Citizen Security from a
Children’s Rights Perspective

Recommendations to the States of the Americas

A Comprehensive Approach is Needed, One that Focuses on Children and Adolescents and the Protection and Restoration of their Rights

Security reforms being enacted in the Americas must make a paradigm shift in public safety.

This change should prioritize preventing and reducing violence, instead of prioritizing control and law enforcement functions.

Other matters that need improvement are the effective access to justice and to judicial guarantees, especially for certain groups. The barriers to access to justice should be eliminated; these include high costs, an overextended judicial system, tardiness in judicial proceedings, the poor quality of the investigation and charging processes, and the high level of impunity when it comes to prosecuting crimes.

Photo credit: Daniel Cima for IACHR

A Broad, Comprehensive, and Holistic Approach to Citizen Security

Achieving effective violence prevention requires taking a broad, comprehensive, and holistic approach that combines legal, social, educational, and economic strategies to reduce risk factors and strengthen protective factors.

Photo credit: IACHR

Social Policies and Access to Basic Services

Ensuring access to quality basic services in poverty-stricken areas guarantees the human rights of the individuals who live in those communities, and is also a key component of security strategies. Failure to budget sufficient funding to adequately finance public services and access to rights is at the root of the problem.

Professionalization and Specialization

Principles of specialization and professionalization must be applied in interventions that address children and adolescents. Applying such principles entails having specialized units, trained personnel, and child-specific protocols.

Information, Monitoring, and Evaluation Systems

When States adopt public policy decisions, it is critical that they have sufficient and reliable data with which to make a meaningful and thorough assessment of the situation and of the causes and consequences of violence. Having this type of information regularly available democratizes public security, encourages an informed discussion by the public, and serves as an element of deterrence and oversight against possible human rights violations on the part of State agents.

Participation by Communities and by Children and Adolescents

The communities most affected by violence are also those most familiar with the context, the risks that they face, and the potential strategies that could help reduce violence. Acknowledging children and adolescents as relevant actors and asking them for their opinions helps to overcome feelings of exclusion while reinforcing a sense of belonging in society. It also helps to identify risk factors and protection measures.

Family Support and Strengthening

Social assistance policies for families, especially those aimed at families that face severe challenges and limitations in caring for their children, contribute to the protection of children and their rights.

Decentralization and the Role of Local Governments

Municipal authorities, because of their proximity to their citizens, are in a prime position to harness citizen participation in the management of public affairs and in the identification of problems and possible solutions.

Municipalities are assigned responsibility for a significant number of aspects that have to do with violence prevention, even though responsibility for security (security forces) is usually handled at the national government level.

At the city level, violence and insecurity can be mitigated through social and urban planning policies that reduce exclusion, marginalization, and social fragmentation. It is necessary to expand public services in the communities most affected by poverty, invest in decent-housing programs, restore safe public spaces, and integrate disconnected parts of the city through investment in public infrastructure. These interventions improve the quality of life for people in these communities, promote the enjoyment of their rights, and help them become less marginalized and vulnerable.

It is a proven fact that the city model affects insecurity. One priority of local governments should be to promote safe, inclusive cities that contribute to a reduction in violence and crime.

Moreover, responsibilities associated with violence prevention include policies geared toward youth (such as sports, recreation, and culture), many of which have been decentralized to the local level.

Education: Staying in School

Education is a key factor for achieving social mobility and overcoming social exclusion, poverty, and discrimination. It is essential for States to ensure primary and secondary school access and retention, as well as to offer opportunities for advanced training and professional development. The longer children and adolescents spend in an educational environment, the greater their protection. Children at risk of leaving school should receive additional attention and support in order to prevent them from dropping out and ensure their right to an education.

Education from a Human Right’s Perspective

States must ensure that educational systems and schools do not reproduce stereotypes based on gender, socioeconomic background, ethnic origin, or other factors, or perpetuate exclusion and discrimination, abuse, or violence.

Professional Training and Access to Decent Work

Labor market integration policies need to be strengthened for the most excluded and at-risk populations, particularly for young people and adolescents. The weak integration of youth into the labor market is a risk factor in the Americas.

Recreation, Leisure, and Culture

Programs to prevent risky behavior include extracurricular activities offering arts, music, culture, recreation, and sports for youth during their free time. There is evidence that these types of activities make children and adolescents less vulnerable and reduce their participation in antisocial, violent, or criminal behavior.

