Obscene but not heard

July 5, 1996

How can international law ensure children are not ill-treated? Chris Johnston reports

A 17-year-old boy is punched, kicked and thrown against a wall during interrogation. His captors pull on his ear so that stitches from an earlier injury are pulled out, causing bleeding. The boy's testicles are squeezed, causing bleeding from the penis, and a lit cigarette lighter is held underneath. A doctor who later examined the youth stated in an affidavit that he had been subjected to "severe ill-treatment".

It may not meet the legal definition, but some would say that the boy has been tortured. Most would think the incident took place in a nation where scant regard is paid to human rights and the concept of universal justice is little more than a dream. In fact, according to a 1992 report from the Children's Rights Project, part of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, it occurred in a police detention facility in Northern Ireland. Among the project's many examples of torture are children in China found tied to their beds and deliberately deprived of food and water: being starved to death.

As Geraldine Van Bueren, director of the Programme on International Rights of the Child, in the law department at the University of London, says, there is an "understandable disbelief" that torture can be inflicted on children and the international community is often slow to react when violations are exposed. Earlier this month, she organised the first international conference on protecting children from torture, at Queen Mary and Westfield College in East London. Over 50 delegates attended the International Symposium on the Protection of Children Against Torture, Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment and Punishment.

Because children are not accorded the same status and rights as adults, their mistreatment is more often overlooked. But this is changing, an improvement Van Bueren credits to the international effects of the United Nations. She describes the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by 187 members and nonmember states, as a rare success story for the UN.

For example, the Ugandan government earlier this decade invited the Save the Children Fund and other groups to help rewrite legislation affecting children. In violation of UN policy, children were being held in adult jails. With the government's consent, she says, representatives toured jails and secured the childrens' release. "Sometimes international law can work, but it has to be very specific and very focused. The trouble is, people look at it as a huge problem and they become disenchanted."

Yet, despite the almost universal ratification of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, many countries are still unable to ensure minimum standards in detention facilities. Piera Barzano, of the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division of the UN's Vienna office, told the conference that children in some countries are detained in conditions that harm their physical and mental development. "Insufficient sensitivity to the problems of children in conflict with the law, as well as the low priority sometimes accorded by the competent authorities to the implementation of the relevant provisions contained in international instruments, accounts for most suffering inflicted on children by justice systems worldwide," he says.

In 1994 the UN assigned Barzano to Mogadishu Central Prison, Somalia. One of his tasks was to identify detainees under 14 and organise their release, and improve conditions for those under 18. The overcrowding, malnutrition, poor hygiene, sexual abuse and lack of water means that deprivation of liberty is a punishment most inappropriate for juveniles, and the mental and physical health of most inmates suffered, says Barzano.

It seems the invisibility that afflicts children also affects the academics who research their rights and treatment. Reynolds says an academic can earn a reputation much more easily in other fields, such as women's studies. "It continues to be quite isolating to work on children, to be taken seriously, to secure the funds. Why should that be?" she asks.

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