THE CHILDREN'S RIGHTS PROJECT
Human Rights Watch established the Children's Rights Project in 1994 to work with the organization's regional divisions and other thematic projects to investigate abuses that uniquely affect children and for which unique campaigning initiatives are needed. The project was to deal with abuses carried out or tolerated by governments and also those perpetrated by armed opposition groups, such as the use of children as soldiers.
Human Rights Watch created the Children's Rights Project to fill the significant gap between child-oriented development and relief aid and traditional human rights works focus on the civil and political rights of adults, by devising effective research and advocacy strategies to work toward an end to the abuses that expressly affect the rights of children. Moreover, the project served as a link between international and national children's groups and the human rights community.
Children were particularly vulnerable to exploitation. In many countries, children as young as nine were forced to become soldiers, to kill or be killed, to be victims of atrocities or, sometimes, to take part in them. In other countries, children as young as five or six slaved as bonded laborers, their childhood mortgaged as they tried to pay off loans made to their families. In many countries, children were forced into prostitution, snatched by strangers, or sold by their families and even trafficked from one country to another while governments ignored their plight.
The Children's Rights Project worked to hold governments accountable for failing to respect and protect children's basic human rights, especially the rights to life and freedom from torture and ill-treatment.
The Work of the Children's Rights Project
During 1996 the Children's Rights Project, working with Human Rights Watch's regional divisions, researched and campaigned to bring to light the plight of bonded child laborers in India; police violence against street children in Bulgaria, India, Guatemala and Kenya; ill-treatment of children in correctional institutions in Bulgaria and in Georgia and Colorado in the United States; abuses of unaccompanied minors by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service; the effects of genocide on the children of Rwanda; and the torture of children by police in Turkey. The project also released a short report on child soldiers that pulled together the research of Human Rights Watch in eight countries over the past several years.
Child Slaves (Bonded Child Labor)
Bonded child labor took place when a family received an advance payment, sometimes as little as US$17, to turn over a child (sometimes as young as five or six years old) to an employer. Typically, the workplace was structured so that the child could never repay the advance. In some cases, bonded child labor was generational: many years earlier a family member was pledged to an employer and each successive generation was forced to provide a replacement worker.
In September the project released a report with Human Rights Watch/Asia, The Small Hands of Slavery: Bonded Child Labor in India. Based on a two-month fact-finding mission, the report described in detail the use of children who worked as bonded laborers in six industries in India: silk, beedis (hand-rolled cigarettes), leather, silver, gemstones and carpets. Our researchers interviewed more than one hundred bonded children (some as young as five) as well as lawyers, social workers, human rights activists, employers, and government officials. We concluded that, bonded child labor existed throughout India, and that conditions for these children are harsh, unhealthy and sometimes dangerous.
We worked closely with Indian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on strategies for change. At the donors' meeting of governments and intergovernmental organizations that provide aid for India, nine of the eighteen delegations stressed the need to abolish bonded child labor. The World Bank agreed to look into its funding of the silk industry, in which we revealed the existence of bonded child labor. World Bank President, James D. Wolfensonn, told press in India that funding for projects using child labor would be ended. The report received remarkable press coverage in India and abroad. Moreover, the Indian government and the World Bank agreed to establish pilot programs on child labor.
Killing and Abuse of Street Children by Police
Street children throughout the world continued to be reported killed or subjected to physical abuse by police. Moreover, they were frequently arbitrarily and illegally detained by police, sometimes for long periods of time.
Although much had been written about street children, almost all research and writing dealt with social and economic issuesChealth, poverty, AIDS, prostitution, glue-sniffing and other drug abuseCin isolation from the political conditions in which they arise. With the exception of the massive killings of children in Brazil and Colombia, often by police, on which we reported in 1994, little attention was paid to the plight of these children, and almost none to the constant physical and psychological abuse carried out against them by police. Our 1995 report, Children of Sudan: Slaves, Street Children, and Child Soldiers, described police abuse of street children. We continued this focus in 1996 with work on police violence against children in Bulgaria, India, Guatemala, Kenya, and Turkey.