Professionalization, Modernization, and Democratization of State Security Forces

A process to professionalize, modernize, and democratize State security forces must be implemented—a change of model under which the purpose of citizen security is seen as the protection of all persons, their rights, and the conditions in which they can exercise those rights.

These policies are characterized by:

Rethinking Isolated Assault and Combat Strategies

Assault and combat strategies designed to recover by force areas under the control of criminal groups have proved to be insufficient in the medium and long term to maintain security and curb violence in these communities.

Community or Neighborhood Policing

In this model, policing work is based to a large extent on the relationships of trust and collaboration with the community the police serve. This new security concept requires closer relations with the community to be able to understand the problems of insecurity and crime as well as the various factors that influence them. It should also be accompanied by new prevention and problem-solving strategies, which requires degrees of coordination with different public institutions and social services.

Legitimate and Proportional Use of Force

Security-force operations must be conducted with strict adherence to rules and regulations governing the legitimate and proportional use of force and in compliance with protocols and standards designed to guarantee protection for persons not involved in the confrontation. For the use of force to be justified, the principles of legality, absolute necessity, and proportionality must be satisfied.

Ongoing Training and Equipment

Ongoing training and instruction should be provided to the members of police forces so that when they use lethal force in their operations, they do so in strict accordance with internationally accepted standards. The police should also be provided with the means and equipment that will enable them to use nonlethal force in the procedures they follow to lawfully deter and suppress violence and crime.

Documenting the Use of Force

There is an obligation to document all cases in which public security forces have used force, lethal or otherwise, in the performance of their duties, and to carry out the necessary internal and external inquiries, including judicial inquiries, for the purpose of ensuring that the actions taken were done so lawfully. All such steps are necessary basic measures to prevent extrajudicial executions by agents of the State.

Investigating Homicides by State Agents

There are cases in which homicides caused by State security agents have not been adequately investigated or the criminal penalties imposed have not been commensurate with the seriousness of the offenses. In many cases, lethal force has been used illegally in spite of arguments that it was used in legitimate self-defense by agents of the State's security forces, to protect others, or in the context of confrontations.

Use of Non Lethal Force

When State agents make use of lethal force, it is up to the State to prove that other, less lethal, means of intervention were attempted, which proved to be unsuccessful, and that the actions of the security forces were necessary and proportional to the exigencies of the situation and specifically to the threat they were facing.

Child-Specific Protocols

Protocols and regulations must be adopted to govern operations in scenarios in which children and adolescents are present, in order to comply with the extra duty to protect that segment of the population.

Photo credit: Daniel Cima for IACHR

How to address the problem of children and adolescents in violent gangs and maras?

To effectively address the problem, it must first be recognized that gangs and maras emerge from certain social contexts, situations of vulnerability in the exercise of rights, and a lack of appropriate policies for child protection, and that they end up filling a social vacuum.


It must be emphasized that children and adolescents who have been deprived of the special protection to which they are entitled under the international human rights treaties on children’s rights are victims. They have been made especially vulnerable and are at risk of being captured or used by violent groups and organized crime.

Hierarchical Structures and Violent Rules

Adolescents who join violent gangs and maras are exposed to rigid rules of behavior and violent actions within these structures. Failure to comply with the internal rules and codes, or abandoning the structure of the gang or mara, can result in death.

Lack of Public Policies

Public policies designed to make it easier for children and adolescents to break ties with criminal groups and gangs are nonexistent or too limited. Therefore, they do not provide effective protection to the children affected by those environments. Gangs continue to proliferate due to the lack of prevention-oriented public policies aimed at strengthening the protection of children and adolescents.

The Need to Advance on Restorative Justice

Rehabilitation and Social Reintegration Programs

Adolescents should be offered the necessary support through socio-educational measures to ensure that they can positively and constructively reconnect with society, giving priority to the implementation of these measures at the level of community and family.

Increased Age of Criminal Responsibility

The age of criminal responsibility should be increased to 18 years old. Criminal offenders under 18 years of age should be placed under the purview of a specialized juvenile justice system, one that is restorative in nature, instead of the punitive and retributive model based on the deprivation of liberty.

Deprivation of Liberty of Adolescents: “A Last Resort”

Deprivation of liberty of adolescents should be used only as an exceptional measure of last resort, and for the least amount of time necessary.

Avoid Pretrial Detention of Adolescents

As a general rule, deprivation of liberty must be avoided prior to final judgment of a court when persons under 18 years of age are involved, unless the law provides for certain exceptions which would justify the limited use of pretrial detention, for a set period of time, with the maximum length of time established by law.

Photo Credit: CIDH