The LRA’s Abduction of Children: An Interview with Radhika Coomaraswamy

Over the past few months, unprecedented attention has been given to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and its brutal leader Joseph Kony, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005 and became the subject of “Kony 2012,” a video viewed over 100 million times since its release in March.

In this interview, Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, discusses a new report by the Secretary-General that focuses on the grave violations committed by the LRA against children that include abduction and recruitment, sexual violence, killing and maiming, attacks on schools and hospitals, as well as denial of humanitarian access.

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript:

Warren Hoge (WH): Our guest in the Global Observatory is Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, a post she has occupied since April of 2006 and, I am sorry to learn today, is leaving in July.

I want to ask you at the outset about the publication just now of the Secretary-General’s report on children affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army. What are the report’s central points?

Radhika Coomaraswamy (RC): Well, as you know, the report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict focuses on grave violations, as we call them, six grave violations. And one of them is recruitment and use. One of them is sexual violence. Then killing and maiming of children. Attacks on schools and hospitals. As well as denial of humanitarian access, and abductions.

Now then this report looks at the LRA with regard to these six violations. And we must say that the LRA has been for nine years, since the inception of this report, been seen as a persistent perpetrator and on the Secretary-General’s list of shame as parties that commit these crimes, especially the recruiting and using of children.

We found, the report finds them guilty of abduction and recruitment of over 591 children from 2009. The fact is that these children are used in various roles, given “magic potions,” and made to do extraordinary things. Subject to re-abduction,  they escape, are killed, et cetera.

Secondly, the killing of children: the report outlines in detail the killing of children by the LRA in their attacks against villages, sexual violence and a systematic character by the LRA, repeated sexual violence and forcibly married to combatants. And the fact that many of these girls, when they leave the LRA, are often having to have babies conceived of during rape.

One source that would be interesting to note in the report was that the activity of the LRA seems to be decreasing, more scattered now, a little less strong, and therefore really the need to ensure that in one’s operations against them, this new change is noted. The trend is that they are in smaller numbers. They are scattered, but their capacity to attack randomly is still strong.

The report also then chronicles the international community’s response to the LRA at the regional, international level; the formation of the AU strategy and the UN-AU joint action, along with UN efforts across the borders of these countries’ reintegration efforts as well, and peacekeeping efforts.

WH: The dominant discourse so far has been towards a military solution, and we have, among other things, the deployment of US military advisers and an AU force there also in those countries. This approach so far has not worked, and [Joseph] Kony is still at large, even if the ICC prosecutor said that he would be captured this year. Do you have any attitude about the approach right now, how it could be better? Is it too militaristic?

RC: Well I think first we have to set the record in the sense that a peace option was tried, and Kony did not respond to that and at the very last stages withdrew from that. And that he is at the moment attacking villages. So a military response is inevitable in that situation. For us then is what kind of military response? It has to take place. We have to stop him from attacking people. We have to arrest him. So I think that’s inevitable.

But what kind of military response? What we feel is the troops that are going in to fight should be trained in protection of civilians, the protection of children, these kinds of issues as well, because we don’t see a political resolution. We don’t see Kony accepting a political solution. It means he has to come out of the jungle. It’s unlikely the international community will accept an amnesty for him. So in that context there is no real option but a military option. But it’s the nature of that military option that we should be worried about.

WH: Short of capturing him, which I know is the ultimate goal, are there ways to improve protection of civilians, protection of children, and also prevention?

RC: Well I think they are trying to. You know as was said in an earlier discussion, the problem is that he is operating in areas of these states where there is no state presence. There are no roads, no communications. So he is operating in that Central African Republic-South Sudan-Congo stretch of land. So what one is necessary to do is to now that there are attempts by NGOs and state forces to create some prevention networks. There is a formation of self-defense militias, for example.

But then again we have to be worried because in some cases we’ve heard that they also… once you militarize them in self-defense militias, they also can be responsible for violations. But there is that that’s being formed now, the notion of self-defense militias, the notion of using the radio and other means of communication to raise awareness among the people in those areas that there is a potential attack, or that there will be an attack, the use of leaflets with the services that are available etc.

So slowing the state is coming into those areas prompted by these LRA attacks, and hopefully things will be more difficult. And it seems it is because the number of attacks has gone down.

WH: There is some suspicion now, or there have been charges that the government of Sudan is giving safe harbor to Joseph Kony. I want to ask you about that. And also in general, I know your office works with the governments of the region, in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, South Sudan: is the LRA and are children a priority for them?

RC: Well, in the sense that I think, with regard to the government of Sudan, what is happening is Kony is going in and out of Sudan and then he goes back to CAR (the Central African Republic) and then he goes back to South Sudan; he come back, et cetera. So at the moment it is still speculation that the government of Sudan is helping him. I don’t think the UN has any concrete proof of that. So therefore I think that’s one issue.

