How to bring justice for thousands of children born of war
Thirty-four years ago, northern Uganda was plunged into a two decade-long civil war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony and the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF).
Numerous children were victims of abduction, sexual violence, forced labour and soldiering. More specifically, children born of war continue to be the invisible victim of sexual violence. Non-governmental organisations estimate that over 66,000 children and youths were abducted by the LRA to serve as soldiers or sex slaves.
The majority of these children live in the Ugandan sub regions of Acholi, Lango, Teso and West Nile. Beyond Uganda there are numerous victims of LRA crimes, including such children, in the neighbouring countries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan, into which LRA forces had been driven before hostilities ended in Uganda in 2006.
In the case of Uganda, transitional justice – ways in which countries respond to human rights violations during periods of dictatorship or conflict – means dealing with the aftermath of the sexual violence committed during the LRA war. For this to work, it’s vital to consider Uganda’s children born of war as a unique category of victims, meriting special attention due to their vulnerability. This will require additional support from members of the international community.
The complex case of northern Uganda can be used as a lens to develop appropriate transitional justice mechanisms in other countries, that are overcoming conflict-related sexual violence.
But this vulnerable category of victims is still low on the country’s agenda and the children are still disadvantaged as a result. Speaking at the Ugandan government’s Justice Law and Order Sector (JLOS) media training in March 2018, the national adviser on transitional justice, Margaret Ajok said: “To take your child to school, these days, the schools need your baptism card. To baptise a child, they ask you about the father of the child.” This illustrates the complex processes of recovery and transitional justice in northern Uganda, following the war.
In 2018, JLOS carried out a pilot study on the birth registrations of children born of war in northern Uganda. It established that there are approximately 4,000–6,000 of these children in the Acholi sub-region of northern Uganda. Acholi, with its population of 1.9 million, was the most conflict‐affected area during the war. There are many other children born of war living in the sub-regions of Lango, Teso and West Nile that are not yet documented.
Two decades of strife
The JLOS study was conducted against the background of post-war recovery. As a result of sexual violence committed during the conflict, most of the formerly abducted women and girls returned to their communities with children born out of forced marriages.
The study found that most of the children do not live with their biological mothers, but are housed by foster parents, good samaritans or in care homes. They are alienated from their ancestral communities because they were fathered by rebels.
The JLOS study mirrors other observations by Ugandan academic Teddy Atim, on The Conversation and by the International Centre for Transitional Justice. The fact that three studies have all made the same point suggests the need to address challenges faced by children born of war as a unique category of victims.
In June 2019, Uganda adopted a national transitional justice policy, mostly the work of JLOS and various non-governmental organisations. Victims’ representatives envisage the establishment of a reparations programme as a formal part of this process, for victims of the conflict.
Another notable recommendation from the policy relates to the registration of births. The JLOS study fund that the majority of children born of war do not possess birth certificates, meaning they are almost legally nonexistent, since they do not qualify to register for national identity cards.
Without identity cards, they are vulnerable to becoming revictimised through numerous human rights abuses, including illegal adoption, child labour, sexual exploitation and early marriages. They are also prone to military recruitment, human trafficking and stigmatisation at schools and health facilities. Before the official adoption of the policy, JLOS announced it would allocate money to the processing of birth certificates for children born of war. But because of financial constraints, the process has yet to begin.
The way forward
Non-governmental organisations working in the region recommend formalising measures such as victims’ reparations and social empowerment as legislation.
While lack of identity and birth registration are common issues in Uganda, the situation of children born of war is much more complex. Many were born in neighbouring countries, including South Sudan and the DRC, where the LRA also operated. The National Identity Registration Authority should revise its requirements as a matter of urgency to enable the children to register as Ugandan nationals. Uganda’s government and its development partners must adopt this as a priority.
In the process of designing national programmes, the opinions of children born of war should be included to ensure that the planned outcomes respond to their unique needs. Finally, the complex case of northern Uganda can be used as a lens to develop appropriate transitional justice mechanisms in other countries, that are overcoming conflict-related sexual violence, including DRC, Myanmar, Peru and Bosnia.
Unless the world finds a way of dealing with the aftermath of these crimes against children, the world risks another generation of alienated young people and another cycle of strife in sub-Saharan Africa.
Leïla Choukroune is Professor of International Law and Director of the University Research and Innovation Theme in Democratic Citizenship, University of Portsmouth. Tonny Raymond Kirabira is a PhD Candidate in Law.