The detention of children at Guantanamo poses grave risks to their well-being, Human Rights Watch said today, in response to the U.S. military's acknowledgement that at least three children, ages 13 to 15, are among the detainees at Guantanamo. In a letter sent today to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Human Rights Watch urged the United States to strictly observe international children's rights standards regarding the detainees.
"Secretary Rumsfeld called those detained at Guantanamo the 'worst of the worst,'" said Jo Becker, child rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "It's hard to believe that a 13 year old could fit that category."
A Pentagon spokesperson has said that the children are being questioned to obtain possible intelligence.
"Simply providing the United States with military intelligence does not justify the detention of children," said Becker. "If these children have committed offenses, they should be provided with counsel and adjudicated in accordance with standards of juvenile justice. Otherwise, they should be released immediately."
The conditions at Guantanamo pose particularly serious risks to children. Child detainees should never be held together with adults, but because there are so few children, they are held for long periods in virtual isolation. They have no access to lawyers, limited or no access to their families, and are subject to interrogation.
Human Rights Watch raised a particular concern that isolated conditions are especially conducive to suicidal behavior. Studies have shown that children held in adult jails, where they are more likely to be held in separate, secure housing and spend substantial periods of time in isolation, are up to eight times more likely to commit suicide than those held in facilities specifically for juveniles.
"There have already been as many as 25 suicide attempts reported at Guantanamo," said Becker. "Children at Guantanamo are at even higher risk, particularly because of their relative isolation."
Human Rights Watch noted that the children held at Guantanamo may have participated in armed conflict in Afghanistan as child soldiers with the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.
Under international humanitarian law, under no circumstances should children under the age of 15 be recruited or used to participate in hostilities. A treaty ratified by the United States in December 2002 establishes a higher age of 18 as the minimum age for any compulsory recruitment or participation in armed conflict. It also obliges governments to assist in the demobilization and rehabilitation of former child soldiers.
"The use of children as soldiers is an appalling abuse," said Becker. "These children are entitled to rehabilitation, not indefinite detention.