Justice for Street Children
“A world which abandons its children in the streets has no future; it no longer renders it possible to create and develop a project of life…” — Judge A.A. Cancado Trindade, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Anstraum Aman Villagran Morales lived on the streets of Guatemala City. On June 25, 1990, ten days after Guatemalan national police officers abducted and killed four youths, witnesses said they saw members of an official Guatemalan security force follow Morales down an alley, where they heard shots fired. When the security officers ran out of the alley, other street children accused them of killing Morales. The officers threatened the children and left. Morales was found dead. He was 17.
The life and death of these boys — all five were “street children,” as determined by an international court — epitomized the extreme, yet not uncommon experience of street children allover the world. Struggling national and regional economies, civil strife, globalization and especially the effects of systemic poverty, including family violence, have forced more and more children to live — and attempt to make a living — on the streets, where they often are exploited and victimized.
“Although this issue exists in virtually all nations, street children have become a feature of urban life in the poor and under-developed nations of Africa and Latin America,” says Uche Ewelukwa, associate professor of law at the University of Arkansas. “Many more children, perhaps millions, are only one small crisis away from being forced to live on the street.”
Ewelukwa, a faculty member at the university since 2001, teaches intellectual property law and international law with emphases on business, trade and human rights. In recent years, her lifelong passion for human rights and economic development have been at the core of her research efforts. This passion brought her to Villagran Morales v. Guatemala, the first case involving street children to go before an international court. Her analysis, “Litigating the rights of street children in regional and international fora: trends, options, barriers and breakthroughs,” of the landmark case was published in Yale Human Rights & Development Law Journal.
Villagran Morales v. Guatemala
In November 1999 — five years after a petition was filed by two human rights organizations — the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in Morales v. Guatemala that the federal government of Guatemala violated six articles of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a treaty signed by Guatemala and other members of the Organization of American States.
Perhaps most importantly, the articles included right to life — “every person” is guaranteed “the right to have his life respected” — and right to humane treatment, specifically stating that “every person has the right to have his physical, mental, and moral integrity respected” and that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment.” In 2001, the court ordered Guatemala to pay $508,865.91 in damages to the surviving relatives of the murdered children.
“Morales was significant for many reasons,” Ewelukwa says. “Yes, it was the first case concerning the rights of street children to go before an international court. It was also the first case in the history of the Inter-American Court in which the victims of human rights were children. These are important, but I think the greater significance was that the decision 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. Also, from a purely legal perspective, the decision established precedent-setting interpretations of core international treaties affecting the rights of children.”
With a few twists, Ewelukwa’s own story could have been similar to that of Villagran Morales or the Ethiopian child that ripped off her necklace while she was working for a human rights organization in that country. During Ewelukwa’s childhood, a series of military regimes controlled Nigeria. She remembers her father waking her early in the morning so that she could listen to yet another radio announcement by a different general that he and his soldiers had taken over the government.
“And that’s how we found out,” she says. “It happened so many times as a child that it makes you think about how fragile you are. Because you’re never quite sure, with every military coup, whether there’s going to be a war, and what will be the outcome. I think that’s where I got my interest in human rights and particularly the human rights of children.”
Perhaps this interest started at birth, many years before her father had her listen to coups announcements. Ewelukwa’s mother gave birth to her during a civil crisis in Nigeria. It was a difficult birth, one in which her mother bled a lot, and if it had not been for a Red Cross emergency hospital, mother and baby might have died. Ewelukwa understands that small yet significant events like these, depending on their outcome, can tip the edge and determine whether or not a child will be forced to live on the street. Throughout her life, Ewelukwa has often wondered what would have happened if her mother had died and she somehow survived.
“I would call myself an internal refugee during infancy,” she says. “Perhaps that is one reason why I always think back to children — children that are displaced, children that are vulnerable, children that are exploited. Because it is so easy for the world of a child to collapse in a moment; it’s so easy for that protective shield to disappear.”
