Blog: Committee on the Rights of the Child

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June 21, 2011

UN To Evaluate Panama Juvenile Fire Deaths


Children’s Rights Committee Will Review January Deaths, State Response, and Juvenile Detention Policies.

June 21, 2011, Geneva—Today at 3:00 pm local time (8:00 am in Panama), the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child will begin to examine Panama’s record on children’s rights and its compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, including a fire this past January at Tocumen detention center that killed five children.

This evaluation comes just one day after at least a dozen juveniles suffered burns in another fire in at the Arco Iris detention center.  Authorities have still not provided information on this tragedy.

Along with Panama’s state report, the Committee will receive and review a highly critical report from the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School and Panamanian civil society groups (the Alianza Ciudadana Pro Justicia, and the Asamblea Ciudadana de Panama), documenting the serious failure of the juvenile detention system to protect the basic rights of children.

“Make no mistake about it: the fire at Tocumen was both foreseeable and preventable,” said Professor James Cavallaro, Executive Director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.  “Yesterday’s fire confirms that Panama has not taken the necessary steps to protect the lives of juveniles in detention centers.  Unless Panama changes its failed policies, tragedies such as these will continue to occur.”

The report documents a pattern of physical abuse by detention center officials and police; overcrowding and unsafe conditions; and failure to provide juveniles with basic services, such as health care or education.  It also details the January 9 fire at the Centro de Cumplimiento de Tocumen, which started when police threw tear gas bombs that ignited a mattress, and ended with seven boys burning in their cells while guards and watched from outside the building.

Five of those youths died.

The twenty-six page report, Preventable Tragedy in Panama—Unnecessary Deaths and Rights Violations in Juvenile Detention Centers, is based on visits to detention centers, and interviews with detainees and government officials.  It includes a legal analysis, which describes Panama’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, among other international standards, and concludes that Panama has failed to protect the rights of juvenile detainees and has subjected them to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

According to the report, juveniles throughout the Panamanian juvenile detention system are routinely deprived of basic necessities, like water, fresh air, and light. Prison administrators crowd juveniles into small cells, and allow them only a few hours of schooling or recreation per week.  In interviews, juveniles described regular beatings by guards.  They also reported being shot with rubber bullets and sprayed with tear gas.

“As a nation rich in resources, Panama can and should do better,” said Virginia Corrigan, JD ’11, a primary author of the report and a member of the clinical team.  “It’s a matter of political will.”

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