Childhood in captivity: Palestinian children arbitrarily detained in Israeli prisons
26 July 2023, Geneva
UN experts and civil society have highlighted the grave human rights violations experienced by Palestinian children as a result of the ongoing illegal occupation of the Palestinian territory during a UN Human Rights Council side event organised by Defence for Children International (DCI), the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories and Amnesty International, held in Geneva on 12 July 2023.
The event heard from Miloon Kothari, Commissioner of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel, Khaled Quzmar, President of the DCI Movement & Director General of DCI-Palestine, Budour Hassan, Researcher, Amnesty International, and Francesca Albanese, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967.
It is estimated that the Israeli military detains and prosecutes between 500 and 700 Palestinian children each year in Israeli military courts that lack basic safeguards for a fair trial. Khaled Quzmar described that “from the moment of arrest, often violently take from their beds in night raids, most Palestinian children are subjected to ill-treatment, torture and violations of their fundamental rights at the hands of Israeli forces”.
Despite the fact that international norms reaffirm that civilians, especially children, generally should not be brought before military courts, Israel remains the only country in the world to automatically and systematically prosecute children in military courts.
Special Rapporteur Albanese observed that “deprivation of liberty is an ordinary fact of [Palestinian] life under occupation, it’s systematic and widespread. We see the criminalisation of ordinary acts of life, for example participating in a political gathering of 10 or more people without a permit from the Israeli military can lead to 10-years imprisonment.”
While just a superficial review of the detention and prosecution of Palestinian children in the Israeli military court system suggests severe risks of arbitrary deprivation of liberty, what emerges from a full view through the experience of Palestinian child detainees is an inherently unjust system of control where arbitrary detention is the default practice.
The deprivation of liberty experienced by Palestinian children in the Israeli military justice system is arbitrary by default primarily because Israeli authorities systematically disregard and deny fundamental protections and guarantees concerning the right to a fair trial. Amnesty International’s Budour Hassan reported that “the child’s request for a lawyer is often delayed until the interrogation has taken place and often a confession is obtained. It is a punitive system that is not aimed at rehabilitating children. It always keeps children in prison until they are tried and sentenced. Children are often pressured into accepting plea bargains in exchange for a commuted sentence.”
The most egregious cases involve Israeli authorities’ use of administrative detention, or detention without charge or trial, against Palestinian children. Testimonies from children and their families were heard as to how Palestinian children held under administrative detention orders are never presented with charges, and their detention is based on ‘secret evidence’ that is neither disclosed to the detainee nor the detainee’s attorney. As explained by Khaled Quzmar, “Palestinian children held in administrative detention and their attorneys have no legal means of challenging the detention and the alleged basis for it. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has regularly found that Israel’s use of administrative detention against Palestinian children amounts to arbitrary detention among other violations.”
Both UN experts, Commissioner Kothari and Special Rapporteur Albanese highlighted that the root cause of this issue is the maintenance of the occupation and the expansion of the annexation of Palestinian territory, with Commissioner Kothari reminding that “children in Israeli prisons must be understood in the broader context of the occupation, which the Commission found to be illegal” and the Special Rapporteur Albanese adding that “this is part and parcel of the expansion of the settlements which in itself constitutes a war crime. States have a legal obligation to intervene and to change Israel’s course of action in the long-term interest of both Palestinians and Israelis.”
Budour Hassan underlined that “the military court system must be seen in the context of the apartheid system against the Palestinians. The way the system is implemented always systematically violates their rights.”
Commissioner Kothari denounced the terrorist designations and the declaration against seven prominent non-governmental organisations, including DCI-Palestine highlighting that the Commission of Inquiry recommends rescinding the designation against these NGOs as it will continue to have cascading impacts on the children in need of protection, among other issues.
As emphasised by the Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, deprivation of liberty has serious negative effects on the physical and psychological health of children as well as the long-term developmental impacts this will have on them. For this reason, three years after the presentation of the Global Study in the UNGA, the NGO Panel on Children Deprived of Liberty in partnership with the UN Inter-agency Task Force organised the Global Forum on Justice for Children and Deprivation of Liberty. The major outcome of the Global Forum is a Roadmap for Action (2023-2025) aimed at accelerating implementation of the recommendations of the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, and at promoting concerted action and activities among Member States, UN Task Force members, civil society organisations and other stakeholders. Looking forward to this concerted action, it is important to continue to build on, and to use, good practices on alternatives to custodial measures, and gain momentum towards ending the deprivation of liberty of children.