Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Letters to an old comrade: Third installment

Ka Topits,

Children were reported killed during the military offensive in Mindanao last September 8, 2008. To treat these dead children as “child soldiers,” which an officer of the Philippine military has claimed, is a gross and revolting understatement of the value of a child’s life.

We have known throughout the history of mankind that children, other than being casualties of wars, have also been used to serve the ends of war. From the age of antiquity, young boys had served as aides, charioteers and armour bearers to adult warriors. The Bible spoke of David as a young boy when he slew Goliath during the war between the Israelites and the Philistines. From early modern warfare to present-day struggles for liberation and internecine tribal wars, hundreds of thousands of children are involved in armed conflicts around the world. Young boys and girls below the age of eighteen, some as young as thirteen, are being used in a variety of ways, such as cooking or portering to active fighting, laying landmines or spying and girls are frequently used for sexual purposes.

According to Human Rights Watch, as of July 2007, children are direct participants in war in over twenty countries around the world. It is estimated that there are 200,000 to 300,000 children serving as soldiers for both rebel groups and government forces in current armed conflicts. An estimated 13 per cent of the 10,000 soldiers in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in southern Philippines are children. The New People's Army (NPA) gave up the use of child soldiers, and instituted a minimum age of 16 for those acting as couriers, medical volunteers and members of education and propaganda units. It also set 18 as the more preferred age to become members of the force.

One can hardly disagree that the recruitment and use of children for purposes of war violates their rights and causes them physical, developmental, emotional, mental, and spiritual harm. Although the ancient Romans used children in their wars of conquest, they understood that it was unwise and cruel to use children in war. Thus, the Roman historian of Greek descent, Plutarch, wrote that there ought to be regulations requiring children to be at least sixteen years old if they were to be used in military service.

When does a person become a “child soldier”?

Under international law and the laws of most nations in the world, a child reaches the age of majority when he turns 18. This means that persons recruited and used in armed conflict below the age of 18 are considered “child soldiers.”

The United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child provides that all feasible measures must be taken by states “to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities.” Countries like Canada and the U.S. continue to recruit children below 18 in its army but they are deployed in actual hostilities only until they reach 18, which is consistent with the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict to the Convention that persons below the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities and they are not compulsorily recruited into the army.

Furthermore, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court considers enlisting and use of children under the age of 15 in the army as a war crime.

The Paris Principles adopted in February 2007 which set the guidelines on the involvement of children with armed forces or armed groups reiterated that such children must be below 18 years of age and recruited or used as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or sexual purposes. However, the Principles include all children whether taking or have a direct part in hostilities.

This is an overarching definition of a child soldier because any child found in communities where armed groups, like the NPA and MILF operate or have influence, is then deemed a child soldier. When such communities are attacked by government forces, children found in these areas could be considered child soldiers and associated with armed groups by virtue of being residents of these communities. Hence, the state armed forces have an excuse to escape prosecution by arguing that children killed or arrested during military engagements with rebel forces are associated with armed groups.

The Philippine Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) does not agree with this definition of a “child soldier” by the Paris Principles, which they argued was based on the experience and practices of African countries that used children in their tribal or inter-racial wars. Seen as a war of national liberation, armed conflict in the Philippines is different from the internecine wars in Africa; that it is a war waged against an oppressive state that violates people’s rights. In this context, the state becomes the number one violator of people’s rights, including the rights of children.

Children under 18 years of age who are taken prisoners during hostilities and are accused of crimes against national and international laws by the state should be considered primarily as the real victims, not the alleged perpetrators. Should there be persuasive evidence that these children were actually taking a direct part in the hostilities, they should be treated, which the Paris Principles uphold, with international standards for juvenile justice, such as in the framework of restorative justice and rehabilitation.

But to immediately brand them as “child soldiers” just because they were in the company of armed rebel groups or found in communities friendly to the insurgents is not only irresponsible but also ignores the best interests of these children.

The Philippines should not take the path taken by the United States which detained child soldiers and non-combatant minors captured during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Omar Khadr, a 15-year-old Canadian citizen, was captured in Afghanistan in 2002 and has been imprisoned at Guantanamo until now. The U.S. government incarcerated Khadr with adults, tortured him, failed to provide him any educational opportunities, and denied him any direct contact with his family.

While some children are forcibly recruited into armed groups, such as those children conscripted to join in the 1993-2002 armed hostilities in Sierra Leone, the vast majority of child soldiers are adolescents between the ages of 14 and 18 who have volunteered to join up. Economic, social, community and family structures are frequently destroyed by armed conflict and joining the ranks of the insurgents is often the only means of survival for these children. This is commonly true in villages and communities in Mindanao that have been ravaged by government military offensives, thus making the wars waged by government forces as a major determinant in the enlistment of children in the rebel armies.

In any event, children should never be involved in adult wars only to become disabled or die in such conflicts. It is the primary objective of the state to provide the most protective environment for all its children. But whenever the state turns around its obligation to protect children and uses them instead as shield from prosecution for their crimes against humanity, it makes all laws, international or national, a big sham.

What’s happening to our society, Ka Topits? It seems like the world is turning upside down. Is there any hope left for us?

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