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World’s Political Elite Meet at Summit to Save Children : United Nations: Leaders launch a campaign to rescue 100 million youngsters from death, disease and illiteracy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In what is believed to be the largest gathering ever of world leaders, more than 70 heads of state and government from Albania to Zimbabwe assembled here Saturday to launch an ambitious campaign spotlighting the needs of children.

The World Summit for Children, sponsored by UNICEF, was designed to focus media attention on kings, presidents and prime ministers in a position to improve the lot of children--an estimated 40,000 of whom die every day from causes that can be prevented, organizers said.

The event, which is expected to conclude today with the signing of a declaration on children’s rights, drew leaders with views as diverse as Albania’s Ramiz Alia, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni.

Their aim is to save up to 100 million children from death by disease or malnutrition during the 1990s, as well as dramatically cut illiteracy, ensure safe drinking water and make prenatal health care more available for mothers.

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“There can be no task nobler than giving every child a better future,” says a draft of the declaration.

No country is singled out by name in the draft, but there is an obvious reference to South Africa’s discriminatory racial practices and Middle East tensions. At Kuwait’s urging, a clause was added to the declaration denouncing the suffering of children because of “aggression, foreign occupation and annexation.” Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is not scheduled to attend.

The U.S. delegation includes President Bush, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan and Mother Hale, a New York grandmother who cares for babies infected with the AIDS virus.

But organizers were dismayed to learn Saturday that Bush will leave U.N. headquarters without joining other leaders in signing the declaration.

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“We are very supportive of the convention and the general aims that are in it, but it does have some specifics that are contrary to some of our state laws,” White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater told reporters late Saturday night.

He said one objection is to a provision that would ban the death penalty for people under 18 years of age. He said some American states permit capital punishment for people of that age.

“We will not be able to sign it until we can take a look at it and see if those kinds of things can be worked out,” Fitzwater added.

“Obviously, it’s a tremendous disappointment,” one organizer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We certainly wanted to have everyone possible sign the document.”

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Some had characterized the summit as little more than a gala photo opportunity. U.N. technicians worked throughout the day Saturday to prepare a blue-draped stand with four steps on which those attending will pose.

While no one expected instant results, organizers were hopeful that the event would focus world attention on the plight of children in both developing and industrialized nations.

“It is not on Monday morning at 9 o’clock that you will be able to say, ‘The summit has made a difference,’ ” said Canadian Ambassador Yves Fortier, one of the organizers of the summit. But, Fortier added, the event “sends a message to the world, it serves as a catalyst to mobilize public opinion.”

Missing from the conference will be the children themselves, although a group will make a symbolic appearance in the General Assembly Hall to read a page of the declaration in each of the official languages of the United Nations.

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The editor of the 1992 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, Mark C. Young, said the summit is the largest gathering of political leaders on any issue, and “nothing else even comes close.”


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