Human Rights Watch World Report 1996 - The Children's Rights Project

Human Rights Watch established the Children's Rights Project in April 1994 to work with the organization's regional divisions and other thematic projects to uncover abuses that uniquely affect children and for which unique campaigning initiatives are required. The project deals with abuses carried out or tolerated by governments and also those perpetrated by armed opposition groups, such as the use of children as soldiers.

The project grew out of recognition that children are frequently victims of abuse that springs directly from their being children. For the most part, international children's aid groups that sponsor welfare and development projects have not dealt with these abuses because they cannot afford to antagonize host governments. Human rights groups, for their part, have focused largely on the rights of adults. As the human rights movement has addressed the plight of political dissidents, it has tended to neglect those, like children, whose persecution is generally unrelated to their political views. Human Rights Watch created the Children's Rights Project to fill this important gap by devising effective research and advocacy strategies to decrease and work toward the eventual elimination of the abuses of the civil and political rights of children. Moreover, the project serves as a link between international and national children's groups and the human rights community.

Children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. In many countries children, some as young as eight, are forced to become soldiers, to kill or be killed, to be victims of atrocities or, sometimes, to take part in them. In other countries, children serve as bonded laborers, their childhood mortgaged as they work to pay off loans made to their families. In many countries children are forced into prostitution, snatched by strangers, or sold by their families and even trafficked from one country to another while governments ignore their plight.

The Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project works to hold governments accountable for failing to respect and protect children's basic human rights.

The Work of the Children's Rights Project

During 1995 the Children's Rights Project, working with the organization's regional divisions, researched and campaigned to bring to light conditions in correctional institutions for children in Louisiana, the use of children as soldiers and slaves in Sudan, the use of the death penalty against juveniles in the United States, and the global scope of the phenomenon of child soldiers. The findings of research into these issues, including fact-finding missions to Louisiana and the Sudan, were published with recommendations for urgent change and for the mobilization of those who can bring this about. At the end of the year we sent a fact-finding mission to India to look into bonded child labor.

Child Soldiers

Many thousands of children around the world are used as soldiers. Often these children are armed with fully-automatic assault rifles; many take part in atrocities as well as confronting and killing opposing fighters. Children themselves are killed or gravely injured, suffer psychological trauma, and are deprived of schooling and a normal childhood. Many are unable, at the conflict's end, to reintegrate into their communities.

Some children are forcibly recruited; some "volunteer" in order to survive. Many are treated brutally by the forces with which they serve, through casual beatings or torture. Some are forced to kill or torture others.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and Protocols I and II to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 forbid the recruitment of children under fifteen as soldiers. Human Rights Watch believes that no one under the age of eighteen should serve in armed conflict.

The work that began in 1994 with the launch (with Human Rights Watch/Africa) of reports and campaigning on child soldiers in Liberia and Sudan continued in 1995 with further fact-finding and advocacy.

In January 1995 we presented to the United Nations Human Rights Commission a statement on the use of children as soldiers, and recommended that the commission press all member states and warring factions to take steps to halt the practice. These steps were to disarm and demobilize immediately all child soldiers and to refrain from further such exploitation of children; to take part in the U.N. Working Group drafting an optional protocol to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child that would raise the minimum age for participation in armed conflict from fifteen to eighteen; and to raise in their own countries the minimum age of participation in armed conflict to eighteen.

In September we released, with Human Rights Watch/Africa, Children in Sudan: Slaves, Street Children and Child Soldiers. The report describes the recruitment of young boys by government and opposition forces alike. The rebel SPLA was continuing its practice of inducting boys as young as eleven, using them as child soldiers or keeping them in a form of reserve, with thousands of boys in SPLA camps separated from their families and denied an education and a normal life. The government, in turn, was found to recruit children from buses and recreation sites; some recruitment was conducted from camps established to hold boys rounded up in random sweeps through city streets and marketplaces.

We plan to release a short report designed in part for the use of the U.N. working group now developing a protocol on the minimum age at which one can take part in armed conflict. The report will pull together the work that Human Rights Watch has done on child soldiers since 1989, including country-by-country information on the practice in Angola, Burma, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Peru, and Sudan.

The project aimed to raise international awareness of child soldiers, the abuses they themselves suffer and the dangers that they present to others. As part of this effort we assisted Newsweek staff with a cover story on child soldiers and briefed other print and electronic media on the issues. We worked with local and international children's and human rights groups and with the U.N. experts preparing a report to be presented to the General Assembly in 1996 on the impact of armed conflict on children. Work with governments and inter-governmental organizations to stop the use of child soldiers is outlined below.

