Real justice for juvenilesFortunately, we have a useful tool for developing our juvenile justice systems: the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It establishes broad rights for children, and ratifying countries pledge to reform their laws to fulfil those rights. Among its many benefits, the Convention has served as a wake-up call to countries that have not adequately addressed the issue of juvenile justice.
The Convention, which defines children as people below the age of 18,
lays out specific guidelines for the treatment of any child who runs afoul
of the law. Among its provisions, children are presumed innocent until
proved guilty and are entitled to appropriate legal counsel and fair resolution
without delay. It stipulates that children accused of infringing the penal
code must be treated in a way that promotes their sense of dignity and
takes into account the desirability of assuming a constructive role in
society. It prohibits cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, including
capital punishment or life imprisonment without possibility of release.
It stresses that detention should only be a measure of last resort and
only for the shortest period of time.
The underlying message is clear: The best interests of the child must be at the heart of any juvenile justice process. For those young people found guilty of criminal behaviour, the emphasis should be on reintegration, not retribution.
Along with the Convention and the Riyadh Guidelines (adopted in 1990), we have guidance from the UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty (1990) and the Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (1985), also known as the ‘Beijing Rules’. The Beijing Rules provide guidance to member States in developing measures to protect the human rights of children in conflict with the law. Underscoring once again the importance of placing the child's best interests at centre stage, the first of the Fundamental Perspectives of these rules is: “Member States shall seek, in conformity with their respective general interests, to further the well-being of the juvenile and her or his family.”