Laura Bush

Remarks at the UNESCO Plenary Session - Sept. 29, 2003

Laura Bush
September 29, 2003— Paris, France
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Thank you, Ambassador, for your very warm welcome. Mr. President of the General Conference, Madame Chairperson of the Executive Board, Mr. Director-General, your commitment to education is inspiring and I'm privileged to serve as the Honorary Ambassador for the Decade of Literacy. Distinguished ambassadors, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting me to address this distinguished gathering. One year ago, President Bush stood before the United Nations General Assembly and pledged that the United States of America would return to UNESCO as a symbol of our nation's commitment to human dignity. Our delegation is proud to be here today representing our country and fulfilling that commitment. We believe in working with the nations of the world to promote the values shared by people throughout the world. Working in communities to help friends and neighbors is part of the fabric of American society. As of October 1st, the United States government will once again be a full, active and enthusiastic participant in UNESCO's important mission to promote peace and freedom. (Applause.) And the people of my country will work with our UNESCO colleagues throughout the world to advance education, science, culture and understanding.

Members of our delegation represent some of the United States' most respected leaders in their fields. Dr. Rod Paige, the United States Secretary of Education, leads the delegation. Congressman Tom Lantos is here. Dr. David Donald is a Harvard historian and one of the world's foremost experts on President Abraham Lincoln. Susan Graham is an award-winning mezzo-soprano from my hometown of Midland, Texas, who has captivated the world with her music and is here in Paris rehearsing for an opera. Dr. James Billington is the Librarian of Congress. He has expanded the Library's electronic resources to share information with the world.

These outstanding leaders represent a host of agencies, universities and NGOs who are eager to mobilize and once again work with our partners from UNESCO's 189 member states. We have much to offer, and we have much to learn. And fellow delegates, given the many challenges in our world today, our work is more urgent and more important than at any time in UNESCO's history.

UNESCO was born of the conviction that peace and security for all nations and all peoples will be advanced when ignorance, suspicion and mistrust are replaced with education, respect and tolerance. My country was among the first to ratify UNESCO's constitution, which was adopted in the wake of World War II. That great and terrible war, the constitution states, was made possible by the denial of the democratic principles of the dignity, equality and mutual respect of men and by the propagation, in their place, through ignorance and prejudice, of the doctrine of the inequality of men and the races. Those words, written almost 58 years ago, speak to us with new challenge today as we confront the ideology of hate and violence expressed in worldwide acts of terror.

No nation, we have learned, is immune. We have seen terrorism in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. My own country was a target on a terrible September morning two years ago. Since that day, acts of terror have robbed innocents of their lives in Jakarta, Pakistan and Riyadh. And last month, terrorists attacked the very symbol of the civilized world, striking the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, killing those who had come to deliver humanitarian help and hope to the people of Iraq. Among the 22 people killed was Sergio Vieira de Mello, who had dedicated his life to the work of peace and understanding between nations. Many of you knew Sergio well. In his honor, we will take up the noble cause that he lived and ultimately died for.

UNESCO, an institution born of a yearning for peace that survived years of war, can now help achieve peace by spreading the values that help defeat terror and lead to a better and safer world: education, tolerance, respect for all human life and respect for each other's differences. These are our common dreams for our children and these are the charge of UNESCO. Now more than ever, the nations of the world, the peoples of the world, must affirm the stated purpose of this organization: To further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law, and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion. Important work, and it's our work -- all of us here at UNESCO.

As a former public school teacher and librarian, I believe education is our most urgent priority and should have the first and highest call on our time and resources. Education is vital to developing nations and generations. From the moment they are born, our children's lives are shaped by the education we provide them. Education expands eager young minds; a lack of education stifles and limits them. The chance to learn and to read and write should never be only the privilege of a few, royalty or the rich, the first-born or sons. Education is the birthright of every human being -- all the world's sons and all the world's daughters.

