Mr. Otunnu, I started to study the issue of child soldiers almost two months ago and since then I discovered the tough reality that these children have to face every day. Today there are almost 300,000 child soldiers around the world and that number is constantly growing. Do you think there is a chance to reduce that number and how would it be possible?
Yes, we can reduce that number assuming a three-pronged approach.
One: It is very important for the international community to raise the age limit for recruitment and participation of young persons in conflict. The present age limit is 15 and I am campaigning with others to raise this to 18. Clearly, the higher the age limit the more children we can protect. 18 is important because in the Convention on the Rights of the Child anybody below 18 is defined as a child. Also in many countries the age of majority is 18 and in many countries as well the age of voting is 18. So it is very important to raise the age for recruitment and participation. That is why I have been putting a lot of stress calling on states to cooperate on the present project on the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. That project is meant to raise the age limit for participation and for recruitment and the next meeting of the Working Group on the Optional Protocol is scheduled for January in Geneva and I hope everybody will work actively to cooperate to bring this matter to a successful conclusion.
The second measure is mobilizing an international, political, social movement of pressure that can lean on governments and insurgencies who abuse children in this way and they can feel the pressure of the international public opinion. It is very important to do this.
Thirdly, even though a significant number of children are abducted and forced to become child soldiers, we also know that there are many who volunteer to become child soldiers or are enticed to become child soldiers because of economic, social collapse in their societies, which make the alternative of being with armed groups more attractive than staying at home when there is no schooling, no economic production, the family is braking apart and the option of getting a gun and acquiring false power , or being fed, or being in the uniform looks more attractive to them. Children who are attracted by ideology, nationalist ideology come to fight for an ethnic group; or by religion come and fight for a religion; or by political ideology come and fight for a new society to re-establish democracy to overthrow a dictatorship.
In other words we need to address the economic, social, political factors that facilitate the abuse of children in this way. These are three measures we need to take in order to reverse this trend of abomination.
Q: I am sure you saw many child soldiers when you traveled around the world. What did you see in their eyes?
Often is partly despair, is partly resignation and it is partly indifference and a sense of alienation, feeling out of it. This especially becomes acute when a child is becoming an adult and begins to realize more fully what they have been doing and how terrible what they have been doing. As well as also realizing the extent to which they have been exposed. So you have got a child victim in a way at both ends of a gun: the child who is firing the gun and the child who is being fired at.
Q: I know you were born in Northern Uganda and that you spent your childhood in that area. Uganda is currently recruiting children as volunteers at the age of 13. Since you grew up in Uganda have you ever been forced to join the army or have you ever seen one of your friends joining the army at that age?
No, when I was growing up in Uganda children were not been recruited into the army. This is a new phenomenon in Uganda. It is something that began in the 1980s when the NRA, the National Resistance Army, which is now the government in Uganda, pioneered the recruitment of children into its guerrilla movements and that is where the term KADOGÓS comes from. Kadogós means “little ones.” That is a term by which now child soldiers are known in Eastern Africa from Burundi to Uganda, from Rwanda to Sudan, and that term originated in a practice of the NRA in Uganda in the 1980s. And then the second wave of the recruitment of children is what we are seeing today in Northern Uganda by the LRA, the Lord’s Resistence Army, an insurgency group which is in opposition to the present government. So it is a relatively new phenomenon in Uganda and it did not exist when I grew up.
Q: What do you think about the 17 and 16 year olds who can volunteer respectively in the US marines and the UK armed forces?
We are having a dialogue with the UK government and the US government about the issue of raising the age limit for recruitment and for participation. As you know, my own position is that the age limit should be raised to 18 and both countries up until now have difficulties with that issue. We have an ongoing dialogue going on with the US and the UK on this issue and I hope that it would be possible to have these two countries joining in a consensus in January in Geneva when we discuss the finalization of the Optional Protocol.
Most of the children in armies come from conditions of poverty. Do you believe that if their families can live in better conditions they won’t join the army or the rebels anymore?
As I said earlier there are children who are abducted or kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers. That obviously is something that needs to be stopped by leaning on those who are doing this.
Yes, there are children who because of conditions of poverty, economic-social breakdown will tend to gravitate towards the armed groups who may appear to them to offer better alternatives than the poverty, the despair, the misery in which they live. And it is not by accident that most Child Soldiers tend to be children from very poor, depressed and marginalized communities.
Yes, by tackling those conditions we would be tackling this issue.
