Uganda: "Breaking God's commands": The destruction of childhood by the Lord's Resistance Army

September 17, 1997

Uganda: "Breaking God's commands": The destruction of childhood by the Lord's Resistance Army

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The particular needs of returnees for education and economic empowerment should be identified and targeted. No-one really knows exactly how many children have been abducted. Plans appear to be in train, with UNICEF support, to try and record the numbers and identities of children taken with a view to arriving at some sense of the scale of resource investment needed to help abducted people and their families. In May 1997 the commander of the 4 Division of the UPDF in Gulu suggested that children whose names were not recorded might face criminal charges. While this use of census data does not appear to be official policy, in Amnesty International's opinion if such data became the basis for deciding who should or should not be prosecuted, it would undermine the attempt to have a meaningful census (and therefore efforts to rehabilitate child soldiers). In addition, the reality on the ground is that the scale of disruption in the countryside and the degree of suspicion of the government means that a full census will never be possible. Using census data to arrive at decisions on who should be made to account before the law for human rights abuses would make the process random. The authorities should give an under-taking that census data will not be used to take decisions on who should or should not be brought to justice.

It is not clear to Amnesty International that the government has a coherent, integrated plan for the rehabilitation of northern Uganda which takes into account both the need for significant investment in order to rebuild the economy and the education system but also the need to address the legacy of human rights abuse and the special needs of abducted children. If such a plan exists, it is not widely understood or recognized in the north. This is a contributory factor in the widespread Acholi belief that the rest of the country cares little for their situation.

In human rights terms, confronting the past to build the future means publicly investigating abuses of human rights by all parties in order that the truth might be known and remedial steps taken. In May 1986 Uganda was a pioneer among African nations when it set up a judicial Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations between independence in 1962 and the coming to power of the NRM in January 1986. The commission, which issued its report in October 1994, heard evidence about human rights violations from people of all parts of the country in an explicit effort to bring out in the open the abuses to which people had been subjected. This was an important part of coming to terms with the past by allowing a public airing of the hidden tragedy of many Ugandan lives. The aim was less to apportion blame -- although those who committed abuses were publicly exposed -- but more to produce recommendations on practical steps to be taken to prevent the repetition of human rights abuse.

However, history did not stop when the current government took power. The time bar on violations considered by the commission meant that it did not investigate abuses committed after 25 January 1986, which caused cynicism among some people from Gulu and Kitgum Districts about the motives of the government in setting up the inquiry. What is more, from a human rights perspective other investigations that have focused on the situation in the north have been disappointing. An inquiry set up in 1988 into alleged human rights violations in Gulu District spluttered in and out of existence until 1991 when it produced a confidential work in progress report and asked government for more funds. Since then it has collapsed.