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VII. Internationally Recognized Human Rights

International human rights law recognizes that children are different from adults in salient and fundamental ways, and it insists those differences must inform state practice towards children. Government officials are under a special obligation to pay attention to those differences when a child is accused of a crime and his or her liberty is at stake.

In 1959, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of the Child, which recognized that “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care. . . .”76 The United States was one of the then seventy-eight members of the U.N. General Assembly, which voted unanimously to adopt the Declaration.77

In 1992, the United States ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which mandates special treatment of children in the criminal justice system.78 Criminal procedures involving juveniles should “take account of their age and desirability of promoting their rehabilitation”79 and juveniles should be “segregated from adults and be accorded treatment appropriate to their age and legal status.”80 When it became a party to the ICCPR, the United States reserved the right to treat juveniles as adults in exceptional circumstances.81

The subsequent Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the world’s most universally ratified human rights treaty, codifies and expands safeguards for children.82 The CRC unequivocally prohibits sentencing children to life sentences without parole. Article 37(a) states: 

Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age.83

The United States and Somalia are the only two countries in the world that have failed to ratify the CRC. However, the United States signed the CRC on February 16, 1995.84 As a signatory to the convention, it may not take actions that would defeat the CRC’s object and purpose. 85  Moreover, as the only major industrialized nation that has failed to ratify the treaty, the United States should do so out of a sense of legal obligation as well as international comity.

The domestic laws and practice of the world’s governments provide another clear measure of the almost universal rejection of imposing life without parole sentences on youth offenders. Out of 154 countries whose sentencing laws and practices Human Rights Watch has researched, 133 never sentence children to life without parole, either because their laws prohibit it or because, though the laws may allow it, they are not used.86 For example, not one of the original fifteen member states of the European Union allows children to be sentenced to life without parole.87 Human Rights Watch has identified twelve countries in addition to the United States whose laws or practice allow for the sentence or an equivalent (such as the sentence “detention for the duration of her majesty’s pleasure”) to be imposed: Antigua and Barbuda, Bangladesh, Brunei, Burkina Faso, Dominica, Israel, Kenya, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania. In many of these countries, while the sentence is on the books, it is in fact rarely used.88 For the remaining nine countries of the 154 researched, we were unable to obtain the necessary sources to make a definitive determination whether or not the sentence was imposed.

[76] General Assembly Resolution 1386 (XIV), November 20, 1959.

[77] While United Nations General Assembly resolutions do not, in and of themselves, constitute binding international law, passage of resolutions by unanimous consent is strong authority for asserting their status as customary international law. See, e.g., Schwebel, “The Effect of Resolutions of the U.N. General Assembly on Customary International Law,” Proceedings of the American Society of International Law, Vol. 73, p. 301, 1979. But other authorities do not recognize General Assembly resolutions as having a binding legal nature. See Arangio-Ruiz, “The Normative Role of the General Assembly of the United Nations and the Declaration of Principles of Friendly Relations,” Recueil Des Cours, Vol. 137, p. 419, 1972.

[78] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force, March 23, 1976.

[79] ICCPR, Art. 14 (4).

[80] ICCPR, Art. 10 (3).

[81] United Nations Treaty Collection, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, United States of America:  Reservations, para. 5. In its report to the ICCPR, the United States explained that it entered this reservation in order to “retain a measure of flexibility to address exceptional circumstances in which trial or incarceration of juveniles as adults might be appropriate, for example, prosecution of juveniles as adults based on their criminal histories or the especially serious nature of their offences, and incarceration of particularly dangerous juveniles as adults in order to protect other juveniles in custody.” See “Initial Reports of States Parties Due in 1993: United States of America,” Human Rights Committee, CCPR/C/81/Add.4, para. 286, August 24 1994.

[82] Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), art. G.A. Res. 44/25, U.N. GAOR, 44th Sess., Supp. No. 49, at 167, U.N. Doc. A/44/736 (1989) (entered into force Sept. 2, 1990), reprinted in 28 I.L.M. 1448, 1470. The CRC in article 40(1) asks governments to treat children in a manner that “takes into account the child’s age”, and Article 40(3)(a) asks governments to seek to establish a “minimum age below which children shall be presumed not to have the capacity to infringe the penal law.” This latter provision not only contemplates lesser culpability for some children, but no legal culpability at all for children below a certain age.

[83] CRC, art. 37(a) (emphasis added).

[84] United Nations Treaty Collection Database, available online at:, accessed on July 16, 2004.

[85] See Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, art. 18, concluded May 23, 1969, 1155 U.N.T.S. 331 (entered into force Jan. 27, 1980). Although the United States has signed but not ratified the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, it regards this convention as “the authoritative guide to current treaty law and practice." S. Exec. Doc. L., 92d Cong., 1st sess., p. 1, 1971.  See also Theodor Meron, “The Meaning and Reach of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,” American Journal of International Law, Vol. 79, p. 283, 1985. The U.S. government has also accepted that it is bound by customary international law not to defeat a treaty’s object and purpose. See e.g. “Albright Says U.S. Bound by Nuke Pact; Sends Letters to Nations Despite Senate Vote,” Washington Times, AI, November 2, 1999 (describing the Clinton administration’s acceptance of obligations under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty despite the Senate’s failure to ratify). One U.S. court has also ruled that, based on its widespread acceptance, the CRC represents customary international law to the extent that it codifies long-standing and generally accepted principles. See Beharry v. Reno, 183 F. Supp. 2d 584, 598 (E.D.N.Y 2002), reversed on other grounds by 329 F.3d 51, 55, 63-64 (2nd Cir. 2003) (overturning on grounds of failure to exhaust administrative remedies and citing without comment the District Court’s references to the CRC and to customary international law).

[86] Human Rights Watch researched this question using the following methodology: we examined the reports of 166 countries to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child under Article 37 of that treaty (as noted above, Article 37 prohibits sentencing child offenders to life without parole). Unfortunately, fifty-three countries failed to report to the Committee on their laws or practices under Article 37. Therefore, we used a variety of additional methods to obtain a definitive answer. These included inquiries with:  the UNICEF Child Protection Officer in the country concerned, reputable criminal defense attorneys, reputable judges, reputable criminal justice non-governmental organizations, and press articles covering recent sentencing decisions.

[87]The original fifteen members of the EU are: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. In fact, many of these states do not even sentence adults to life imprisonment without parole.

[88]For example, in Bangladesh in January 2000, only four children were known to be serving the sentence. See “Bangladesh State Party Report to the CRC,” CRC/C/65/Add.22, March 14, 2003. Similarly, Israel reported on four youth that have been sentenced to life imprisonment to date. See “Israel State Party Report to the CRC,” CRC/C/8/Add.44 at 346.

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