War Child Canada (WCC) (Gulu, Uganda)

Legal Aid Project of Uganda (LAP)

As an intern with War Child Canada (WCC) in Gulu, Northern Uganda, I have been struck by the scale of the war-related problems and the gap between strong international and domestic child protection laws and their enforcement. War has remained a constant in the lives of Northern Ugandans since 1986, bringing with it tremendous human cost to the region - brutality, economic deprivation, loss of traditional culture and breakdown of social structures. The conflict has displaced more than 1.6 million civilians into camps, ostensibly for their own protection though as a result they are deprived of their livelihood, depend on aid organizations, and face the constant threat of attack from the insurgent group of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

The involvement of the ICC, which is currently investigating the situation, has complicated the peace process. Uganda's Amnesty Act provides domestic amnesty, to which the ICC will not be bound, for any LRA returnees who report. In addition, U.N.-facilitated Betty Bigombe, a former Ugandan Minister who brokered a ceasefire in 1994, has resumed talks with senior LRA officials about possible surrender. There is some fear locally that any indictments, or even the threat of future prosecution, may imbalance negotiations, though neither such efforts nor a military solution has succeeded in 19 years in bringing an end to the insecurity.

Particularly affected by the conflict, children are actively targeted by LRA to serve as child soldiers, carriers or child wives. Reintegration of the formerly abducted poses a key challenge, as does the strengthening of mechanisms to prevent exposure of all children in the North to criminality, neglect, abuse and all forms of violence - economic, domestic or sexual - that are unfortunate consequences of the living conditions, the poverty and the war.

The Children Act of 1996 may follow closely upon the Convention on the Rights of the Child but the Executive Committees of the Local Councils and the Family and Children Court often lack judicial independence, political will, training, and most urgently, the capacity and the resources to act effectively in the midst of ongoing crisis in order to fulfil their mandates: the safeguarding of the best interests of children. In response, WCC, in partnership with the Legal Aid Project of Uganda (LAP), is creating a children's legal aid desk to advocate for and to sensitize the population on children's rights, as well as to provide representation for children whose rights are infringed or who come in contact with the law.

In assessing the laws, practice and the most prevalent legal issues facing children and youth, I have conducted research, visited IDP camps, courts, prisons, committees, and talked with legal aid lawyers and professionals working in NGOs and CBOs involved in juvenile justice. Collaboration with these groups will help build capacity and serve as a vehicle for referrals when the soon-to-be-hired children and youth advocate begins taking on cases in September. WCC and LAP will ultimately offer much needed legal services to children made particularly vulnerable by war.

IHRP intern T.J. Riddell with staff from the Legal Aid Project of Uganda

IHRP intern T.J. Riddell with staff from the Legal Aid Project of Uganda