Abductions, torture, recruitment of child soldiers, and other abuses have sharply increased in the past year in northern Uganda due to renewed fighting between Ugandan government forces and rebels, a coalition of national and international organizations said in a report released today.
The 73-page report, "Abducted and Abused: Renewed War in Northern Uganda," details how a slew of human rights abuses have resulted in a humanitarian crisis. Since June 2002, the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has abducted nearly 8,400 children and thousands more adults, a sharp rise from 2001. The LRA has also escalated the seventeen-year war against northern Uganda's civilians by targeting religious leaders, aid providers, and those living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.
"Child abduction, murder, and mutilation are the signatures of the LRA in this war," said Lloyd Axworthy, former Canadian minister for external affairs. "This is a war that has been fought primarily against the children and people of northern Uganda." Axworthy is CEO and executive director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues in Vancouver, which issued the report together with the Peace and Human Rights Center in Kampala, Human Rights Focus in Gulu, and Human Rights Watch in New York, of which Axworthy is a board member.
The seventeen-year conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government intensified in March 2002, when the government army, the Ugandan People's Defence Forces (UPDF), launched a military offensive, "Operation Iron Fist," against LRA bases in southern Sudan. The offensive failed to accomplish its aim of destroying the LRA, which evaded the UPDF and in June 2002 returned to northern Uganda. The renewed conflict is taking its highest toll ever:
- Since June 2002, the LRA abducted 8,400 children, the highest rate of abductions ever in seventeen years of war.
- Fear of LRA abduction has driven approximately 20,000 children to escape nightly into Gulu and other towns. These children sleep on verandas, on church grounds and at local hospitals, returning home each morning, becoming locally known as "night commuters."
- An estimated 800,000 northern Ugandans are internally displaced due to LRA attacks and government orders-approximately 70 percent of the entire population of the three war-affected districts in northern Uganda.
- Respective Mortality Rate (for three months in 2003) for children under five in two IDP camps near Gulu was 5.67/1,000, where 4/1,000 is considered an emergency. This rate was the highest recorded in five years, yet it was not caused by any outbreak of disease, leading the agency conducting the survey to raise the possibility that the children had simply "died of hunger."
- Although overall HIV prevalence in Uganda has reportedly declined substantially in recent years, there is lingering high prevalence in the north: Gulu reportedly has the second highest rate of HIV prevalence after Kampala, attributed among other things to the higher rate of HIV among combatants. Among expectant mothers tested at one of two hospitals in Gulu, the rates of HIV prevalence were 11-12 percent, where 5 percent is the national rate.
The report draws on interviews with recently abducted children who escaped from the LRA. It gives voice to internally displaced persons living in the IDP camps that have been attacked by the LRA, and the aid workers attempting to reach these victims despite frequent LRA ambushes on relief convoys.
While the Ugandan government is obligated to intervene to stop these violations, its own forces have committed gross abuses, including torture, rape, underage recruitment, and arbitrary detention. The government has also increased the suffering of northern Uganda's population through the forced displacement of civilians into IDP camps, which have little or no protection. But UPDF soldiers and other government forces accused by civilians of serious crimes such as murder, torture, or rape often escape trial or sanction, creating the public perception of impunity.
"Not only has the Ugandan government failed to protect its citizens adequately," said Samuel B. Tindifa, director of the Human Rights and Peace Centre. "They have also actively violated their rights, detained them for long periods without showing cause, and recruited children into the army and home guards."
The UPDF in northern Uganda arrests civilians on suspicion of rebel collaboration with little or no evidence, often holding them for rough interrogation or torture before turning them over to the police for prosecution. The prosecutors then charge the suspects with treason or terrorism, which allows the government to hold them for up to 360 days without bail and without having to present any evidence.
"The United Nations and members of the international community need to take a more active role to end this desperate state of affairs in northern Uganda," said Jemera Rone, counsel for the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "The government and LRA peace talks have ended and the war is continuing at a heightened pace, with worse impact than ever on the entire population of Acholiland."
The organizations urged the U.N. Secretary-General to appoint a special representative for northern Uganda to secure the release of abducted children by conducting "shuttle diplomacy" between the LRA and the Ugandan government. They also called upon the Sudanese government to end its support of the LRA and upon donor countries to monitor military assistance to Uganda to ensure that the government observes human rights standards.
The four organizations called on the LRA to end its attacks on civilians, to stop abducting children and adults, and to release the abductees. The organizations also urged the government of Uganda to:
- End impunity for human rights violations by government security and armed forces;
- Review all cases of treason and terrorism suspects to ensure that sufficient evidence exists to justify detention;
- Cease using treason or terrorism charges as a holding charge for those arbitrarily detained in areas in which rebels are active;
- Take effective measures to protect civilians; and
- Permit those living in internally displaced persons camps to move wherever they wish, except for extreme circumstances of insecurity.