Press Release

Rapporteur on the Rights of the Child Wraps Up Visit to Brazil and Speaks Out against the Lowering of the Age of Criminal Responsibility

July 17, 2015

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Washington, D.C. - The Rapporteur on the Rights of the Child of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Commissioner Rosa María Ortiz, wrapped up her July 1-3 visit to Brazil, which included stops in Brasilia and São Paulo. The purpose of the trip was to promote the rights of children and adolescents in the country and to convey that a proposed constitutional reform lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 years for serious offenses runs contrary to inter-American human rights standards.

During her visit, the Rapporteur was received by congressional representatives and senators and met with civil society organizations and religious leaders to address the issue. On July 3, the Rapporteur participated in a public hearing before the Legislative Assembly of the State of São Paulo (ALESP), convened by the president of that body’s Human Rights Commission and by the nongovernmental organization World Vision. Other participants in the public hearing included council members of the municipality of São Paulo; representatives of the National Human Rights Movement, World Vision, the University of São Paulo, and the National Evangelical Network for Social Action (RENAS); and young people from the community of Lins de Vasconcelos in Rio de Janeiro, one of the areas most affected by violence. During her trip, the Rapporteur also met with young people from the region of Capão Redondo, in the state of São Paulo, and from Lins de Vasconcelos and the city of Nova Iguaçu, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, to talk about the living conditions and security situation in the areas where they live, which are very affected by violence and insecurity.

The Rapporteur expressed deep concern over proposed constitutional amendment 171 being debated by Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, which seeks to amend the 1988 Federal Constitution to reduce the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 years for crimes against life and certain other offenses considered serious. During the Rapporteur’s trip, the proposal was rejected by the Chamber of Deputies and then put to a new vote in the same chamber, after some changes to the text were introduced. The new vote was taken less than 24 hours after the previous one, and the proposal was approved. For the change to the Brazilian Constitution to take effect, the proposal must still go through a second round of voting in the Chamber of Deputies and must be approved in two rounds of voting in the Federal Senate. During the trip, the Rapporteur stressed that international instruments establish that anyone under the age of 18 is a “child” and that the standards established by the American Convention on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as by the Inter-American Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, are unequivocal in guaranteeing differential and special treatment for those under 18 years of age in conflict with the law. Commissioner Ortiz stated that the proposal would also violate the principle of non-regression with regard to already guaranteed human rights. The proposal to lower the criminal age constitutes a serious violation of the fundamental rights of adolescents and goes against international treaties that have been ratified by Brazil.

The Brazilian Federal Constitution currently establishes that children and adolescents under 18 years of age may not be held accountable in the same way as adults for law-breaking behavior, and it establishes a separate juvenile justice system, taking into consideration the developmental status of children and adolescents. The current Constitution and the Statute on Children and Adolescents Estatuto da Criança e do Adolescente, ECA) are in line with international human rights standards, although their implementation needs to be strengthened. The proposed constitutional reform represents a setback in the legal progress made by Brazil. The Rapporteur underscored that “Brazil was the first country on the continent to translate the Convention on the Rights of the Child into a specific law on children, with the Estatuto da Criança e do Adolescente, and this was a good practice that served as an inspiration and a positive influence throughout our region.”

The Rapporteur also welcomed the progress made at the legislative and institutional level with regard to the system to guarantee the rights of children, particularly the Estatuto da Criança e do Adolescente and the 2012 entry into force of Law 12.594. This law regulates socio-educational measures and creates the National System for Socio-Educational Services (SINASE) for adolescent offenders, in addition to establishing restorative justice as a principle of juvenile justice. However, the Rapporteur cautions that SINASE must be strengthened so that it can carry out its role of rehabilitation and at the same time act as a complement to the system to guarantee children’s rights, which must also be strengthened to address the reasons that lead adolescents to commit crimes.

Children and Adolescents Are Victims More than Aggressors
During the visit, the Rapporteur noted that adolescents are one of the groups most affected by the violence in Brazil. According to official data, in the last 12 years violence has been the leading cause of death among adolescents. In 2012, 36.5 percent of adolescents between the ages of 10 and 18 who lost their lives were victims of violent homicide, compared with 4.8 percent for the population as a whole. Moreover, in 2012, 56,000 people were killed in Brazil, of whom 30,000 were young people between the ages of 15 and 29; of these, 77 percent were of African descent. Most of these homicides are carried out with firearms, and fewer than 8 percent of cases are ever brought to trial. Besides being victims of deadly violence, children are also victimized on a daily basis by other forms of violence, in the home, at school, even by State security forces. The Commissioner said that “in environments where children are growing up there is a proliferation of firearms, drug trafficking, and the presence of organized crime, with frequent armed clashes and pressures from criminal groups.”

However, children are accused of being the main perpetrators of serious crimes in Brazil. But contrary to what is generally believed, recent data from UNICEF indicate that of Brazil’s 21 million adolescents, only 0.013 percent have committed crimes against life. The connection between adolescents and crime is limited, for the most part, to property crimes or crimes related to drug dealing, which in the Commissioner’s opinion are related “to the socioeconomic environment of exclusion and discrimination of poor and Afro-descendant children in a context of disorganized urban growth that does not provide decent living conditions, and deficient State policies for preventing violence and guaranteeing rights.” The Rapporteur also indicates that she heard from legislators that there is a demand from citizens that adolescents not receive immunity. In that regard, she notes that “the lack of adequate information is troubling, because such immunity does not exist, since children who commit criminal offenses are held accountable for them, as of age 12, through a juvenile justice system that aims to rehabilitate the children and reintegrate them into society. That system does need to be improved.”

Alternatives to Lowering the Criminal Age: Prevention and the Strengthening of the ECA

The Rapporteur emphasized that, under its international obligations, the State of Brazil must adopt measures designed to prevent children and adolescents from being linked to crime and violence. She also stressed that the State should, above all, implement policies to support children and their families and communities, as well as strengthen social policies that ensure access to rights for the most excluded communities and the system for the protection of children established through the ECA. In her statements, the Rapporteur also recommended that Brazil promote reforms in its security systems, with a review of police strategies toward more people-friendly policing, and that efforts be made to strengthen citizenship among children and adolescents.

The Rapporteur stressed the importance of listening directly to young people: “As I saw during my trip, no adult sees and talks about the context of the violence as clearly as these children do. While adults write theses and comment at great length, these children can articulate the situation in five minutes because this is their experience, and they can be part of the solution.”

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 078/15