UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
UGANDA: Army explains recruitment of former rebel child fighters
KAMPALA, 17 Feb 2005 (IRIN) - The Ugandan army allows former child soldiers from the rebel Lords' Resistance Army (LRA) into its ranks because it is a better option for them than remaining with the insurgents, Shaban Bantariza, army spokesman, said on Wednesday.
"If somebody at 17 years comes from the LRA and takes the choice that he wants to be in the army, would you send him away so that he returns to the rebel ranks or - you help him become productive?" Bantariza told IRIN.
"You let him return to the bush, which he has known for most of his life - or the lesser evil of taking him while slightly underage and give him a chance to change his life?" he added.
Bantariza was reacting to reports that the military in Uganda had underage soldiers in its ranks, despite its being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which bars parties from recruiting children under the age of 18 to be soldiers.
"Uganda is a signatory of international protocols and, therefore, efforts should be redoubled to screen out children from armed forces," Chulho Hyun, spokesman for the UN Chidren's Fund, UNICEF, told IRIN. "We reject any underage recruitment into the army or local defence forces."
He emphasised that whatever reasons were being advanced for the practice, the country was under obligation to adhere to its commitments.
Hyun pointed out, however, that the main offender in Uganda on the child soldier front was the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which had mainly used children to wage war against the government of President Yoweri Museveni.
Bantariza noted that there were few rehabilitation programmes in northern Uganda to handle former child soldiers, adding that those NGOs operating in the region were already overstretched and preferred to take in younger children.
"Those who are grown up are kept for a few days and they are sent away. They have no home to go and they have not been prepared enough to get integrated into society," Bantariza said.
He emphasized, however, that it was not the policy of the Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF) to hire underage soldiers, but that due to poor record keeping and over-zealous youths, who lied about their age, some underage soldiers were recruited.
"Last year we got 30 recruits who had been duly recommended by the community councils, but after scrutinizing them [we found] they were underage and their applications were turned down," Bantariza told IRIN.
According to the spokesman, the army had so far incorporated 800 former rebels, some of whom were slightly underage. They made up a new brigade in the UPDF, one of those charged with defeating the LRA.
Children's rights groups, such as the London-based, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, have long identified the Ugandan military as a recruiter of underage fighters.
"The government was reported to recruit children into the regular armed forces and into local defence units deployed inside Uganda and also in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan," the coalition said in its 2004 report.
During almost two decades of conflict in northern Uganda, the rebel LRA has abducted over 20,000 children to serve as soldiers or sex slaves of LRA commanders. Thousands have died in the war, but many have escaped or been captured as rebels by the UPDF and are later freed under government amnesty.
This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004
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