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Sweeping the Streets of Children : In Brazil, death squads resort to the capital-punishment approach

November 18, 1990

Child abuse the world over is a serious problem, but perhaps this adult-perpetrated tragedy is nowhere more severe than in Brazil, where homeless street children are subject to unofficial police execution.

In this poverty-drenched nation of 154 million people--the largest country in South America--many families live on the edge of desperation, and many young men, from the age of 5 years on up, take to the streets to scrape out a living. The net result is a curbside underclass, estimated to be as large as 7 million, that is involved in the struggle of trying to eke out mere existence.

The very size of this class of poverty-stricken children adds enormously to crime in Brazil. Shops are often looted at night; street robberies are not uncommon; begging is constant. To make matters worse, however, deaths squads of police, often hired by local merchants, hunt children out and kill them. The Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis reports that 457 young people--few with criminal records--were executed by police last year.

The use of death squads as sadistic street sweepers of children is sickening. Brazil abandoned military rule in 1985, and three years later a new constitution explicitly guarantees fundamental human rights. As a report by Amnesty International put it: "However, passing laws and ratifying international instruments are only the first steps toward guaranteeing respect for human rights. The Brazilian government must find the political will, and dedicate the resources, to translate its constitutional obligations into reality. Without this, legislation to protect human rights becomes a dead letter."

Two months ago 70 heads of state convened at the United Nations in New York at a World Summit for Children. Sponsored by UNICEF, it concluded with the signing of a Declaration of Children's Rights. It was the largest gathering ever of top political leaders. It was for a good cause, indeed. "There can be no nobler task than giving every child a better future," said the declaration. Brazil is not the only violator of children's rights by any means. But it has a terrible and immediate problem. The world is watching to see how Brasilia solves it.

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