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Villagrán-Morales et-al. v. Guatemala

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Court/Judicial body: Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Date: November 19, 1999 CRC
Provisions: Article 1: Definition of a child Article 2: Non-discrimination Article 3: Best interests of the child Article 6: Survival and development Article 20: Protection of a child without family Article 27: Standard of living Article 37: Torture and deprivation of liberty
Other international provisions:American Convention of Human Rights, Articles 1 (obligation to respect rights), 4 (right to life), 5 (right to humane treatment), 7 (personal liberty), 8 (fair trial), 19 (rights of the child), 25 (judicial protection), 50, 51, 62 and 63 (1);International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Articles 6 (right to life), 7 (prohibition of torture);Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture, Articles 1, 6 and 8;European Convention on Human Rights, Article 3;Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Articles 7, 12
Domestic provisions: Guatemalan Constitution, Article 6

Case summary

Background:Five street children were murdered by police officers in Guatemala City in June 1990. Four were kidnapped, tortured, and shot to death; the fifth was shot in the street. A case was brought before the Guatemalan courts, which acquitted the accused officers for lack of evidence. In 1994, two non-governmental organisations – the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and theAsociación Casa Alianza – brought the case to the attention of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which subsequently submitted a petition to the Inter-American Court alleging violations under the American Convention on Human Rights of the rights of the child and the rights to life, physical integrity, personal liberty, a fair trial and judicial protection.

Issue and resolution: Street children. The Court found that Guatemala had extensively violated the children’s rights under both the American Convention on Human Rights and the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture.

Court reasoning: The officials responsible for these violations acted in broad daylight in public places, were apprehended and identified by numerous witnesses, and yet still were not held accountable for their actions. Moreover, the way the children’s bodies were abandoned and the lack of information provided about the events surrounding their deaths also subjected the children’s families to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Ultimately, it was clear that Guatemala had failed to adopt special measures to protect and assist children, and instead tolerated their arbitrary arrest, torture and eventual murder as part of a larger practice of violence against street children. In reaching this conclusion, the Court looked to the Convention on the Rights of the Child to help interpret the obligations that Governments have with respect to street children under Article 19 of the American Convention on Human Rights.

Excerpt citing CRC and other relevant human rights 183. In its final arguments, the Commission indicated that Guatemala signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (hereinafter “Convention on the Rights of the Child”) on January 26, 1990, and deposited the respective instrument of ratification on June 9, 1990 – this Convention entered into force on September 2, 19901. In 1995, during the hearings before the Committee on the Rights of the Child, a supervisory body created by this Convention, Guatemala presented a report in which it stated that “it could only provide information on the situation [of “street children”] as of 1994” and added that “although the number of complaints about police brutality suffered by street children had declined, the problem had not been resolved and the police force had not been completely restructured”. Moreover, it stated that, in Guatemala, there was “a violent culture and that the police force did not receive training on how to deal with these children’”. Lastly, the State “acknowledged that 84 children had been murdered in the first three months of 1996 and that, according to available information, there had only been seven [convictions]”. The Commission asserted that this declaration was a unilateral acknowledgement of facts generating international responsibility. … 188. Article 19 of the American Convention does not define what is meant by “child”. However, the Convention on the Rights of the Child ( Article 1) considers every human being who has not attained 18 years of age to be a child, “unless, by virtue of an applicable law, he shall have attained his majority previously”.

According to the Guatemalan legislation in force at the time of the facts of this case, those who had not attained 18 years of age were also minors. Using this criteria, only three of the victims, Julio Roberto Caal Sandoval, Jovito Josué Juárez Cifuentes and Anstraum Villagrán Morales, were children. However, in this judgment, the Court is using the colloquial expression “street children” to refer to the five victims in this case, who lived on the streets, in a risk situation. 194. Both the American Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child form part of a very comprehensive international corpus juris for the protection of the child that should help this Court establish the content and scope of the general provision established in Article 19 of the American Convention. 195. The Convention on the Rights of the Child contains various provisions that relate to the situation of the “street children” examined in this case and, in relation with Article 19 of the American Convention, it throws light on the behavior that the State should have observed towards them. These provisions appear below: Article 2 1. States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status. 2. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child’s parents, legal guardians, or family members. Article 3 […] 2. States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being, taking into account the rights and duties of his or her parents, legal guardians, or other individuals legally responsible for him or her, and, to this end, shall take all appropriate legislative and administrative measures. Article 6 1. States Parties recognize that every child has the inherent right to life. 2. States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child. Article 20 1. A child temporarily or permanently deprived of his or her family environment, or in whose own best interests cannot be allowed to remain in that environment, shall be end to special protection and assistance provided by the State. 2. States Parties shall in accordance with their national laws ensure alternative care for such a child. […] Article 27 1. States Parties recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. […] 3. States Parties, in accordance with national conditions and within their means, shall take appropriate measures to assist parents and others responsible for the child to implement this right and shall in case of need provide material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition, clothing and housing. Article 37 States Parties shall ensure that: (a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age; (b) No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time; (c) Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age. In particular, every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child’s best interest not to do so and shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances; (d) Every child deprived of his or her liberty shall have the right to prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance, as well as the right to challenge the legality of the deprivation of his or her liberty before a court or other competent, independent and impartial authority, and to a prompt decision on any such action. 196. These provisions allow us to define the scope of the “measures of protection” referred to in Article 19 of the American Convention, from different angles. Among them, we should emphasize those that refer to non-discrimination, special assistance for children deprived of their family environment, the guarantee of survival and development of the child, the right to an adequate standard of living, and the social rehabilitation of all children who are abandoned or exploited. It is clear to the Court that the acts perpetrated against the victims in this case, in which State agents were involved, violate these provisions.

Follow up: On 26 May 2001, the Court ordered the State of Guatemala to build a school with a plaque in memory of the victims, pay compensation to the victims’ families, investigate the facts of the case and identify and sanction those responsible, and change its domestic legislation in accordance with Article 19 of the American Convention. The full court order is available at The State of Guatemala adopted these measures in the following months. On 19 December 2001 it paid compensation to the victims’ families. It also established an educational centre with a plaque dedicated to the memory of the five boys. The ‘Minors Code’ which had been in force since 1979 was abolished, and the national Congress passed a new ‘Code for Children and Young People’ which would enter into force one year later. However, as a result of various delays, the law did not enter into force on time. Finally, at the urging of civil society, the Law of Integral Protection of Children and Young People was passed on 4 June 2003

CRIN Comments: CRIN believes this decision is consistent with the CRC. As noted by the Court, children living or working in the streets are in an especially vulnerable situation. Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, States Parties must in particular guarantee these children the rights to non-discrimination ( Article 2), survival and development ( Article 6), special protection ( Article 20), an adequate standard of living ( Article 27), and freedom from torture and arbitrary deprivation of liberty ( Article 37).

Citation: Case of the “Street Children” (Villagrán-Morales et al.) v. Guatemala, Merits, Series C. No. 63 (Nov. 19, 1999)
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