Sandlines: Spare the rod and spoil the child

Edward B. Rackley

By today’s measures of geopolitical relevance, Uganda would seem an insignificant country. Its name may trigger a few neuron firings among those who’ve read Giles Foden’s The Last King of Scotland, or seen its recent film adaptation starring Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin.

Ugandans who’ve seen the film are less than delighted. Amin’s son allegedly complained to reporters, “He [Whitaker] doesn’t even look like my father.” More clueful viewers writing in local newspapers claim the film relies on the tired reference of African dysfunction to tell and sell a story to an international audience. Much agreed—although I appreciated the film’s portrayal of complicity with evil as a creeping, dimly conscious evolution, capable of crippling the purest intentions.

At the crossroads of ‘species being’

In fact Uganda is at the center of three, if not more, grand experiments of genuine significance to species well-being. The first of these concerns the success of regional peacekeeping: “African solutions to African problems,” as South African President Thabo Mbeki once envisioned. If successful, Uganda’s recent troop deployment (1500 men) to protect the beleaguered national government in Somalia could rewrite how regional insecurity is locally managed, thereby diminishing the current dependency on international institutions (UN, aid agencies) for solutions.

The war on HIV/Aids is a second theatre of action with global import, currently playing out in Uganda. Here the weapons of choice are western science, massive publicity aimed at transmission prevention, and major international funding to provide low-cost anti-retroviral drugs to those in need. Numerous internationally-funded research efforts have joined up with Ugandan universities to collaborate on preventive and curative studies. The result is a boon for Ugandan academic institutions, and sets a precedent for curative research in many of the so-called neglected diseases plaguing the continent (malaria, kala azar, drug-resistant tuberculosis, sleeping sickness, etc.).

Doomsday predictions in the late 1980s of national decimation if HIV transmission were not arrested immediately have not transpired, thanks largely to Ugandan cooperation with international strategies and recommendations. Uganda’s success in controlling the AIDS epidemic strikes a powerful counterpoint to the South African experience, led by President Mbeki and his cabinet, a cabal of AIDS denialists (their approach is described in Michael Specter’s recent New Yorker article, “The Denialists”).

In South Africa today, a country of 34 million, a thousand persons are reportedly infected daily while 2000 die of preventable and treatable causes. ‘Preventable and treatable’, yes, provided you ignore the government diktat that HIV is a concoction of western pharmaceutical companies to continue the economic enslavement of poor nations to wealthy ones. (I’ve always applauded Mbeki’s reasoned Afrocentrism, but this particular delusion qualifies as criminal.)

The third trial with global repercussions—in which Uganda is more than a random test case but a veritable laboratory under 24-hour observation—concerns the success of recently developed instruments of international justice: the International Criminal Court and a separate set of UN Security Council resolutions protecting children in armed conflict. Whether or not these distinct legal initiatives can deliver their promise of justice and improved protection for victims is slowly unfolding.

Their outcome will have major implications for how the gulf of impunity is addressed in armed conflicts elsewhere—or whether it is addressed at all. Inconclusiveness or outright backfire may encourage conservative fulminations against the ICC, the United Nations, and the human rights regime in general. So-called ‘rogue states’ like Sudan or the US will continue to operate above international law, and rightfully so, because those instruments will have proven themselves pallid in tooth and claw.

I wrote about the ICC and its impact on the gruesome practices of the Lord’s Resistance Army and its leader, Joseph Kony, in an earlier 3QD piece. I wrote there that ICC indictments have triggered a return to all-out war, when in fact a curious stalemate is currently holding sway. LRA forces have for the most part respected a de facto ceasefire with Uganda by retreating to Sudanese and Congolese territory. Khartoum has supported the LRA in the past, and it has not signed the Rome Statute, the founding document of the ICC, meaning the LRA are safe in Sudan. From their camps in southern Sudan and northeastern DRC they attack local villages and health centers for food and medical supplies while negotiations with the Ugandan government drag on.

Could it be that the threat of ICC prosecution prompted LRA withdrawal to territory outside ICC jurisdiction (Sudan), thus disabling it from terrorizing its target population in Uganda? Is the ICC ultimately responsible for the current cessation of hostilities? Kony will not say, nor is the evidence conclusive. Will the Ugandan government forego ICC indictments and the experiment with international justice, and instead promise amnesty to Kony and his men to bring them back to the negotiating table? Ugandans themselves want peace and security; their primary concern is that ICC prosecution will bring revenge upon them from Kony’s residual support base. The ICC may turn out to be just another flashy gadget in the general diplomatic toolbox, occasionally useful when dealing with screwball sadists like Kony. It is a carrot or stick, or both, depending on the context. I doubt this is what its conceivers envisioned, particularly if amnesty ends up trumping justice.

The ‘era of application’

As I happen to be in Uganda to help implement the Security Council resolutions mentioned above, I’ll comment on their impact so far.

