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The Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project was created in April 1994 to work with Human Rights Watch's regional divisions and projects to monitor and campaign patterns and problems of human rights abuse that uniquely affect children_and for which unique campaigning initiatives are required.

The project came into being from a recognition that children are victims of patterns of human rights abuses that are often primarily consequences of their status as children. These abuses pose special challenges for human rights research and campaigning that are not met by the conventional work either of traditional children's welfare groups or traditional human rights organizations. The Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project was devised to fill a special niche in global campaigning for children by applying an effective research and action methodology to urgent rights matters that are uniquely children's issues.

Children are particularly vulnerable to abuse; they are neither as physically or as psychologically mature as adults. This vulnerability means that treatment that would be harsh to adults, as in a situation of imprisonment, can represent life-threatening ill-treatment to a child_or a life-stunting denial of a child's opportunity to develop physically, emotionally and intellectually. The deliberate killing of children, too, whether through a process of law in which a child is executed as if an adult, or through extrajudicial execution by state agents or with state acquiescence, poses further challenges. The Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project seeks to meet these challenges by researching the facts of abuse and campaigning for the vulnerability of children always to be taken into account.

Children, particularly children on their own, are also more vulnerable to exploitation then adults. Children are not small adults, but may be forced to play adult roles_as bonded laborers, as child soldiers, or as prostitute chattels to which authorities turn a blind eye. The vulnerability_and availability_of children may be taken advantage of in ways that limit their freedom and exploit their labor or their bodies in ways that endanger their futures and their very lives. The Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project focused on situations in which agents of authority are party to such situations.

When children are seen by government at any level to represent a social or political threat, their condition of vulnerability is far greater than that of adults who are similarly marginalized. Children may in fact be petty thieves, particularly if forced to live in the streets with no one to care for them. Children may also be drawn into clandestine guerrilla movements; children are the primary recruits of some revolutionary organizations. Children, if suspected of petty theft or as collaborators of a political underground, may be seen as "disposable." Their vulnerability is exacerbated when they lack the protection of a family, or when their families as a whole may be under threat. When adults are regularly the victims of extrajudicial execution, "disappearance," and torture, children cut off from the remedies and resources of adult society may present particularly easy targets for elimination.

The Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project was established to deal with cases in which abuses occur because special attention is not given to the particular needs of children, as in the incarceration of children with adults or in otherwise inadequate custodial conditions; cases in which children are subjected to torture or forms of corporal punishment while in custody; and situations in which children are used and abused, by the state or a de facto authority or with their acquiescence, as child soldiers, as bonded laborers, or in another capacity in which the child is forced into servitude at the expense of his or her childhood.

International law has recognized that children should be treated differently from adults because they are especially susceptible to abuse and often lack the physical or mental maturity to protect themselves. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, in effect since 1990, provides a powerful set of safeguards for children. Unfortunately, many of the 167 states that have ratified or acceded to the convention and agreed to abide by its provisions have failed to alter long-standing patterns of abuse. Safeguards for children incorporated in other international human rights agreements and standards are ignored as well.

The Work of the

Children's Rights Project

During 1994 the Human Right's Watch Children's Rights Project, working with the organization's regional divisions, carried out three fact-finding missions: to Liberia to investigate the use of children as soldiers; to Jamaica to investigate the conditions of children detained with adults in adult police lockups; and to Northern Ireland to investigate the abuse of children by security forces and armed opposition groups. In addition, the Children's Rights Project cooperated with other Human Rights Watch divisions in several missions and reports. It invited Peter Volmink, a South African lawyer and assessor in the criminal courts and regional director of Street Law (an organization which educates children and adults of their human rights), to be honored for his work at Human Right Watch's obsevance of Human Rights Day in December.

Child Soldiers

International law currently sets at fifteen the minimum age at which children can take part in armed conflict (Protocols I and II to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child). In many countries around the world children under fifteen are used as fighters in violation of these conventions. Tens of thousands of these children, some as young as eight or nine, are forcibly recruited to fight in savage conflicts or join rebel groups because the children believe there is no other way to survive. These young children are sometimes used as fighters by governments, but more often by armed opposition groups.

