Approved on its third reading, the bill paves the way for prosecution of anyone violating a child’s rights, including the “killing, torture, maiming, rape, abduction, use [of children] as human shields” or anyone found inflicting “inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment” on children. In addition, the bill makes it a criminal offence for anyone in the military, police or other armed group to recruit children. This part of the bill is designed to stop children being caught up in the long-running armed conflicts in the Philippines.
With the renewal of peace negotiations this year, the Philippines government is trying to end decades-long fighting with Muslim separatists on the southern island of Mindanao and a confrontation with communist insurgents across the country. These conflicts have killed around 160,000 people and more than 100,000 are still displaced. Inhabitants of war-torn Mindanao particularly suffer from acute poverty and in December last year, the president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, promised to boost social and medical services in the region and rebuild rural infrastructure. Mr Aquino spoke of his belief that poverty helps breed rebellion and that if conditions improve, “we can stop the war and the shooting”.
According to a United Nations (UN) 2010 report on children and armed conflict, 38 Filipino children were killed and 40 maimed in conflict-related violence last year, compared to 12 deaths and 40 injured in 2009. The new bill has been welcomed as a step to end the involvement of children in the armed struggles, but Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that significant hurdles remain. A senior researcher at HRW explained to Alertnet that the law will have little effect on armed groups where the Philippines government has no control. This is the case with three of the groups who recruit and use children – the New People’s Army (NPA), one of the communist groups and two of the Islamic separatist organizations - the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and the Abu Sayyaf Group.
And the abuse of children isn’t only confined to the insurgents. The UN report notes that the Armed Forces of the Philippines continue “to use children for military purposes”. And when government forces detain children involved in the conflict, many are “physically abused, interrogated under extreme duress….and subjected to acts tantamount to torture”. Only a few members of the military have ever been prosecuted for abuses, according to HRW and the organization has therefore called on President Aquino to disband all paramilitary and militia troops still operating in the areas of conflict.