Armed conflicts have a devastating effect on children. From direct observation we know that thousands of children are killed, others take part in combat, schools and health facilities are targeted for attack and essential humanitarian aid is denied to children. The increasingly documented phenomenon of child soldiers is but one facet of the many ways that children are manipulated and exploited by adults as cannon fodder, munitions mules, spies and scouts, camp minders, cooks and porters, and sex slaves.

Peter Singer’s book, Children at War, is one of the best accounts I have seen of how accepted conventions on wartime conduct have deteriorated to the point where children are abducted and re-programmed to kill and be killed, while their adult overlords watch from a safe distance. Absence of economic opportunities in many of today’s conflicts means militias and armed groups need no active recruitment or abduction, as youth are attracted by the only apparent exit from destitution and vulnerability wrought by the war raging around them. Yet the true extent of violations against children remains elusive without a mechanism to monitor and record violations in situ. Evidence-based advocacy is the primary aim of data collection on such violations—but what authority can make violating parties accountable for their crimes?

The United Nations system, to cite another observer of philanthropic foundations, is basically “a large body of money surrounded by people who want some.” Absorbing and allocating resources constitutes the bulk of its activities and is responsible for the overwhelming red tape that constrains it. For all its faults, and there are many, it is the sole such body to have embarked on the uncharted path of setting and enforcing standards of treatment towards children in situations of armed conflict around the world. No single state has proposed a solution—many including the US have rejected proposals, conventions and treaties drafted by the UN.

Over the last ten years, with much prodding and cajoling from NGO coalitions specializing in children’s rights, the Security Council has issued a series of resolutions to enhance the protection of children in situations of conflict. As part of this process, in 2005, the Secretary General issued a list of 54 armed groups in 11 different countries responsible for the systematic violation of the rights of children in conflict. The Ugandan national army was included on this list as were the LRA, whose sadism is legion, as well as government-sponsored paramilitary groups called ‘Local Defence Units’.

Much ‘setting of standards’ has gone on; the point now is to enforce them. The most recent UNSC resolution (#1612), now almost two years old, aims to apply the prohibitions and injunctions of the previous resolutions. While these have not halted the practices they decry, they have influenced and improved much of the relief programming aimed at these target groups. Including children in the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs for former combatants is one such shift in policy (before they were simply abandoned with no psycho-social, educational or material assistance).

Here in Uganda we are setting up a system to document and monitor the following violations:

• Killing or maiming of children;
• Recruiting or using child soldiers;
• Attacks against schools or hospitals;
• Rape or other grave sexual violence against children;
• Abduction of children;
• Denial of humanitarian access for children.

A multilateral structure involving UN agencies, NGOs and government human rights bodies has developed a monitoring and reporting process, and has trained over 100 field monitors to document these violations. We cannot report on LRA activities because they are not active here, for the time being, although the war may resume at any time. For now most of the violations are perpetrated by the government army, whose use of child soldiers continues. Soldiers deployed to protect the hundreds of remote camps for displaced persons commit rape and trade sex for food with destitute girls in the camps.

Use the rod and spare the child

Unlike any other African conflict where I have worked, the Ugandan government actually cares about its international reputation, and wants to get off the Security Council’s list of offending countries. This attitude opens doors where, in places like Sudan or Myanmar, there are but walls and denial. For instance, teams here are close to receiving authorization to conduct unannounced visits to army barracks, to observe recruitment processes, and to enter their ‘Child Protection Units’ where they interrogate and sometimes torture children they’ve captured from the LRA. Abducted and forced to serve as child soldiers for the LRA, these former prisoner-soldiers are now ordered to march for days deep into southern Sudan to help the Ugandan army locate LRA rear bases.

Ultimately, however, the fact that Uganda deploys peacekeepers to Somalia but allows the LRA insurgency to fester leaves many here convinced that their government cares more about international opinion than the fate of its own citizens.

The 1612 monitoring system and the accountability of offending armies it envisions is in many ways an act of faith. No Security Council sanctions have issued from previous UN resolutions against child soldiering or sexual violence against children—why should they now? Given the twenty-year marathon of this conflict, these UNSC resolutions come in some ways as an offensive joke. How could anyone possibly have taken so long to notice, to act?

Uganda is a place with over 26 rebel groups in various states of insurgency; some are dormant, some are surely propagandistic fictions of the government, others are quite active. The country also has an enormous law and order problem across its northern borders, irrespective of LRA activity over the years. In one northern province, Karamoja, the national army has been using helicopter gunships to decimate rural settlements suspected of cattle rustling and arms trading. ‘Suspicious activity’ is the army’s excuse; there is no political insurgency afoot. Armed banditry for economic gain (mostly cattle rustling) is what motivates the bandits, yet women and children are often gunned down in the army’s efforts to impose order.

As a result, Karamoja sees a far greater number of egregious violations against women and children than LRA-affected areas, which are now relatively quiet. Yet no 1612 monitoring and reporting is authorized in Karamoja because widespread violent crime is not accorded the same priority as ‘armed conflict’. We are looking at solutions but for the time being the credibility of UN efforts to bring to book the world’s “worst offenders” is in question.