In July, Human Rights Watch adopted a policy opposing the participation of children under the age of eighteen in armed conflict. That policy grew out of our work in Liberia and Sudan.


With Human Rights Watch/Africa, the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project carried out a fact-finding mission to Liberia in April to look into the use of children as soldiers in the civil war that has been raging since 1990. We interviewed thirty-one former child soldiers, child care and social workers, lawyers, human rights activists, and U.N. and UNICEF personnel, as well as officials from the transitional government and warring factions.

Although international law forbids the use of children under fifteen as soldiers, we found that thousands of children under fifteen, many as young as ten years old, were used by rebel forces, including the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and the United Liberian Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO). Thousands of children were killed or wounded; others were forcibly conscripted by warring factions_separated from their families against their wills. But most joined the rebel forces "voluntarily"_in order to survive, or to avenge parents' deaths, or to provide food for their families. Some had seen their parents killed_sometimes beheaded before their eyes. Children were forced to take part in the killing, wounding or rape of civilians. Reintegrating these children into their own communities is a task of immense difficulty.

A report that detailed our conclusions and recommendations, Easy Prey: Child Soldiers in Liberia, was released in September. BBC Focus on Africa, BBC World Service, National Public Radio, and Voice of America ran radio interviews, and the report received wide press coverage.


In June 1994 Human Rights Watch/Africa released a major report entitled Sudan: Civilian Devastation. (See Human Rights Watch/Africa section.) One chapter dealt with child soldiers and other vulnerable children. It described the situation of many thousands of children in Sudan who had been taken by rebel groups to be used as soldiers or held in reserve as possible fighters in the eleven-year conflict.

Boys as young as eleven were recruited to fight. No one knows the exact number of children who were forced to fight, but the number is in the thousands. Hundreds of these children have been killed or grievously wounded. Others have died of starvation or disease. Many have been subjected to severe beatings and all have lived in deplorable conditions. Rehabilitating these children and reintegrating them into their communities is an immense and daunting task.

In November, the Children's Rights Project and Human Rights Watch/Africa released a report based on the June 1994 report, entitled The Lost Boys: Child Soldiers and Unaccompanied Boys in Southern Sudan. The report focuses on the use of child soldiers by the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The report was intended to maximize the impact of Human Rights Watch's findings on the special vulnerability and plight of children in the Sudan by directing attention specifically to their exploitation in the conflict. The report will reach an audience with particular concern for the defense of children and be of use in working with international groups on the issue.

The reports on Liberia and Sudan served as the beginning of our effort to campaign to end the use of children as soldiers. We will work with international children's organizations and others to focus international attention on the issue. A United Nations task force has begun work on a two-year study of children in armed conflict, with which we will cooperate.

In addition, a U.N. Working Group began meeting in October to draft an optional protocol to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child that would raise the minimum age at which children can take part in armed conflict from fifteen to eighteen. The Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project has provided information to that working group, including our reports on Liberia and Sudan. We are working with a large coalition of NGOs pressing the international community to take steps to raise the minimum age.

Children in the

Criminal Justice System

In the past, the regional divisions of Human Rights Watch have issued reports on abuses of children in the criminal justice system: "Nothing Unusual": The Torture of Children in Turkey (Helsinki Watch, 1992), and Children in Northern Ireland: Abused by Security Forces and Paramilitaries (Helsinki Watch, 1992). The Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project is building on those efforts, focusing on ways in which children are particularly vulnerable to abuse.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Justice, the U.N. Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, the U.N. Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency, and the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners provide both broad and specific protections for children. Among other provisions, these agreements and standards require that detained or imprisoned children be held separately from adults, that incarceration be used only as a last resort, and that children be detained in humane conditions. They also forbid the use of torture, inhumane and degrading treatment of children by security forces. They recognize that children are not just "small adults," but require special consideration because of their physical and mental immaturity.


