The Philippine army has fabricated stories that children taken into custody are rebel “child warriors,” Human Rights Watch said today. The Philippine government should immediately end the military’s harassment of children and their families in conflict areas and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said.
In six cases involving 12 children since President Benigno Aquino III took office in June 2010, the Philippine army took custody of children and later publicly alleged that they were “child warriors” working with the communist New People’s Army (NPA). Human Rights Watch investigated three of these cases – involving six children – and found strong evidence indicating that the accounts of their involvement with the rebels were fabricated by the military.
“The army is concocting stories of rebel child soldiers that are putting children at risk for propaganda purposes,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should get the military to stop this despicable practice and investigate the officers involved.”
In each of the cases investigated, the army paraded the children in front of the media, publicly branding them rebels. In two of the cases, the army detained the children for several days, in violation of Philippine law,before handing them over to the custody of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DWSD).
Under Philippine law, the armed forces are required to immediately turn children taken into custody during military operations over to the social welfare agency, the police, or the local government, to protect the child’s privacy, and to protect the child from further harm. Philippine law expressly prohibits the military from exposing apprehended or rescued children to the media unless the defense secretary or military chief determines that there is a compelling national security interest to do so, and even then the social welfare secretary must be consulted and the child only exposed once to the media. International humanitarian law prohibits exposing captured combatants to public view, including by the media.
In the past year, the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, has documented the use of children in armed conflict by the NPA and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an Islamist armed group, as well as by government forces. The Philippines is party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on children in armed conflict, which establishes 18 as the minimum age for any conscription, forced recruitment, or direct participation in hostilities.The Philippine government should actively work to end the use of children in armed conflict, including as guides, informants, or porters, Human Rights Watch said.
“The use of child soldiers in the Philippines is a matter of grave concern that the government should be taking seriously,” Pearson said. “But fabricating claims that children are involved undermines efforts to address genuine child soldier recruitment while putting other children in danger.”
In several cases, Human Rights Watch found that the Philippine Army has continued to harass and intimidate the children and their families following their release. One mother has relocated her children out of fear for their safety since soldiers visited her home asking her to bring the children to the military camp to sign unspecified papers. “I was afraid, so I moved the kids,” she told Human Rights Watch. “[My child] wants to go home, but I said that would be suicide.”
Human Rights Watch called on Social Welfare and Development Secretary Corazon Juliano-Soliman and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin to publicly condemn the military’s fabrication of child soldier stories and its practice of taking children into custody and presenting them to the media, and harassing their families. The government should order the police, in cooperation with social welfare department and the national Commission on Human Rights, to promptly investigate each incident in which the military has declared children to be NPA “child warriors,” and to ensure the safety of each of these children and their families.
Human Rights Watch acknowledged that the Philippine armed forces are involved in military operations against the NPA and other armed groups that have long been responsible for serious abuses. Abuses by one party to a conflict never justify abuses by the other, Human Rights Watch said. President Aquino III should work toward leaving behind a professional, well-disciplined military as his legacy.
“Senior defense and social welfare officials should tell the armed forces to quit harassing children and their families,” Pearson said. “The credibility of the armed forces is seriously questioned when it resorts to faking stories about child soldiers.”