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Statement on plight of children in conflicts, with focus on Northern Uganda

06 September 2006

WCC Central Committee, Geneva, 30 August-6 September, 2006



This issue emerged towards the end of the Porto Alegre assembly as being of particular
concern. Christians have a special concern for children caught in desperate
and dehumanizing situations. They see in all abuse of children a direct denial
of the biblical teaching that all persons are "made in the image of God" and, as
such, are of infinite worth and value. They see in the use of children as instruments
of war a virulent denial of the gospel itself, a direct attack upon Jesus, his
person and his message.

The gospel reminds us that children are hopeful signs of God's unconditional love
and promise to humankind. In a world of diversity and disparity, children are a
unifying force bringing people together. Any attack on children and their childhood
must be denounced as being intolerable and unacceptable.

In 1979, the International Year of the Child, the general secretary of the World
Council of Churches in a Christmas message called on the Christian community
and churches "to provide the possibilities for children to live in trust in a communion
of open and fulfilling relationships, in trustworthiness, in a creative use
and development of their potentialities for the good of all. Like their Lord, they
must be enabled to grow and become strong in wisdom and grace, in self giving
love." It is our collective responsibility as a human family to ensure that children
grow up in a loving and caring environment where their needs are met and rights
guaranteed.

Christians therefore see in the involvement of children in war an offence not only
against the children involved, but against God. They see in the use of children as
tools of war a denial of God's wish that all human beings should live into a future
of hope and fulfillment. Jesus asked indignantly: "Is there anyone among you
who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child
asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?" (Luke 11:11-12). What would Jesus say to
those who give to children not a snake or a scorpion, but something far worse:
weapons and the skill to use them, the experience of being only a tool, a body to
be exploited by those who are older and more powerful, physical and emotional
scars to last a lifetime?

Regrettably, the plight of the children - their woes and sufferings - continues to
be immense and endless in situations of war and violence from Sierra Leone to
Liberia, and from Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their dreams are
shattered by terror, their innocence and tender years of growing-up snatched by
warlords and unscrupulous governments. For Jesus it was the peacemakers who
would be called "children of God" (Matt. 5:9); how bitter it is to see children
made into warriors! For Christians this is an offence not only against all human
decency but against God and against their faith, founded by Christ who came as
the Prince of Peace.

Presently, millions of children around the world, but more particularly in Africa,
are caught in conflicts in which they are not bystanders but targets. In these armed
conflicts, mostly intra-state, children become victims and are killed as part of the
crimes committed against humanity. They become victims of sexual violence and
human trafficking, are shamed, traumatized and exploited; some are exposed to
hunger and disease. Thousands are forcefully abducted as child soldiers and combatants,
in wars that are not only senseless and brutal but also unwarranted and
illegal.

In case they resist, child soldiers are often administered drugs that inhibit their
guilt and fear and incite them to commit brutalities. Propaganda, revenge and
fear of being left alone also influence children to stay in the army "voluntarily".
Those who survive are often physically injured, sometimes maimed and psychologically
scarred, losing several years of schooling and socialization. At the end
of a conflict, reintegration of demobilized ex-child soldiers is a difficult and complex
process because the population in most cases does not trust them. Often,
children who manage to escape are treated as social outcasts and the community
seeks to punish them for the crimes they were forced to commit, while they were
forcibly abducted and used by rebel groups.

One such war of unregulated terror and violence is being waged by the Lord's
Resistance Army (LRA) against the government of President Yoweri Museveni
of Uganda since 1986 and a UN representative at Porto Alegre drew the attention
of assembly members to the plight of children caught up in the war. During
the last twenty years thousands of young children have been kidnapped, tortured,
raped, virtually enslaved and sometimes killed by the LRA. The LRA has perpetuated
brutal attacks against homes and schools in Northern Uganda and has targeted
children for use as soldiers in its attempt to overthrow the Ugandan government.

These children have been forced to take part in combat, carry heavy
loads, act as personal servants to the rebels and in the case of girls have been made
to serve as wives to rebel commanders.

