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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

UGANDA: UN urges more focus on plight of children in north

NAIROBI, 29 September 2003 (IRIN) - The plight of children abducted by rebels in northern Uganda is not getting enough international attention, the UN has warned.

According to the Office of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict (OSRSG-CAAC), more prominence should be given to the tragedy which has been unfolding for nearly two decades.

Over 25,000 children are believed to have been abducted in the course of the 17-year civil war between the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the government, but the rate of kidnappings has skyrocketed lately due mainly to the breakdown of attempts to broker peace between the sides. Between 5,000-8,000 children have been abducted this year alone.

"Social services have broken down," Roselyn Odera, programme officer with the OSRSG-CAAC, told IRIN. "The malnutrition rate among children is very high and insecurity has meant a higher rate of abductions."

She believes the focus should be extended beyond the abductions to take in humanitarian and human rights issues such as child malnutrition as well as recruitment and the use of young girls as sex slaves. She says such deprivations make the young very vulnerable to abductions when they have so few choices.

The north also has an escalating rate of HIV/AIDS infection which threatens to turn around the government's hitherto impressive record in reducing the disease and puts additional pressure on the health system.

Furthermore, the local population decries conditions in the "protected villages", where they are reportedly gathered for their own safety. And a knock-on effect has been the gravitation of thousands of children at night to cities such as Gulu and Lira where they feel safer - the so-called night commuters. This situation, Odera says, is unsustainable.

"The churches have offered to keep the children, but they don't want the restrictions," she noted. "They probably don't want to be institutionalised."

One of the problems, observers say, is that the issue is not on the agenda of the UN Security Council and is therefore not discussed at that level.

But the Ugandan government maintains this is not a topic for the Security Council.

"In Liberia you had the UN Security Council which mandated intervention on behalf of the suffering civilian population because the state was under threat of falling into anarchy," defence ministry spokesman Shaban Bantariza told IRIN. "But the state is not under threat in Uganda."

He said calls for UN intervention were made by people who did not understand the situation.

"If they mean a peacekeeping force mandated by the UN Security Council, where would the force go?" he asked.

"These are terrorists who have infiltrated much of the country but only target rural civilian settlements and abduct children before disappearing. What we need is not peacekeepers but peace enforcers – which is what the UPDF [Uganda People's Defence Force] is for."

"We have our own force to deal with terrorism, which is what this is, not a war," Bantariza added.

Odera's office is trying to raise awareness of the atrocities suffered by the children by an active advocacy campaign, but international recognition of the tragedy still has a long way to go.

Observers also point out that the LRA is on the US government's list of terrorist organisations, which means Uganda will receive funds to fight the group and the situation is likely to become even more militarised. This in turn will lead to further suffering for the children.

Odera says that having a special rapporteur or a representative to focus on the region would be one way to address the situation.

“Given the years of suffering the local people have endured, the international community should do all it can to bring all sides to a political settlement of the conflict,” she stresses, echoing the view of organisations working in the area.

 

Themes: (IRIN) Children, (IRIN) Conflict

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