I have visited many schools across the United States where children are acquiring the skills to achieve their dreams. I have read with elementary students in Japan, London and Mexico. I have met with Girl Scouts in Korea to talk about service and leadership. I have painted with young survivors of an earthquake in San Salvador in an arts therapy program. I know that education is vital for personal development. But as I've watched the faces of the world's children, I've also realized that education is vital to a rich and fulfilling life.

Our work is so important and UNESCO can make so much difference that I hope we will focus on achieving results in four key areas of education.

First, we are committed to literacy and to providing a basic primary education for every person in every remote corner of the world. Reading is the building block of all education, yet one in seven adults in the world today cannot read. Illiteracy especially stifles the aspirations of women: two-thirds of the nearly 900 million illiterate adults in the world are female. The ability to read and write gives people the freedom to learn independently and the self-confidence to stand up for themselves. For people throughout the world, and especially for women and girls, education is power, the power to control their own lives. Learning empowers women to ask questions, to understand their rights, and to make their own decisions. In Kosovo, Albania, women are not only learning to read and write, they're beginning to reverse decades of discrimination against women.

Two years ago, only a few women attended classes in the Windows For Life program. Today, more than 2,000 women are learning to read and cook and sew. Some are even discovering how to manage their own early childhood center. They also learn about marriage, women's rights, even how to deal with their mother-in-law. (Laughter.) I don't have that problem. (Laughter and applause.) In Kosovo, where many women used to sign their name only with a fingerprint, today they are proudly casting votes by writing on a ballot.

And to prevent another generation of adult illiteracy, we must make a major commitment to primary education for all children, especially girls. Worldwide, more than 100 million children do not have access to schools, and 60 percent of them are little girls. In developing countries, one of every three children does not complete five years of primary education. Lack of a primary education frequently has lifelong consequences. UN studies show that illiterate girls marry as early as age 11 and may have up to seven children before they turn 18. Girls who go to school are likely to wait to marry later and to have smaller, healthier families. Mothers with a secondary education have a 36 percent lower child mortality rate than mothers with only a primary education. When women and girls go to school, they learn the skills they need to succeed in life. And the confidence they gain makes them the strongest advocates for their children's right to education.

UNESCO's aptly named Education for All has an ambitious but I'm convinced attainable goal of ensuring universal primary education and expanding literacy worldwide by the year 2015. This program closely mirrors the goals of my husband's No Child Left Behind initiative, which was passed by the United States Congress two years ago. Through an insistence on results and accountability, it seeks to ensure that every child gets a quality education and that no child is left behind. Our close collaboration on these education initiatives will help both the United States and UNESCO achieve our goals. Together, we can bring learning and literacy to children across the world, building the best possible foundation for freedom and peace.

One of the most inspiring places to witness the transformation education brings is in Afghanistan. Three years ago, 92 percent of girls did not attend school because the Taliban did not allow women to be educated. Today, nearly 4 million children are in school -- including more than a million girls. Young girls, who were not allowed to leave their homes unless they were accompanied by a male relative, who had to hide their books under their burkas, are now studying math and science.

As they learn new words and mathematic formulas, they're gaining a greater respect for themselves. At the newly opened Sultana Razia School, girls now talk about their future, about becoming doctors and teachers and about rebuilding their country. One young girl said, I want to become a lawyer, because I want to bring justice and freedom to Afghanistan, especially for women.

Children in Afghanistan are eager to learn. And yet one-and-a-half million children cannot go to school because there are not enough buildings and teachers. The number of school-age children has outpaced the number of qualified teachers in many countries. My own country will need more than 2 million new teachers in the next decade. Worldwide, 15 to 36 million more teachers will be required to achieve our goal of universal education by 2015. In Afghanistan, where many teachers themselves only have a primary education, additional training is critical to the success of the education system.

