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United Nations Resolutions

A near universal consensus has coalesced over the past 15 years that JLWOP sentences must be legally abolished. Myriad United Nations resolutions have passed by consensus or, upon vote, by every country represented except the United States.

Every year since 2006, the United Nations General Assembly has adopted in its Rights of the Child resolution a call for the immediate abrogation of the juvenile life without parole sentence by law and practice in any country applying the penalty.1 For example, by a vote of 185 to one (the United States was the lone dissenter) the General Assembly adopted a resolution on December 19, 2006, calling upon nations to "abolish by law, as soon as possible, the death penalty and life imprisonment without possibility of release for those under the age of 18 years at the time of the commission of the offense" ("Rights of the Child," G.A. Res. 61/146, U.N. Doc. A/Res/61/146, para. 31(a) (Dec. 19, 2006)). A similar resolution was adopted by a vote of 183 countries to one in December of 2007 (the United States was the lone dissenter) (G.A. Res. 62/141, U.N. Doc. A/RES/62/141, para 36(a) (Dec. 18, 2007)), and again in 2008 (the United States was the lone dissenter) (G.A. Res. 63/241, U.N. Doc. A/RES/63/241, para. 43(a) (Dec. 24, 2008)).

The United Nations Human Rights Council included the prohibition in its first substantive resolution on the Rights of the Child (Rights of the Child, A/HRC/7/RES/29, para. 30(a) (2008)), along with prohibition of the death penalty for offenders under the age of 18 at the time of the crime.2 In 2009 the council again urged "states to ensure that, under their legislation and practice, neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without the possibility of release is imposed for offences committed by persons under 18 years of age" (Res. 10/2, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/10/L.11, para. 11 (adopted Mar. 25, 2009)). In 2005, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (predecessor to the Human Rights Council) called for governments to prohibit the juvenile life without parole sentence along with the juvenile death penalty (Rights of the Child, U.N. Commission on Human Rights 2005/44, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/RES/2005/44, para. 27(c) (April 20, 2005)). This resolution emerged from a series of pronouncements from the commission, from 1997 through 2004, emphasizing the need for the global community to comply with the principle that depriving juveniles of their liberty should only be a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate time.

These resolutions followed many years of other pronouncements calling for limited juvenile incarceration. In 1985, for example, the General Assembly adopted the "United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice," reiterating that confinement shall be imposed only after careful consideration and for the shortest period possible ("Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice," G.A. Res. 40/33, 40 U.N. GAOR Supp. No. 53, 207, U.N. Doc. A/40/53, Rule 17.1(b) (Nov. 29, 1985)). In 1990, the General Assembly passed two other resolutions in support. See "U.N. Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of Their Liberty," G.A. Res. 45/113, U.N. Doc. A/RES/45/113, Rule 2 (Dec. 14, 1990), which emphasizes imprisonment as a last resort and for the shortest time possible, and "United Nations Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency," G.A. Res. 45/112, U.N. Doc. A/RES/45/112, para. 46, (Dec. 14, 1990).

Key U.N. General Assembly Resolutions

U.N. General Assembly Resolution: Rights of the Child (2008)

In relation to the juvenile justice issue, it calls upon states to abolish by law and in practice, life imprisonment without the possibility of release for juveniles (para. 43). It also condemns the use of all forms of violence against children and urges states to change attitudes that condone the use of cruel, inhuman and degrading forms of discipline against children (para. 27(g)). It also encourages states to promote positive and constructive forms of discipline (para. 27(h)) and to start to introduce alternative measures for dealing with juvenile delinquency without resorting to judicial procedures (para. 44) (G.A. Res. 63/241; U.N. Doc. A/RES/63/241 (December 2008) (vote: 159-1)).

U.N. General Assembly Resolution: Rights of the Child (2007)

In relation to the juvenile justice issue, the General Assembly urges states to abolish life without imprisonment without the possibility of release for juveniles (para. 36(a)) as soon as possible. It also urges states to ensure that no child in detention is sentenced to any form of cruel or degrading punishment (para. 37) and condemns violence against children, including cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment (para. 52). It also urges states to strive to change attitudes that condone such degrading treatment of children (para. 57(i)) (G.A. Res. 62/141; U.N. Doc. A/RES/62/141 (December 2007) (vote: 183-1)).

U.N. General Assembly Resolution: Rights of the Child (2006)

In relation to the juvenile justice issue, the General Assembly calls upon the states to abolish life imprisonment without the possibility of release for juveniles (para. 31(a)). It also calls upon states to ensure that no child in detention is sentenced to any form of cruel or degrading punishment (para. 32) and urges states to not use disciplinary measures that are based on any form of cruel or degrading treatment (para. 17(e)). The resolution urges states to take measures to provide constructive and positive forms of discipline in the justice system (para. 17(f)) (G.A. Res. 61/146; U.N. Doc. A/RES/61/146 (December 2006) (vote: 185-1)).

United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (the "Beijing Rules")

In the context of juvenile justice, the Beijing Rules focus on the well being of the juvenile and on minimizing the necessity of intervention by the juvenile justice system. The rules cover many topics including general principles, establishing the U.N. position on juvenile justice, investigation and prosecution issues, the adjudication and disposition of juveniles, institutional and non-institutional treatments, and research and policy planning on juvenile justice. Each rule is set out and followed with clarifying commentary from the assembly. Rule examples include the goal of avoiding incarceration in the case of juveniles unless there is no other appropriate response that will protect the public safety (commentary on Rule 17.1(c)), rule that strictly punitive approaches are not appropriate (commentary on Rule 17.1(b)), and a recommended list of alternative disposition measures for juveniles (Rule 18) (G.A. Res. 40/33, U.N. Doc. A/40/53 (November 1985).