In June 1994, the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project, in conjunction with Human Rights Watch/Americas, conducted a mission to Jamaica to investigate allegations of the illegal detention of children in police lockups with adults. We found that children as young as nine and ten were detained in life-threatening conditions in police lockups, sometimes in the same cells as adults charged with serious crimes. Our conversations with more than forty children detained in lockups revealed that the criminal justice system in Jamaica falls far short of international standards as they concern children. These findings were submitted in a report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child to be used when the committee conducts hearings in January 1995 on Jamaica's compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. We testified at hearings of the committee in Geneva in October 1994 to highlight Jamaica's ill-treatment of children in lockups. Our findings and recommendations were also released in a report in October 1994, Jamaica: Children Improperly Detained in Police Lockups. The report was distributed to Jamaican authorities, the international community, the media and the public. It was widely covered by Jamaican media.

Children detained in lockups told the Children's Rights Project that they had been held for long periods in police cells. One fifteen-year-old boy stated that he had been detained in Halfway Tree Lockup for over forty-two days. The children_some in cells with adults_were held in appalling conditions. Children reported that they were subjected to physical and verbal abuse by police and sometimes denied medical attention. A boy who said that he suffers from severe asthma told us that "police licked [beat] me when I was arrested. I asked to see a doctor, but they won't let me. My chest hurts and I am wheezing." Other children showed us visible wounds from attacks. A lawyer who represents children told us that "police often terrorize children into submission." For many children in Jamaica, the laws that protect them in theory are disregarded in practice.

At Halfway Tree Lockup, inmates urinated into the hallway and raw sewage seeped directly into the sleeping area of the children's cell. Sanitation facilities at the lockups did not function and overflowed with fecal matter. The lockups did not provide children with bedding or blankets and in some lockups there were no beds. Insect infestation was rampant. Children at both lockups visited told us that the food was usually spoiled or inadequate and that requests for drinking water were often ignored. Most children had not been permitted to bathe since they were brought to the lockups. As a child's lawyer told us, "Jamaica has a facade of a juvenile justice system, but in practice, children are treated like criminals."

The Jamaican government allowed the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project full access to the lockups, but its response to recommendations concerning the detention of children in lockups was half-hearted. During our mission to Jamaica, the police commissioner acknowledged that children are often detained in lockups in violation of international and Jamaican law, but told us that "there is nothing the police can do." In correspondence following the visit, the police commissioner's office argued that children are detained in lockups because facilities designed to detain children are overcrowded. However, the Jamaican authorities could take immediate steps to improve the situation of children held in the squalor of the lockups. Many of these remedies, such as the provision of functioning sanitation facilities, clean cells, and edible food, could be accomplished at little or no expense. For Jamaica to ignore the most basic rights of its youngest citizens is shameful. A few of the children we met in the lockups were subsequently released on bail, but generally the conditions in the lockups remained the same.

The strategy used by the Children's Right Project with Jamaica was to publicize the fact that children were detained with adults in dreadful conditions in violation of international and Jamaican law, to pressure the Jamaican government to end these abuses, and to collaborate with local groups like the Jamaican Coalition on the Rights of the Child. After our visit, the coalition took on the plight of children in lockups and mobilized further actions to ensure that the situation was addressed with urgency. With the help of the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project, the coalition produced and distributed flyers to children and parents that explained children's rights when arrested. They also met with government authorities responsible for detained children and assisted in the distribution of the Children's Rights Project report. In October, the coalition held a youth conference at which children discussed juvenile justice and showed a film on children's rights that was provided by the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival.

Internationally, our strategy was to provide information to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child for its use in questioning the government of Jamaica in January 1995 concerning conditions for children in Jamaica, and to work with international children's groups toward remedying the situation.

Northern Ireland

In June the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project, in cooperation with Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, conducted a fact-finding mission to Northern Ireland. The mission interviewed children, parents, lawyers, human rights activists, religious leaders, government officials, and others.

Children under eighteen have suffered greatly as a result of the conflict in Northern Ireland; of the more than 3,100 people who have lost their lives since 1969 in political violence connected with "The Troubles," many have been children. Moreover, children are caught between two powerful forces, the government's security forces and the paramilitary groups_the "republicans," notably the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which is predominantly Catholic and fought for a united Ireland, and the "loyalists," primarily the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), who support continued union with the United Kingdom and are overwhelmingly Protestant. Children are the particular focus of abuse by both sides of the paramilitary divide, and suffer disproportionately abusive treatment by the security forces that puts older children in the same class as adults.