Bonded Child Labor

Hundreds of thousands of children work as bonded child laborers in countries around the world; the full extent of the problem has yet to be shown. Bonded labor, normally debt bondage or peonage, is outlawed by the 1956 U.N. Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery. Bonded labor of children typically arises when parents receive an advance payment or a reduction in debt in exchange for their child's labor. But the workplace is often structured so that "expenses" and/or "interest" are deducted from a child's earnings in such amounts that it is almost impossible for a child to repay the debt. Moreover, some children work to pay off debts inherited by their families from past generations. Many are subjected to severe physical abuse, as in a case cited in the July 1995 Human Rights Watch/Asia report, Contemporary Forms of Slavery in Pakistan:

Two years ago at the age of seven, Anwar started weaving carpets in a village in Pakistan's province of Sindh. He was given some food, little free time, and no medical assistance. He was told repeatedly that he could not stop working until he earned enough money to pay an alleged family debt. He was never told who in his family had borrowed money nor how much he had borrowed. Any time he made an error with his work, he was fined and the debt increased. Once when his work was considered to be too slow, he was beaten with a stick. Once after a particularly painful beating, he tried to run away, only to be apprehended by the local police who forcibly returned him to the carpet looms.

On another level, we met with children's and human rights groups, as well as representatives from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the International Labor Organization (ILO), the World Bank, and other organizations, to try to develop a holistic strategy to prevent children from losing their childhood, education, and opportunities by being entrapped in bonded labor. We worked with others to develop a campaign to educate consumers about products made with bonded child labor, and to persuade companies not to use or sell these products.

The Children's Rights Project worked to provide to children's organizations and international advocacy groups objective on-the-spot reporting to support efforts to effect change.


In Children of Sudan: Slaves, Street Children and Child Soldiers, Human Rights Watch interviews describe the use of children as slaves in Sudan. Children tell in their own words of having been stolen from their families by government forces during raids on their villages in the war zones. These children were taken as booty by soldiers and militia members who returned to western and northern Sudan. There the children were frequently beaten and performed unpaid labor inside the soldiers' houses or herding their animals. Some told of running away only to be caught and returned to the families abusing them. Some captors branded the children they exploited.

We found that army officers, soldiers, militia members and others who held children in slavery operated with impunity from government prosecution. The Sudan government failed to live up to its obligations to prevent and punish such abuses, as set forth in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 1926 Slavery Convention as amended, the 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the 1930 International Labor Organization (ILO) Forced Labor Convention (No. 29) concerning Forced or Compulsory Labor, the 1957 ILO Convention (No. 105) concerning the Abolition of Forced Labor, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Our strategy is to inform relevant national and international organizations and to raise public awareness of the children's plight. We have recommended action to examine and end slavery in Sudan to UNICEF, the ILO, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Sudan, and have taken part in many forums and press interviews concerning slavery in Sudan.

Children in Conflict with the Law

International standards provide both broad and specific protections for children in the justice system. These include the Convention on the Rights of the Child (art. 40), the ICCPR (art. 10,14), the Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, the U.N. Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, the U.N. Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency, the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children (art. 16, 17).

These treaties and standards require governments to hold detained or imprisoned children separate from adults, and to incarcerate children only as a last resort and in humane conditions. They forbid torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of children by police and security forces. They recognize that children need special consideration because of their physical and mental immaturity.

The Children's Rights Project's work for children caught up in the justice system focused in 1995 on the conditions in children's penal institutions in the state of Louisiana, and on juveniles facing the death penalty in the United States. Campaigning for change in Jamaica continued, following up our 1994 report on children in police lockups there. Many of the children we met during the 1994 mission were confirmed to have been released shortly after the report's publication, while the government ordered significant reforms.


In March and May, the Children's Rights Project sent fact-finding missions to Louisiana to look into the conditions in which children are confined in state correctional institutions (prisons for children). In October we released a report, United States: Children in Confinement in Louisiana. Our researchers visited all four state "training schools" and interviewed more than sixty children as well as state officials, judges, lawyers, social workers and others concerned with juvenile justice. We found that physical brutality is pervasive and that there is no functioning complaint system by which children can bring abuses to the attention of authorities.

Moreover, children are confined unnecessarily in restraints such as handcuffs and shackles, and are kept in isolation for as long as five days, contrary to international standards. In addition, many children told us they were hungry. The overall environment of the institutions failed to meet the primary goal required by international standards for any form of juvenile incarceration: to create an environment that will ensure children's successful reintegration into society.

The Children's Rights Project recommended the adoption by both the state of Louisiana and the federal government of mandatory standards that at a minimum comply with international standards. Our detailed recommendations included the monitoring and training of guards to make effective the prohibition of physical abuse, and the establishment of an effective complaint procedure that will ensure that children can seek redress and that staff are appropriately disciplined for abuses.

The report was widely covered by the media in Louisiana. The head of the corrections department attended the press conference at which the report was released, acknowledged the existence of physical abuse by guards and announced plans for change.

This report is the first of what we hope, resources permitting, will be a series on conditions in juvenile detention facilities for children in the U.S. Our strategy is two-fold. First, we plan to issue reports that document the ways in which children's rights are violated, raising public awareness. No other organization in the United States is carrying out such a program.

