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Wednesday, 8 May, 2002, 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK
Profile: Olara Otunnu
Child soldiers from the Kamajor militia (UNICEF/Pirozzi)
Child soldiers from the Kamajor militia (UNICEF/Pirozzi)
Olara Otunnu, the UN special representative for children and armed conflict has a deep commitment to ending the exploitation of infants.

His role exposes him to some of the worst of humankind.

OIara Otunnu
Olara Otunnu: Determined to make a difference
But it appears that the huge possibilities for good if he can help allow children to grow up in peace and stability - designated a fundamental human right by the UN - is keeping him going.

Mr Otunnu was born in Mucwini in Uganda. Unlike so many children today, he was able to go to school - first to Gulu High School in the north of the country and then to King's College Budo.

But Uganda had its own troubles at the time and Mr Otunnu decided as a very young man that he would do what he could to make things better.

As president of the students' union at Makerere University in Kampala in the 1970s, he argued against the racist regime of Idi Amin.

He took that role further, becoming Secretary-General of the Uganda Freedom Union.

Legal background

His outstanding intellect was recognised and he was able to take up scholarships at Oxford University and Harvard Law School.


Compelled to become instruments of war, to kill and be killed, child soldiers are forced to give violent expression to the hatreds of adults

Olara Otunnu

He trained as a lawyer and practised law for a while at a New York firm before moving upstate to become Assistant Professor of Law at Albany Law School.

He returned to Uganda to serve as a member of the post-Amin transition administration and then went back to New York as Uganda's permanent representative to the United Nations.

As with his academic work, he succeeded in politics - playing a very active role during his tenure including stints at President of the UN Security Council, Chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, Vice-President of the General Assembly and Chairman of the African Group.

He took his expertise back to Kampala as foreign minister from 1985 to 1986 before returning to the world of academics.

From 1990 he managed to meld his two passions together as President of the International Peace Academy.

Obvious choice

In many ways he was an obvious choice to be appointed as the special representative for children and armed conflict.

The UN describes his job as:

  • Serving as a moral voice and advocate for war-affected children
  • Promoting measures for their protection in times of war
  • Promoting healing and social reintegration in the aftermath of conflict

Since he was appointed in 1996, following the Graca Machel study on the impact of war on children, he has had plenty of opportunity to fight for children affected by conflict as well as some chance to check their progress once the guns go quiet.

Child soldier, Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone has large numbers of child soldiers

He calls the widespread use of children in armed conflicts as "one of the most horrendous trends in wars today, seen from Colombia to Sierra Leone, from Sri Lanka to Sudan and Uganda, from Burma to Angola.

"Compelled to become instruments of war, to kill and be killed, child soldiers are forced to give violent expression to the hatreds of adults."

It is not just the child combatants who are affected, but the girls who become "wives", the youngsters who have to cook for the troops, be messengers or spies.

Grim catalogue

Mr Otunnu believes some of the worst atrocities are committed by children who simply know no better.

As they get older they may begin to comprehend the magnitude of what they have done but they may also have been inured to the horrors of war, which for them are "normal".

On one of his early trips, Mr Otunnu visited Sierra Leone - one of the areas where he is determined to make a difference - and met a baby who would never become a toddler for his leg was hacked off when he was just two months old.

A skilled diplomat, Mr Otunnu is able to get pledges from armies such as those in Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka that they will not use children younger than 18, but he still travels to those countries to ensure they keep their promises.

But he continues to set himself higher and higher goals.

"By the time my mandate expires, I hope to have succeeded in creating broad-based awareness of the fate of children affected by armed conflict and that global outrage at these continuing abominations will in turn have led to a world-wide movement of repudiation," he said.

See also:

12 Feb 02 | World
Enforcing child soldier ban
11 Feb 02 | World
Child soldiers banned by UN law
17 May 00 | Africa
Fighting against child soldiers
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