In recent times around two million people, 80 percent of them children and
women, have been herded like animals in some twenty concentration camps run
by the Ugandan government. They live in appalling conditions without proper
facilities of hygiene and sanitation. Many more have been physically abused,
detained and raped by the Uganda People's Defence Forces and the LRA.
The war has not only affected Uganda but also Sudan and the Democratic Republic
of Congo. Since the mid-1990s, the LRA has also operated from bases in Southern
Sudan. The government of Sudan provided the LRA sanctuary on its territory
along the border, as well as military aid and food supplies, allegedly in retaliation
for Ugandan government support for the Sudan People's Liberation
Movement/Army (SPLM/A). In December 2003, President Museveni invited the
International Criminal Court to investigate the LRA. Late last year the court,
after preliminary investigations, issued warrants for the arrest of the top five LRA
leaders including Joseph Kony. In the year 2005, the Sudanese government and
the SPLM/A signed a peace agreement. The former SPLM/A rebel group is now
the ruling political party in Southern Sudan's government.

The churches of Uganda have remained in constant support of a peaceful resolution
of the crisis in the region. A major initiative took place in 1998 with the
founding of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI). This was supported
by the Ugandan Joint Christian Council (UJCC). The grouping of Acholi
leaders from Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim backgrounds, called for
an immediate end to violence. The government of Uganda at the time was not
inclined to dialogue with the rebels but nevertheless adopted an Amnesty Bill in
December 2000. As a result, a number of rebels turned themselves in, diminishing
the military power of the LRA. Another peace initiative led by the former
Ugandan government minister Betty Bigombe collapsed in 2004, before direct
talks could take place between the government of Uganda and the LRA.

For many years the conflict in Northern Uganda received little international attention.

This changed after the November 2003 visit to Northern Uganda by the
UN Under-Secretary General, Jan Egeland, who called the situation "the world's
worst forgotten humanitarian crisis". Following the peace agreement between the
government of Sudan and the SPLA/M, the leaders of Southern Sudan publicly
announced that the movement will not allow LRA to take refuge in Sudan anymore.

In May 2006, Southern Sudan's President Salva Kiir took the initiative to mediate
between President Museveni of Uganda and Joseph Kony of LRA. President
Museveni made a public statement that if the peace negotiation succeeded, he
would give the LRA leaders amnesty and protect them against International
Criminal Court (ICC) persecution. The ICC, however, reminded the Ugandan
government of its obligations as a party to the ICC to arrest Kony and others who
are subjects of the arrest warrants.

Some church leaders are of the opinion that under these circumstances the chances
of a permanent cease-fire have diminished because the LRA leadership will not
be ready to negotiate under the pressure of indictment. They are of the view that
it is important to restore some sense of peace and viability to the community
rather than go for punishment which will hinder the efforts to reconcile the parties.

Against this background, the World Council of Churches central committee,
meeting in Geneva between 30 August and 6 September 2006:

• Affirms the special concern that Christians have for the plight of children
caught up in armed conflict;

• Expresses concern at the threat to international peace and security, impediments
to the provision of humanitarian emergency aid and assistance as a result
of the ongoing conflict in Northern Uganda, and the activities of the LRA in
Southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo;

• Condemns the atrocities being committed by the LRA and calls on it to abide
by the terms of any ceasefire, desisting from all acts of violence, including
abductions;

• Encourages the continuation of the talks between the government of Uganda
and the LRA being mediated by the government of Southern Sudan for a lasting
and durable peace including the establishment of a mechanism along the
lines of a truth and reconciliation commission that supports traditional reconciliation
initiatives to help resolve the conflict;

• Urges the government of Uganda, in accordance with its national policies to
ensure the protection of all civilians, including protection of children from
abductions, to minimize child casualties; ensure that all children who escape
from the LRA receive prompt and adequate access to medical attention and
counselling; arrange prompt release of children to their families and/or arrange
appropriate alternate care for children that takes into account their special
needs; and develop concrete plans for meeting the long-term needs of former
child soldiers;

• Urges also the churches in Uganda and the region and all member churches to
mobilize the people to denounce those committing crimes against children
with impunity and undertake advocacy with international partners to prevent
the abuse of children;

• Appeals to the United Nations and the African Union to recognize that the
LRA poses a threat to international peace and security and endorse a plan that
includes the appointment of a UN envoy acceptable to Uganda to support
mediation strategy that strengthens the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire
into a sustainable peace process that provides for security guarantees, and more
a expansive programme for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration
into society (DDR);

• Calls on the donors, including non-governmental organizations, to work with
the government of Uganda to meet basic humanitarian needs of IDPs in Northern
Uganda and to assess when camp populations can be supported and protected
to return home. The DDR strategy for the LRA must be linked to increased
aid for IDP war victims.