zeid was speaking at the launch of a UN Human Rights Office technical guidance note which lists tangible, concrete measures that States can take, using a human rights-based approach, to reduce and eliminate preventable mortality and morbidity of children under five years of age. The note contains advice on legislation, coordination, planning, budgeting, implementation and international cooperation related to the issue.
“Through the human rights lens, transformative policy solutions emerge clearly,” he said.
The human rights-based approach requires States to invest in the health, education and empowerment of women and children, particularly in the poorest and most marginalized communities. The High Commissioner said this means “re-calibrating public investment so that it swings in behind the protection, preservation and personhood of the child.”
The High Commissioner also emphasised that parents are entitled to participate meaningfully as partners in prevention. The human rights-based approach also requires that aggrieved individuals should have access to transparent processes to hold accountable public officials and private sector actors for the quality, accessilbity and acceptability of the services they provide.
“Children are our most valuable resource,” Zeid said. “We cannot accept that, through our commission and omission, they should be left to be our most vulnerable resource, too.”