Seventy-one heads of state pose for a group photo during the World Summit for Children at United Nations Headquarters in New York, 30 September 1990 in New York. UN Photo/John Isaac - Photo: 2024

Remembering Brian Mulroney — A True Friend of UNICEF

By Kul Gautam

The writer is a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF.

KATHMANDU | 3 March 2024 (IDN) — We join the people of Canada in mourning the passing of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on 29 February 2024. He was a larger-than-life figure in Canadian politics. Although not as widely known or publicized, Mulroney was also a true friend of UNICEF and made a huge contribution in shaping ambitious goals for child survival, development and protection as Co-Chair of the historic 1990 World Summit for Children.

As old timers at UNICEF and friends of UNICEF will recall, Mulroney was one of the first world leaders who was persuaded by UNICEF Executive Director Jim Grant to help convene the Summit for Children. Along with five other world leaders, Mulroney requested the UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar to convene the first-ever world summit at the United Nations on the subject of children.

Mulroney assigned a distinguished Canadian diplomat, Ambassador Yves Fortier as his Personal Representative to chair the Planning Committee of WSC. Working closely with Jim Grant, and other key UNICEF “sherpas” (including yours truly), Ambassador Fortier cajoled and persuaded other diplomats into making WSC a truly historic Summit, not just another high-level UN conference.

Mulroney got President George HW Bush to personally attend the Summit

Mulroney was instrumental in getting President George HW Bush to personally attend WSC. Faced with the conflict in the Persian Gulf and many domestic crises, senior White House and State Department officials had indicated to UNICEF and the UN that Bush was too busy to attend a “summit for kids” in New York.

But never taking “no” as a definitive answer, Jim Grant persuaded Mulroney to make a strong personal request to Bush to attend the Summit for Children. Obliging gracefully to Grant’s request, Mulroney quietly approached his friend “George” on the sidelines of the G-7 Summit in Houston in July 1990, and secured Bush’s “personal” commitment to attend the Summit for Children. This commitment was never publicly announced. Thus, until the day before the Summit, President Bush’s name was not included in the list of the 70 heads of state and government who were scheduled to attend and address the Summit. Nor was his name in the speakers’ list of world leaders that had been very carefully negotiated by diplomats on behalf of their leaders.

But as confidentially agreed with Jim Grant and S-G Perez de Cuellar and known only to a handful of “Sherpas” in advance, President Bush made a “surprise appearance” at the Summit for Children. As Co-Chair of the Summit, Brian Mulroney masterfully orchestrated Bush’s participation at the Summit.

He announced from the podium of the General Assembly Hall that “the President of our Host Country” had made a very special effort to join other world leaders to show his solidarity for children just for an hour, but had to return to Washington DC right away to attend another urgent domestic “summit” with Congressional leaders to avoid a major budget crisis in the US.

Brian Mulroney died on 29 February

Hence, using the prerogative of the Chair, Mulroney ”exceptionally” invited Bush to address the Plenary of the Summit, “as President of our Host Country” although his name was not on the speakers’ list, and would normally have come later in the proceedings.

President Bush’s participation certainly added some gravitas to the Summit for Children. He addressed the world leaders, expressed the US government’s strong commitment to children and solidarity with other fellow world leaders, and departed right away.

It should be noted that besides Jim Grant’s compelling appeal, a Canadian civil society organization, RESULTS Canada, with its thousands of grassroots volunteers had also lobbied hard for Mulroney’s participation and Canada’s strong commitment to the ambitious goals of the Summit of Children.

On the eve of the Summit, RESULTS Canada, along with RESULTS USA, UK, and Australia also helped organize a “candlelight vigil” in which a million candlelights were lit across the world praying for the success of the Summit for Children.

Mulroney not only made a strong commitment to children at the Summit, but his government faithfully followed it up afterward, including by hosting a major conference in Canada that led to the setting up of “The Micronutrient Initiative” (later known as “Nutrition International”) to combat vitamin and mineral deficiency that is a major cause of childhood malnutrition.

Domestically, Canada was one of the first OECD countries to prepare a comprehensive National Plan of Action for Canadian Children as a follow-up to the Summit for Children. Canada has continued to honor its strong commitment to children and support to UNICEF in the spirit of the Summit for Children for which Brian Mulroney deserves our very special gratitude. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Seventy-one heads of state pose for a group photo during the World Summit for Children at United Nations Headquarters in New York, 30 September 1990 in New York. UN Photo/John Isaac

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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