Mendoza v Argentina: Against the life imprisonment of children

by | Jul 23, 2013

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About Nicolas Espejo Yaksic

Dr. Nicolás Espejo Yaksic is Researcher at the Centre for Constitutional Studies (CEC) of the Supreme Court of Mexico; Visiting Fellow, Exeter College, University of Oxford and Member of the Leiden's Children Rights Observatory, Leiden University. He has worked for more than 25 years in the field of human rights, both as an academic and activist, in Latin America and for the United Nations System. He is the editor (with Fabiola Lathrop) of the book Discapacidad Intelectual y Derecho (Intellectual Disability and The Law), Thomson Reuters & Legal Publishing, Santiago de Chile, 2019.

In Mendoza et al. v. Argentina, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (ICHR) has determined that life sentences against children constitute a breach of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR).

In an historic decision that follows recent developments in children’s rights from Inter-American Human Rights Law, the ICHR found the Government of Argentina guilty of human rights violations for imposing sentences of “perpetual deprivation of freedom” against five people for crimes they committed during childhood. The ICHR also found the State internationally responsible because the criminal procedure codes applied did not allow a comprehensive review of criminal judgments by a higher court, for the lack of adequate medical care to one of the children referred to above, for having inflicted torture against two of the victims without investigating the facts properly, as well as for failing to properly investigate the death of one of those while in state custody.

Based on the principle of the best interest of the child (Art. 19 of the ACHR in relation to Article 3 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child), the ICHR held that the life imprisonment sentences, by their nature, do not comply with the purpose of social reintegration of children. On the contrary, for the ICHR, life sentences against children imply their maximum exclusion from society, operating in a purely retributive sense and cancelling all expectations of rehabilitation. As a consequence, life sentences against children are not proportionate to the purpose of criminal punishment of children (Arts. 7.5, 19 and 1.1. of ACHR). Additionally, the ICHR held that the disproportional character of these types of sentences had provoked a high psychological impact on the victims and constituted cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (Arts. 5.1, 5.2, 19 and 1.1. of the ACHR).

The ICHR also determined that the lack of access to medical treatment, as well as the inexistence of a serious criminal investigation of the death of one of the victims and the physical torture suffered by the others, amounted to a violation of the right to personal integrity (Arts. 5.1 and 5.2) and the right to have access to an effective judicial remedy (Arts. 8.1 and 25.1) set forth in the ACHR, as well as the rights recognised by the Inter-American Convention Against Torture. In opinion of the IHCR, the psychological impact of the life imprisonment of the victims also severely affected the right to personal integrity of their family members, which amounted to a violation of Article 5.2 of the ACHR.

Finally, the IHCR determined that Argentinean Law did not allow a comprehensive review of criminal judgments by a higher court, including the re-examination of the facts and the evidence discussed in the first instance (Art. 8.2 of the ACHR).

The decision of the IHCR in Mendoza et al. v. Argentina is of utmost importance. The grave violations of the human rights of the victims in this case, including the irrational imposition of life sentences against children, are not exceptional. As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has established, in the Americas young offenders are usually subjected to criminal proceedings that lack the basic guarantees of due process. At the same time, young offenders are massively deprived of their liberty under inhuman and degrading conditions, including torture, without access to an effective system oriented toward their social rehabilitation.

The lack of basic conditions for children in conflict with the law in the administration of juvenile justice implies a serious violation of their rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and requires

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the development of a comprehensive policy based on the principles of prevention, diversion, due process, specialized justice and effective social reintegration.

Dr. Nicolás Espejo-Yaksic, Universidad Central de Chile. Currently a Visiting Fellow Kellogg College, Oxford University

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  1. Will T

    Interesting stuff about this apparently sensible decision. Life sentences, especially whole life ones (effectively a passive death penalty sentence), don’t serve much of a penological purpose, especially for young offenders.

    As I’m not a speaker of Spanish, I can’t get any sense out the judgement. Does this case refer to only what in England and Wales would be referred to as “whole life tariffs” (or by someone from the US as LWOP), or [theoretical] life sentences in general?

    Also, what is the compliance rate like with Argentina and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights?

    • Nicolás Espejo-Yaksic

      Dear Will.

      The Court´s decision, while referring to what you might call “whole life tariffs” in the case, makes a general statement on life sentences in general. The main doctrine of the Court on this particular issue is that life sentences in general are contrary to principles of proportionality of sentences (as applied to adolescents) and the specialization of the legal process for children (arts. 40 ff. of the United Nations Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child).

      As for the compliance rate of Argentina, this generally quite decent (I do not have a number), as in many of the last cases, Argentina has voluntarily recognized its international responsibility in the case. The main obstacle for a full compliance of the ICHR´s decisions is that, unlike the ECHR, the Inter-American tribunal is more demanding in terms of the specific measures that States must adopt as a consequence of the judgment. There is less room for a margin of appreciation in the matter (due to a lower confidence on the domestic capacity to deal with human rights violations)

      Best regards,


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