Panama should withdraw a proposal that would authorize lengthy prison terms and potentially the death penalty for children under 18.

Panama’s minister of justice, Arnulfo Escalona Ávila, suggested this week that Panama would withdraw from the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits capital punishment and life imprisonment without possibility of release for those under age 18 at the time of their crimes, in order to go forward with the proposal. If Panama did so, it would be the first country to withdraw as a party to the convention, which is the most widely ratified treaty in the world.

“It is unacceptable under any circumstances for Panama to remove fundamental protections from its children,” said Michael Bochenek, counsel to the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “What’s all the more repugnant is that the government is considering doing so as a matter of political expediency.”

Panama is the latest of several Central American countries to adopt or propose harsh measures, often known as the mano dura (firm hand) approach, to combat youth violence. In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, all of which have enacted anti-gang legislation in the last two years, such measures have given police overly broad powers to detain youths based on appearance or association and have exacerbated prison overcrowding. Earlier this year, the Committee on the Rights of the Child called on El Salvador to repeal its anti-gang legislation, saying that it led to police abuses.

Because most crimes are committed by adults, governments adopt mano dura initiatives more for their popular appeal than their likely impact on the crime rate. As Panama itself reported to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in December, “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 offenses or misdemeanors.”

International standards recognize that children are entitled to special care and protection because they are still developing physically, mentally and emotionally. These standards call on states to develop specialized laws, procedures, authorities and institutions for handling the cases of children in conflict with the law. In particular, the imprisonment of a child should always be a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.

Legislation to authorize the death penalty for juvenile offenders would violate 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.” It would also violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the American Convention on Human Rights.