Fighting for peace for children

One of the vocal allies of children in armed conflicts around the world is the Office of the UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. The Under-Secretary-General Olara A. Otunnu is a tireless advocate for helping children around the world who are victimized by armed conflict.

The website for his office published many reports to the UN Security Council, Human Rights Commission etc. One document in which Otunnu describes the situation of the children in Northern Uganda, I was not able to find on the UN website. I find this statement particularly poignant, so I am posting it here. I received the text of this statement from George Piwang-Jalobo, who received it from Otunnu’s office.


When they ask about the human rights catastrophe that is stalking their land and devouring its people

Statement to the Commission on Human Rights
April 10, 2001

by Olara A. Otunnu, UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict

* * *

I wish to draw the attention of the Commission on Human Rights and the international human rights community to a particularly horrendous human rights situation. I refer to the human rights and humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in northern Uganda.

This human rights catastrophe has been going on now, non-stop, for over fifteen years, under cover of a war with no end in sight. It is now abundantly clear that there is no desire or interest to end that war. Because it is a war that serves a purpose: the war has become a cynical pretext for the systematic destruction of a people, of an entire society, the vast majority of whom are innocent children and women. The war also is being used as a political alibi to avoid addressing key questions facing a country in deep malaise; moreover it has become a lucrative source of ‘magendo’ (ill-gotten revenue) for those presiding over it.

Over the last fifteen years, the children of northern Uganda have endured and witnessed things beyond belief.
Fifteen years of massacres, atrocities, and dying made all too banal.
Fifteen years of systematic dehumanization, discrimination and humiliations, employed as deliberate instruments of policy.
Fifteen years of a people trapped between the atrocious crimes and impunity of those supposed to protect them and the brutality of the LRA coming in from the bush.
Fifteen years of a land reduced to desolation, of a people reduced to an existential shadow of a once-vibrant society.
Fifteen years of a slow-motion process of destruction that is radically undermining the underpinnings of a deep and proud culture.
Fifteen years of the destruction of livelihood, including the forcible appropriation and removal of the entire mass of livestock from the land.
Fifteen years of the destruction and loss of social services, particularly education and medical services, thus deliberately condemning generations of children to a life of underdevelopment, disease and disadvantage.
And for years, children have been abducted and brutalized by the LRA.

For over five years now, more than half a million people, most of them children and women, have been placed into internment camps – – euphemistically called ‘protected villages’- – under inhuman and abominable conditions, where despair and disease, over-crowding, infant mortality, hunger and malnutrition, rape and sexual abuse, cultural and personal humiliation and suicide are rampant; where the lack of sanitary facilities, clean water or clothing have become ‘normal conditions’ of life.

This human rights catastrophe has now lasted for more than fifteen years, watched in studied silence by an indifferent world. Concerning the grave human rights situation in northern Uganda, the response of the international community has been: “We see no evil, we hear no evil.”
What will it take to break this conspiracy of silence about the human rights scandal in northern Uganda?

And those who are being systematically destroyed, are they not also God’s children? Do those children not also deserve a small place under the sun?

What shall I tell the children of northern Uganda, when they ask about our deliberations here in Geneva, about our commitment to and embrace of human rights – – does that embrace extend to them and their fate as well?

What do I tell the children of northern Uganda, when they write and ask: “How come that the champions of human rights gathered in Geneva are also the ardent champions of those responsible for such dark deeds in our land? Does anybody out there really care about our fate, about what is happening to us and our parents? We hear your deep silence.”

How shall I explain to the perplexed children that those on whom they had counted to defend their human rights have instead become the cheerleaders and chief providers of succour and support for a structure which practices and celebrates systematic repression, ethnic discrimination and hatred, impunity, corruption and anti-democracy, a structure which routinely and chillingly gloats about destroying “those people” – – “those people” and their children? But who will say that the emperor has no clothes but these terrifying fragments?

If not you, the distinguished delegates and representatives gathered here, then who will listen to the voices of these children? If not to you, then to whom will the children turn to address their anguished pleas?

With a very heavy heart indeed, I have felt duty-bound to bring to the attention of the Commission on Human Rights and the human rights community at large, the horrendous human rights situation in northern Uganda. The time has come for a very, very deep soul-searching about what is going on in Uganda. The Ugandan situation and the response to it – – or rather the conspicuous lack of response thereto – – raises some very disturbing questions about the discourse and the application of human rights policies by the international community. Our turning the heat here but a blind eye there, our playing favourites with those who have betrayed the children, those who have committed gross human rights violations against their own people.

And tomorrow, shall we once again be heard to say that we did not know what was going on? That for fifteen years we were unaware of these dark deeds?

And so, Excellencies and distinguished representatives, what shall I then tell the children of northern Uganda – – when they ask about the human rights catastrophe that is stalking their land and devouring its people?

I pray that, one day, we in the international community shall find a way to restore in those children and their mothers, the faith they have lost in us and our discourse on human rights.


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