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Mendoza et al. v. Argentina 

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Mendoza et al. v. Argentina 

Inter-American Court of Human Rights 

14 May 2013

CRC Provisions:  
Article 3: Best interests of the child
Article 6: Right to life
Article 8: Preservation of identity
Article 20: Protection of child deprived of family environment
Article 24: Right to health
Article 25: Periodic review of placement
Article 28: Right to education
Article 37: Torture and deprivation of liberty
Article 40: Administration of juvenile justice

Other International Provisions:
American Convention on Human Rights, Article 2: Right to judicial protection
American Convention on Human Rights, Article 4: Right to life
American Convention on Human Rights, Article 5: Right to humane treatment
American Convention on Human Rights, Article 7: Right to personal liberty
American Convention on Human Rights, Article 8: Right to fair trial
American Convention on Human Rights, Article 19: Rights of the child to measures of protection required by his condition as a minor on the part of his family, society, and the state

United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (the Beijing Rules), Rule 5(1).

Also references to the United Nations Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures (the Tokyo Rules), and the United Nations Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency (the Riyadh Guidelines).

Case Summary:

The case concerned the imposition of life sentences (“privación perpetua de la libertad”) on four young men and reclusion for life (“reclusión perpetua”) on another for offences committed while under the age of 18. Two of the applicants alleged that they were subjected to detention conditions that were incompatible with human dignity; a further two claimed that they were victims of torture, and that the one lost his sight without the State providing adequate medical care. One applicant died while in custody and his family argued that his death had not been properly investigated.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had previously concluded in its merits report that Argentina was in violation of provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights and recommended that the State, amongst other things, apply the provisions of the American Convention of Human Rights in its judicial process to permit the petitioners the right of appeal; ensure that the criminal justice system applicable to persons below the age of 18 is compatible with international standards and conventions; ensure that the petitioners are provided with medical attention while imprisoned; and perform a thorough and complete investigation on the death of one petitioner and torture of two others. The commission referred the case to the court after Argentina failed to make any substantial progress to comply with the commission’s findings and recommendations.

Issue and resolution:
Life imprisonment. The Court found that life imprisonment amounts to arbitrary imprisonment under the American Convention on Human Rights and that the life sentences imposed on the applicants amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment prohibited under the Convention. The Court ordered Argentina to ensure no one is sentenced to life imprisonment or reclusion for life for an offence committed while under the age of 18.

Death in custody and torture. The State had failed to adequately investigate the death of a young man in custody or the torture of a further two prisoners. The Court ordered the State to investigate these events to determine responsibility and bring criminal proceedings as required by law.

Court reasoning
Arbitrariness of the criminal sanctions. Life imprisonment and reclusion for life for children violate the prohibition on arbitrary arrest and imprisonment under the American Convention, because they are not exceptional punishments, they do not entail the deprivation of liberty for the shortest possible time or for a period specified at the time of sentencing, and they do not permit periodic review of the need for the deprivation of liberty of the children.  

Purpose of imprisonment. The sentence of a child offender must have the objective of the child’s reintegration into society and the proportionality of the sentence is closely related to its purpose. The Court considered that, owing to their characteristics, life imprisonment and reclusion for life do not achieve the objective of the social reintegration of juveniles. Such sentences entail the maximum exclusion of the child from society, so that it functions in a purely retributive sense. Therefore, such sentences are not proportionate to the objective of the criminal sanction of children. 

Life imprisonment and reclusion for life as cruel and inhuman treatment. The prohibition on torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under the IACHR is absolute and non-derogable. Punishment must be proportionally and life imprisonment and reclusion for life are not proportionate to the purpose of criminal sanctions for minors.

Lack of adequate medical care. The Court held that, when dealing with children and adolescents deprived of liberty, the State must assume a special position of guarantor with the utmost care and responsibility, and must take special measures based on the principle of the best interests of the child. The lack of medical care treatment for an injury to the petitioner’s eyes violated his right to respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.

Investigation of allegations of torture. The State is presumed to be responsible for injuries to detained persons in the absence of any credible explanation. Evidence presented to the court demonstrated that two of the petitioners had been subject to falanga (a form of torture by imposing repeated blunt trauma to the feet, hands or hips), the State had not been able to support its claim that the injuries had been caused during a brawl and so the State was in violation of the prohibition of torture.

Investigation of death in custody. The State has an obligation to provide an immediate, satisfactory and convincing explanation of what happened to a person who dies in its custody and to disprove allegations of responsibility. The Court found the had not done so as its response to the death of Mr Fernandez.

