Don's diary

July 30, 1999


It is not every day that a Swiss mountain-resort hotel becomes home to Iranian ayatollahs, mullahs and members of the judiciary and prison services. Heads turn as the ayatollahs and mullahs arrive. To begin to get to know each other, the United Nations delegation (of which I am a member) and the Iranian delegation dine together. We are not helped by the Iranians being served a different meal. We refuse the wine and request that in future we are all served the same food.


Most of the Iranian delegates are male, most of the UN delegation female. We must not shake hands with the men on being introduced. We are meeting in Sion, Switzerland, to discuss child criminal justice, which the Iranians are considering reforming to bring it into line with international human rights standards. There is much discussion about the age of criminal responsibility. Although the age is higher in Iran than in the United Kingdom for boys, it is much lower for girls. International law requires both genders to be treated equally, but Iran argues that girls mature much earlier than boys and the law has to reflect this. In the evening we drive into the mountains for a typical Valaisanne evening. Having ensured that the menu is acceptable it becomes obvious that no one thought to check the paintings. The Iranian delegation walk in, look up, and announce they will be going for a walk for ten minutes. The painting of a half-naked woman is quickly removed.


I have been asked to speak on Iran and the international standards of child criminal justice. I try to link some of the newer developments to older Iranian traditions. The Iranians are receptive and eager to talk about their juvenile court in Tehran. I also raise the issues of the death penalty and whipping, which are greeted with less enthusiasm. Iran is considering adopting, as a general principle, that a child's punishment should be half that for an adult, but this, although welcome, would not eradicate either the death penalty or the whipping of those under 18.


The human rights of children in prison and alternatives to prison are discussed. In the evening we visit a closed offenders institution for Swiss boys. Closed institutions in Europe and America always have the same atmosphere - lifeless and stale.


The temperature is now in the 80s, but we dare not remove our jackets in case we cause offence. We are taken to a choral evening in a tiny church in the mountains. The youth chorus is recovering from drug and alcohol problems. The chorus's recent CD made platinum.


The last day is spent jointly formulating recommendations for the government to implement.

Geraldine Van Bueren is professor of international human rights law at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

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