April 14, 2006

Saving our children from the scourge of war

By Luis Alonso Pérez

Hundreds of thousands of children around the world are being used as soldiers. In the last decade, 2 million children have been killed in situations of armed conflict, while 6 million more have been disabled or injured.

The latest United Nations report lists 54 governments and insurgent groups responsible for recruiting minors, including The Tamil Tigers from Sri Lanka; Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia from Colombia; Janjaweed from Sudan; The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist from Nepal and the Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda.

Yet, until recently their fate did not constitute a specific focus by the international community and public awareness efforts in the western world have often been overlooked.

In an effort to raise awareness within the San Diego community, particularly within USD alumni, the Joan B. Krock Institute for Peace and Justice hosted a presentation called “Saving our children from the scourge of war” by Olara A. Otunnu, Former United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, on Tuesday, April 11.

Mr. Otunnu grew up in northern Uganda and has been an advocate for war children for the last 25 years. He is currently the president of the LBL Foundation for Children which is based in New York and is devoted to assisting children affected by war.

“I believe that few missions could be more compelling for the international community today. This is a central issue for peace and justice” said Mr. Otunnu in his opening statement.

Before beginning, the For-mer United Nations Under-Secretary-General thanked the hospitality the city of San Diego has shown to his compatriots who have settled in the region over the last decades, and stated he was delighted to be paying tribute to Joyce Neu -Executive Director of the IPJ- who he considers “a good friend who has worked for peace and justice”, as well as The Joan B. Krock Institute”.

The presentation discussed two main themes: The United Nation’s campaign to ensure protection to children exposed to armed conflicts; and a brief update on the current situation in northern part of Uganda, described by Olara A. Otunnu as “The most horrendous illustration of discourage today”.

“When a country is at war, children pay the highest price. They are the primary victims of armed conflicts, because they are both its target’s and increasingly its instruments” said Mr. Otunnu “When they are recruited and used as soldiers, children are forced to give expression to the hatred of adults”.

When caught between arm-ed conflicts children are often killed, abducted, maimed, turned into orphans, deprived from education, health care, and left with psychological scars and traumas. When taken away from their homes, children become very vulnerable and girls face additional risk particularly sexual violence and exploitation according to the Former United Nations Under-Secretary-General.

“The worst place on earth to be a child today is northern Uganda” sorrowfully expressed Mr. Otunnu, a region that has been trapped in a 20 year-old conflict between the national government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group responsible for brutal atrocities including massacres and abductions of children.

Meanwhile the government uses the rebel uprising as a pretext and cover for a slow and painful genocide against the northern Acholi tribe’s civilian population. For over ten years almost 2 million people (80% women and children) are forced into concentration camps with abominable living conditions, with the worst infant mortality rates in the world, with 1,000 children dying every week according to a recent survey by World Vision.

Mr. Otunnu remembered the shock Americans felt when they saw the images of more than 10,000 Katrina survivors exposed to conditions of despair and vulnerability in the New Orleans Superdome. “Now imagine in northern Uganda the government has deliberately wherehoused almost 2 million people in some 200 superdomes for the last 10 years in conditions far more abominable than anything we witnessed on the screen after the hurricane in New Orleans”.

In the concentration camps over 4,000 people have to share a latrine, wait in line 12 hours to fill a jerrycan with water and share a 1.5 meter radius hut with six to eight people. This situation has led to the abduction of more than 20,000 children and forces some 40,000 others to walk several hours each evening to sleep in the streets of the towns of Gulu and Kitgum to avoid abduction.

“An entire society is being systematically destroyed, physically, culturally, emotionally, socially and economically” said Olara A. Otunnu. “How many people must die in these camps? How many children and women must die every week before we see and recognize the hand of genocide?”

On July 2005 the United Nations voted for a series of measures, including the establishment of a comprehensive monitoring and reporting mechanism, to ensure the protection of children exposed to armed conflicts, focusing on: 1) Killing or maiming of children; 2) recruiting or using children as soldiers; 3) attacks against schools or hospitals; 4) rape or other sexual violence against children; 5) abduction of children; 6) denial of humanitarian access for children.

There reports will serve as “triggers” for action against the offending parties and consider measures including travel restrictions on leaders and their exclusion from any governance structures and amnesty provisions, the imposition of arms embargoes, a ban on military assistance, and restriction on the flow of financial resources to the parties concerned.

Mr. Otunnu reminded the attendants of the lessons learned from the earlier dark episodes of history, with millions of Jews exterminated during the holocaust, the genocide perpetrated in Rwanda, and women and children systematically murdered in the Balkans, “Every time we say never again, but genocide in Northern Uganda is happening on our watch. From this podium I beseech you to break the silence and the genocide in Uganda and join campaigns to end the genocide”.

If you are interested in learning more about the current situation of war children in Uganda and the rest of the world please visit any of the following websites: United Nations Website on Children and Armed Conflict: www.un.org/special-rep/children-armed-conflict/ ; Civil Society Organizations for Peace in Northern Uganda: www.csopnu.org ; Amnesty International: www.amnestyusa.org ; Human Rights Watch: www.hrw.org ; Joan B. Krock Institute for Peace and Justice: http://peace.sandiego.edu.

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