UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty

Why is it important?

Children do not belong behind bars

© UNICEF / A 13-year-old girl stands in the yard of the women's prison at Pétionville, Port-au-Prince

Justice for children is an issue that affects not only children in conflict with the law but also children victims of poverty, abuse and exploitation. No matter the reason, putting children behind bar is not in their best interest. It can only be a measure of very last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time, as stated in Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Thus, improving conditions for children deprived of liberty through a global study is one of the most important strategies for enhancing the protection of children in society today. It is also a prerequisite in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular SDG goal 16.

They are invisible

Nobody knows exactly how many children are imprisoned, detained or otherwise deprived of their liberty worldwide. According to Jan Eliasson, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, “they fall into a statistical vacuum, with numbers of these children potentially ranging anywhere from the tens of thousands to the millions.” Without numbers, how can States accurately define the scope of the problem?

“Evidence available shows that deprivation of liberty is fundamentally harmful for children, jeopardising their development and putting them at increased risk of abuse, violence, social discrimination, and impeding their right to education.”

NGO Panel on the Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, co-chaired by Defence for Children International and Human Rights Watch

A Global Study: Count Children to Make them Count

That’s why Defence for Children International pitched the idea of a Global Study in early autumn 2013, so that children behind bars are at last counted and acknowledged.

This type of study led by the United Nations examines through comprehensive data collection and statistics the magnitude of the phenomenon, identifies good practices and provides recommendations for law, policy and practice.

“Data gathering is a means to improve the situation of children. The Global Study bridges the gaps in data collection and generates momentum for renewed commitment to uphold the human rights of all children in detention”, defined Benoit van Keirsbilck, director of DCI-Belgium.

Defence for Children International and Human Rights Watch co-convene the 175-member NGO Panel to coordinate joint advocacy and lobbying efforts towards the launch, completion and follow-up of the Global Study.

Following intensive advocacy in 2014 led by DCI together with a limited group of other NGOs, on 18 December 2014, by resolution 69/157 the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) officially requested for the Global Study to be carried out. In October 2016, Prof. Manfred Nowak (Austria) was appointed as Independent Expert to lead the Global Study.

Throughout 2018 and 2019, research groups collected data and good practices through questionnaires sent to all UN Member States. The NGO Panel, composed now of over 175 NGOs, through active lobbying at national, regional and international level succeeded in creating discussions and putting deprivation of liberty at the centre of the international political agenda.

The report of the Global Study was presented to the 3rd Committee of the General Assembly in New York on 8 October 2019, whilst the full study was launched on 19 November in Geneva during the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. After the official launches in New York and Geneva, regional and national launches will be taking place throughout 2020.

“Without Defence for Children International there would be no Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty.”

© DCI – IS/ Launch of the full UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty in Geneva

The Global Study includes chapters on administration of justice, on Children living in places of detention with their parents, on Children deprived of liberty for migration-related reasons, on Children deprived of liberty in institutions; Children deprived of liberty related to armed conflict; and Children deprived of liberty related to national security. It reveals that according with the strict, de jure definition, at least 1.5 million children per year are deprived of liberty, while there should be more than 7 million children per year deprived of liberty de facto.

© DCI – IS/ Launch of the full UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty in Geneva

Next steps

Now that the Study has been delivered, States are expected to implement the good practices identified and ensure a follow up of the recommendations. As Prof. Manfred Nowak outlined: “if there is no follow-up, the work done will be lost.”

Defence for Children International and the NGO Panel remain thus very committed to share the important recommendations of the Global Study and identify together with relevant UN bodies the most appropriate follow up.

If we are granted the support needed, we have strong hopes for the Global Study to be the first step which will prompt positive change for millions of children behind bars.