Second, we plan to work with children's advocates, local, national, and international, to address the human rights issues surrounding the detention of juveniles, and to work for change. We will continue to work with children's advocates in Louisiana who are eager to work toward reform, with national organizations, and with international groups like Defense for Children International and the International Save the Children Alliance, both in Geneva. We have submitted a report to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, detailing our findings on children in custody.

We will press both the government of Louisiana and the federal government to enact mandatory standards for children's correctional institutions. Under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act the federal government is required to issue such standards and to monitor their implementation, but it has failed to do so.

Death Penalty

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty. We strongly oppose the imposition of the death penalty on juvenile offenders, those whose crimes were committed before they were eighteen.

In March the Children's Rights Project released a short report, United States: A World Leader in Executing Juveniles. The report revealed that nine juvenile offenders have been executed in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976; four of these were executed during the last six months of 1993, indicating that such executions are on the rise.

Only eight other countries have carried out such executions in the past fifteen years: Bangladesh, Barbados, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.The United States continues to execute juveniles in clear contravention of international agreements and standards prohibiting this, including the ICCPR (art. 4(5)), the American Convention on Human Rights (art. 4(5)), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (art. 37(a)), the Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (art. 2,17), and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children (art. 5(3)). The death penalty, by its nature irreversible and inherently cruel, is inappropriate for individuals who were not physically and emotionally mature at the time they committed their crimes.

Our report was timed for release just before the first meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Committee at which the U.S. was to report on its compliance with the provisions of the ICCPR. Members of the committee used our report extensively to question government officials and, later, to condemn the U.S. strongly for executing juveniles.

Work with the United Nations

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, the treaty body charged with monitoring compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is a forceful and effective group that welcomes input from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The committee receives reports from signatories to the convention, questions officials closely on the state's compliance, and makes cogent recommendations for change. In addition, the committee persuaded the U.N. General Assembly to create a special study on the impact of armed conflict on children. It also persuaded the U.N. Human Rights Commission to establish the working group on the minimum age for armed conflict.

The Children's Rights Project has submitted to the committee reports on the treatment of juveniles in the justice systems in Jamaica, Northern Ireland, and the state of Louisiana (the committee agreed to receive the latter although the U.S. is not yet a party to the convention). The committee has in some cases urged the offending government to take the steps recommended in Human Rights Watch submissions. A representative of the Children's Rights Project appeared before the committee to testify on Jamaica and Northern Ireland. In November the committee held a theme day on juvenile justice; we appeared before the committee and submitted written recommendations based on our work on conditions for detained or incarcerated children.

The Children's Rights Project recommended that the Human Rights Commission create a special rapporteur on child soldiers. We also recommended that the new Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography continue to include the issue of child soldiers in her portfolio. We have recommended to the special rapporteurs, experts, and special representatives appointed to address specific country situations that, where relevant, they address the issue of child soldiers in internal armed conflict.

We have recommended to the U.N. Subcommission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities and its Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery that it study the issue of child soldiers, recommend the appointment of a special rapporteur on child soldiers, and recommend to governments and armed opposition groups that they end the practice of using children under eighteen as soldiers.

We have recommended to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees that it study the issue of recruitment of children from refugee camps, and that it take steps to protect children in its camps from recruitment.

U.S. Policy

One hundred seventy-seven of the 185 member states of the United Nations have ratified or acceded to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In February 1995 the Clinton administration signed the convention; it has not, however, forwarded the convention to the Senate for ratification. Jesse Helms, the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, has described the convention as a "pernicious document" and has vowed not to hold hearings on its ratification.

Human Rights Watch supports the ratification of the convention and will urge members of the Senate to do so.

The U.S. has been a major stumbling block in the meetings of the U.N. working group to draft the optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that would raise the permissible age for taking part in armed conflict. The U.S. permits seventeen-year-olds to enlist in the armed forces with parental permission, and is opposed to raising the minimum age to eighteen. The U.S. has also argued for requiring twenty-five signatures for the Optional Protocol to take effect, while other countries are opting for ten signatures. The working group will meet again in January 1996; the Children's Rights Project will attempt to persuade the administration to change its positions.

U.S. officials appeared before the U.N. Committee on Human Rights for the first time in March to report on U.S. compliance with the ICCPR. Questioned by the committee about the use of the death penalty against juveniles, the U.S. challenged our report and denied—incorrectly—that nine juvenile offenders had been executed in the U.S. since the resumption of the death penalty in 1976. In addition, the State Department's legal adviser told the committee that the American people support the execution of persons who committed crimes as minors.

In a more positive vein, the U.S. Department of Labor held hearings in 1994 and 1995 on the use of child labor, including bonded child labor, in the manufacture of products that are imported into the United States, and has issued reports on the hearings. At the first hearing, Human Rights Watch testified on bonded child labor in the carpet industry in Pakistan.


Human Rights Watch World Report 1996


This report covers events of 1995

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.