Child Soldiers Still Drafted For Armed Combat

from Africa News Service
Published on 12 Mar 1999
Nairobi - Ever since President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda referred to child soldiers as 'cannon fodder' upon his ascendancy to power, the conscription of children into the Army has become a controversial issue in the region.
Museveni's pronouncement after waging a seven-year guerrilla war that toppled President Milton Obote may have encouraged future rebel leaders to emulate his example. Drafting children for armed combat in Africa has been on the rise, reports Our Correspondent Juma Kwayera.

The enlisting of children has enraged human rights activists who say that stiffer penalties should be imposed on groups or countries found guilty of such violation of children rights.

Child Rights activists in the Great Lakes Region are concerned that the conscripts should be discouraged and measures taken to correct the situation that is increasingly getting out of hand.

The United Nations International Children's Fund Unicef and the London-based Human Rights Watch HRW estimate that there are about 250,000 child soldiers in the world today. The Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa account for the greater percentage of children abducted to fight in the wars they did not start.

During the national conference organised by the African Network for the Protection and Prevention Against Abuse and Neglect ANPPCAN - Kenya Chapter, concern was raised regarding the number of children forcibly drafted into adult armies or 'tribal defence forces' as was witnessed in Kenya at the height of ethnic cleansing between 1992 and 1993.

In Kenya, a research conducted by the National Council of Churches of Kenya NCCK lists a number of abuses children underwent during the ethnic violence. Mr. Samuel Kabue of the NCCK says that sexual abuse as a weapon was used against young girls and boys . "In a number of instances, boys were sodomised and girls raped," he says.

In other regions of East Africa, HRW and Unicef describe the horror of children in the northern part of Uganda undergo when caught up in the cross-fire between government and Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel force fighting to oust Museveni.

A recent HRW report records that LRA's leader David Kony's abductions in the Mpigi and Gulu districts of northern Uganda are executed under extreme inhuman conditions. It says that once 'arrested', the "children are tied together and forced to carry heavy loads without food or water to LRA camps in Southern Sudan."

The report adds that once in the camps, the children are at the mercy of rebel commanders. Those who resist or cannot cope are killed while some die along the way to the camps. HRW reports further that as part of their training, the children undergo gruesome induction into the LRA ranks by being asked to beat or hack colleagues to death.

In its 1997 report titled The State of Children in the World, Unicef estimates that there are about 10,000 child soldiers in the northern part of Uganda. The agency's account of the state of the children in the region includes girls being forced to become 'wives' of commanders at night and boys told to steal and loot villages.

Amnesty International AI has recorded a number of horror incidents visited on these boys and girls who are under 15 years. Girls, says AI, live as sex slaves while the boys are the harbingers of the rebel advance in the enemy area.

Participants at the Nairobi conference regretted that although the Organization of African Unity's OAU Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child outlaws recruitment of children into the armed forces, it was not explicit on intervention measures in cases where it is breached.

A 1998 report prepared by the Forum for African Women Educationalists FAWE on Gender, Conflict and Development, with particular focus on the Great Lakes Region says that in situations of conflict (war) as has happened in Rwanda, Burundi, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo DRC, children and women who in most cases suffer most during conflicts between states or ethnic groups, have been turned into sparring objects.

FAWE's report says that antagonists in conflicts use rape not only as a weapon of violence against women, especially young girls, but as a tool of aggression aimed at humiliating the enemy nation or community.

During the ethnic clashes in Kenya, NCCK's report has documented instances where mothers were raped in the presence of their children and boys sodomised while their parents watched.

The ANPPCAN-Kenya and Uganda Chapters say that although the UN has conventions that are intended to guard against forced service for children in the armed forces, governments in the Horn of Africa and Great Lakes Region have been slow in enacting laws that protect children in situations of armed conflict.

The International Labour Organization ILO interprets child serviced in the armed forces as child labour. The UN Convention on the Rights of Children CRC which became international law in 1990 criminalises any acts that would deprive a child of liberty, exploitation and, discrimination in whatever form. However, like the OAU Charter, it leaves it to the discretion of individual states to effect legislation to guard against child abuse.

The CRC does not even provide for penalties to be incurred in the event of a state, organisation being guilty of the offence of abduction of children into the armed force.

Despite Kenya ratifying the CRC, the ANPPCAN-Kenya and Uganda have expressed disappointment that the two governments are yet to go past rhetoric.

In Kenya, a Bill on children's rights was rushed in and out of parliament before it was read and understood by parliamentarians who claimed it was incomprehensive. According to Lee Muthoga, the chairman of ANPPCAN-Kenya Chapter, the delay in transforming the bill into law by parliament has shot down progress to realisation of children's rights.

The status of children in war prone countries - Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia - and the roles inadvertently ascribed such as 'cannon fodder' (for children on actual war fronts) does not seem to promise better days for people aged under 18 years, the UN age limit a child.

Charles Khamala, a lawyer in Nairobi, notes that countries in the region do not have laws that protect refugee children. The refugee children have for years been known to provide cheap labour in the host countries.

Khamala maintains that the continued delay in the implementation of the UN conventions has undermined the status of children in situations of conflict. He says children are discriminated against on the basis of age by other forms of law.

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