Promotion and protection of the rights of children - ICRC statement to the United Nations, 2009
United Nations, General Assembly, 64th session, Third Committee, Items 65 of the agenda, Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 16 October 2009
Mr Chair, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The International Committee of the Red Cross places considerable emphasis on the theme of children affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence, a topic closely related with today's debate. This issue has received increased attention in recent years, and we believe that this has had many positive outcomes. Yet, children's rights are too often ignored by parties to conflict worldwide. Today, the ICRC would like to highlight a specific group of vulnerable children that we feel is not given sufficient attention – detained children.
Last year alone, the ICRC visited more than 1,500 children deprived of their liberty in countries affected by conflict or other situations of violence across the globe. The year before, our delegates visited close to 2,000. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. We do not know how many children are being detained worldwide in connection with such situations. What we do know is that there are many of them, and that we often see that their rights are not respected.
There are many reasons why children are detained. Frequently, it is a direct consequence of conflict and other situations of violence. For example, the participation of children in hostilities is often accompanied by a swell in the numbers of children detained. The ICRC meets children in detention facilities, accused of being insurgents or fighters, some of whom are as young as nine years old. The fight against terrorism has also increased the number of children being detained, suspected of being members of a terrorist group or otherwise connected to criminal actors. There s eems to be no lower age limit for being a threat to a nation.
Some children are in prison because they follow their parents at the time of their imprisonment. Others are there because they have no parents. Their only resort is to become street children, again often as a direct consequence of war, when loss of both home and family is many children's fate. The presence of street children can tarnish the image of a city and may increase criminality, so children are hidden away (or locked up) in detention facilities. This is unacceptable.
While conflict and violence may increase the number of children being detained, this is not always the case. However, what ICRC delegates have observed during their detention visits is that detention conditions almost always become worse in situations of armed conflict. This is especially the case when conflict lasts for some time and resources have to be reoriented to cover the cost of war.
Detaining children increases their vulnerability. Separation from their family deprives them of their protection, and causes severe emotional stress. They may be used as cheap labour and often not receive a proper education.
When carrying out detention visits, the ICRC is in constant dialogue with the detaining authorities, reminding them of their obligations and assisting them, if necessary, in improving the detention conditions of prisoners in general, and of children and other vulnerable people in particular. We also assist detainees, including children, in restoring and maintaining contact with their family members, and we organize family visits if necessary.
The ICRC is deeply concerned by the dire situation many detained children face and takes this opportunity to recall some fundamental principles aimed at better protecting children in detention:
First, as recalled b y the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time. Alternatives to detention must be sought whenever possible.
As clear as this sounds, this fundamental principle is too often forgotten.
Second, whatever the reason for their detention, children are entitled under both international humanitarian law and human rights law to receive specific care and protection. Of utmost importance, they have the right to communicate with their parents. This is another straightforward principle that lacks rigorous implementation.
Third, children should be held in separate (and specialized) detention facilities. If detained in the same facilities as adults, children must be held separately from them. Exceptions are possible if they are with their family members, or if their well-being is better ensured by being with the adults. Girls must always be guarded by female staff. A number of children are abused by their adult co-detainees or by the guards in exchange for food, protection or a space to sleep.
Fourth, whatever the reason for detention, children have the right to challenge the legality of their detention. They also have the right to speedy judicial procedures. It is particularly unacceptable for a child to stay in prison for years while awaiting trial. All too often, they are unaware of their rights and risk prolonged detention.
Fifth, the period of deprivation of liberty should prepare minors for their return to society. Sixth, and last, capital punishment is prohibited under both international humanitarian law and human rights law for offences committed by persons under 18 years of age. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child also prohibits sentencing them to life imprisonment without the pos sibility of release.
Children are generally seen as more vulnerable than adults due to their age. Locking them up behind bars in harsh detention conditions increases their specific vulnerability. We therefore urge all States to respect their obligations towards children under their protection, whatever the reasons for their detention.
We thank you for your attention.