Uganda's military admits minors may have joined the ranks of its army, but denies it is the government's policy to recruit children. Debate over recruitment of children under the age of 18 is taking place in Uganda just as the U.N. Security Council is scheduled to look into the matter.
The controversy centers on reports that the Ugandan army has accepted more than 700 former fighters of the Lord's Resistance Army, a brutal rebel group that has terrorized northern Uganda's population for almost 19 years.
The rebel group has kidnapped more than 20,000 children over the years, forcing boys to become fighters and girls sex slaves. Ugandan army spokesman Major Shaban Bantariza told VOA many former rebel fighters have approached the army, largely because there is little else for them to do. Major Bantariza says the odd recruit under 18 years of age might accidentally get in, because many Ugandans do not have birth certificates and their age is difficult to determine. But, he says, that is rare, as recruiting minors is not army policy.
"When they are kidnapped, they are kidnapped by LRA as children, 15 years, 16, 14 and so on," said Major Bantariza. "Now when they come back, many of them have gone beyond the age of 18. It's only those beyond 18 who volunteered to join the army that we took on. Those who were not above 18 were handed over to World Vision, were handed over to Bosco, a local NGO."
The communication officer at UNICEF's Uganda office, Chulho Hyun, told VOA his office continues to receive reports that the army is recruiting children, although UNICEF does not believe child recruitment is a systemic problem.
"UNICEF is urging the redoubling of efforts by the UPDF [Ugandan army] to screen out children within its own ranks and in the local militia with the understanding that the responsibility lies with the authorities in the military to reject underage recruits, and that this should be clearly communicated by the highest levels in the command structure to all," said Chulho Hyun.
Mr. Hyun did not say how many children are in Uganda's army. He blasted the rebel group for not respecting Uganda's signing of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international and national legislation that prohibits the recruitment of child soldiers. Mr. Hyun said the United Nations Security Council will hold a discussion next week about children in armed conflicts around the world. He said the kidnapping of children by the Lord's Resistance Army and reports of possible recruitment minors by the Ugandan army and local militias allied to the government, will be on the agenda.