United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of Their Liberty

This document reaffirms the Beijing Rules and emphasizes that imprisonment of juveniles should be a last resort and for the shortest time possible. These rules cover many topics including fundamental perspectives, the scope and application of the principles laid out, juveniles who are under arrest or awaiting trial, the management of juvenile facilities (including accommodations, access to health care, and disciplinary measures), and the conduct of personnel in the treatment of juveniles. Rule examples include deprivation of the liberty of a juvenile should be a disposition of last resort and for the minimum necessary period, limited to exceptional cases (Rule 2) and that personal information regarding a convicted juvenile should help determine the specific level and type of care that the juvenile will receive (Rule 27) (G.A. Res. 45/113, U.N. Doc. A/RES/45/113 (December 1990)).

United Nations Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency (the "Riyadh Guidelines")

This document is focused on the prevention of juvenile delinquency and the need for children to engage in lawful, socially useful activities. These rules cover many topics including fundamental principles, scope of the guidelines, general prevention of juvenile crime, socialization processes to ensure that children grow up in healthy environments, social policy and resources to benefit young people, and useful legislation directed at protecting children and administering proper juvenile justice. Rule examples include: the institutionalization of young persons should be a measure of last resort and for the minimum necessary period (Rule 46), the best interests of the young person should be of paramount importance (Rule 46), and no child or young person should be subjected to harsh or degrading correction or punishment (Rule 54) (G.A. Res. 45/112, U.N. Doc. A/RES/45/112 (December 1990)).

Key U.N. Human Rights Council Resolutions3

Human Rights in the Administration of Justice, in particular Juvenile Justice (2009)

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The HRC urges states to ensure that, under their legislation and practice, neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without the possibility of release is imposed for offences committed by persons under 18 years of age (para. 11). The council also encourages states to promote the use of alternative measures, such as diversion and restorative justice, and compliance with the principle that deprivation of liberty of children should only be used as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time (para. 9) (A/HRC/10/L.15).

Rights of the Child (2008)

In this resolution the HRC calls upon all states to "abolish by law, as soon as possible,...life imprisonment without possibility of release for those under the age of 18 years at the time of the commission of the offence..." (para. 30(a)) (A/HRC/7/RES/29).

Key U.N. Commission on Human Rights Resolutions4

Rights of the Child (2005)

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In article 27(c), the commission called upon all states to "ensure compliance with the principle that depriving children of their liberty should be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate time, in particular before trial, (and) recalling the prohibition of life imprisonment without possibility of release" (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/RES/2005/44).

Rights of the Child (2004)

In article 35(c), the commission calls upon "(a)ll states to take appropriate steps to ensure compliance with the principle that depriving children of their liberty should be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time..." (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/RES/2004/48).

Rights of the Child (2003)

In article 35(c), the commission calls upon "(a)ll states to take appropriate steps to ensure compliance with the principle that depriving children of their liberty should be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time, in particular before trial..." (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/RES/2003/86).

Rights of the Child (2002)

In article 31(b), the commission calls upon "(a)ll states to take appropriate steps to ensure compliance with the principle that depriving children of their liberty should be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time, in particular before trial..." (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/RES/2002/92).

Rights of the Child (2001)

In article 28(b), the commission calls upon "(a)ll states to take appropriate steps to ensure compliance with the principle that depriving children of their liberty should be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time, in particular before trial..." (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/RES/2001/75).

Rights of the Child (2000)

In article 36(b), the Commission calls upon States to "take appropriate steps to ensure compliance with the principle that depriving children of their liberty should be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time..." (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/RES/2000/85).

Rights of the Child (1999)

See U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/RES/1999/90.

Human Rights in the Administration of Justice, in Particular of Children and Juveniles in Detention (1998)

In article 15, the commission "(u)rges states to take appropriate steps to ensure compliance with the principle that depriving children and juveniles of their liberty should be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time, in particular before trial..." (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/RES/1998/39).

Human Rights in the Administration of Justice, in Particular of Children and Juveniles in Detention (1996)

In article 13, the commission "(a)lso urges states to take appropriate steps to ensure compliance with the principle that depriving children and juveniles of their liberty should be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time, in particular before trial..." (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/RES/1996/32).


1U.N. General Assembly Resolutions are not legally binding documents but rather statements that urge governments to take specific action. Over time, if such action is repeatedly urged by resolutions formally adopted by all governments (by consensus) or a majority of governments (by vote) these may be viewed as codifying the legal expectations of the international community of nations. This is particularly the case if the resolutions also conform to general state practice in adherence to legal obligations.

2The Commission on Human Rights, created in 1948, was replaced by the Human Rights Council in 2005, which began adopting thematic resolutions in 2007.

3Resolutions issued by the Human Rights Council, which was formed in 2006 to replace the now-defunct Commission on Human Rights.

4Prior to the Human Rights Council, the U.N. body monitoring human rights was the Commission on Human Rights. In the last decade of its existence, it emphasized the need for the global community to comply with the principle that depriving juveniles of their liberty should only be a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate time.