Helping to save child soldiers in Uganda could heighten conflict

Justin Playl and Justin Playl

Last Thursday, a group of idealistic students ‘abducted’ themselves to the Union Oval. They were participating in The Rescue, a national movement in which people sleep outside overnight and write letters to members of Congress in an attempt to halt the use of child soldiers in Uganda. While this movement seems like a harmless attempt to do some good in the world, it has troubling implications. Since 1987, rebel leader Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have waged a war against Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda. Originally dedicated to fighting for the rights of the Acholi people, a marginalized tribe in Northern Uganda, the LRA has morphed into a fanatical religious group with a penchant for abducting children and forcing them into combat. It is this practice that The Rescue is fighting against. I have no problem with the idea of stopping the use of children as soldiers. In fact, it would probably be pretty difficult to find any American who actually approved of child soldiers (one of the group’s founders remarked that their only problem is apathy, not opposition). My problems lie strictly with The Rescue’s methods. At the Union Oval on Thursday, group leaders were passing out fliers prompting people to write to their member of Congress and demand the U.S. get involved in the Ugandan conflict. Specifically, the group was demanding a ‘robust effort’ to protect civilians in war-torn areas, support for LRA defectors, a ‘targeted apprehension strategy’ for Kony, reconstruction efforts in devastated communities and rehabilitation programs for abducted soldiers. Although most of these goals are commendable, two in particular set off warning bells in my head. The ‘robust effort’ to protect civilians and ‘targeted apprehension strategy’ for Kony would require the U.S. to send troops into the region. Hidden under layers of neutral phrasing, The Rescue is really pushing for nothing less than the intensification of an already brutal civil war. Granted, in the past, The Rescue has used its influence to jumpstart a peace process, only to play right into Kony’s hands. The rebel leader used the peace process to secure a cease-fire long enough to recover his army’s strength, then attacked again. Now, The Rescue has abandoned its hope for peace, pushing only for more violence. Of course, some conflicts can’t be solved by peace, and some people can’t be negotiated with. History shows Kony is one of those people. Still, the idea of a large group of people encouraging the government to send troops into a civil war makes me uncomfortable – it borders too much on mob rule and fanaticism for my taste. Besides, there is an old saying: ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ Since The Rescue has declared Joseph Kony to be their enemy, Yowari Museveni must be their friend. In fact, should the U.S. government follow their suggestions and send troops into Uganda, the military would only be propping up Museveni’s regime. The question is, should the U.S. be supporting a ruler like Museveni? Yowari Museveni has been the president of Uganda since 1986, even though he wasn’t elected until 1996. Since then, he has been ‘re-elected’ twice, even though in both cases the Ugandan Supreme Court ruled the elections were not fair. In the latest election, for example, Museveni had his main opponent arrested on trumped-up charges of treason and rape. Furthermore, he had the constitution changed, removing term limits; under the original constitution, Museveni would have had to leave office at the end of his second term in 2006. And Museveni’s human rights record is far from spotless. According to Amnesty International, his army displaced some 10,000 people early in his presidency, summarily executing many of them. In 1998, he invaded the neighboring Congo, allegedly to halt a genocide in the region. However, the Ugandan army only ended up looting the Congo of its minerals and timber. Museveni has further destabilized the region by supported rebel groups in his neighbor to the North, the Sudan. By the way, Museveni also uses child soldiers in his army. While these actions pale in comparison to the brutality of Museveni’s predecessor, Idi Amin (not really a hard achievement, all things considered), they still reveal him as a dictator who does not deserve American military support. In theory, saving child soldiers from Kony is a decent idea. However, in practice, all suggested methods for saving these children ultimately fail, leading to the escalation of violence or the support of totalitarianism.