I am pleased today to announce that the United States government is working to reestablish the American School in Kabul beginning next fall for Afghan children and for children of international families there. Prior to the Taliban, the American School was an outstanding institute of culture and education. Our new ambassador designee to Afghanistan, Zal Khalizad, attended classes there as a young man. Because a large percentage of the student body will be Afghan, the school will help both international and Afghan children to grow up learning and working together in an environment of respect. The school is a symbol of my country's ongoing commitment to Afghanistan and to the critical role of education in rebuilding a society. (Applause.) In tandem with this project, I am working with our government and the private sector to develop a teacher training institution that will help Afghanistan meet its educational needs, by training Afghan teachers, especially women. Both of these projects, the American school and the teacher training institute, are being organized through the U.S.-Afghan Women's council, a public-private partnership established by Presidents Bush and Karzai, to help empower Afghan women in rebuilding their country.

UNESCO's second educational priority must be quality education -- education based in truth and tolerance. The more children learn about other countries, faiths and cultures, the more likely they are to respect other people. Education can help children see beyond a world of hate and hopelessness. UNESCO is doing wonderful work in this area. A history project in the Balkans seeks to overcome centuries of stereotypes and division. In Iraq, UNESCO member nations are helping to rid textbooks of the language of hate and propaganda. Children in the village of Ovitoto in Namibia are learning about tolerance and how to resolve conflicts. New curriculum that focuses on democracy and civics is being taught in 15 Namibian schools. In addition to class work, students are expected to attend village meetings and to talk with their parents about current events.

A continent away, children in the United States are learning about children in Pakistan through an e-mail pen pal program. A U.S. initiative called Friendship Through Education links American schools with schools in the Middle East. Students write essays about their lives, their religion and their culture. And they build friendships and a dialogue that teaches them to seek and listen to the opinions of others. Sara, an elementary student from North Carolina said, "It's exciting to have a pen pal. He sent me a picture, and he looks different because of his skin, but I don't care because we're really all the same. Maybe if we communicated with people from other countries they would like us, and maybe we would like them more."

The third way in which UNESCO can make a difference in the world is through post-conflict education, the important work of rebuilding education systems in countries that have been affected by war and civil strife. In these chaotic situations, the basic tools of education -- schools, teachers, textbooks and supplies -- are usually inadequate or nonexistent.

UNESCO has done valuable work rebuilding in Uganda, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and your collaboration can help change the future of children in Afghanistan and Iraq. Surely we can agree that rebuilding those countries as secure, hopeful and self-governing nations is in all of our best interests, especially the best interests of the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. The presence of a peaceful, stable Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a powerful beacon for freedom, an example of hope in that vital region. A recent Gallup survey found that nearly two-thirds of Iraqis say ousting Saddam Hussein was worth the hardship they've experienced; an overwhelming majority feel that Iraq will be better off in five years than it was before. Nowhere is this more obvious than in education. One tragic legacy of Saddam Hussein's rule is an overall adult illiteracy rate of 61 percent -- and a staggering 77 percent -- or three in four women in Iraq -- cannot read.

Our coalition forces are working with 36,000 local Iraqi workers to refurbish 1,600 schools across Iraq. And some soldiers are calling in help from back home. Major Greg Softy of a Cavalry Regiment in the 1st Armored Division sent an e-mail to friends and family to request school supplies and other items for Iraqi children. And a group of citizens in St. Paul, Minnesota, has sent dozens of packages and set up a website to encourage others to contribute.

More than 80 percent of Iraq's primary and secondary schools and all but two universities have now reopened. Students and teachers are free to discuss topics that were once forbidden. They no longer fear the secret police are sitting in their classrooms to monitor their studies. Iraqis are experiencing the freedom that education brings.

Next month, 5 million students will receive their own textbooks free of Baathist propaganda thanks to a UNESCO program that reviews textbooks and removes the language of hate and division. Today, children and adults are discovering Iraq's best writers and poets in books once banned. Professors, chosen through open staff elections, are teaching lessons in freedom and human rights.

These stories of progress inspire us to eradicate illiteracy, recruit and train more teachers and create learning environments that teach the value of tolerance, democracy and peace.

Finally and importantly, I hope UNESCO will emphasize education programs that can literally make a life or death difference. For those affected by HIV and AIDS, education is the key to survival. More than 10 million children under the age 15 have been orphaned by AIDS. Many have lost not only their parents and their loved ones, but also their teachers. Education can teach these children the facts about AIDS, and the skills they'll need to support themselves.

