Children have been suffering the brunt of military operations along with their elders, but whereas before they were considered as “collateral damages,” since 2007, most children being encountered by the military in operations are being labeled as “child combatants.”
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA — When the Philippine military fired at and killed unarmed civilians including a renowned botanist last week in Kananga, Leyte, they issued afterward what critics say has become the army’s staple excuse for such carnage: The victims are members of New Peoples’ Army (NPA).
This tragedy follows a trend of ‘shoot/attack first, justify later. The victims of rights violations would be labeled as NPA guerrillas anyway. Worse, according to the Children’s Rehabilitation Center (CRC), this practice is being used against a growing list of children victims of military operations.
More children, some as young as three years old, are being labeled as NPA guerrillas after being apprehended, questioned, detained or fired at.
Less Collateral Damages As More Victims of AFP Become “NPAs”
Children have been suffering the brunt of military operations along with their elders, but whereas before they were considered as “collateral damages,” since 2007, most children being encountered by the military in sites of their operations are being labeled as “child combatants.” According to various documentation reports of the CRC and of another child-rights advocate group Salinlahi, this practice did not cease after former President Arroyo vacated Malacañang.
Early this year, Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan asked the military to “keep their hands off the children.” Reports gathered by CRC and Salinlahi from highly militarized regions and provinces reveal disturbing cases of torture of children, and use of children as shields and guides in hunting down NPAs. Bulatlat also received reports from the Batangas chapter of Karapatan about the forcible recruitment of minors to the CAFGU (Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit).
According to anecdotes separately shared by human rights defenders from different areas to CRC, the military also conducts house-to-house and school-to-school visits to question the people and the students about NPAs. In high schools and colleges, the military is reportedly recruiting students to its intelligence network to inform the military about members and leaders of progressive youth groups such as the LFS, for instance. The soldiers reportedly told students that organizations like these are “fronts” of the NPAs and their activities should be reported to the military.
AFP Accused of Distorting Agreements for Child Protection
An international optional protocol for protecting children involved in armed conflict, crafted in 2007 and dubbed as the Paris Principle, has not helped but instead seemed to have been used to make Filipino children more vulnerable to human rights violations, the CRC complained in Filipino in an interview. The Paris Principle, they said, “is not as suited to protecting children in Philippine conditions as the other conditions on which the UN Security Council had based the Paris Principle.”
Worse, the CRC accuses the Philippine military of distorting the intent of the international children’s protection principle to suit its counter-insurgency operations and violate human and children’s rights in the process.
According to the Civil Relations Service of the AFP, in response to a UN report citing the AFP as violator of children’s right, the AFP is a signatory to the Memorandum on Agreement (MOA) in the Handling and Treatment of Children involved in Armed Conflict. It claimed that among its duty is to “rescue or facilitate the surrender of children involved in armed conflict and shall report within 24 hours of such rescue or surrender to the Dept of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Field Office and/or to the local chief executive”.
“Among the AFP’s first priority is to prevent recruitment of child combatants. We complement the child protection laws with our own operations and guidelines to facilitate the rescue of these children; and we cooperate with other government agencies and organizations to trace these child combatants’ families or guardians, and in finding the best solutions congenial to their rehabilitation, needs, and development,”said BGen Francisco N Cruz Jr, Commander, Civil Relations Service, AFP, last May.
But on the ground the opposite has been reported, based on documentations of rights advocates. Worse, the purported “rescue” of children and efforts to prevent minors from becoming child combatants have been resulting in violations of children’s rights, from harassment to detention to killings.
The CRC and Salinlahi observed that since 2007, there has been a “marked use by the military of the Paris Principle to call every minor they encountered in areas of conflict as “child combatants.”
The said Paris Principle traced its roots from Capetown Principle where children were being kidnapped or paid to become soldiers. It immediately regarded every child seen in areas with armed conflict as “involved” or “child combatants.”