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Briefing to the 59th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights on the Special Envoy for the Abducted Children in N. Uganda

Objective

Human Rights Watch calls on the Commission on Human Rights to request the Secretary- General to appoint a special envoy for Northern Uganda with a mandate to work for the release into safety of children abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army. We urge the Commission to make this request through its resolution on the abduction of children from Northern Uganda (most recently E/CN.4/Res/2002/53).

Background

Since the mid-1980s, a civil war in Northern Uganda has raged between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group, and the Ugandan government. Over the course of the conflict, child soldiers have been used by both sides. The Government of Uganda has recruited children, often forcibly, to serve in the Ugandan People's Defence Forces (UPDF) and in Local Defence Units. The LRA has abducted an estimated 10,000-16,000 children from Northern Uganda. It is believed that eighty-five percent of the LRA's forces were abducted as children.

The LRA's brutal tactics have become well known. Children abducted by the LRA are forced to fight against the UPDF, raid villages for food, destroy property, rape and slaughter civilians, and abduct other children. Girls as young as twelve are given to rebel commanders as "wives." Children who refuse to follow orders or try to escape are killed, typically by other children who are forced to beat or hack the victim or be killed themselves.

The current number of children with the LRA is unknown. An estimated 7,000 children have managed to escape, while many others have died from disease, maltreatment and war. In early 2002, estimates of the number of children still with the LRA ranged from several hundred to six thousand.

In March 2002, the UPDF launched a military offensive against the LRA, "Operation Iron Fist," sending troops into southern Sudan with the permission of the Sudanese government. While based in Sudan, and after the Sudanese government cut off most support for the LRA in 2001, the LRA committed numerous abuses-looting, killing, kidnapping, burning-against southern Sudanese. There are an unknown number of Sudanese children who have been abducted by the LRA from inside Sudan and from Sudanese refugee camps in Uganda.

Operation Iron Fist has not disbanded the LRA as intended, but driven the LRA back into Uganda. A result has been a significant increase in the number of attacks against civilians and the number of children abducted in Northern Uganda. Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO), a local NGO providing rehabilitation assistance to formerly abducted children, recently estimated that at least 4,000 children have been abducted since June of 2002. The World Food Program estimates that approximately twenty children are abducted every day.

The plight of the abducted children in Northern Uganda has been well known since the mid-1990's and has been repeatedly condemned by the international community. Various initiatives have been taken to try to end the conflict and secure the release of the abducted children. The Sudanese government has reduced (and perhaps cut off) assistance to the LRA as a result of intense international and U.S. pressure. Civil society leaders in northern Uganda, most prominently the "Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative," have called for a peaceful solution to the conflict through negotiations and been in direct contact with the LRA. The Ugandan government adopted an amnesty law to encourage members of the LRA to give up their arms.

None of these efforts have been successful, however. Higher-level LRA fighters have not deserted, possibly because the amnesty law has not been effectively implemented. The continuation of "Operation Iron Fist" has undermined peace efforts, contributing to a humanitarian crisis and exacerbating the rate of abductions and other atrocities against civilians.

The abduction of children in Northern Uganda has continued now for over fifteen years, destroying the lives of thousands of children and their families. The LRA's attacks have spread, including killings and kidnappings in new areas of Uganda, outside of the Acholi homeland. Decisive diplomatic action is needed to bring the abductions to a halt and secure the release of the thousands of children in LRA captivity.

Recommendations

The Commission on Human Rights should:

  • Request that the Secretary-General appoint a special envoy for the abducted children in Northern Uganda. The envoy should be an individual who is well known internationally and well respected.
  • The envoy should be encouraged to conduct "shuttle diplomacy" between the LRA and the Ugandan government with the aim of securing the release into safety of all those abducted by the LRA as children, and to seek an end to future abductions. He or she should consult intensively with religious and other civilian leaders in Northern Uganda, as well as with NGOs and U.N. agencies that have been involved in the situation.
  • Governments should be urged to provide assistance through voluntary contributions to enable the Special Envoy to carry out his/her mandate.

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