Children and Civilization

WHEN forensic experts uncovered a mass grave in El Mozote, El Salvador, this month, they found the skeletons of 38 children. The tiny victims were among 794 villagers massacred in 1981 during the country's civil war.

The discovery made headlines just as Amnesty International was releasing a report on human-rights violations against children and young people. Together the two events serve as grim reminders that even the youngest, most vulnerable citizens of the world get caught in political unrest.

"Innocence Betrayed," the Amnesty International report, documents cases in which children and young people have been tortured, killed, or unjustly imprisoned by police and government military forces. Some children are used as pawns "to force surrender or confession from their parents," according to the London-based group. Others are targeted for activities such as student activism.

In Brazil, thousands of street children have been tortured or murdered, or have "disappeared" at the hands of death squads often run by police officers. A 16-year-old girl in Turkey died after torture in police custody this year. And in Mexico, where such torture is common, many victims are young.

An Amnesty International spokesman admits it is easy to be "long on the diagnosis, short on the prescription" for solving these problems. But by identifying specific atrocities against children, the report serves as a first step in putting international pressure on governments known to ignore, condone, or even encourage such abuse.

As one example of the value of protest, the report cites a case in India. After 11 children and teenagers from the slums of Delhi were imprisoned overnight on suspicion of theft and tortured, two civil-liberties organizations publicized their plight. Four thousand people gathered around the police station, and the children were freed.

This simple, effective refusal to countenance another injustice against children must encourage all who bear witness to it. For beyond all variations of social custom, beyond all political ideology, the decent, nurturing treatment of children remains the test case of conscience that allows ordinary human beings to say: We are not barbarians.

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