In July, I visited the Botswana-Baylor Children's Clinic that provides treatment for families affected by HIV and AIDS. I painted figures called Hope dolls with the children. The children create and decorate these dolls; they use them to tell their stories about living with AIDS. The dolls are then shipped to other clinics and children throughout the world, ambassadors to let other AIDS victims know that they are not alone in living with this terrible disease. The dolls are the storytellers of hope and survival, spreading the message: I know there is Hope, because I have seen her with my own eyes.

I'm proud that President Bush has made a massive commitment, $15 billion, to fight this humanitarian crisis. This is the largest single commitment of funds in the history of international public health initiative on a specific disease, and I'm very proud of my husband's leadership to help the children of the world. In collaboration with UNESCO, the United States will work to build more centers of care and education for those afflicted with HIV and AIDS.

By directing our resources towards these four priorities, basic literacy and primary education, education in tolerance, post-conflict education and AIDS/HIV education, UNESCO will be asking on its most important purpose and lifting millions of lives. Today, in unity with every nation here, the United States commits itself to the promise of education for every man, woman and child. This year, my country will invest $333 million in primary, secondary and college education in developing nations. Our new Millennium Challenge Grant increases in overall development assistance by 50 percent. The United States is committed to working in and with the world to offer greater education and opportunity and thus a brighter future for all people.

The United States also shares UNESCO's goals of extending the benefits of science and technology to all nations. We'll continue to work closely with member nations on joint research to foster scientific and sensible environmental policy and to monitor environmental changes around the world. The United States also shares UNESCO's goal of preserving and promoting cultural heritage through museums and humanities research. The respect we desire as individuals and nations extends to a respect for our past -- the rich heritage that has made the nations and the people of the world what we are today. The arts are our most human expressions, the universal language of our hearts and souls. Art and music give us comfort and joy as they enrich our lives. When Afghanistan was liberated from the Taliban, one of the first sounds heard in the celebrations in the streets was the sound of music. And music has always been a significant part of Iraq's culture. During Saddam Hussein's rule, many musicians were forced to sell their instruments to support their families. The United States National Endowment for the Arts has collected more than 300 instruments from orchestras around the United States to put the makings of music back in the hands of Iraqi artists and students. And soon we will celebrate Iraq's rich culture when the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra performs with the American National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (Applause.)

Afghanistan was once a crossroads of the world. Its rich heritage includes the influence of many cultures and religions, from Persians to Buddhists. UNESCO is continuing its work to conserve the remains of the great stone Buddhas that were destroyed by the Taliban. In Iraq, teams from UNESCO have worked with many United States organizations, from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, to the Library of Congress and the Department of State, to help Iraq preserve its antiquities, most of which have now been recovered. And as we respect and cherish our shared past, we teach our children important lessons about our future.

As we move forward, UNESCO must be a powerful voice for independence of the press and freedom of expression. Human beings achieve our full potential only when we are free, free to speak our minds and debate ideas, free to worship as we choose, free to listen to those who have different values and beliefs.

Today, I look at the world and I see great opportunity for the advance of human rights and human freedom. My fellow delegates, I challenge all of us to work together to make this a decade of literacy and a century of liberty. Literacy and liberty are natural allies, and they're the core mission of UNESCO. Before us are both opportunities and obligations. We must educate every person -- in reading and writing and their basic human rights. We must preserve the cultural heritage of our past and illuminate a future of scientific advance and discovery with careful ethics and a reverence for the dignity of life.

Always, through all of our programs, we must teach the world's children to respect human life, their own lives and the lives of others. Every parent, every teacher, every leader has a responsibility to condemn the terrible tragedy of men, women and children killing themselves to kill others. As President Bush has said, all fathers and mothers in all societies want their children to be educated and to live free from poverty and violence. No nation owns these aspirations and no nation is exempt from them.

As the civilized world stands against terror, UNESCO's work can make an enormous difference. Together, we can construct, as UNESCO's constitution states, the defenses of peace in the minds of men.

Thank you all every much.

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