DETENTION of so many young people by South African authorities - at least 256 youths, perhaps up to 2,000 or more - is hardly compatible with Western notions of acceptable legal, if not moral, standards in the treatment of minors. Indeed, the detention policy is but one additional example of South Africa's continuing disregard for adherence to basic standards of human rights. South Africa, of course, is not the only society where young people increasingly find themselves on the firing line. In Israel, left-wing opposition figures and the press are understandably concerned about the rising violence - and use of force - involving Palestinian unrest on the West Bank. In recent days, two students and one youth have been shot to death by security forces. In Chile and parts of Central America, security forces often seem indifferent to age. Rodrigo Rojas de Nigri, who was set on fire and burned to death in Chile last July, was 19. In Vietnam, young people have often been detained or imprisoned without regard for Western standards of due process. Children, not just teen-agers, have been the targets of brutal violence by high authorities in parts of Africa in recent years - in Uganda under Idi Amin, and in the Central African Republic.
The issue is complicated by various definitions of what constitutes a ``child'' - or the coming of legal age. In parts of the Middle East and Asia, legal ``maturity'' may come as young as 13 or so.
In the West, legal maturity is usually associated with the late teen-age years or early 20s.
That said, the world community cannot help grieving that young persons so frequently find themselves the targets of their own governments. Political groups who deliberately use youths to further their causes, as may in part be the case in South Africa and the West Bank, also warrant stern criticism.
In the case of South Africa, however, which purports to be a society based on Western standards of civilization, there can be no justification for holding young people without regard for the most elemental legal rights.