By Nicole Lim, Al Jazeera English
The Human Rights Council convened today to discuss the topic of juvenile justice.
The first council session of the Human Rights Council began debate on the topic of juvenile justice with riveting and passionate opening speeches by all delegates.
As the delegate of Bolivia immediately pointed out to the council, a report by the US Justice Department found that between 2007 and 2012, the rate of formal sex abuse allegations against guards and other staff in state juvenile justice facilities doubled, even as the number of children entering those systems dropped.
In light of such preposterous trends of juvenile abuse by the very agents who should be safeguarding their rights, all countries expressed their desire to ensure that juveniles are treated in a fair and just manner.
It soon became obvious, however, that there was a need for more inclusivity in the council, one of the largest in the UN. Many delegates simply pursued their own countries’ goals without considering the fact that not all countries fundamentally agree with their views as well as have the capability to achieve such goals.
Most notable was the need for delegates to take into account sensitive religious beliefs.. Bahrain, Somalia and Saudi Arabia reiterated their adherence to Sharia law, stressing that their right to sovereignty limits the extent to which they can implement some of the more radical measures proposed by the council, such as eradicating jails and eliminating the practice of persecuting children as adults.
In Saudi Arabia, which has a history of juvenile executions, minors can be sentenced and executed as long as they display ‘physical signs of development’ (i.e. puberty), in accordance with Sharia law. This means that it is acceptable to execute a nine-year-old girl sentenced as long as she has reached puberty.
Evidently, calling for countries like Saudi Arabia to accept other radical measures is unrealistic. This goes against the spirit of the HRC, which is to propose meaningful suggestions that are likely to be implemented voluntarily by member countries, given the non-binding nature of its resolutions.
Furthermore, the need for greater inclusivity of the views of both developed and developing countries was also apparent.
While all countries agreed in principle on the need for reforms, developing countries like Vietnam and Syria expressed their inability to enact significant change without economic aid from wealthier countries.
“As much as sovereignty is not an excuse for human rights abuse,” the delegate of Syria admitted, a country’s economic and political climate must be taken into account when considering the capacity countries have to deal with such issues, he asserted.
However, their pleas for aid were sidelined as debate continued to be centred on topics like whether detention centres or jails are preferable in detaining juveniles. While developing countries and volatile countries mired in strife were amenable to change, developed countries need to pay more attention to the obstacles preventing those countries from taking steps towards the ideal utopia they have relentlessly advocated for during debate.
Additionally, debate was stonewalled despite multiple agendas proposed due to an unfortunate lack of unmoderated caucuses for the first council session, which was wholly dominated by opening speeches and the General Speaker’s List. Calls from the delegate of Australia to approach the issue first by dealing with court processes before dealing with the conditions in detention centres and jails were unfortunately not pursued by council, hindering the efficient flow of debate.
Finally, delegates were rather hasty in the formation of blocs, segmenting themselves into two disjunct blocs from the very beginning – the bloc supporting rehabilitative approaches and the bloc supporting punitive approaches. This portended a possible narrowing of the scope of discussion. Rather than delineating two approaches from the very start, delegates could have explored the issue more holistically by comparing the differing perspectives of conservative and liberal countries as well as those of developed and developing countries to arrive at a more diversified set of solutions.