Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-VENEZUELA: 400,000 Children in Legal Limbo

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Sep 2 1998 (IPS) - The right to legally exist is denied to more than 400,000 children in Venezuela, where draft regulations seek to leave behind a cocktail of red tape, xenophobia, discriminatory political measures and inhumanity that has turned them into de facto stateless persons.

One percent of the 40 million children lacking documents estimated worldwide by UNICEF, the UN children’s fund, are Venezuelan, even though the country’s 23 million inhabitants account for a much smaller proportion of the planet’s total population of six billion.

The new regulations were jointly drafted by social organisations and government institutions, and are designed to recover a basic human right, the right to a name and nationality, said Nancy Montero, president of the governmental National Institute of Attention to Minors (INAM).

The initiative was shored up late last month by a forceful sentence handed down by the Supreme Court in favour of two children born in 1992 and 1993 in the state of Tachira, on the border with Colombia, who were not allowed to be registered because their mother is an undocumented Colombian.

Miguel Angel, a white, freckled, middle-class five-year-old who does not fit any of the stereotypes of the victims of the phenomenon does not legally exist either because both he and his mother were ill after his birth and no one was able to register him in the 20-day timeframe provided for by law.

His mother, Ana Mercedes Salazar, was forced to initiate legal proceedings in order to register him, and ended up losing the case. The boy thus remains without his rights, and the mother trapped in a maze of cumbersome legal procedures.

A long chain of rights of those who lack a birth certificate are violated, which forces them into marginality, Yolanda Castrillo, coordinator of the Community Training Centre’s office of Defence of Human Rights (CECODAP), commented to IPS.

People without a birth certificate lose their right to a name, recognition by their parents, health care, education, the formation of a legal family, the realisation of any activity requiring documents – and even the right to a religion.

“There are families with three or more undocumented generations. This vicious circle must be broken, because basic rights enshrined in the constitution, national laws and international treaties are being violated,” Castrillo stressed.

The new regulations, which should soon be approved by the government, eliminate time limits for registering children, provide for delegates of the heads of register offices to be assigned to hospitals, sets procedures for overcoming existing gaps and allows undocumented mothers to present their children by simply demonstrating that they live in Venezuela.

A study found that 97 percent of the more than 407,000 children without documents in 1996 were born to Venezuelans, INAM’s Montero said on submitting the draft regulations to President Rafael Caldera along with non-governmental organisations like CECODAP.

The prevailing belief is that a large number of children lacking a legal identity were born to illegal immigrants, rather than Venezuelans.

That conviction was reinforced by the fate of a decree issued in 1991 by then-president Carlos Andres Perez. Decree 1,911 was designed to reaffirm that all children born in the country were of Venezuelan nationality and to eliminate discrimination surrounding the registration of children by undocumented foreign nationals.

The decree, which exonerated immigrants from having to present entry visas in order to register their children, was issued in compliance with article 35 of the constitution, which establishes that “those born in the territory of the Republic” are Venezuelans by birth.

It also aimed at compliance with several international legal instruments ratified by Venezuela, like the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which guarantees all newborns the right to be immediately registered and the right to a name, nationality and recognition by their parents.

Then-attorney-general Ramon Escovar launched an aggressive campaign against the decree as part of an all-out effort to fight Perez, whose term ended eight months early due to corruption charges filed by Escovar.

Widespread xenophobia against immigrants from Colombia, who constitute a large majority of all undocumented immigrants who illegally cross into Venezuela through jungle areas, was utilised by Escovar – later minister and ambassador under the government of Caldera – to get caretaker president Ramon Velasquez to revoke the decree in late 1993.

In the wake of the controversial annulment of decree 1,911, the first efforts against the irregularities plaguing the registration of children came from the Catholic Church in the state of Tachira, which criticised the goading of nationalist sentiment for political ends, and warned that many children had been left without the right to education and baptism.

The Attorney-General’s Office issued instructions in 1992 for hospitals and register offices to reject applications for birth certificates for children of undocumented foreign nationals.

A lawyer from the state of Tachira, Angel Marrero, became the standard-bearer for the fight for a legal solution to the discriminatory treatment of children when he lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court in 1995 and filed legal proceedings with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, both of which are still pending.

Marrero said the problem was aggravated by an outdated registry system which has remained almost unchanged since 1873. Failure to address the situation has led, for example, to the daily issuance of only 50 birth certificates in the country’s largest maternity ward, far below the actual number of births.

The recent Supreme Court ruling dealt a heavy blow to the Attorney-General’s Office, which was reminded that its role was to make sure laws were enforced rather than violate laws.

The verdict implicitly condemned the annulment of decree 1,911 by declaring that the denial of birth certificates to the two children born in Tachira violated their fundamental rights and the constitution.

The Supreme Court’s emphatic order that the two children be immediately registered “sets an extremely valuable legal precedent in favour of all those left without identity and other rights due to a number of irregularities,” Castrillo underlined.

 
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