Rights group accuses Army of fabricating stories on child warriors
MANILA, Philippines—The Philippine Army must stop its “despicable practice” of fabricating stories about “child warriors” and parading them before the press to buttress its “propaganda” war against the communist-led New People’s Army, the Human Rights Watch said.
The New York-based rights watchdog said the Army had “fabricated” stories that the children it had taken into custody since June 2010 were young NPA combatants, and pressed Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin to investigate the officers behind this.
The Human Rights Watch, in a statement, said it had investigated the cases of six of the 12 children held by the Army and found “strong evidence indicating that the accounts of their involvement with the rebels were fabricated by the military.”
“The Army is concocting stories of child rebel soldiers that are putting children at risk for propaganda purposes. The government should get the military to stop this despicable practice and investigate the officers involved,” said Elaine Pearson, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director.
The watchdog said the military paraded the six children before the media, branding them as rebels, and that in two cases, detained the children for days before handing them over to the Department of Social Welfare and Development in violation of the law.
The HRW has cited Philippine laws prohibiting the military from exposing children to the media unless demanded by national security, and says that international humanitarian law bans exposing captured combatants to public view, including the media.
The HRW also cited laws requiring the AFP to immediately turn children over to social welfare agency, police, local government, to protect the child’s privacy and to protect the child from further harm.
The United Nations Children’s Fund documented the use of children in armed conflict both by the NPA, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and government forces in 2010. The Philippines is party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Children on children in armed conflict, which sets 18 as the minimum age for any conscription, forced recruitment, or direct participation in hostilities, according to the watchdog.
The Philippine government should actively work to end the use of children in armed conflict, including as guides, informants, or porters, it added.
“The use of child soldiers in the Philippines is a matter of grave concern that the government should be taking seriously,” Pearson said. “But fabricating claims that children are involved undermines efforts to address genuine child soldier recruitment while putting other children in danger.”
The Human Rights Watch called on Gazmin and Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman to condemn the military’s practice as well as its harassment of their families. It said the government should order the police to promptly investigate each case and to ensure the safety of the children.
The watchdog said the military arrested three boys, identified as Jerome, Marlon and Vincent while they were helping relatives with farming chores in the middle of the year, and publicly declared them as NPA “child warriors.”
It, however, said that the municipal social welfare and development officer found no evidence that the children were recruited by the rebel group, and that school records supported this conclusion.
The soldiers interrogated the children in a village center, then turned them over to the police, who released them later that day, it said.
The Human Rights Watch released excerpts of their interviews with the children. “The soldiers shook me,” said Jerome. “They were trying to force me to admit we had planted a bomb… They tied my hands together…. I was afraid.”
Vincent said: “They pushed me into a rice paddy into the mud. The soldiers told me, ‘You’d better tell us the names of the other NPAs or we’ll kill your father.’”
In July, the Army’s 20th Infantry Battalion took into custody and publicly declared “Noynoy,” 14, and his older sister “Olay,” whose age has not been determined, to be “child warriors,” the watchdog said.
The social welfare department told Human Rights Watch, though, that there was no evidence that the children had been involved with the NPA. Olay had been living in Manila, and returned home to northern Samar for the village fiesta. Olay was held in the Army camp doing laundry and other domestic chores for three weeks before the military turned her over to the social welfare department.
In September 2010, the Army’s 84th IB took “Rose,” 17, into military custody while visiting the local detachment in Toril, Davao City, on the southern island of Mindanao. Rose ran away to the detachment after an argument with her brother over a soldier’s plan to visit her. The military later said it had assumed responsibility for Rose to protect her from her brother.
It later presented her as an NPA child soldier, and transferred her to a center by DSWD.
Rose told Human Rights Watch that she was compelled to do media interviews, and that she had never joined the NPA, and backed this claim with school and employment records.
Rose told Human Rights watch: “The many interviews disturbed me. I was scared and confused…. I was not free to go anywhere; a soldier was always following me…. The military really made me feel like I was NPA.”
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