Active in Peru since 1973, Terre des hommes has long been involved in projects for health and nutrition. Today, the teams in the field are giving priority to promoting a system of juvenile justice based on child rights. In a country where, sadly, violence is a part of daily life, the subject of ‘youngsters in conflict with the law’ is a particularly sensitive one, above all in view of recent events. Last December 31st, one of the leading hired killers in the country – aged only 17! – escaped with other prisoners from the centre for the rehabilitation of minors in Maranguita. Although they were on the run for only a few days, the affair attracted a lot of attention and added fresh fuel to the recurrent debate about more stringent measures towards adolescents. It frequently happens that some of the Peruvian deputies suggest going back on the age of criminal liability. Last year alone, 4 such bills were presented. Faced with this retrograde position which is counter to Peruvian and international standards on this matter, the promotion of alternatives to deprivation of liberty is a necessity that is constantly mobilizing Tdh’s teams.
Respect for the rights of the child in the media
In Peru , violence is omnipresent in the media. The majority of the reports add to the mounting feeling of insecurity, and the young perpetrators of even a minor offence are automatically stigmatized as potential criminals. Rather than focusing on the context in which the youngster has grown up, or the possibilities for reintegration, with some exceptions the Peruvian media concentrates on the offence itself. And yet, the statistics are there to show that ‘young people in conflict with the law’ represent only a tiny part of crime. In fact, only 0.4% of the youngsters between 14 and 18 have already committed an offence, and the total does not represent even 5% of all the offences committed (adults and minors counted together).
Tdh enjoys an excellent reputation in Peru for its work on juvenile justice. Media coverage of the affair of the young killer was the occasion for Tdh to demand once again specific treatment for young people in conflict with the law. On the level of expressions used, Tdh recommends that the words ‘criminals’ or ‘delinquents’ should not be used, but rather to present the offenders as ‘youngsters in conflict with the law’ or else ‘adolescents accused of having broken the law’. So as never to forget the superior interest of the child, Tdh reminds people that the Peruvian government and the media have signed a statement of principles for dealing with cases involving children and teenagers. The latter undertakes not to dwell on the names, addresses and family circle of the young people in question. Finally, rather than stigmatizing the youngster in articles, Tdh suggests making the general public more aware through various preventative campaigns on juvenile justice.
Reintegration benefits all the community
Tdh continues to call to mind that young persons under the age of 18 should not be dealt with the same as adults. To counter the views of some politicians who preach strictness and insist on individual responsibility, Tdh carries out real advocacy in favour of realizing all the facts. Restorative juvenile justice aims at repairing the injury done to the victims, making the young person take his responsibility and permitting him to become reintegrated into society.
In practice, Tdh provides the youngster accused of having committed an offence with a lawyer and a psychologist from the time of his arrest. The project includes all the parties concerned getting specialized training based on an approach adapted to the problem of ‘youngsters in conflict with the law’, and is offered to all judges, public prosecutors, psychologists and social workers who want it. As Tdh’s juvenile justice specialist in Peru, Oscar Vasquez, states, the establishment of such a system of justice incorporates the victim, the young offender and the community as a whole: “The adolescent understands the consequences of his deed. The harm done to the victim is put right emotionally and materially, the community feels itself strengthened and safe, and the legal system confirms the values of constitutional law and order”. Since the institution of this system in 2005, nearly 2,000 young people have been safeguarded from the moment of their arrest, thanks to Tdh. About half of them were able to benefit from Tdh’s programme (the rest of the cases were archived if the offences were too serious for any benefit to be got from an alternative to imprisonment). Only 7% of that 2,000 have become second offenders since then. As to the victims, more than 200 benefited from Tdh’s support, 36 of them even accepted mediation with the youngsters who had committed an offence. Finally, the last key argument to establishing of this justice is economical. Care for a young person costs only 115 dollars a month against 417 dollars if he has to serve a prison sentence.
The work of Terre des hommes in Peru bears fruit and has received a positive echo in Peruvian society, as shown last July by the giving of the Javier Perez de Cuellar prize (former Secretary General of the UN from 1982 to 1991) for its work to promote an educational approach instead of a repressive one. The methods adopted also serve as an example in other Latin American countries such as Colombia, where a conference was held in Medellin last 28th to 30th December on these new perspectives for restorative juvenile justice. And finally, since the end of 2010 the Peruvian State Prosecution has decided to repeat this experience by applying it in new regions and proposes to continue its gradual establishment throughout the country, thanks to funding by the Peruvian government.