The Progress of Nations: The Convention on the Rights of the Child

Justice for juveniles

22 of the 43 countries have trained law enforcement officials and judges in the principles of the Convention, improved juvenile correctional institutions, and/or no longer imprison children with adults.

"Children in the criminal justice system suffer the worst of both worlds. They are denied many of the rights and considerations extended to children in civil law, but lack the full rights of an adult in the criminal justice system," writes Barry Anderson, a lawyer who heads the youth crime section of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders in the United Kingdom.

In Rwanda, where the 1994 genocide and war claimed up to a million lives, the Convention has been a vital instrument in protecting the rights of children and youngsters under the age of 18 who are in the unusual and desperate situation of being accused of genocide and murder. Citing Convention clauses that protect children in conflict with the law, UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross are working with the Government to transfer most of the remaining 2,300 child prisoners still being held in overcrowded adult prisons. Some 200 have already been moved to UNICEF-run rehabilitation centres (February 1996). UNICEF also hired five lawyers to represent the children.

Less dramatically, the Convention is changing the landscape of juvenile justice in a number of other countries. At the suggestion of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, Viet Nam's Ministry of Justice, working with the Centre for Human Rights, UNICEF, NGOs and the National Committee for Protection and Care of Children, is reviewing the judicial process for juveniles, and training judges, policemen, and other legal professionals on how to apply the Convention. As part of reform in juvenile justice systems, several countries, including Bolivia, France, the Philippines, and Romania, have trained judges and law enforcement professionals on child rights.

The Spanish Constitutional Court, specifically citing article 40 of the Convention in a 1991 decision, established legal guarantees for children between 12 and 16 years of age who are accused of breaking the law. The Court called for a general overhaul of the juvenile justice system, which began the following year.

Photo: Laws are needed to protect young prisoners. ©

Also on the basis of the Convention, Bolivia, El Salvador, Mexico, and Peru have enacted new justice codes for children. Pakistan and Tunisia have also modified criminal laws regarding minors.

In 1993, France enshrined in law a new right of minors to express themselves in court in accordance with article 12 of the Convention. Judicial practice in Belgium is moving towards ensuring the same right.

In virtually every one of the 43 country reports so far reviewed, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has called for additional legal reform on the basis that national legislation relating to age set for criminal responsibility and to the administration of juvenile justice was generally incompatible with articles 37 and 40 of the Convention. In the case of Peru, the Committee observed that suspects between the ages of 15 and 17 who are accused of terrorist acts do not have access to the specialized courts, district attorney offices, and defence lawyers that are available to other juvenile offenders.

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