Justice Lags for World's Juveniles

Basic rights trail those of adults; world standards fail to emerge

Last June, in the northern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, two 16-year-old street children escaped from a government-run youth center. Two days later they were found dead.

Throughout Latin America, police often cite vigilantism and gang warfare as the cause of such deaths, but have themselves been implicated - and in rare cases have admitted involvement - in such primitive forms of social control.

Though Honduran police call such charges unfounded, the June murders may have been the work of death squads with reported links to official security forces, says Bruce Harris, regional director for Central America at Covenant House, a shelter for homeless children.

Many nations violate the international juvenile justice standards to which they have subscribed. Honduras, like 190 other countries around the world, has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Even for those children brought before justice systems, worldwide problems ranging from torture, imprisonment with adults, and executions are drawing new international attention.

Not everyone agrees on the standards, either. The United States is one of two UN member states yet to ratify the child-rights convention, due in large part to the reluctance by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina to hold a hearing on the subject. Senator Helms has voiced concern over the lack of any language on abortion. Other critics have called the convention unenforceable.

The other abstaining country is Somalia.

"In some situations there is a lack of awareness of a child as a human being with basic rights," says Marta Santos Pais, director of UNICEF's division of evaluation, policy, and planning.

Juveniles in Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Singapore can face flogging, amputation, and execution for crimes such as theft and vagrancy. In Kenya, where one juvenile court serves the entire country, children are often locked up with adults, says Yoden Thonden of Human Rights Watch in New York.

"Children are taken to police stations and locked in cells, sometimes for weeks, without going to court," says Ms. Thonden, who has visited Kenyan youths in detention. "Sometimes they are beaten up and released."

There are no juvenile courts, judges, prosecutors or lawyers in the Russian Federation.

More than 2,000 minors are reportedly held under appalling conditions in Rwandan detention centers for their suspected role in genocide. There are no real precedents for dealing with such cases, though the UN maintains children have been involved in such crimes in Nicaragua, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

When juveniles are imprisoned with adults, even the hardest juvenile criminals can be victimized, says Elisa Massimino of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in Washington.

But it is the death penalty that ranks among the top concerns for advocates of children's rights. In the past 15 years, nine countries are known to have executed offenders for crimes committed as juveniles, according to UNICEF's 1997 Progress of Nations Report.

China allows 16-year-olds to receive suspended death sentences to be carried out when they turn 18. The US has sentenced 137 juveniles to death since 1973; nine were executed for crimes committed when they were under 18.

"The US practice appears to be going in the opposite direction of other countries," says Ms. Massimino. "The fact that we had a debate [in Congress] to give the death penalty to 16-year-olds is reprehensible. Granted, we have a serious problem with juvenile crime, but we must address the issue in a manner consistent with the specially protected status children have under international law."

Lawmakers and the public in the US are debating whether to try and sentence as adults those children who commit heinous crimes.

"The general belief is that rehabilitation doesn't work," says an aide to Utah Sen. Orin Hatch (R) of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "People taking the view that there are no bad kids, that kids [just] make mistakes, might not want to see changes in the law. But ... elected people and the people who elected them don't agree anymore."

The Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Act, now before Congress, would expand the range of crimes for which juveniles can be prosecuted as adults, lower barriers to contact between juvenile and adult prisoners, and ease restrictions on keeping juvenile records sealed.

As part of a report on the US justice system planned for next year, Amnesty International will examine juvenile justice standards in America, says Vienna Colucci, an expert in children's issues for the London-based organization. An estimated 75 percent of juvenile facilities in the US are said to lack adequate health care, security, and access to suicide-prevention programs, according to the US Department of Justice.

But some on the Senate Judiciary Committee say it's unfair to hold the US to the same standards as other countries. While it may appear that the US has more youths behind bars than behind desks - the US has an estimated 100,000 juveniles in jail - people must realize the US is more heterogeneous, therefore increasing the chances for cultural clashes, and has higher rates of divorce and illegitimacy, all of which are thought to contribute to juvenile crime, committee members say privately.

"Adult time for adult crime" reigns as the refrain of the day in the US, France, and other developed countries. And in 15 countries - including Bangladesh, India, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Burma (Myanmar), Nigeria, Sudan, Switzerland, and Thailand - a seven-year-old can be held responsible for criminal action.

Yet there have been improvements. "Human rights law is very new," says Jennifer Peasely, a San Francisco attorney specializing in children's rights. "Most treaties [are hard to enforce]. If countries violate them, we hope public and diplomatic pressure will force them to enforce the law. Economic pressure is also a big lever."

In some countries, the reform of juvenile-justice legislation is under way. Brazil, Colombia, and Peru have raised the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18. And, together with the Inter-American Institute for Children, UNICEF is helping some Latin American countries develop manuals to use as part of law-school curriculum.

In Belgium, Israel, and the Netherlands, youths can go to centers to find help for problems relating to their rights. In Ontario, Canada, probation officers run a project to help juveniles learn alternative responses to aggression.

"We cannot be so naive as to pretend that everybody is wonderful and nothing serious happens," says UNICEF's Ms. Pais, "but we can't put all children in the same basket. It's our responsibility to contribute to these evolving human beings in constructive ways."


* Minimum age at which children are subject to penal law in selected countries, as compiled by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF):

Country Age

Mexico 6 to12

India 7

Thailand 7

Kenya 8

Iran 9

England 10

Algeria 13

Japan 14

Argentina 16

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