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Date: Thu, 21 Aug 97 11:15:08 CDT
From: rich%pencil@YaleVM.CIS.Yale.Edu (Rich Winkel)
Subject: The Fight for Children's Rights in Central America

/** reg.honduras: 173.0 **/
** Topic: Article: Fight for Children's Rights in Central America **
** Written 9:05 AM Aug 20, 1997 by in cdp:reg.honduras **
From: "Casa Alianza - Regional Office" <>
Subject: Article: Fight for Children's Rights in Central America
Vol. 16, No. 8, August 97, MESOAMERICA FEATURE: Fight for Children's Rights Continues in Central America.

Fight for Children's Rights Continues in Central America

From Casa Alianza, 20 August 1997

Struggling to Survive

Forty million children in Latin America work to survive and, although no one revels in the fact that children often work under grueling and inhumane conditions, poverty demands it. They are in every Central American country, numbering in the millions, some barely older than toddlers, while others are veterans at 16. Harvesting coffee beans and bananas, working in sweat shops, selling flowers, crafts or food in the street, they are players in a global market that relies on their poverty and desperation. While most people would agree that a child should not have to shoulder the responsibilities of an adult, there are some people who not only condone the fact that children work under harsh conditions for their livelihood, but also encourage it.

Guatemalan economist Lucy Martinez-Mont stated in the Wall Street Journal last June that "banning imports of child-made goods would eliminate jobs, hike labor costs, drive plants from poor countries and increase debt. Rich countries would sabotage Third World countries and deny poor children any hope of a better future." Children may very well be the backbone of many developing nation's workforce, but the necessity for their labor often creates oppressive and objectionable conditions. Children in Guatemala who pick coffee beans for Starbucks Coffee of Seattle are exposed to pesticides, insufficient water and housing facilities with very little monetary compensation.

Individuals in the U.S. can buy a cup of coffee for the $1.50, the same amount earned daily by a Guatemalan family working for Starbucks. In Nicaragua, nearly half of the children drop out of primary school to work for their families. Later in life, many of them find themselves with little or no education, few work skills and a dead end future. The economic repercussions of abolishing child labor are far reaching and the consequences dire. However, the argument that working children who are exposed to unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, dangerous and violent streets, and low wages have a better future to look forward to is unrealistic. These children are working to subsist.

In June '97, Costa Rica reformed its Labor Code making it more protective of the rights of 150,000 children aged 12 to 17 who work in the country. According to an article in La Nacion, there are now new guarantees that are meant to ensure that "[children] are allowed to complete their education and are banned form performing work considered unhealthy or dangerous."

Recently the Minister of Labor, Farid Ayales, vetoed a bill that would allow minors over 12 to work. He did so because he believes that such a measure would limit the chances of improvement for the new generations of Costa Ricans. Although a reformed labor code improves the legal position of minors in the work force, the reality is that there is very little enforcement of such reforms by the government or police forces. Last year, UNICEF recommended the elimination of labor permits for children, but even if governments outlawed child labor through legislation child labor would still exist. Too many impoverished nations rely on their cheap labor. According to a survey conducted by the Costa Rican census department, approximately 60,000 children ages 5 to 17 work, most of them selling items on the street.

Various organizations estimate that currently 50% of El Salvador's population, 68% of Honduras' and 71% of Guatemala's live in poverty. Desperate for income to buy basic necessities, growing numbers of poor families send their children out to the peddle goods or beg. Even with child labor laws, the practice would certainly continue as their economies are dependent on their contribution. Nations saddled with loan repayments and structural adjustment programs are pressured to increase exports and decrease social spending. It is also true that many developed nations went through a phase of industrial development and owe their present wealth to it, but that does not make it any easier for the children burdened with the onus of work. Without governmental support to combat the use of child labor and substantial economic improvement, children will continue to be employed in the labor force, increasing the unemployment rate among older, more experienced workers who are better able to protect themselves and make more educated decisions.

One Step Closer to Humane Treatment: Honduran Case Study During the past two years, the Honduran government has experienced intense pressure from both internal and external fronts to protect its children from human rights violations.

The pressure reached an apogee thanks to significant aggressive questioning by the media, extensive investigative reports and shocking personal testimony of abused children proffered by world-wide child's rights advocate, Casa Alianza.

Casa Alianza Honduras, which serves more than 120 children in its residential programs, and an additional 1,000 street children each year through its outreach and legal aid programs, vigorously denounced the practice of jailing minors in Honduran prisons with adults. Casa Alianza's denunciation of abuse, which has reportedly affected over 800 children, was a catalyst that provoked comments by Honduran President Carlos Roberto Reina, the Inter American Commission of Human Rights and the UN.

Executive Director of Casa Alianza/Latin America, Bruce Harris said, "It is common sense that children should not be mixed with hardened criminals without expecting the kids to be beaten and raped." Article 122 of the Honduran Constitution prohibits the jailing of children together with adults and article 37(c) of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child also prohibits the mixing of children with adult prisoners.

