Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Religion

EL SALVADOR: Young People Get Summit, But No Convention

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Oct 28 2008 (IPS) - On the eve of the 18th Ibero-American Summit in the capital of El Salvador, President Antonio Saca still refuses to sign the bloc’s Convention protecting young people’s rights, even though the main theme of the meeting is youth and development.

Representatives of Salvadoran civil society and the Special Ombudsman’s Office for Children and Adolescents have pointed out the contradiction in Saca’s position. The president asked for the Summit to be held in his country, and even proposed the main theme.

Experts and social and political leaders consulted by IPS also indicated Saca’s “unwillingness” to sign the Ibero-American Convention on Young People’s Rights.

“The statements by President Saca and Foreign Minister Marisol Argueta are discouraging for young people who want their rights to be respected,” said Fátima Rodríguez, a 19-year-old sociology student and spokeswoman for the Coordinadora Intersectorial Pro-juventudes de El Salvador (CIPJES), a coalition of 30 youth organisations.

According to Luis Salazar, associate ombudsman for the rights of children and adolescents, the government’s arguments against signing the Convention “are absurd,” and can be put to rest by the country registering its reservations, as provided in Article 40 of the document.

“The rejection of the Convention by the Catholic Church definitely carries more weight than the arguments put forward by the government,” Salazar said. “That is the real reason” the government will not accept it, he argued.

Both Saca and Argueta have said they will not sign the Convention because Article 12, and others, run counter to the Salvadoran constitution, by granting persons between the ages of 18 and 30 the right to refuse compulsory military service on the grounds of conscientious objection.

But this is a confusing argument, since the 1992 peace agreement that put an end to El Salvador’s 12-year civil war abolished obligatory conscription, according to analysts.

In recent weeks the Archbishop of San Salvador, Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, who belongs to the most conservative wing of the Catholic Church, has declared himself against the signing of the Convention, saying that part of its contents are harmful to society, such as the articles that support the right to sex education, and to choose a partner freely.

In his latest Sunday message, Sáenz Lacalle asked participants at the Ibero-American Summit, to be held from Wednesday to Friday in San Salvador, to include a resolution against the decriminalisation of abortion in their final declaration.

Twenty heads of state and government are expected to attend the Ibero-American Summit. The bloc includes Andorra, Portugal, Spain and 19 Latin American countries, of which Bolivia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Spain and Uruguay have already ratified the Convention on Young People’s Rights, which entered into force in May.

In addition to El Salvador, the governments of Argentina, Chile and Colombia have not yet signed the instrument.

The Convention, which was signed by 18 of the 22 member countries of the Ibero-American Community in 2005 in the Spanish city of Badajoz, contains 44 articles promoting the rights of young people in areas such as health, sexuality, work, education and culture, through the implementation of public policies.

In Salazar’s view, El Salvador is not taking advantage of the benefits of the “demographic bonus” derived from the age structure of its population, which has a high proportion of young people. They should be “strategic actors,” boosting productive development, but this requires “guarantees” for young people in terms of basic rights and living conditions, such as education, health and housing, he said.

In this country, “young people suffer from neglect and repression, and are made use of for political ends,” the associate ombudsman said.

Some 1.2 million of El Salvador’s 5.7 million people are between the ages of 15 and 24, according to the 2007 census.

Instead of providing for the needs of young people “so that they can contribute to social and economic development,” the “powers-that-be” fail to create public policies for their benefit, and use them as “cheap labour” and as “cannon fodder in the pitched battles between political parties,” Salazar complained.

Meanwhile, members of the Rural Youth Movement marched through the streets of San Salvador on Oct. 24 in support of their “demand for the approval of the Convention,” and for the creation of more and better employment and education opportunities.

According to Santiago Serrano, a youth leader from the northern department (province) of Chalatenango, 60 percent of young people in the rural areas have no access to the educational system because of “lack of resources,” and those who manage to go to school barely finish sixth grade.

Leonor Calderón, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative in El Salvador, told IPS that her agency respected the decision of governments not to sign the Convention on young people’s rights. What matters is that states take actions to make young people’s rights a reality, she said.

The National Youth Survey released by the University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP) in June found that only 9.8 percent of the young people interviewed had university or technical education, while 30.4 percent had finished higher secondary school, 36.4 percent had completed lower secondary school, and 21.7 percent had only a primary school education.

The study also found that one out of four young people had wanted to emigrate in the last year, in search of better employment opportunities and higher pay.

A report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), released in July, found that 62.4 percent of young people were unemployed or underemployed.

Young people must also survive in a violent environment, fraught with gangs, mafias and common criminals, which caused the deaths of more than 16,000 Salvadorans between 2003 and 2007, according to official figures.

Another study, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) Statistical Yearbook 2007, indicates that El Salvador was the country of the Americas with the lowest level of social spending in 2004 and 2005, equivalent to just 5.6 percent of gross domestic product.

In spite of being a secular country, in El Salvador “the Catholic Church’s most conservative religious criteria are a barrier” to achieving young people’s rights, said CIPJES spokeswoman Rodríguez.

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