Right to appeal the sentences. The Argentinian appeal process was based on rigid formulas contrary to that required by the IACHR, as the appeals process did not allow the petitioners to challenge the merits of their case.

Right to Defence. Both the commission and the representative argued that two of the petitioners were not notified personally of decisions regarding which they could have filed appeals, thereby violating their right to a defence.

Right to personal integrity of the victims’ next of kin. The next of kin of the victims of human rights violations may be victims in their own right. Taking into account, among other matters, the steps taken to obtain justice and the existence of close family ties, the court found that the suffering some of the next of kin experiences as a result of the acts and omissions of the State amounted to a violation of the right to mental and moral integrity.

Excerpts citing CRC and other relevant human rights instruments
141. Children are bearers of all the rights established in the American Convention, in addition to the special measures of protection provided for in Article 19 of this instrument, which must be defined according to the particular circumstances of each specific case. The adoption of special measures for the protection of the child corresponds to the State, the family, the community, and the society to which the child belongs.

142. Furthermore, all State, social or family decisions that involve any limitation to the exercise of any right of a child must take into account the principle of the best interests of the child and rigorously respect the provisions that govern this matter. Regarding the best interests of the child, the Court reiterates that this regulating principle of the laws on the rights of the child is based on the dignity of the human being, on the inherent characteristics of children, and on the need to foster their development making full use of their potential, as well as on the nature and scope of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Thus, this principle is reiterated and developed in Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states: In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.

143. The Convention on the Rights of the Child refers to the child’s best interests (Articles 3, 9, 18, 20, 21, 37 and 40) as a reference point to ensure the effective realisation of all the rights recognised in that instrument, respect for which will allow the individual to develop his or her potential to the highest degree. The actions of the State and society as regards the protection of children and the promotion and preservation of their rights must adhere to this standard. In this regard, based on the consideration of the best interests of the child as an interpretative principle aimed at ensuring the maximum satisfaction of the rights of the child, they should also serve to ensure minimal restriction of such rights. Furthermore, the Court reiterates that children exercise their rights progressively as they gradually develop a higher level of personal autonomy. Consequently, the person who applies the law, in either the administrative or the judicial sphere, must take into consideration the specific conditions of the child and his or her best interests in order to decide on the child’s participation, as appropriate, in the determination of his or her rights. This assessment seeks to provide the child with the greatest access, insofar as possible, to the examination of his own case. Therefore, the principles of the best interests of the child, of progressive autonomy, and of participation are particularly relevant in the design and operation of a system of juvenile criminal responsibility.

144. In relation to due process and guarantees, this Court has indicated that States have the obligation to recognise and ensure the rights and freedoms of the individual, as well as to protect and ensure their exercise by means of the respective guarantees (Article 1(1)). Suitable means for ensuring that they are effective under all circumstances, both the corpus iuris of rights and freedoms and their guarantees are concepts that are inseparable from the system of values and principles characteristic of a democratic society. These fundamental values include safeguarding children, due to both their condition as human beings and their inherent dignity, and also to their special status. Owing to their level of maturity and vulnerability, they require protection that ensures the exercise of their rights within the family, society and in relation to the State. These considerations must be reflected in the regulation of judicial or administrative proceedings where decisions are taken on the rights of the child and, when appropriate, of the persons in whose custody or guardianship they find themselves.

145. Even though children have the same human rights as adults during legal proceedings, the way in which these rights are exercised varies according to their level of development. Accordingly, it is essential to recognize and respect the differences in treatment that correspond to different situations of those participating in a proceeding. This corresponds to the principle of differentiated treatment that, in the sphere of criminal justice, means that the differences between children and adults, as regards both their physical and psychological development, and their emotional and educational needs, must be taken into account for the existence of a separate juvenile criminal justice system.

146. In sum, even though procedural rights and their corresponding guarantees apply to all persons, in the case of children, due to their special status, the exercise of those rights requires the adoption of certain specific measures so that they may truly enjoy those rights and guarantees. In this regard, Article 5(5) of the American Convention indicates that “minors while subject to criminal proceedings shall be separated from adults and brought before specialised courts, as speedily as possible, so that they may be treated in accordance with their status as minors.” Therefore, pursuant to the principle of specialisation, a justice system should be established that is specialised at all stages of the proceedings and during the execution of the measures or punishments that are eventually applied to minors who have committed offences and who can be held responsible under domestic law. This should involve both the legislation and the legal framework and also the State institutions and agents specialised in juvenile criminal justice. However, it also entails the application of special legal rights and principles that protect the rights of children accused or convicted of an offence. 