The other is, I will say, that all these countries are pursuing security interests, but we have over time worked with them and managed to secure a child protection framework also. So for example with the UPDF, which initially began as a military expedition, they have now signed various agreements with UN agencies to have child protection standard operating procedures on what to do when they run across children, the handing over of children to NGOs and child protection partners.

So slowly we are raising the profile of child protection. And even now with the AU there is going to be a humanitarian and human rights sector, and in that sector there will be a strong child protection presence in Yambio, et cetera. And so the frameworks are being set slowly for child protection to be included in their actions.

WH: I know that some children have been rescued from the LRA, which then presents the problem of their repatriation, of their reintroduction to their families and communities where, particularly in the case of young women who might have been sexually violated, there’s the whole problem of stigmatization. Obviously your office is involved in that. How is that going?

RC: The LRA children, if you’ve met them as I have said earlier, when you meet them you’re really struck by the fact that their eyes are completely blank. When you talk to them they have very strange responses due to the fact that they’re very vulnerable and the terrible experiences that they’ve had. So the rehabilitation programs really require a lot of resources to help them.

I think what has happened over time is that there have been programs now run both by the UN and NGOs for these children. But it requires two things. It requires the children to, with some material and economic and education support, send them back to school or teach them livelihoods or teach them some kind of thing where they can economically support themselves. And the second is psychological counseling, which is also necessary.

What UNICEF has found is that we have to work with the children and their communities. You just can’t do the children in isolation, because this child has also attacked the village that he comes from, or may have killed people in that village. So you have to take them back and work with the village. Sometimes some villages do some healing ritual to get them back or ask them to do work for the village, some kind of community service as remorse for what they have done. There are a lot of local practices that try to make the child acknowledge that what he has done has been wrong. That process, the psychological, reconciliation, healing process is as important as the economic and material one.

WH: I want to ask you about the role of amnesty, which has come up frequently. In particular, I want to ask you about children who may have been abducted while they were children. They become adults in captivity. Because of the demands of the LRA leadership, they may end up killing people in order to save their own lives. Should these people be prosecuted?

RC: The case that has come up recently is that former child soldiers, some of them are now adults, and not only adults, but also in command positions who are working with Kony and planning operations. The international community is divided on how to deal with them. The humanitarians are very strongly in support of the fact that anyone who comes as a child soldier should not go through the justice process. They should go through a rehabilitation and restorative process.

But some of the more legal people are saying that these people are now commanding operations and are giving orders, and they seem to have moved away from taking orders from Kony to actually being a participant in the decision making. These people should be punished.

Even if you agree on the second point, that they should be punished, I think the fact that they were child soldiers should definitely be a mitigating factor in whatever sentences or processes that go ahead. But there is that debate that’s taking place in the ICC as we speak.

WH: Finally, I want to ask you about the video KONY 2012, Part I and Part II. They’ve been hailed by many for calling attention to the atrocities committed by the LRA, and its leader Joseph Kony, and mobilizing calls for action to end the abuses, but also criticized by others for their lack of focus on the overall problem, an alleged lack of understanding of local conditions, the setting of dates and deadlines, and their implicit endorsement of a military solution.

From your vantage point, can all this attention translate to real progress on the ground? Do these films end up being a force for good?

RC: I think so, in the sense that though there’s a lot to criticize in some of the films. Let us say that they made this film and they raised the issue and the profile of the issue. But now if you go on the web you also hear all the counterpoints and all the counter-arguments from groups who have dissent with regard to the film. They have stimulated a huge discussion on this issue. So you’re not only hearing their point of view. You’re hearing those against them. What they’ve done is just focus this issue, made it a big issue on the web and as a result among member states and others, so in that it is positive.

But of course taking the opportunity that they have given for this debate, we want to push certain things. One of the things we want to push is to say if you’re going to get resources because of this it shouldn’t only be dedicated to the military solution, but also to the reintegration of these children. We want you to give money to UNICEF and other groups that are reintegrating these children.

Secondly, if you’re going to push for the military when you’re lobbying, make sure that you also ensure that there’s training and child protection, that there are standard operating procedures. The access Invisible Children have got with regard to this issue, we’re trying to make them use that access using some of our demands.
So in the long term I think they’ve brought attention to the issue. You can disagree with them or not. You hear all the viewpoints, but it’s an opportunity to raise awareness and push for certain things.

WH: Radhika Coomaraswamy, thank you very much for talking to us and good luck in the years to come. I’m sorry to hear that you are leaving, as I said at the outset, but I’m glad to know that you’re not leaving New York. So we expect to see you again. All the best.

RC: Thank you.