Human Rights Watch writes to Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso to express concern at proposed legislation that would authorize sentences of life imprisonment and the death penalty for minors.

International standards recognize that children, a particularly vulnerable group, are entitled to special care and protection because they are still developing physically, mentally, and emotionally. With this in mind, international human rights documents strongly encourage states to develop specialized laws, procedures, authorities, and institutions for handling the cases of children in conflict with the law. In particular, states are required to offer a range of alternatives to institutionalization; the imprisonment of a child should always be a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time. By authorizing lengthy prison terms, the proposed legislation would essentially permit children to be treated as adults, depriving them of the protections contemplated by these international standards.

In addition, any legislation to authorize the death penalty for juvenile offenders would contravene article 37(a) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides that “[n]either capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offenses committed by persons below 18 years of age.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights also forbid the imposition on the death penalty for crimes committed by persons under the age of eighteen. None of these international treaties allow for derogation from this fundamental norm.

Measures such as these that purport to combat violent youth crime are an easy political sell, but they ignore studies showing that adults, not youths, are responsible for over 80 percent of violent acts. In fact, your government reported to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in December 2003: “Statistics compiled over a 10-year period show that juvenile delinquency is not a major problem, because the majority of crimes are
committed by adults. Juveniles are more frequently implicated in crimes against property and minor offences or misdemeanours.” Other studies show similar findings elsewhere in the region.

Moreover, the experience of other countries strongly suggests that harsh sentences are unlikely to have any effect on youth crime. In the United States, for example, a 2001 Building Blocks for Youth study compared youth detention and crime in the District of Columbia with the neighboring jurisdiction of Maryland. The District of Columbia substantially reduced the number of youths in detention in the 1990s, while Maryland increased the number of youths in detention during this period. Violent crime by youths fell in both jurisdictions, but the District of Columbia saw a decrease in juvenile violent crime that was three times that of Maryland’s.

Findings such as those in the Building Blocks study are not surprising. Adolescents frequently act impulsively, without the judgment and restraint of an adult. Because they do not have the experience and maturity that we expect of an adult, they are unlikely, before they act, to be deterred by the possibility that they may one day receive a severe sentence. In recognition of this reality, international juvenile justice standards focus on rehabilitation, rather than deterrence, as the principal aim of the juvenile justice system.

Indeed, Panamá’s representatives to the Committee on the Rights of the Child echoed this view. The records of the committee session on May 19, 2004, note that the five representatives told the committee that “[t]he problem of children in conflict with the law was complex; its solution resided not only in the enactment of legislation but also in the design of preventive and early intervention measures.”

Nevertheless, press reports this week cite statements by Minister of Justice Arnulfo Escalona indicating that your government now is considering denouncing the Convention on the Rights of the Child rather than adopt a legislative response that conforms to international guarantees of due process and protections against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment and arbitrary deprivation of liberty. Such a step is unacceptable.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified human rights treaty, is a cornerstone in the system of protection of children’s human rights. Its near-universal acceptance reflects the fundamental nature of the guarantees it upholds. Panama’s denunciation of the convention would call into question its commitment to ensure the human rights of its citizens. The withdrawal of these guarantees would be a serious setback for the nation and the region, and it would do a grave disservice to Panama’s children.

We urge you to withdraw your support for the proposed legislation and reaffirm your commitment to the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international human rights instruments.

Sincerely,

Michael Bochenek
Counsel
Children’s Rights Division