The U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict says Uganda must take action to stop the recruiting of child soldiers. The U.N. official recently returned from a trip to Uganda, where she spoke with former child soldiers recruited by the government and by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army.
Sri Lankan lawyer and human rights advocate Radhika Coomaraswamy assumed the post of U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict two months ago. She chose Uganda as her first visit because, she says, of the particularly tragic circumstances of thousands of children who have been abducted by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA.
Coomaraswamy visited Gulu and Pader Districts in northern Uganda, where she spoke with many children who had been abducted by the LRA. She says it was difficult to speak with them and not be moved and angered by the stories they had to tell.
"It is a horrific tale of abduction, sexual slavery and children made to kill their own parents and engage in all kinds of horrendous activity," she said. "And, these children that I spoke to in the North of Uganda were children that suffered deeply, and many of them showed visible signs of trauma, and found it very difficult to live with the actions that they committed."
Coomaraswamy says the LRA has abducted tens of thousands of children over more than 10 years. She calls this the worst possible violation with regard to children and armed conflict in Uganda.
She says it is hard to gauge the number of children that have been drafted into the Ugandan army, but estimates the number at between 1,000 and 5,000. She says the government of Uganda does not have any conscious policy, program or project to specifically recruit children.
However, she says, children are drafted into the army because of the need for more troops in northern Uganda, corruption and other issues.
"What happens is children do join," she said. "Many of them want to join, because, having been child soldiers early on, because there is nothing else to do. There are no other alternatives in those camps. This is the only way to get income even for the families, and the families sometimes collude in this. And, so, as a result, the children are taken in to the armed forces. So, we made a very clear statement to the government that this is just not acceptable."
Coomaraswamy says the Ugandan government has agreed to strengthen implementation of existing laws and policies regarding child soldiers. It also has agreed to introduce legislation to make child recruitment a criminal offense, punishable under the law.