As Ewelukwa got older, the political climate in Nigeria calmed. She finished law school — the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree — at the University of Nigeria, which did not offer a course in human rights. Her introduction to international human rights law came at University College London, where she earned a master’s degree in international business law. She also obtained a diploma in international and comparative human rights law from the International Institute for Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Ewelukwa then came to the United States to work on another master’s, this one in international law, at Harvard Law School. In 2003, she received a doctor of juridical science degree from Harvard.
A Defining Time and Shocking Experience
In 1993, following the completion of her master’s at Harvard, Ewelukwa went to work for Human Rights Watch, the largest international human rights organization in the United States. It was the experience there that opened her eyes and heart and shaped the future of her career. Working for an organization that had played a critical role in changing lives and policies was important, but it was the immersion in a culture of dedicated and compassionate people that influenced her the most.
“That was a defining time in my life,” Ewelukwa says. “What moved me was the dedicated people, people committed to the cause, people who could steadfastly push the agenda and shed light on injustice around the globe. These people were concerned about things that they didn’t have to be concerned about, things going on many miles away. It really touched me. It showed me that policy change is possible, maybe not immediately, but over time.”
She returned to Africa. As a research fellow for Human Rights Watch, Ewelukwa conducted on-site investigations and interviewed victims of human-rights abuses in several countries. She drafted detailed reports of findings and engaged in advocacy work at local and international levels. She went home, where she traveled through southern Nigeria and documented the plight of widows in many villages.
On a personal level, the Africa experience further shaped the direction of Ewelukwa’s career, both in advocacy and academia. With Human Rights Watch, she was sent to Ethiopia to interview political prisoners. The poverty there shocked her. Homeless children were everywhere. She observed many women and their children living on the streets. She found the experience to be strange and frustrating because of the juxtaposition of wealth and extreme poverty. Luxury hotels stood next to areas where hundreds of women and children were begging on the streets for money and food.
One day, while working, Ewelukwa felt a tug at her neck. A child had pulled off her necklace and run off. The next day, a boy, about nine years old, begged her for money. When she did not give money to the boy, he grabbed her bag and tried to take it from her. Ewelukwa caught the boy, and they struggled. She shouted for the police.
“But then I thought about what would be the fate of the child if the police came,” Ewelukwa said. “Would they hold him for a long time? Would they beat him?”
She let the boy go. The experience had a powerful impact; it forced Ewelukwa to think deeply about the causes behind circumstances and conditions of street children.
“I had to ask myself, ‘what forces a child to be on the street and to beg? What makes a child move from begging to stealing? Where is the government in all this?’ That is how I got into street children. The Ethiopia experience was quite shocking to me.”
The Importance of Morales v. Guatemala
In her paper, Ewelukwa argued that Morales v. Guatemala signaled a turning point for international human rights organizations and their efforts to force states to follow international legal obligations in which children are involved. The benefits of such cases are clear, and the immediate effect is that favorable decisions can lead to reform of domestic laws regarding children, as well as real social and political remedies for the victims of human-rights abuses. Furthermore, the long-term effect of such litigation and its resulting jurisprudence help create an international climate in which abuse and exploitation of children is less likely to be tolerated.
Despite these benefits, however, litigation in an international court should be regarded as an instrument of last resort, Ewelukwa says. It is one strategy to address the exploitation and victimization of street children. Litigation cannot replace domestic policies and programs that focus on the core sources of the problem, such as poverty, economic development and the effects of globalization.
Ewelukwa continues her academic and advocacy work to improve the lives of street children. She has written a new paper, to be published in 2009, that goes beyond Morales v. Guatemala and examines how and to what extent international institutions, such as the United Nations and World Bank, respond to the global problem of street children.
She also has started her own non-for-profit organization, Change International, which focuses on orphans, widows, injustice and poverty in Africa.
“It’s time for me to give back,” Ewelukwa says. “Children are victims, abandoned by or forced to abandon their families and treated like criminals by their government. The real issues are poverty and poor family structure. Many times programs don’t address factors that push children onto the street. My hope is that Change International will address these factors.”