Radhika Coomaraswamy is the special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. During her mission to Uganda from 3-10 June, Coomaraswamy visited the north to assess the situation of children affected by the 20-year conflict between the government and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The following excerpts are from an interview with IRIN on 10 June, at the end of her visit.
QUESTION: How would you describe the situation in northern Uganda?
ANSWER: Having spent a lot of time in Gulu and Pader districts, I saw for myself some of the issues that relate primarily to the armed conflict. I came with a much-focused mandate to look at children in the context of armed conflict; I did not come to look at the general humanitarian situation in the north. I talked to some of the children who were abducted, as well as those living in the camps. They raised clearly the LRA abuses and atrocities that could stand out in one's mind when you are talking with them. Children have quite horrific tales they have to tell.
Secondly, I came because of Security Council Resolution 1612, which set up a monitoring and reporting mechanism to monitor grave violations against children during armed conflict. The resolution also has an annex that lists parties that especially recruit child soldiers and commit other grave violations. The resolution lists both the Lord's Resistance Army and the government of Uganda especially with regard to child recruitment. So I came to see for myself the situation on the ground, see what can be done.
My findings to some extent are, firstly, that there is no doubt that the LRA recruitment and use of children as well as other abuses is perhaps the worst possible violation with regard to children in armed conflict in northern Uganda. We as an office condemn these violations, and we support the ICC [International Criminal Court] in dealing with these issues.
With regard to the government of Uganda, we found that there is no policy or programme that specifically deals with child recruitment. The government of Uganda assured us that no such policy exists, and we did not find any policy on the ground. However, we found that in Gulu and Pader, children are being absorbed into the LDU [local defence units, government-allied militia groups] especially, as well as the UPDF [Uganda People's Defence Forces, the national army]. This is due to a number of factors, but there is a reality of children being in the LDU and the UPDF. We have now negotiated with the government of Uganda. I have just met with the president today, and we have agreed on some principles to deal with the specific issue relating to child combatants or child soldiers who may be in the LDU and the UPDF.
In addition, we found there was a particular situation with vulnerable girls in northern Uganda relating to sexual exploitation and violence. For that general problem, we did speak to the government about reports from many young girls that there is a situation of sexual exploitation on the part of military personnel. We have had a discussion with government about sexual exploitation that takes place and the need to get enforceable guidelines and training of military personnel to prevent this exploitation of girls.
We discussed with local government officials the issues of reintegration, child-headed households, the humanitarian situation on the ground and the children's schooling and other issues. But I came with a very specific task of getting this action plan and getting a monitoring and reporting mechanism off the ground here, linked to that action plan to some extent. In that sense we have been successful.
Q: What do you and the government think would remedy child recruitment and abuse?
A: We agreed on four principles: The government and Unicef [the UN Children's Fund] will work out an action plan for the prevention, removal and integration of any child soldiers found in LDU or UPDF; we have agreed that the government of Uganda will strengthen measures with regard to taking disciplinary action against armed forces personnel who knowingly recruit children in the LDU or UPDF; we have made arrangements to strengthen existing procedures for access of designated personnel from Unicef, from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Uganda Human Rights Commission to go to military installations for the purpose of verifying whether there are children in the armed forces; and the government is seriously considering enacting criminal legislation to prevent and to punish those who abet the mobilisation of children into the armed forces.
Q: Based on your discussions with children in the north, how serious is the problem of sexual violence?
A: There is sexual violence, but I think there is even more sexual exploitation. What happens is that people who have power then use that power to extract sexual favours, promising a certain benefit. A lot of young girls are taken up by benefits offered by military personnel and also officials, and they become pregnant at a young age.
We have discussed with the government the need to strengthen the disciplinary procedures, to devise enforceable guidelines and to train the military personnel to deal with this problem on the ground. I must say there were responses, and we hope they will take the necessary action. Unicef and other agencies will follow up on this because we feel that sexual exploitation and violence are important issues that came up when we talked to women in the camps.
We also looked into problems relating to child-headed households and special needs that children can face. It was also our concern about the security situation and the need to make sure that the indicators from the camps, especially with regard to children, are moved beyond the emergency levels so that things like malnutrition, healthcare, education of children in the camps are dealt with.
Q: What did the women and children tell you was their preference with regard to peace?
A: Security is the issue for most people, but at the same time they want justice. They get very angry when people who have been terrorising them don't get tried. They support the ICC. They have seen some [LRA] commanders who have come out and been treated very well, and this angers many of them. There is that tension, and I think the politicians need to understand that and deal with both those issues.
There are also some grievances about investment, employment and education. Those issues should be part of the political package. If you want to solve that problem in the long term, unless you have those employment figures up, you get those education figures up, health figures up, there will always be grievances and unhappiness.
Q: You have talked about the ICC, but bearing in mind that more than 80 percent of the LRA are abducted children, how do you balance what northern Uganda's traditional justice system provides and what the ICC wants to achieve?
A: Sierra Leone is the formula for that, which is that only those who have the greatest responsibility should be tried by the ICC and the rest are tried in local truth and reconciliation processes. They could have the traditional process, or they could want to institute something like the South African truth and reconciliation commission. But I think that those who bear the greatest responsibility have to be prosecuted.
In northern Uganda, we also discussed issues relating to the need to strengthen civilian processes, especially the judiciary and the police, to make sure that crimes or violence against children are properly prosecuted in the courts of law. We found that the justice system was not fully operational.
Q: What areas do you think require investment in this respect?
A: We have to give those young people some alternatives to joining the army or being sexually exploited. There must be investments so they can have employment and other opportunities to move on.
On one hand I want to say that Uganda has agreed today to some extent to take children out of their armed forces. But also steps must be taken to improve the humanitarian situation in northern Uganda to make sure that children can get back to their normal life.
I had lively discussions with regard to the integration of children into the community. This is the debate that will be taken at various levels. We need to ensure that on one hand they [children] are not stigmatised by being put together, but at the same time there are measures being taken to deal with their vulnerability and special needs.