10 Apr 2000 – to HCHR – Uganda

STATEMENT AT THE UN COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS

AND WHAT SHALL I TELL THE CHILDREN OF NORTHERN UGANDA?

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

by Olara A. Otunnu

Under-Secretary-General

Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

Tuesday, 10 April 2001

Geneva

AND WHAT SHALL I TELL THE CHILDREN OF NORTHERN UGANDA?

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

I wish to draw the attention of the Commission on the 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 15 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, an entire society, the vast majority of whom are innocent children and women.

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 humiliation, employed as deliberate instruments of policy.

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 people trapped between the atrocious crimes and impunity of those supposed to protect them and the brutality of the LRA coming from the bush.

Fifteen years of a slow-motion process to destroy a deeply-rooted culture.

Fifteen years of the destruction and loss of social services, including education and medical services.

Fifteen years of the destruction of livelihood, including the forcible appropriation and the removal of the entire mass of livestock from the land.

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, humiliation and suicide are rampant; where the lack of sanitary facilities, clean water or clothing have become 'normal conditions' of life.

What will it take to break this conspiracy of silence about the human rights situation 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, 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?”

How shall I explain to the perplexed children that those on whom they had counted to defend their human rights are also the chief providers of succour and support for a structure which practices and celebrates systematic repression, discrimination, impunity corruption and anti-democracy, a structure which gloats about destroying “those people” and their children?

If not you who are gathered here, then who will listen to the voices of these children? If not to you, then to whom will they turn with their anguished cries?

With a heavy heart, 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 northern Uganda. The Ugandan situation and the mode of response to it raises some very disturbing questions about the discourse and the application of human rights policies by the international community.

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 not aware of these dark deeds?

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.

And, in the meantime, what shall I tell the children of Northern Uganda? When they ask about the human rights catastrophe that is stalking their land and devouring its people.