In September the project released Children of Bulgaria: Police Violence and Arbitrary Confinement, which documented abuses committed against Roma (Gypsy) street children by police, on the street, upon arrest, and in detention. We found that police routinely harassed children and used physical force to make them leave areas of safety and shelter. Police also conducted warrantless roundups of street children upon suspicion of theft or for the alleged purpose of finding runaways. Street children were detained for many nights in police lockup cells in degrading and inhumane conditions, with no judicial review of the legality of their detention. They were often beaten by police upon arrest and while in detention, especially during interrogation sessions. Moreover, police did little to protect Roma children from attacks by Askinheads@ and other street gangs. Children refrained from complaining to police about such attacks, fearing ill-treatment.
In November we released India: Police Abuse and Killings of Street Children, based on a month-long investigation in four of India=s five largest cities: Bangalore, Bombay, Madras, and New Delhi. The report documented a consistent pattern of arbitrary and illegal detentions, torture, extortion, and even killing of street children for reasons as trivial as Amaking faces@ at police, or for no reason at all. Police were rarely, if ever, prosecuted, or even disciplined, for these acts. Comprehensive recommendations made in 1979 by India=s National Police Commission to eliminate police abuses were never implemented.
We called on the Indian government to implement the Police Commission=s reforms, to ratify the 1984 U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and to take specific steps to eliminate police abuse of street children. We worked with Indian NGOs to develop strategies to further these aims.
In September we sent fact-finding missions to Kenya and Guatemala to investigate the treatment of street children by police in those countries.
In October we sent a mission to Turkey to investigate police torture of children during interrogation, a subject addressed in a 1990 Human Rights Watch report.
Conditions in Children's Institutions
International standards provided both broad and specific protections for children in the justice system. These included the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 40), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Articles 10, 14), the Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, the U.N. Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, the U.N. Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency, the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (Articles 16, 17).
Children in countries throughout the world were confined in dreadful conditions in detention or correctional facilities (training or reform schools), and sometimes in adult prisons. The public was generally not concerned about these conditions, perceiving these children as violent criminals (although studies in the U.S.,for example, indicate that only between 10 and 15 percent of incarcerated juveniles had committed violent acts). These children were powerless to change their treatment and, generally, had no one to speak for them.
In 1995 the Children's Rights Project released United States: Children in Confinement in Louisiana. The report described conditions in all four secure correctional institutions for children in the state, based on interviews with more than sixty children, as well as state officials, judges, lawyers, social workers and others concerned with juvenile justice. We found pervasive brutality by guards, overuse of isolation and the misuse of restraintsChandcuffs and, on occasion, shackles--in violations of international standards. In a quite remarkable success for the project, the U.S. Department of Justice opened a formal investigation into the institutions in June 1996, based on our report.
We followed the Louisiana report with a report on correctional institutions in the state of Georgia. Unfortunately, Georgia officials refused permission for us to visit the facilities or talk with the children. However, in Georgia in March we interviewed lawyers, social workers, judges, children, and others with experience in the correctional institutions. We found that children were confined in shamefully overcrowded, squalid and unsanitary institutions with inadequate educational and exercise programs. As a result of overcrowding, these institutions were dangerous places for weaker children who were preyed upon by older, tougher juvenile offenders. In some facilities, four boys shared housing space intended for one. Moreover, we found disciplinary measures that were inappropriate and excessive. These included an overuse of confinement in isolation cells (sixty-three days in one case) and locking children in their cells for long periods of time. Moreover, four-point restraints, with children bound to a bed by wrists and ankles to a bed for long periods of time, were used as disciplinary measures, as well as to restrain children who were believed to be suicidal. Our report was part of the Human Rights Watch publication, Modern Capital of Human Rights? Abuses
in the State of Georgia, which was released in July.
