MORE than 3,000 Cuban children who set out for freedom's shores last summer are behind barbed-wire fences at United States military bases in Guantanamo Bay and Panama. Their imprisonment evokes memories of the internment camps for Japanese immigrants in the US during World War II and of an equally shameful chapter in Cuba's colonial history - the reconcentration camps of the Spanish Captain Generals.
Originally intended to be ``temporary safe havens,'' these detention camps have become human chess boards in a callous game of political brinkmanship between Cuba and the US in which the only losers are the ``huddled masses yearning to breathe free.''
The outcry from the Cuban American community for the immediate release of the children met with ostensible receptivity by the US, but the official policy pronouncement fell unacceptably short. On Dec. 2, Attorney General Janet Reno announced she will, ``at the direction of the president, ... consider for humanitarian parole, on a case-by-case basis, Cuban children for whom long-term presence in the safe havens at Guantanamo or Panama would constitute an extraordinary hardship... .''
Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Commissioner Doris Meissner explained that while a precise standard for ``extraordinary hardship'' has not yet been established, the quality of life in the camps ``does not in itself constitute a hardship.''
The number of children from the camps paroled into the US has been negligible. To assist the attorney general and the INS commissioner in determining the appropriate standard for the release of Cuban children, I refer them to the pertinent sections of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This Convention became international law in September 1990 after 20 countries ratified it, including the US and Cuba:
* Article 2. Guarantees protection against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child's parents, legal guardians, or family members.
* Article 3. Establishes the ``best interest of the child'' as the standard of care to be exercised by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities, or legislative bodies.
* Article 10. Respects the right of the child and his or her parents to leave and reenter any country for the purpose of family reunification.
* Article 16. States that no child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy.
* Article 22. Ensures that a child who is a refugee or seeking refugee status, whether unaccompanied or accompanied by his or her parents, receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance (including family reunification).
* Article 24. Prescribes the right of children to the highest attainable standard of health.
* Article 27. Recognizes the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for physical, mental, moral, and social development.
* Article 29. Asserts that the educational development of the child shall be directed toward his or her preparation for responsible life in a free society.
* Article 37. States that no child shall be deprived of liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily.
* Article 39. Promotes physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of any form of neglect, abuse, or any other form of cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment ... in an environment that fosters the health, self-respect, and dignity of the child.
To negate the fundamental rights set forth in this Convention would be tantamount to notifying the world that the standards contained herein are too high.
If international law does not provide sufficient suasion, the Clinton administration would also be well-advised to consider the American Medical Association's definition of emotional or psychological abuse, which includes the following: ``physical and social isolation; ... deprivation; degradation and humiliation; ... ignoring, dismissing, or ridiculing the needs; lying, breaking promises, destroying trust, inter alia.''
Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops committee on Migration and Refugees, also expressed his concerns recently: ``No matter how benignly administered or planned, the separation of families in indefinite detention arrangements creates an environment that is not only detrimental to the human dignity of the individuals involved, but erodes the structures of [their] families.''
The detention of children is not only morally repugnant and contrary to international law, it is also an indignity to the honorable men and women of the US armed forces who have been given the thankless task of serving as jail wardens of these innocents.
The administration should instruct the attorney general to grant humanitarian parole immediately to all Cuban children detained at US military bases, as well as their family members as humanitarian needs require. Toward this goal, the Department of Justice ought to enlist the good offices and resources of religious and civic organizations, especially within the Cuban exile community.
It would behoove the president to recall a poem by American author Langston Hughes:
``Democracy will not come today, this year, or ever - through compromise and fear./ I tire so of hearing people say: Let things take their course - tomorrow is another day./ I do not need my freedom when I am dead. I cannot live on tomorrow's bread. Freedom is a strong seed, planted in a great need./ I live here too. I want freedom just like you....'' The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.