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(Manila) – The Philippines Senate should remove a  provision in a draft law that allows for the prosecution of the parents of children recruited to be soldiers. With that revision, the proposed law, the Special Protection of Children in Situations of Armed Conflict Bill, should be enacted into law, the groups said.

The bill, which aims to align Philippine law with international legal protections for children in armed conflict, would prevent child soldiers and other children associated with the government armed forces or armed groups from being criminally prosecuted, and outlines procedures to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society. The bill also criminalizes the recruitment and use in hostilities of children under age 18 and related abuses against children, such as the occupation of schools by armed forces and groups.

“This bill could bring Philippine law in line with the best international standards for protecting children in armed conflict,” said Charu Lata Hogg, Asia program manager at Child Soldiers International. “But the recruiters of child soldiers, not the children’s parents, should be the ones prosecuted for putting these children at grave risk.”

The bill includes a section making it “unlawful for parents, ascendants, guardians, step parents or collateral relatives within the third degree of consanguinity or affinity, or any person having control or moral ascendancy to the child, to allow, willfully encourage, compel, coerce or influence their child or children to be part of an armed group or a governmental armed force.”

The draft language sets too low a bar for criminalization and is open to misuse and misinterpretation, Child Soldiers International and Human Rights Watch said. Communities and families have a positive role to play in preventing children from associating with armed forces or armed groups. Such roles should be strengthened and supported, including by raising awareness of children’s rights and protection needs within society. But primary responsibility under the criminal law to screen for age and reject potential recruits under age 18 should be with the armed forces and armed groups, including armed opposition groups.

The overly broad definition of those subject to prosecution under the bill – such as those with “moral ascendancy” over the child – and the vague criminal act required – including to “allow” or “influence” the child – increases the likelihood that the law would be misused, Child Soldiers International and Human Rights Watch said.

“Under the bill as drafted, parents, whose children have been forcibly recruited, might face prosecution for ‘allowing’ their children to join the armed groups,” said Bede Sheppard, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Since so much of this bill deserves praise, the Senate need amend it only to ensure the real child soldier recruiters can be brought to justice.”

The United Nations secretary-general has previously called upon the Philippines to “ensure that children associated with armed groups and forces are not prosecuted.” The law will address this concern by providing for children’s rehabilitation and reintegration.

The children and armed conflict bill was unanimously passed by the Philippines House of Representatives in May 2011.  The Senate adopted its version of the bill in November. The next step for advancing the bill is a bicameral meeting of the House and Senate to harmonize the two versions. The House draft law also contained the problematic provisions that are in the Senate bill.

The recruitment of children under 18 for use in armed conflict is already prohibited under Republic Act 9231 (Act Providing for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor). If passed, the Special Protection of Children in Situations of Armed Conflict Bill would raise the minimum sentence for such recruitment from 12 to 14 years; the maximum sentence would remain 20 years.

The United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, has documented the use of children in armed conflict in the Philippines by the communist rebel New People’s Army (NPA) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, as well as by government forces and militias. Human Rights Watch has  documented the occupation and use of schools by government armed forces, as well as the armed forces falsely and publicly identifying children as “child warriors” associated with the NPA, and parading them before the media. Such acts would be prohibited under the proposed law.

In its 2012 report, “Louder than Words – an agenda for action to end state use of child soldiers,” Child Soldiers International has raised concerns at the use of children by the Philippines armed forces and the risk of child recruitment by paramilitary forces.

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