The U.S. Department of Justice began a "pre-investigation" to determine whether there was sufficient information in our Georgia report to warrant opening a formal investigation into the children=s institutions. Also, we were working with the American Bar Association's Juvenile Justice Center to try to effect changes in the institutions.
During 1996 we also carried out a fact-finding mission to Colorado to look into conditions in children's institutions there.
In 1996 we investigated the treatment of unaccompanied children by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Arizona, California, and Illinois. The investigation included children=s access to lawyers and interpreters, their treatment by guards, and their placement in juvenile correctional facilities.
In our report on the children of Bulgaria we examined the procedures by which children as young as eight were confined for up to three years, without due process, to correctional institutions known as Labor Education Schools, for minor offenses and for status offenses, that is, offences that would not be crimes if committed by adults, e.g. truancy, running away from home and Aincorrigibility@. Conditions in these schools were harsh and impeded, rather than improved, a child's wellbeing. Children told us of hunger, cold, and extreme and summary disciplinary measures, including severe beatings by staff members, reductions in diet, and confinement in an "isolator."
We presented our findings to Bulagarian authorities and, to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, in October, with detailed recommendations for reform of the Bulgarian juvenile justice system and the conditions of confinement for children whom courts have found to be delinquent.
The 1996 Kenya and Guatemala missions also looked into the procedures by which children were sentenced to institutions and the conditions there.
Children under eighteenCoften as young as nine or ten--were used as soldiers around the world in international, and, more often, internal armed conflicts. These children were often equipped with fully-automatic assault rifles. They killed others (often children) and were themselves killed or grievously wounded. They witnessed and sometimes took part in atrocities. They were deprived of education and a normal childhood. Rehabilitating them and reintegrating them into a peaceful society once hostilities ended was an immense and difficult problem.
The Children's Rights Project had issued three detailed reports on the use of children as soldiers: Easy Prey: Child Soldiers in Liberia (1994), The Lost Boys: Child Soldiers and Unaccompanied Boys in Southern Sudan (1994), and Children of Sudan: Slaves, Street Children, and Child Soldiers (1995). In 1996 we continued our advocacy with a short report, Children in Combat, that summarized our information on the use of child soldiers in eight countries around the world.
We continued our advocacy efforts on several fronts. First, we took part in a Belfast conference on children in low-level conflicts which was part of a U.N. Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. We also provided information for the study, and later took part in editing and providing suggestions that were incorporated in the final report, which was presented to the U.N. General Assembly in November 1996. We worked with a coalition of children's and other organizations to maximize the impact of the report.
We provided information and carried out advocacy efforts in connection with the U.N. Working Group on raising the minimum age for participation in armed conflict. That group, set up by the Commission on Human Rights, met twice to draft an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that would raise the minimum age from fifteen to eighteen. The U.S. government, which had not ratified the convention, played a strongly negative role during the drafting of the optional protocol, resisting raising the age to eighteen and insisting that the protocol not take effect until ratified by twenty-five countries (in other human rights documents the number needed has been ten). We worked unsuccessfully to persuade U.S. officials otherwise.
In an effort to examine the impact on children of the Rwanda genocide, we sent a mission there in 1996. The mission focused on the roles played by children during the slaughter, the treatment of children by the former government=s forces which carried out the genocide and by the forces of the current government, the conditions in which children were held afterwards, and discrimination suffered by imprisoned children because of their ethnicity.
Orphans in China
In January Human Rights Watch/Asia released Death by Default: A Policy of Fatal Neglect in China's Orphanages, which described the starvation, disease, and unnatural deaths of thousands of abandoned orphans in state custodial institutions. The Children's Rights Project played an active advocacy role in bringing these findings to NGOs and intergovernmental organizations like UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO). In an effort to influence UNICEF programs in Chinese orphanages, we arranged a meeting for Dr. Zhang Shuyun, who had smuggled out of China vital information on the Shanghai orphanage, and Ai Ming, an orphan who spent the first twenty years of his life in that orphanage, with UNICEF officials. We also met with the WHO in Geneva concerning our findings and recommendations and to persuade the WHO to take action on the plight of the orphans. With Physicians for Human Rights, we arranged for Dr. Zhang a meeting with physicians to enlist their help in influencing Chinese officials to reform orphanage practices. We also prepared a report for the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, discussed below.
