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 abducted children of northern Uganda are a particular and appalling example of the abuse of children in situations of armed conflict. Their experience underlines the need for further protection of children to prevent them being exposed to the dangers and brutalizing effects of involvement in warfare. In August 1996 Graça Machel's study on the impact of armed conflict on children was submitted to the UN General Assembly. This exhaustive report makes valuable and far-reaching general recommendations on the protection of children's rights in armed conflict. One important recommendation is that the UN Secretary General appoints a special representative on children and armed conflict in order that the issue be kept high on the international human rights, peace, security and development agendas. Amnesty International believes that the recommendations of this study should be adopted and implemented by member states as a matter of urgency. To this end, it calls on the Secretary General to appoint a special representative without delay. Once appointed, the special representative should play a coordinating role in ensuring an international response to the plight of children in northern Uganda.

For more than a decade NGOs have campaigned for the minimum age of recruitment (voluntary or compulsory) into armed forces to be raised to 18 years of age. International humanitarian and human rights law presently forbids recruitment into armed forces of children under 15 years of age. The only requirement with regard to children aged 15-18 years is that priority for recruitment should be given to those who are oldest. In response to growing international pressure the UN Commission on Human Rights decided in 1994 to establish a Working Group to draft an optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflicts. The Working Group has met three times but has so far failed to reach agreement on central issues such as the minimum age for recruitment and participation in hostilities.

There is an argument over culturally appropriate definition often deployed in relation to children which suggests that defining 18 years old as the age of maturity is an inherently Western conceptualization inappropriate to African societies. Amnesty International believes that the particular experience of Uganda, where the government has already adopted an official policy of not recruiting under 18 year olds into the armed forces after public concern about child soldiers in the NRA, could be profitably shared with the Working Group. The organization urges the Uganda Government, and other African states, to become actively involved in the Working Group in order that the optional protocol be seen to incorporate their experience.

Amnesty International believes that the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the monitoring body of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, should help focus international attention on the situation by mounting investigations in northern Uganda. Uganda's initial report on the implementation of its obligations under the Convention is due to be considered by the committee at its meeting in October 1997. Specifically, the committee should assess the impact of war on the rights of children and progress by the Uganda Government to implement measures that discharge the government's positive obligation to protect the rights of children. The committee should come forward with recommendations that identify appropriate measures to ensure the protection of the rights of children..

Amnesty International will be submitting this report to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Sudan. The active involvement of the Sudan Government in arming, supporting and using the LRA as a fighting force alongside and as a substitute for the Sudan army is an example of the Sudan Government's widespread use of proxy forces. It means that the Sudan Government can be held directly responsibility for many of the abuses committed by the LRA. The organization is calling on the Special Rapporteur to make the investigation of the abuse of children's human rights a priority in his forthcoming reports to the UN General Assembly and UN Commission on Human Rights.