The U.S. has the highest child incarceration rate in the world, according to an expert who authored a new U.N. study on the treatment of children. The expert also says the Trump administration’s family separation policy is “absolutely prohibited” by the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The report’s author is Manfred Nowak, a human rights lawyer based in Vienna, Austria. He discussed the expansive Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty in Geneva on Monday, one day before the findings are to be formally released.
Discussing the Trump administration policy of separating children from their parents at the Mexico-U.S. border, Nowak said, “I would call it inhuman treatment for both the parents and the children.”
He added, “And there are still quite a number of children that are separated from their parents — and neither the children know where the parents are, nor the parents know where the children are. So that is something that definitely should not happen again.”
Nowak said his team estimates that the U.S. is still holding more than 100,000 children in migration-related detention.
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“That’s far more than all the other countries where we have reliable figures,” he said.
The new U.N. report is timed to coincide with the anniversary of the adoption of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child 30 years ago this week. As Nowak reviewed the data, the first questions reporters asked him were about the U.S. — the only country in the world that has not ratified the U.N. treaty on children’s rights.
Nowak singled out the U.S.’s high rate of detaining children in its justice system.
“In general, the incarceration rate in the United States is very high also of adults, and that you see also with children. So it’s about 60 out of 100,000” children, Nowak said. “And that is the highest that we could find, followed by others like Bolivia, or Botswana, or Sri Lanka.”
Because the U.S. signed the treaty but never ratified it, the convention’s restrictions “do not formally apply to the United States of America,” Nowak said. But he added that the U.S. could still be held liable for its treatment of children because it is party to other treaties on civil rights and torture.
“In my opinion, the way, how they were separating infants from the families only in order to deter irregular migration from Central America to the United States of America, for me, constitutes inhuman and degrading treatment, and that is absolutely prohibited” by those other international treaties, he said.
“I am deeply convinced that these are violations of international law,” Nowak said. He added, “The same is also true for the high number of children being deprived of liberty in the administration of justice” in the U.S.
The human rights team compiled the new U.N. study’s hundreds of pages by sorting through official records and countries’ replies to their questionnaires, along with other sources. Nowak said the U.S. didn’t respond to his team’s official requests for data — but he adds that much of the data the U.N. researchers were seeking is publicly available.
Nowak was chosen to lead the ambitious U.N. study back in October of 2016. The final numbers, he said, “are all very conservative figures, where we’re 100 percent sure” of their accuracy.
Worldwide, the U.N. study says, more than 7 million children are deprived of their liberty each year. Their circumstances range from prisons and police custody to migration detention centers and institutions.
“In general,” Nowak said, “the North American region is the one with the by far highest regional imprisonment rate of children.”
South of the U.S. border, Nowak says, Mexico is holding more than 18,000 children in migration-related detention. He adds that Mexico is also detaining almost 7,000 children on the grounds of criminal justice.
The average youth incarceration rate in Europe, Nowak said, is about 5 children per 100,000. The region of Central America and the Caribbean — areas where migrants often leave in the hopes of reaching the U.S. — the rate is 16, while in South America it is 19 children per 100,000.
The U.N. report includes a number of recommendations for governments to improve how they handle children who come into their custody, ranging from creating special legal and justice programs for children to finding ways to avoid placing them in institutions. Above all, Nowak said, detention should be seen only as a last resort.
“Children should live, or grow up, in families — their own families, foster families, family-type settings” Nowak said, “and not in institutions where they’re in fact deprived of liberty, where there’s strict discipline, there’s a lot of violence. There’s no love.”
The U.N. General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989; within just a few years, it became one of the most widely adopted human-rights agreements in the world.
The international pact on the rights of children was also recently invoked in a formal complaint to the U.N. about climate change, as Greta Thunberg and other young activists accused countries of not doing enough to secure a viable future for today’s children.