On 6 May 2002 Uganda acceded to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. This protocol prohibits the forced recruitment of anyone under age 18 or their use in hostilities by both governmental and nongovernmental armed groups. Under the protocol, the government of Uganda is obliged to provide former child soldiers with assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and their social reintegration.
Yesterday, 6 January 2009, Human Rights Watch (HRW) sent a latter to the Ugandan Minister of Justice urging him to drop charges of treason against Bushobozi Irumba. Bushobozi was abducted in 2000 at the age of 9 by the Allied Democratic Front (ADF) rebel forces. Bushobozi was arrested at the age of 15 during combat, where he was wounded and subsequently spent a year in a military hospital.
Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch said:
“The Ugandan government has a great opportunity to show its commitment to the rehabilitation of a child abducted into rebel military service…Bushobozi Irumba was a child when abducted and a child when captured, and his treatment should reflect that.”
HRW has also expressed concern over Uganda’s non compliance with international juvenile justice standards throughout Bushobozi’s lengthy detention. These standards are there to ensure that children are treated in a way which takes account of their unique vulnerability, capacity for rehabilitation, and lower degree of culpability.
The dropping of the charges would be consistent with Uganda’s obligations under the Optional protocol. In April 2003 Uganda dropped similar charges against two boys, ages 14 and 16, who were abducted by Lord’s Resistance Army.
This is a good move by HRW. Independent states should of course remain independent and just because HRW has decided to get involved Uganda should not just drop the charges on that basis. They should drop them on the basis that it is the right and just thing to do.
Children are vulnerable and when abducted and forced into the situation where they become child soldiers they need to be treated with the utmost care and consideration. A 9 year-old cannot for themselves make the decision to join a rebel force and over-throw the Government, that is far to complex for a 9 year-old to understand in itself, let alone what the consequences of such an action would be. Prosecuting them for Treason is not the best way to help them…psychological help to overcome the traumas that they will have witnessed is what they need, not to be dragged through the legal system for a capital crime.
I’m all for the rule of law, but the law has to have a face and it has to take account of genuine vulnerabilities and account of the circumstances in which a crime took place. Do you really think that a 9 year old could get involved in something like this without adult coercion? Who are the real criminals here: Bushobozi and those like him or those who abducted him and set him to fight?