The Philippines government ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (CRC-OP-CAC) on 26 August 2003. There were no indications of Philippine armed forces formally recruiting soldiers below the age of 18, although there have been reports of government-backed paramilitary groups recruiting children for military training. Children, including possible child soldiers, have been killed during military operations to crush opposition forces, particularly members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).196 In March the Social Welfare minister urged government forces to rescue child soldiers rather than engage them in battle. 197
In August President Gloria Arroyo said the government was set to resume “exploratory” peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front (NDF), the political wing of the armed opposition group the New People’s Army (NPA).198 Talks had been indefinitely suspended in March. 199 Peace talks between the government and the MILF were set to resume in the southern island of Mindanao in September 2003.200
According to government forces, the testimonies of former NPA members revealed “…massive recruitment of minors aged 13 to 17 from the ranks of urban students and out-of-school peasants”. In January 2003, an NPA spokesperson rebutted this allegation, saying that “[t]he military is again peddling lies. What we follow is a strong and clear-cut policy that prohibits any NPA unit to recruit combatants that are below 18 years old”. He said that in cases where minors do wish to join the NPA, “they are not given guns and are not assigned tasks that directly involve combat operations.” According to the spokesperson “[m]ost of them perform menial assignments, running errands, courier jobs and the likes.”201 A 16-year old child arrested by the military reportedly served as tax collector for the NPA.202
However, government forces continued to report the recruitment and training of children by the NPA in several areas in the country.203 Several students were among the NPA members involved in encounters with government forces. Military forces claimed that the presence of minors in the NPA was part of a program to expose them to the countryside.204 Among those captured by the military during encounters were 16-year-old children.205
The use of children by the MILF continued to be reported. In May 2003, alleged child MILF members (aged between14 to 15) were among those killed in several clashes between the military and MILF.206 In the same month, the Department of Social Welfare and Development noted that half the 98 MILF members who surrendered with the government were teenagers.207 MILF members captured by government forces have included children as young as 11 years of age.208 The military also reported finding photos of children in uniform and carrying firearms in an MILF camp.209
A study grant program was being undertaken by the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process and the Commission on Higher Education. The program was open to qualified former members of the NPA, MILF and the Moro National Liberation Front. The United States government agreed to support the peace efforts of the Philippine government by providing $30 million to finance livelihood projects for MILF members once a peace accord had been signed.210
196 Philippine Daily Inquirer news service, 2 January 2003.
197 Philippine Daily Inquirer news service 22 May 2003.
198 “Peace talks with communist rebels to resume soon, Agence France Press, 13 August 2003.
199 Update Report on the GRP-NDF Peace Talks from GRP Peace Panel, 6 March 2003.
200 “Philippines holds talks this week on Muslim revolt”, Reuters Foundation, 3 September 2003.
201 Mallari, Jr., Delfin T., “NPA assailed on child warriors,” Inquirer News Service, 4 January, 2003.
202 Zonio, Aquiles, “Army seeks amnesty for minor rebel,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 22 January 2003.
203 Palangchao, Harley and Picana, Thom S., “Rebs training new recruits in Nueva Vizcaya,” The Manila Times, 5 February 2003.
204 Bayoran, Gilbert, “NPA still recruiting minors,” The Visayan Daily Star (electronic version), 29 March 2003, http://www.visayandailystar.com/2003/March/29/topstory5.htm
205 Zonio, Aquiles, “Army captures another teen NPA rebel after clash,” Inquirer News Service, 21 January 2003; Zonio, Aquiles, “Army seeks amnesty for minor rebel,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 22 January 2003.
206 Fernandez, Edwin, et al., “Military says MILF terror plan uncovered,” Inquirer News Service, 21 May 2003.
207 Alipala, Julie S. and Maningo, Jeffrey P., “Don’t steal the childhood of our youth,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 24 May 2003.
208 Philippine Army, “MILF children rebels captured in Maguindanao,” Press Release 103-03, 2 June 2003.
209 Alipala, Julie S, “Military urged to rescue child-soldiers,” Inquirer News Service, 18 February 2003.
210 Reuter, “Philippine government hurries MILF Peace Talks”, 30 July 2003. www.armedgroups.org/breaking/news/0730phi.htm