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It is Time to Join the Rest of the World: Omar Khadr and the Convention on the Rights of the Child

Jennifer Turner,
Human Rights Researcher,
ACLU Human Rights Program
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November 20, 2009

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most comprehensive treaty on children’s rights. The convention has been ratified by nearly every country in the world, except the United States. The convention would fill current gaps in U.S. law, and provide all children in America with the same robust protections that children in 193 countries are already entitled to.

On Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that five Guantánamo detainees will face trial before military commissions. Included among those five, is Canadian Omar Khadr, a Guantánamo detainee who has been held in U.S. custody since age 15 — fully a third of his life — and faces prosecution for crimes allegedly committed when he was as young as 10. In response to questions from reporters, Attorney General Holder specifically announced that the administration will continue to prosecute Omar Khadr before a military commission.

The decision to continue to prosecute Omar Khadr flies in the face of universally recognized standards of juvenile justice and the United States’ international legal commitments. The Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, a separate protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), requires the U.S. government to treat former child soldiers first as candidates for rehabilitation and reintegration into society, not subject them to abuse and prosecution in a military tribunal, as in Omar Khadr’s case (PDF).

The prosecution of Omar Khadr also flies in the face of international practice: no international tribunal since Nuremberg has prosecuted an alleged child soldier for war crimes.

In May 2008, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the United Nations body of experts that monitors compliance with the CRC, reviewed U.S. government compliance with the protocol, which the United States ratified in 2002 and is binding on the United States. The committee expressed serious concern that the U.S. government has charged with war crimes, and in some cases prosecuted, children who were recruited or used in armed conflict, without due account of their status as children. The committee recommended that the U.S. government avoid conducting criminal proceedings against children within the military justice system, and provide psychological, education and other services to promote social reintegration of child soldiers.

Yesterday, the ACLU sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates requesting updated information on the number of juveniles in U.S. military custody overseas and information on efforts to bring U.S. policy regarding the treatment, detention and trial of suspected child soldiers like Omar Khadr into compliance with international law.

The U.S. government’s refusal to acknowledge Omar Khadr’s status as a teenage child when he was captured, and its insistence on proceeding with prosecution before the discredited military commissions system, is a blot on our country’s human rights record.

Both our government’s insistence on departing from accepted standards and international practice by prosecuting an alleged child soldier, and our government’s failure to ratify the most ratified international human rights treaty, stand in the way of the United States’ ability to regain leadership on human rights.

Even President Obama has recognized this. During his presidential campaign, President Obama said that it is “important that the United States return to its position as a respected global leader and promoter of human rights.” At that time, President Obama said that our country’s failure to ratify such a universally accepted treaty, and to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, is “embarrassing.”

Now is the chance to ensure America’s commitment to the rule of law by giving Omar Khadr his day in a legitimate system of justice or, better yet, repatriating him to Canada for rehabilitation and reintegration into society, and a second chance at life.

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