(New York) – 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.”
Details about individual cases are below.
Cases of Falsified NPA Child Soldiers
Three Boys Tagged “Child Warriors”
In mid-2011, soldiers arrested three boys – the youngest 10 years old – and publicly declared them to be New People’s Army (NPA) “child warriors.” “Jerome,” “Marlon,” and “Vincent,” not their real names, were helping relatives with farming chores over the weekend when they were arrested. On July 4, Philippine Army spokesperson Col. Antonio Parlade released a statement to the news media questioning human rights organizations – singling out Human Rights Watch and a local group – “for their silence following the capture of three children reportedly being used as fighters by the communist New People’s Army.”
The Municipal Social Welfare and Development officer in the area has since publicly declared that her department found no evidence that the children had been recruited by the NPA, and school records support this conclusion.
The soldiers interrogated the children in a village center, then turned them over to the police, who released them later that day.
“The soldiers shook me,” said Jerome. “They were trying to force me to admit we had planted a bomb… They tied my hands together…. I was afraid.”
Vincent said, “They pushed me into a rice paddy into the mud. The soldiers told me, ‘You’d better tell us the names of the other NPAs or we’ll kill your father.’”
The family said that in addition to news stories in the local and national media in which the military declared the children to be rebel soldiers, leaflets were spread around their local community showing photographs of the three boys. The family did not understand the leaflets as they were in Tagalog, a Filipino language they do not speak.
Siblings in Northern Samar Kept in Military Camp
In July, the 20th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine army took into custody and publicly declared 14-year-old “Noynoy,” and his older sister “Olay,” whose age has not been determined, to be “child warriors.” The social welfare department told Human Rights Watch, though, that there is no evidence that the children had ever been involved with the NPA. Olay had been living in the capital, Manila, and returned home to Northern Samar only for the village fiesta. Olay was kept in the army camp doing laundry and other domestic chores for three weeks before the military turned her over to the social welfare department.
Runaway, 17, Declared an NPA Child Soldier
On September 8, 2010, soldiers from the army’s 84th Infantry Battalion took 17-year-old “Rose,” not her real name, into military custody after she visited the local detachment in Toril, Davao City, on the southern island of Mindanao. Rose said that she had run away to the detachment after an argument with her brother, because a soldier who was courting her asked her to visit. In a news release, the military said that they had assumed responsibility for Rose for her protection as her brother had threatened to hit her with a bottle following a disagreement.
The army kept Rose in their custody at the 10th Infantry Division’s command headquarters for several days. During that time the army presented her to the media as a child soldier with the NPA. Rose told Human Rights Watch that military officers compelled her to do media interviews. She told Human Rights Watch that although she knew that the NPA was active in mountainous areas near her home, she had never been a member, and she provided school and employment information to support this. Rose told Human Rights watch: “The many interviews disturbed me. I was scared and confused…. I was not free to go anywhere; a soldier was always following me.... The military really made me feel like I was NPA.”
Military officers continued to question Rose on several occasions after she was transferred to a center for girls run by the social welfare department. On one occasion military officers met her in the agency’s regional office and asked her to sign an affidavit, which she did not understand, as it was written in English. She refused to sign it. A letter from Lt. Col. Medel Aguilar to the social welfare department contended that the statement was not to be used against Rose, but against recruiters and their conduits in the area where she lived. Rose was detained at the center until February 14, 2011 – beyond her 18th birthday.