Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Stolen Innocence

A New Canadian led campaign contends the Security Council ignores child soldiers, doesn't use 'untested' R2P to protect children avoiding capture.
A campaign to bring attention to the plight of children abducted by rebels in northern Uganda is set to kick-off on Oct.18 at the United Nations in New York. Dubbed Act for Stolen Children in Northern Uganda, the Canadian-led campaign aims to create awareness and increase emergency response to the crisis in northern Uganda.

An estimated 20, 000 children have been abducted by rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), who have been fighting the Ugandan government for almost 20 years. The LRA says it wants to create a nation ruled by the Ten Commandments. LRA rebels have been responsible for gross human rights violations in northern Uganda, their main theatre of operations. Ninety per cent of the population--about 1.6 million--in Uganda's northern districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader have been displaced and now live in camps because of the LRA's activities. The rebels frequently target these camps.

Eighty per cent of LRA soldiers are mostly children; many of them abducted from their villages and forced to join the rebels. Every night thousands of others in rural areas leave their homes and walk an average of 25 km seeking safety in big towns.

Erin Baines, who started the campaign after spending three years conducting research in northern Uganda, says some of these children are as young as five years old. Those unfortunate not to find space in shelters end up sleeping in bus parks, alleys or out in the bush, where they are often abused and exploited.

"They are known as the night commuters," says Ms. Baines, who's also the director of the Conflict and Development Program at the University of British Columbia.

In the morning, the children--estimated to be 40,000--return to their villages to attend school and do other chores, says Ms. Baines.

She also says the Ugandan government has not been able to protect people in the camps and the international community has been mostly silent about the situation, hence the need to bring the campaign to the doorsteps of the UN.

"The Security Council is stubborn in keeping it out of the agenda," says Ms. Bains, adding that this is mostly because Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni is considered a prime example by the West of economic reforms in Africa and is rarely criticized. The aim of bringing the campaign to the UN is to remind world leaders of the Responsibility to Protect resolution (R2P) which calls on nations to collectively intervene to prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

"[This resolution's] never been tested," says Ms. Baines. "And what better case than northern Uganda where 90 per cent of the population is internally displaced and live in camps?"

Pamela Smith, a spokesperson for the campaign, says the international community has ignored the situation in northern Uganda while all the attention is focused on Darfur and Congo.

"This is known as the forgotten war and we want action on that resolution for the women and children of northern Uganda," says Ms. Smith, adding that there is a great discrepancy between what is being reported and the real situation on the ground in northern Uganda.

"Both sides in the conflict abuse children, and the figures might actually be higher."

A report released by Human Rights Watch last month accused the Ugandan army and the LRA of gross human rights violations in northern Uganda. Titled Uprooted and Forgotten: Impunity and Human Rights Abuses in Northern Uganda, the report accuses the LRA of crimes including torture, mutilation, sexual violence, abduction, forced recruitment and killing of people considered government supporters.

The report also documents cases of rape, arbitrary arrest and detention, as well as extra-judicial killings of civilians in the camps by members of the Ugandan army. The report also says the Ugandan government has failed to prosecute military officers before courts to dissuade others from committing crimes, an allegation denied by the government.

But the campaign is not limited to the UN. Ms. Smith says walkathons in 40 cities around the world ­ including Gulu in northern Uganda, Kampala, London (UK), New York, Ottawa, Vancouver, Montreal and Los Angeles ­ will start on Oct. 22 to sensitize ordinary citizens of the situation of children in northern Uganda, and also to recreate the walk that thousands of children take every night to escape abduction by the LRA. About 25, 000 people, including celebrities, politicians and representatives of local communities, are expected to participate in the walk.

Named GuluWalk for Stolen Children of Northern Uganda, the walkathon is being organized with the collaboration of university organizations, the Ugandan Diaspora, and NGOs. Ms. Smith says the campaign will continue until a peaceful resolution to the conflict is attained.

Several efforts to broker a deal between the LRA and the Ugandan government have failed. Last week, the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted LRA leader Joseph Kony and his deputy Vincent Otti for crimes against humanity.

Ms. Baines says such a move is detrimental to achieving peace in northern Uganda, stressing that traditional tribal methods of peace making and reconciliation should take precedence and be incorporated into attempts to find a solution.

"If the ICC issues arrest warrants, there will be a massacre--Kony is a crazy person--and hopes of peace talks will be dashed," says Ms. Baines.

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