Q: Children respond to the stress of armed conflicts with physical and psychological trauma. What can be done for them and what do you think would be better for them after they leave the army?
Definitely is very important to address their trauma because when children go and join up armed groups they are exposed to be killed and they kill. They see violence and atrocities. Children have committed some of the worst atrocities in situations of conflict precisely because they are not fully conscious of what they are doing. They are indoctrinated; they are molded into a particularly efficient, ruthless and unquestioning tool of warfare. In many cases they are even drugged.
So we must address their trauma, we must somehow address how to win them off violence. Violence becomes a normal way of life for them.
How do you wean them off this? Of course we must address how to re-insert them back in the society, how to make their families accept them back, how to make the local community accept them back, because in many cases they feel this is no longer their child who left home, it’s a new person who is used to violence and who has committed atrocities. And then of course in terms of loss of childhood and schooling to find ways to give productive work to these children in order to become adults either vocational training or some kind of training for those who are young enough to try to re-introduce them to schooling.
The four Geneva Conventions, the UN Declaration on Human Rights, but above all the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child are the primary agreements in international law for the protection of children worldwide. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is generally applicable to every human being below the age of 18 years. But Art. 38 makes a point of allowing children under 18 to take direct part in hostilities. Do you think the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child will prevent the recruitment of children under the age of 18?
As I said earlier, that is why the present effort to bring to a close of the project of the Optional Protocol is so important. Because an important aspect of that is raising the age limit for recruitment and participation and I personally advocate that we should adopt the age limit of 18. The present age limit is 15, which is much too low and I hope that in the upcoming month of January 2000 in the meeting in Geneva we agree on raising the age limit for recruitment and participation.
Q: What do you think about the rehabilitation centers for ex-child soldiers in Mozambique, in Sierra Leone and in Colombia?
They tend to be inadequate in relation to the magnitude of the problem because in all these three countries children have been massively used as child soldiers and quite often there is not enough capacity in these rehabilitation centers. There are not enough resources to put in faith that capacity. Also we need to develop more expertise and learn from other experiences.
That is why the experience of Mozambique is very important for us to learn from what works and from what does not work, so that this can be applied in Sierra Leone, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Afghanistan, in Sri Lanka and so on. We learn from previous experiences of doing this and then of course we also need to put into place whenever there is any program for this arming, demobilization and rehabilitation. We are not only addressing the older people, the adults, but as a dimension, a framework, which addresses the situation of children who have been serving as combatants or have served in other ways within the armed groups. Because serving as combatants only is one way of recruitment. Children are used also as porters, cooks and spies.
Q: What would you like to tell to the young people around the world about the child soldiers issue?
I would like to tell them that is one of the most cynical features of today’s warfare the way with which adults are using children to be the channel for their own hate and passion. And in this way children are not only victims, they are not only victimized by the conflict, but children have also been victimizers of other children and other civilians. This is one of the worst crimes one could commit: depriving children of their innocence, of their childhood and then turning them into war machines. We must move to reverse this trend. Children have no place in warfare at all, their place is at school, in the family, in the playground and we must deprive them of that.
Q: Is there anything concrete that ordinary people, like you and me, can do for these child soldiers?
You can join in adopting the three-pronged strategy. You can join in the campaign through your Congressperson, through your Senator, through your government, through your school, through your city, the campaign to raise the age limit for recruitment and participation.
You can secondly join in a national and eventually international campaign of political pressure that can lean on the organizations that are abusing children in this way.
You can thirdly join by urging your own government and other institutions to which you are linked to contribute through their policies, through their resources to addressing the economic, political, social factas that facilitate the use of children in this way.
At your level, in your school, in your community, you can begin that movement.
Finally I think one can also build children to children linkages. Children of any community in this country can link up with children who have been exposed to wars in Sri Lanka, in Sierra Leone or in Kosovo with a school, with the hospital, with a village and learn about their experiences. So I hope children who are in the US blessed with a country that has peace, a country that is prosperous and democratic, would become advocate of children who are not so fortunate caught up in situations of conflict.
* The UN has appointed Olara A. Otunnu as the UN Secretary-General Special’s Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. Otunnu presently serves as advocate for children in armed conflicts and is recognized widely for his catalytic work with the United Nations and NGOs concerned about the child soldiers issue.
Stefania Capodaglio was the first Ruth Floyd Intern for Human Rights at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation Santa Barbara headquarters. She is a student at the Catholic University of Milan in Italy.