Villagrán-Morales, et al. (“Street Children”) v. Guatemala

Merits, Judgment, Inter-Am. Ct. H.R. (ser. C) No. 63 (Nov. 19, 1999); Inter Joint Concurring Opinion of Judges A.A. Cancado Trinidade & A. Abreu-Burelli, Inter-Am. Ct. H.R. (ser. C) No. 63 (Nov. 19, 1999).
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Five youths, three of whom were minors, were “street children” abducted, tortured, and killed by State security agents.  The children lived in a sector of the city where violence and crime rate were high and where State officials commit illegal acts against “street children,” including “threats, arrests, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and homicides as a measure to counter juvenile delinquency and vagrancy.”

The Commission submitted the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, claiming that Guatemala had violated Articles 1 (Obligation to Respect Rights), 4 (Right to Life), 5 (Right to Humane Treatment), 7 (Right to Personal Liberty), 8 (Right to a Fair Trial), Article 19 (Rights of the Child), and 25 (Right to Judicial Protection) of the American Convention on Human Rights. The Commission also cited Articles 1, 6 and 8 of the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture.

The Court found the state in violation of Art. 4 (right to life) of the American Convention on Human Rights.  The Court recognized the right to life is a fundamental human right, essential for the exercise of other human rights, and whose restriction is "inadmissible." The Court reiterated that States have the obligation to guarantee "the conditions required" to prevent violations of the right to life.

The Court held that the state had violated Art. 5 (right to humane treatment) based on the "ill-treatment and physical and psychological torture" received by the victims from state agents and, particularly, national police force. Also, the Court found that incommunicado detention as a violation of the right to humane treatment because of the moral and psychological suffering inflicted on the person detained.

"The right to life is a fundamental human right, and the exercise of this right is essential for the exercise of all other human rights. If it is not respected, all rights lack meaning. Owing to the fundamental nature of the right to life, restrictive approaches to it are inadmissible. In essence, the fundamental right to life includes, not only the right of every human being not to be deprived of his life arbitrarily, but also the right that he will not be prevented from having access to the conditions that guarantee a dignified existence. States have the obligation to guarantee the creation of the conditions required in order that violations of this basic right do not occur and, in particular, the duty to prevent its agents from violating it." para. 144.

"The Court wishes to indicate the particular gravity of the instant case since  the victims were youths, three of them children, and because the conduct of the  State not only violated the express provision of Article 4 of the American Convention, but also numerous international instruments, that devolve to the State the obligation to adopt special measures of protection and assistance for the children within its jurisdiction." para. 146.

"[O]ne of the reasons that incommunicado detention is considered to be an exceptional instrument is the grave effects it has on the detained person. Indeed, isolation from the outside world produces moral and psychological suffering in any person, places him in a particularly vulnerable position, and increases the risk of aggression and arbitrary acts in prisons." para. 164.

"creating a threatening situation or threatening an individual with torture may, at least in some circumstances, constitute inhuman treatment." para. 165.

"[P]ersons who is unlawfully detained […] is in an exacerbated situation of vulnerability creating a real risk that his other rights, such as the right to humane treatment and to be treated with dignity, will be violated." para. 166.

"[W]e should recall the presumption established by the European Court when considering that the State is responsible for ill-treatment exhibited by a person who has been in the custody of State agents, if the authorities are incapable of demonstrating that those agents did not incur in such behavior." (Citing Aksoy v. Turkey (1996), Ribitsch v. Austria (1995), and Tomasi v. France (1992)). para. 170.

"[T]he fundamental character of the right to life, which, besides being non-derogable, requires positive measures of protection on the part of the State […]." Cançado & Abreu Concurring Opinion, para. 1

"There can no longer be any doubt that the fundamental right to life belongs to the domain of jus cogens." Cançado & Abreu Concurring Opinion, para. 2.

"[T]he right to life as belonging, at the same time, to the domain of civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights, thus illustrating the interrelation and indivisibility of all human rights." Cançado & Abreu Concurring Opinion, para. 4.

"The needs of protection of the weaker, - such as the children in the streets, - require definitively an interpretation of the right to life so as to comprise the minimum conditions of life with dignity." Cançado & Abreu Concurring Opinion, para. 7.