147. In addition, Rule 5(1) of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (the Beijing Rules) stipulates that “the juvenile justice system shall emphasise the well-being of the juvenile and shall ensure that any reaction to juvenile offenders shall always be in proportion to the circumstances of both the offenders and the offence.” As mentioned above (supra para. 146), an evident consequence of the relevance of dealing in a differentiated, specialised, and proportionate manner with matters pertaining to children, and specifically those relating to illegal conduct, is the establishment of specialised jurisdictional bodies to hear cases involving conduct defined as crimes attributed to them. The considerations made above as regards the age required for a person to be considered a child, according to the predominant international criterion, applies to this important matter. Consequently, if it not possible to avoid the intervention of the courts, children under 18 years of age who are accused of conduct defined as criminal in nature by criminal law must be subject, for the purposes of the respective hearing and the adoption of the pertinent measures, only to specific jurisdictional bodies distinct from those for adults. 

148. The guarantees recognised in Articles 8 and 25 of the Convention are recognised to all persons equally, and must also correspond to the specific rights established in Article 19 so that they are reflected in any administrative or judicial proceedings in which any right of a child is debated. The principles and functions of due process of law constitute an unwavering and strict series of requirements that may be expanded in light of advances in human rights law. 

149. The rules of due process have been established, first, in the American Convention on Human Rights. Nevertheless, as this Court has already indicated, other international instruments are relevant in order to safeguard the rights of children subject to different actions by the State, society, or the family, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Beijing Rules, the United Nations Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures (the Tokyo Rules), and the United Nations Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency (the Riyadh Guidelines). Due process and judicial guarantees must be respected not only in judicial proceedings, but also in any other proceedings conducted by the State, or under its supervision. At an international level, it is important to stress that the States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child have assumed the obligation to adopt a series of measures to safeguard due process of law and judicial protection, following similar parameters to those established in the American Convention on Human Rights. These norms are found in Articles 37 and 40 of that treaty.

150. In addition, the Court underlines that, pursuant to Article 19, 17, 1(1) and 2 of the Convention, States are obliged to ensure, by the adoption of the necessary legislative or any other measures, the protection of the child by the family, society and the State itself. In this regard, this Court has recognised the fundamental role of the family for the development of the child and the exercise of his or her rights. Thus, the Court considers that, in order to comply with these obligations, in the area of juvenile criminal justice, the States must have an appropriate legal framework and public policies that are adapted to the international standards indicated above (supra para. 149), and implement a series of measures designed to prevent juvenile delinquency by programs and services that promote the integral development of children and adolescents. Thus, among other matters, the State must disseminate information on the international standards concerning the rights of the child and provide support to vulnerable children and adolescents and also their families.

151. Regarding the specific issue raised in this case, directly related to sentencing children to criminal sanctions, the American Convention does not include a list of punitive measures that States may impose when children have committed offences. However, it is pertinent to note that, in order to determine the legal consequences of the offence when this has been committed by a child, the principle of proportionality is a relevant criterion. According to this principle, there must be a balance between the presumptions and the punishment, both as regards the individualisation of the punishment and its judicial application. Therefore, the principle of proportionality means that any response with regard to children who have committed a criminal offence must always be adjusted to their status as minors and to the offence, giving priority to reintegration with the family and/or society. 

Follow Up:
It is unclear if the State of Argentina has implemented the changes and remedies in accordance with the court’s orders. Argentina must provide the court with a report on the measures taken to comply with the judgment within one year of being notified of the judgment.

For more information on the issue of inhuman sentencing of children, including a selection of case law, please see CRIN’s ‘Inhuman sentencing’ campaign.

CRIN Comments:
CRIN believes this decision is consistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Article 37(b) of the CRC requires deprivation of liberty to be used as a measure of last resort for the shortest possible period of time while Article 3(1) requires the best interests of the child to be a primary consideration “in all actions concerning children”. In its General Comment on juvenile justice, the Committee specifically addressed the issue of life imprisonment noting that “[given] the likelihood that a life imprisonment of a child will make it very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the aims of juvenile justice despite the possibility of release, the Committee strongly recommends the States parties to abolish all forms of life imprisonment for offences committed by persons under the age of 18.” 

Series C No. 260

Link to Full Judgment:

This case summary is provided by the Child Rights International Network for educational and informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.