Court/Judicial body: Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Date: September 18, 2003 CRC
Provisions:Convention on the Rights of the Child (general reference)
Other international provisions:American Convention of Human Rights (the “American Convention”) ( Article 4: Right to life; Article 5: Right to humane treatment; Article 7: Right to personal liberty; Article 8: Right to a fair trial; Article 19: Rights of the child; Article 25: Right to judicial protection; Article 63(1): Fair compensation)
Background: The Argentine Federal Police conducted a mass detention, a so-called “razzia”, arresting more than 80 people outside of a rock concert venue in Buenos Aires. No charges were filed against the detainees and the reason for their arrest is unknown. One of the detainees, seventeen year-old Walter Bulacio, was taken to a police station, severely beaten by police officers and died. Although criminal charges were brought against the police captain in the Argentine courts, the criminal proceedings lasted over 10 years due to various tactical and procedural delays, and no definitive judgment was ever rendered. In light of these events, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (the “Commission”) filed an application with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (the “Court”), alleging that Argentina violated the American Convention of Human Rights (the “American Convention”) in connection with the illegal detention, beating and death of Walter Bulacio. The Commission, Walter Bulacio’s family and Argentina subsequently entered into a settlement agreement, whereby Argentina acknowledged responsibility for the violation of the human rights of Walter Bulacio and his family under the American Convention and agreed to create a mechanism for proposing new laws pertaining to the detention of children that comply with Argentina’s international human rights obligations. Accordingly, the parties requested that the Court approve the settlement agreement and determine the amount of compensation Argentina must pay to Walter Bulacio’s family.
Issue and resolution: Right to life, liberty and humane treatment. The Court approved the settlement agreement between the parties, finding that Argentina violated, as it acknowledged, various human rights of Walter Bulacio and his family under the American Convention, including the rights to life, personal liberty, humane treatment, judicial protection, a fair trial and the right to special protective measures for minors (Articles 4, 5, 7, 8, 19 and 25). The Court ordered Argentina to pay $374,000 in damages for the economic and emotional suffering of Walter Bulacio and his family. The Court further ordered Argentina to complete an investigation of Walter Bulacio’s death and to reform its domestic legal system to comply with its international human rights obligations and thereby prevent the sorts of violations committed in this case from reoccurring.
Court reasoning: The Court determined that Argentina has the responsibility to guarantee the rights of individuals in its custody and that its treatment of detainees must be strictly scrutinised, taking into account the vulnerability of minors. The Court also considered the numerous international instruments, including the American Convention and CRC, that require states to adopt special protections and assistance measures in favor of children. Accepting Argentina’s acknowledgement of responsibility in the settlement agreement, the Court determined that Walter Bulacio and his family were end to damages under the International Law principle that any violation of an international obligation that has caused damage gives rise to a new obligation – “to adequately redress the damage caused”. Furthermore, Article 63(1) of the American Convention allows for fair compensation to be paid to parties injured as a result of a breach of its provisions.
Excerpt citing CRC and other relevant human rights 133….[T]he Court points out that the instant case is especially grave because the victim is a child, whose rights are protected not only by the American Convention, but also by numerous international instruments, widely accepted by the international community, prominently including the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These instruments establish the duty of the State to adopt special protection and assistance measures in favor of children under their jurisdiction. 134. With respect to protection of the rights of children and adopting measures to attain said protection, the ruling principle is that of the highest interest of the child, based on “the very dignity of the human being, on the characteristics of children themselves, and on the need to foster their development, making full use of their potential.” 135. In this regard, several specific considerations have been made regarding detention of children, which as this Court has stated and is recognized in various international instruments, must be exceptional and for the briefest time possible. 136. To safeguard the rights of children detainees, and especially their right to humane treatment, it is indispensable for them to be separated from adult detainees. In addition, as this Court has established, those in charge of detention centers for children who are offenders or accused must be duly trained for the performance of their tasks. Finally, the right of detainees to communicate with third parties, who provide or will provide assistance and defense, goes together with the obligation of the State agents to immediately communicate to said persons the minor’s detention, even if the minor has not requested it.… … 138. The State must respect the right to life of all persons under its jurisdiction, enshrined in Article 4 of the American Convention. This obligation expresses itself in special modes in the case of minors, taking into account the provisions regarding protection of children set forth in the American Convention and in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The role of the State as guarantor with respect to this right carries with it the obligation to prevent situations that might lead, by action or omission, to negatively affect it. As this Court stated previously … and as it pertains to the concrete case, if Walter David Bulacio was detained in good health and subsequently died, the State is under the obligation to provide a satisfactory and convincing explanation of what happened and to disprove accusations regarding its responsibility, by supplying valid evidence. In its role as guarantor, the State does in fact have the responsibility to guarantee the rights of individuals under its custody as well as that of supplying information and evidence pertaining to what has happened to the detainee.
Follow up:In August 2008, Argentina, as recommended by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in this 2003 decision, reopened the investigation into the death of Walter Bulacio. The trial remained pending at year’s end (See 2008 Human Rights Reports: Argentina, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (February 25, 2009), available at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2008/wha/119145.htm).
Notes:Argentina’s National Constitution was amended in 1994, providing status to a number of human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the American Convention on Human Rights (Section 75, Paragraph 22).
CRIN comments: CRIN believes this decision and is consistent with the CRC. Children must only be detained as a matter of last resort, and even then, extra care must be taken in light of their special vulnerability. Moreover, where governments violate children’s rights – as here – they must take steps both to remedy these violations and to ensure that they do not recur.
Citation: Bulacio v. Argentina, Merits, reparations and costs, Inter-Am. Ct. H.R., Series C No. 100 (Sept. 18, 2003); IHRL 1483 (IACHR 2003).
Link to full judgement: http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/iachr/C/100-ing.html