We found that children below the age of eighteen in Northern Ireland were improperly detained in adult interrogation and remand centers; were physically and mentally abused in Castlereagh Holding Centre; were tricked, threatened and pressured by police during interrogation; were denied immediate access to solicitors; were not brought promptly before judges; were deprived of the right to silence; were liable to conviction on the basis of confessions obtained by improper means; and were physically and mentally abused and harassed on the street by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the RUC, the Northern Ireland police) and by the British Army. The abuse was not confined to Catholic children; Protestant children were abused as well.

Paramilitary groups, both loyalist and republican, victimized children and young people in what they characterized as alternatives to the criminal justice sytem in their respective communities. Young people accused of such crimes as "joyriding" in stolen cars are subjected to arbitrary, cruel and life-threatening punishments including "kneecappings" (shootings), severe beatings, and expulsions from Northern Ireland.

The Children's Rights Project submitted a report on our findings to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, and addressed the committee in Geneva in October to present our conclusions and recommendations. Our information will be used by the committee to question the government of the United Kingdom formally in January 1995.

Our strategy in Northern Ireland is to document and publicize the abuses against children committed by both security forces and paramilitary groups, to work with local human rights groups to effect change, and to work with the Northern Ireland Office to attempt to persuade officials to end the offenses. In the past, the British government has responded somewhat to international pressure, taking steps, for example, to curb physical abuse of children during interrogation. However, the government has not put into place our recommendations, such as allowing children immediate access to solicitors, that would help to end such abuses permanently.

After our June mission, we looked into the situation of children since the declaring of a cease-fire by republicans and loyalists and found that the abuses continue. We have continued to receive allegations of mistreatment of children during interrogation, of street harassment of children by police (in some areas, residents allege that such harassment has worsened), and of "punishment" beatings of children by both republican and loyalist paramilitary groups.

In December we issued with Human Rights Watch/Helsinki a report entitled After the Cease-fire: Children's Rights Still Violated in Northern Ireland.


In November, a report entitled Generation Under Fire: Children and Violence in Colombia was released by Human Rights Watch/Americas and the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project. The fact-finding mission on which the report is based was conducted by Human Rights Watch/Americas in July.

The report discloses that murder of children has reached epidemic proportions in Colombia; 2,190 children were murdered in 1993_a rate eight times as high as the rate for murders of children in the United States, and with the added element of explicit complicity by state agents in many of the killings. Most of the killings are politically motivated only in the sense that they are intended to eliminate_through murder_ children who are seen as social irritants. A significant number are carried out by agents of the state. Police have reportedly taken part in hundreds of killings of children since 1980, including the so-called social cleansing murders of "disposable" street children. Government forces that are pledged to maintain order and that are not directly involved in the killings tolerate the killings of children, fail to intervene when others break the law, and neglect to investigate most of the murders.

Most murderers of children go unpunished. Of the 2,190 murders of children in 1993, only twelve cases have resulted in trials. Police officers continue to be implicated in the murders of children, and investigations rarely result in more than dismissal for the implicated officers. Government promises to restrain the police have yet to bring results.

The report was translated into Spanish and released at press conferences in Bogotá and Medellín in November. We will work closely with local NGOs who will distribute our report and work on the problem with us.

Our strategy with regard to the killings of street children is to publicize and bring international attention to this pattern of abuse and to the government's evasion of accountability. Within the United Nations, the report was sent to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which will be reviewing Colombia's record in October 1995. We have also sent the report and written to both the U.N. Special Rapporteur on summary or arbitrary executions and the Special Rapporteur on torture, urging both to take action. In addition, we are working with international children's groups and with UNICEF to urge the international community to bring pressure to bear on the Colombian government to stop these killings and to bring to justice those responsible for the killings that have taken place.

U.S. Policy

One hundred sixty-seven nations have ratified or acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United States is one of only a handful of countries that have taken no action; the Clinton administration is considering signing the convention.

Human Rights Watch supports the signing and ratification of the convention, and will urge the administration and members of Congress to do so.

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