A campaign on children deprived of liberty: the origins of the initiative

Photo by: DCI IS

It has been almost 25 years since the “Rules of the United Nations on the protection of minors deprived of liberty” (known as “the Havana rules”) were adopted through a resolution by the General Assembly[1].  Other texts have also added strict guidelines to deprive children (those under 18 years) of their liberty. In particular, Articles 37 and 40 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child recall the basic principles in this are: it is an exceptional measure that should be used as a last resort for the shortest duration possible. It is repeated when desired.

Yet, the situation of children deprived of liberty around the world remains extremely worrisome. We do not know precisely, or even approximately, the number of children deprived of liberty; for over 20 years now, we have continued to site one million, but in reality, we have no proof! On the other hand, we know that for a large majority of children, the conditions in detention remain inhumane and degrading, something that will only instigate more delinquent behaviour (provided they were actually behaving badly in the first place, since the majority of children deprived of liberty have in fact committed petty crimes or none at all). Very often, children are put behind bars without having benefited from lawful due process that safeguards all their guaranteed rights. They often do not profit from the right to education or from adequate treatment (i.e. access to health facilities, contact with family members, an educative environment, etc.). The measures of reintegration are generally deceptive; they will return into society with no knowledge of how to become a citizen who is productive and has large prospects for the future.

The damage caused by confinement is considerable. It is surprising that the States have still not considered it necessary to develop non-custodial solutions, preferring to bear the price of a policy contrary to children’s interests, as well as society as a whole.

All the action over the recent years appears to be limited: if there is a lot of progress that can be seen here and there, the overall situation remains extremely worrying. A number of States express their desire to look for other ways to limit deprivation of children, but they seem relatively powerless to realize this.

There is therefore a need to achieve a mapping that is both complete and comprehensive to raise awareness on issues society often prefers not to see, in order to determine ways to improve the situation.

It is due to all these issues that Defence for Children International took this ambitious initiative (we cannot hope to change anything with limited measures): to launch a campaign so that the General Assembly at the United Nations asks the General Secretary to mandate an independent body to carry out a global study on children deprived of liberty.

This initiative was not carried out by DCI alone. We have united many non-governmental organizations to exchange known practices on the call and its development. To our great satisfaction, we have been able to gather a large number of associations that have reacted positively, considering that such a study is indispensable and urgent, but also because there is no better time to carry out this study.

The United Nation’s agencies have equally expressed their support and have taken strong interest in such a study, which is able to find missing information that helps better understand children in a vulnerable state.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has gone even further as it adhered to this initiative and officially wrote to the General Secretary of the United Nations to formulate a request to realize this study. It also officially committed by publically promoting the official launch of the campaign to study this issue and by reiterating its support at a Conference for the Rights of the Child organized by the European Council in Dubrovnik last March.

The Special Representative of the General Secretary of the United Nations on Violence against Children has also supported, without fail, this demand. She is particularly well placed to note the need to find additional information and the necessity to make a heartfelt effort to save children placed in detention.

The Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT), as well as the European Network of Ombudsman Children (ENOC), have joined their voice with ours and have inspired others to do the same.

Many States have equally shown their strong interest and some even their undeniable support; in particular, Uruguay, Qatar, Ethiopia and Austria. Other States have expressed the same.

We see great enthusiasm all around us and a desire to advance in realizing this study, something that confirms DCI’s intuition to begin this movement. Such a study is indispensable and urgent; it can ameliorate the lives of children all around the world who today are deprived of liberty. Protecting these children is both a moral and a judicial obligation for the States. The results of the study will constitute the basis for structural and durable changes in this area; it will help States fulfil their obligations and allow them to have an accurate view on the reality many children face. If this reality is not brought to light and if their situation continues to remain invisible, children will never be a priority for either the State or society. It is therefore time to act. 


[1] Resolution 45/113, December 14th, 1990, General Assembly of the United Nations.


Mr. Benoît Van Keirsbilck, the President of Defence for Children International