There are fresh allegations that the rebel New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, is still recruiting children for use as fighters.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines announced last week that a 14-year-old boy was among two suspected NPA fighters captured after what the military called a “legitimate encounter” on February 9, in Compostela Valley province on the southern island of Mindanao.
The military has previously accused the NPA of using child soldiers. For example, it reported in May 2015, that an 11-year-old NPA child soldier surrendered to its troops in Davao Oriental province. That same month the military claimed that about 22 percent of NPA members are children between 6 and 17 years old.
But the armed forces has undermined its credibility on the issue by falsely identifying children as “child warriors,” as Human Rights Watch has previously reported. In mid-2011, soldiers arrested three boys – the youngest 10 years old – in Mindanao and publicly declared them to be NPA “child warriors.” In July 2011, the army said it arrested a 14-year-old alleged child soldier in Samar province. Human Rights Watch investigated these cases and found that the allegations were fabricated by the military.
The NPA has not commented on this most recent incident. It maintains that it does not recruit children as armed combatants and said that it would investigate and hold accountable its units that violate this policy – but hasn’t provided public information to that effect. But it also refutes 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 – saying its “misleading and inaccurate definition of child soldiers” is biased against liberation movements.
Deploying children under 18 not only violates the Optional Protocol, it’s a war crime. Given the military’s dubious track record on these cases, it’s important that the Philippine Commission on Human Rights and relevant United Nations agencies investigate the February 9 case and act to ensure that the child involved, whether a NPA fighter or not, is treated properly in accordance with international law. The NPA needs to adopt measures, and make them publicly known, demonstrating that they are no longer recruiting children.
The use of child soldiers is a serious problem in the Philippines – one not just involving the NPA. A 2013 report to the UN Security Council by the secretary-general documented the use of children in armed conflict by the NPA, as well as the Islamist armed groups the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf, and government forces.
Ending the cruel practice of using child soldiers should be everyone’s aim in the Philippines. Ending the lies and obfuscations about the issue is a crucial first step.