This year the Children=s Rights Project honored as a human rights monitor Krassimir Kanev, the chairperson of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee(BHC), a Bulgarian nongovernmental organization founded in 1992. The BHC issued a detailed study of Labor Education Schools (juvenile correctional facilities) in 1996, and was active in protecting children=s rights in other areas.
Work with the United Nations
During 1996 the Children's Rights Project conducted advocacy efforts with the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization.
The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, the treaty body charged with monitoring compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, was a forceful and effective group that welcomed input from NGOs. The committee received reports from states signatories to the convention, questioned officials closely on the state's compliance, and made cogent recommendations for change. In addition, the committee persuaded the U.N. General Assembly to create a special study on the impact of armed conflict on children. It also persuaded the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to establish the working group on the minimum age for armed conflict.
In the last two years, the Children's Rights Project submitted to the committee reports on the treatment of children in the justice systems in Jamaica, Northern Ireland, and the state of Louisiana (the committee agreed to receive that report although the U.S. was not yet a party to the convention). In many cases the committee urged the offending government to take the steps we had recommended.
In February 1996 the project presented both written and oral reports to the committee concerning the plight of orphans in China, mentioned earlier. The committee strongly criticized the Chinese government for the deaths we disclosed, and used many of the suggestions and recommendations that we had made to the committee.
In June the Asia division of Human Rights Watch presented written and oral reports to the committee on the status of children in Burma.
In October the project presented written and oral reports to the committee on police violence and arbitrary confinement of street children in Bulgaria, and an oral report on the plight of Kurdish children in Iraq, based on a report released by our Middle East division.
A written statement was also submitted to the Commission on Human Rights on the use of children as soldiers in armed conflicts, calling for the convening of a third session of the Working Group on raising the minimum age for participation in armed conflict. The project sent a letter to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees(UNHCR) urging the it to take measures to prevent the conscription of underage boys from UNHCR refugee camps by the Sudan People=s Liberation Army. The project learned that such conscription continued as recently as March and April of 1996.
The project called on the U.N. special rapporteur on torture and the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to investigate police violence against street children and arbitrary detention in Bulgaria and India. We asked the U.N. Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, UNICEF, the International Labour Organization(ILO), and the WHO to press the Indian government to observe national and international laws forbidding bonded child labor.
Role of the United States
One hundred eighty-seven countries had ratified or acceded to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Only five countries had not done so: Cook Islands, Somalia, United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, and the United States. The Clinton administration signed the convention in February 1995, but did not forward the convention to the Senate for ratification. Jesse Helms, the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, had described the convention as a "pernicious document" and had vowed not to hold hearings on its ratification. Human Rights Watch supported U.S. ratification of the convention.
In February 1996 the U.S. continued to be a major stumbling block in the meetings of the Working Group to Draft an Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child on Participation of Children in Armed Conflict, that sought to raise the permissible age for taking part in armed conflict from fifteen to eighteen. The U.S. permitted seventeen-year-olds to enlist in the armed forces with parental permission, and was opposed to raising the minimum age to eighteen. The working group was to meet again in 1997.
On a more positive note, in June the U.S. Department of Labor again held hearings on child labor, having issued two reports on the use of child labor and bonded child labor in the manufacture of products exported to the United States. In June Labor Secretary Robert Reich recommended four steps for ILO members to take on child labor: increase global public awareness of the problem;
insist that international financial institutions such as the World Bank fully integrate the child labor issue into their decisions;
adopt additional international laws against exploitative child labor; and
provide resources for education and law enforcement