In Nov '95, Casa Alianza denounced the torture of 12 minors in the adult jail of Comayagua. The children were beaten, handcuffed, and hung on a wall without their feet touching the ground. An "investigation" of the alleged torture and accusation of "violation of the Constitution," conducted by the authorities of the Ministry of Government and Justice, led to a rejection of all charges in the court of appeals, 26 Dec '95. Torture was not typified as a crime in the criminal code until Mar '97 and the UN Convention Against Torture was just ratified in Honduras in Jan '97. Had the Director of the Comayagua jail, Aquilino Sorto, been charged with and found to have committed torture after the changes in the criminal code took effect, he would have faced a 15-year jail term.

Seemingly in response to a large public outcry over the alleged torture, on 1 July '97, Sorto was transferred from his post at Comayagua to the office of the Director of Penal Establishments in Tegucigalpa. The position he was given was not specified. There is the potential for authorities to further investigate the Nov. '95 torture, but it is too late to change the original accusation of "violation of the Constitution" to include abuse of authority, which would carry a prison term of up to three years.

In Oct '96, Casa Alianza testified in a meeting with the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), based in Washington, regarding the jailing and torture of children in Honduras. In this meeting Casa Alianza recognized the advances by the Honduran government to address problems by opening juvenile detention centers but expressed concern at the fact that many judges were still breaking the law by sending minors to adult prisons; resulting in the boys being raped, tortured and murdered. A list of 173 boys who were in jail at the time, some as young as 11 years old, was provided to the IACHR.

Following the meeting, the IACHR called upon the Honduran government to take a series of precautionary measures to protect the rights of detained juveniles after the State of Honduras failed to "meaningfully respond to documented complaints" that children were being illegally jailed in the country's prisons.

As of 24 Oct. '96, more than 70 children were imprisoned together with adults in 24 penal facilities in Honduras. Many of the children suffered brutal torture and rape by adult prisoners and guards. At least one boy is known to have been murdered. The precautionary measures included immediately halting the practice of jailing minors as adults and allowing detained youths to have access to defense lawyers. The commission also insisted there be an investigation into the situation. In response to the precautionary measures, the Honduran government initiated criminal charges against Vianey Cruz, a judge who was responsible for the illegal jailing of many children in the country's San Pedro Sula adult prison.

On 26 Oct, '96, Gustavo Escoto, from Casa Alianza Honduras' Legal Aid Office and Mayra Dubon from the Attorney General's office in San Pedro Sula, went to the San Pedro Sula jail to check to see if the State of Honduras had complied with the cautionary measures. They found at least five minors who were still jailed together with adults and another 12 14 youths who were jailed while minors, but who had turned 18 while serving their sentences. Dubon took note of all the cases and said the judges concerned would be prosecuted.

On 27 Oct '97, the Ministry of the Interior and Justice dispatched personnel to inspect the San Pedro Sula prison which was the focus of many formal complaints by Casa Alianza and prisoners themselves. The director of the penal center, Humberto Dominguez, was fired after inspections found the sale and use of drugs and alcohol and evidence of abuse and corruption.

During the past year, the Honduran government, as a result of international pressure, has opened juvenile detention centers. Reportedly, the care inside these centers has been deficient. As a result of inadequate staff training and rehabilitation programs, many children have escaped from the El Carmen and El Haltillo government centers and the press has criticized the mass escapes. On 18 June '97, a total of 44 children escaped from the El Carmen government center in San Pedro Sula. Approximately 15 youths were recaptured. On 20 June, the bodies of two of the escaped children who had not been recaptured were found shot and killed with bullet holes through their heads in a San Pedro Sula barrio.

The nonexistence of an international entity that is able to enforce laws and regulations concerning the treatment of children, as well as the lack of consensus regarding what should be classified as "international standards" for treatment of children, are two staunch obstacles that face child labor and welfare reforms.

The majority of the Central American countries are members of the UN and have ratified the Convention of the Children's Rights. Although the conditions of the convention are binding upon the nations, many consistently breach the conditions of the convention and, since there is no mechanism that has the power to punish nations that neglect, abuse or ignore the rights of children, the abuse will most likely persist.

On 6 June, '97, at the Convention of Children's Rights, all Central American governments were informed by the UN that they must disclose to the UN Committee on Children's Rights, the situation of children in their own nation before the month of Sep.

Currently, more than 100 million children live and work on the street throughout the world, 40 million in Latin America alone. There is a projected 20% increase in the number of children living in urban centers by the year 2025 and to date, four out of ten children live in urban centers worldwide. "If all these children were in one place, they would have a seat in the UN and loans from the World Bank," said Harris.

According to article 44, each one of the 175 countries that have ratified the Convention has to present a written report to the Committee within a period of two years. Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador and Honduras have to report ideas for the implementation of children's assistance programs to the Convention before Nov of this year.

The 53rd session of the UN Committee on Human Rights in Geneva demanded that each country pay special attention to the situation of boys and girls, particularly those who live in the streets. A recent report of the Committee on Human Rights stated that "all states [should] ... adopt measures for reintegration of street children back into society and to provide nutrition, housing, adequate health and education services, ... [and to] take into account that these children are particularly vulnerable to all forms of abuse, exploitation and negligence." The statement encouraged the states to keep in mind the situation of street children when preparing the reports for the Committee.

- --Angela Harrell and Typhanny Tucker

Casa Alianza/Covenant House Latin America
SJO 1039
PO Box 025216, Miami FL 33102-5216 USA
Tel. in Costa Rica: +506-253-5439 or 253-6338
Fax in Costa Rica: +506-224-5689
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