Newswise — Through her analysis of Villagran Morales v. Guatemala, the first case involving street children to come before an international adjudicatory body, a University of Arkansas law professor argues that international human rights litigation can be a powerful political tool to protect abused and victimized children worldwide. The landmark 1999 decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights may also mobilize communities to work for social and economic welfare of all children, especially those who are poor and living on the street.

"Morales was significant for many reasons," said Uche Ewelukwa, associate professor of law and author of "Litigating the Rights of Street Children in Regional and International Fora: Trends, Options, Barriers and Breakthroughs," which was published in the Yale Human Rights & Development Law Journal. "In addition to being the first case concerning the rights of street children to go before an international court, it sent a strong message to the Guatemalan government and other governments that have signed international human-rights treaties that they should not tolerate police abuse of street children. From a purely legal perspective, the decision established precedent-setting interpretations of core international treaties affecting the rights of children."

Although it is difficult to determine the exact number of street children worldwide, the phenomenon is generally accepted as a "global problem of growing magnitude." It is especially acute in the developing countries of Africa and Latin America, where poverty is pervasive and extreme. However, the problem is not limited to these countries. Recent studies have reported rising numbers of street children in affluent European nations, as well as former socialist countries that have suffered economically since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

In the mid-1990s, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund estimated the number of street children worldwide to be about 100 million. More recent worldwide statistics do not exist, and most human-rights activists believe the total number of street children today is significantly more than 100 million.

As one might expect, these children suffer profoundly and face enormous economic, political and social challenges. In addition to economic poverty, which often leads to malnutrition and even starvation, these children are exploited and victimized by their own governments, usually by a police force. It has been extremely difficult for human rights and development organizations " not to mention victims and their families " to work within a given country's legal system to seek protection for these children. In the past decade or more, advocates have relied on international human-rights law and treaties to try to force governments to protect street children and provide for their welfare.

One such treaty is the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, which the Republic of Guatemala ratified. In 1999, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found Guatemala in violation of several provisions of the treaty due to the 1990 abduction, detention and murder of five street children, one of whom was Villagran Morales, by Guatemalan police. Two years later, the court ordered the Guatemalan government to pay a total of $508,865 to the surviving relatives of the murdered children. Villagran Morales v. Guatemala was the first case in the history of the Inter-American Court in which the victims of human rights violations were children.

Ewelukwa argued that the landmark case signals a turning point for international human rights bodies in their effort to enforce international legal obligations pertaining to children. The benefits of such cases are clear. The immediate effect is that favorable decisions can lead to reform of domestic laws relating to children, as well as real social and political remedies for the victims of human-rights abuses. The long-term effect of such litigation and its resulting jurisprudence helps create an international climate in which the abuse and exploitation of children is less likely to be tolerated.

Despite these benefits, Ewelukwa said, litigation in an international court should be regarded as an instrument of last resort. It is but one strategy to address the exploitation and victimization of street children and cannot replace domestic policies and programs that focus on the core sources of the problem, such as systemic poverty, economic development and the effects of globalization, which have not benefited poor people in many developing countries.

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Yale Human Rights & Development Law Journal