The plight of children within the criminal justice system has been well documented as far as concepts and theories are concerned. However, there is very little (identifiable) literature on the treatment of children within the criminal justice system in Africa. As a result, this vulnerable group continues to be marginalised in legislative and policy frameworks, having dire consequences on the realisation of their rights. The absence of a separate system in many African countries to deal with the special needs of children in conflict with the law has been a major source of concern for the Committee on the Rights of the Child. The criminal justice system in many African countries is faced with poor administrative measures, and under-funding and therefore ill-equipped to protect the rights of children who come in conflict with the law. As a result, many children in conflict with the law end up in prisons (often with adults) without due regard being made in the course of the criminal proceedings to their age and immaturity.
Children come in contact with the justice system in many ways, including civil, criminal, administrative proceedings, and also in different capacities such as victims, complainants, witnesses and as suspects. Despite the frequent contact children might have with the justice system, available substantive and procedural standards are largely designed to fit adults and they seldom cater for the needs of children. As a result, the basic human right of access to justice for children is not given due consideration in the predominantly adult-oriented justice system. Even when there are special rules for treatment designed particularly for children, adherence to them by national legal, social welfare, justice and security institutions is far from expected.
The 2011 Conference on Child Justice organised jointly by ACPF and DCI carried the slogan “Deprivation of children’s liberty as the last resort”, to emphasise the need for specialised procedures for children in conflict with the law, who in most cases are detained in prisons, often alongside adults, therefore violating international and regional standards.
As was revealed through the conference discussions, there is a very little understanding of children’s rights in the justice system on the part of both children and adults, which makes it unlikely for people to challenge the abuse perpetrated within the system. Furthermore, institutions dealing with children in conflict with the law are sometimes not child-friendly and their physical conditions are often in the grimmest of state in Africa. In addition, not much has been done at the policy level for children as victims and witnesses as the focus is usually on children in conflict with the law. This means there is an urgent need for new tools to help African States to adapt their justice systems to the situation of children, to bring their procedures up to speed with international standards, and to properly implement them. As such, one of the outputs of the Kampala Conference aimed at helping the African States to implement the existing standards as well as to adopt recommended procedures that exist elsewhere, was the ‘Guidelines on Action for Children in the Justice System in Africa’.
Among other things, the Guidelines provide standards for treating children in both the traditional and formal justice systems; stipulate fair trial rights for children in conflict with the law and fair trial rights in matters involving child victims and witnesses; provide for standards for justice for children as subjects of non‐criminal judicial or administrative proceedings, including alternative care proceedings and family law disputes; and most importantly, provide for mechanisms for monitoring and implementing of child justice standards.
The Guidelines were translated into English, French and Arabic and are also uploaded on this website. In March 2012, the Guidelines were officially presented to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) during their 19th Session, for review and consideration. The ACERWC officially endorsed the Guidelines on 11th July 2012.
In order to ensure continuity and measure progress towards implementing the Guidelines and enhancing the protection of children in the justice system in Africa, the Second Global Conference on Child Justice in Africa will be held in 2018.