Children as ‘zones of peace’
Even as legislators push for the lowering of the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 9 years old (later raised to 12), the country is winning plaudits for the passage last month of Republic Act No. 11188, known as the Special Protection of Children in Situations of Armed Conflict law.
The new law declares children as “zones of peace,” and is aimed at protecting children in situations of armed conflict from all forms of abuse and violence. It also mandates the prosecution of persons or groups using children as fighters, spies, forced laborers and couriers, and other roles not suited to their age and that put them in danger or harm.
Unicef, the United Nations children’s agency, has joined other organizations and agencies in lauding the passage of the law. It cited a report published by the Office of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict in 2018 that revealed a “significant increase” in the number of grave violations against children caught in the crossfire between government forces and other armed groups.
The report, covering incidents occurring in 2017 in the country, documented 30 cases of recruitment and use of children by armed groups (a large number of which were linked to the Maute group), the detention of 12 children for their alleged association with armed groups, 33 verified cases of killing and maiming, three cases of rape in the context of the Marawi siege, 60 attacks on schools and hospitals (a substantial increase from 12 recorded cases in 2016), and five incidents of abduction.
The new law prohibits and punishes the killing, torture, intentional maiming, rape, abduction, recruitment of children into government armed forces and other armed groups, hamletting, food blockade, arbitrary detention, and denial of humanitarian access. Covered by this law are minors below 18 years of age, with possible penalties against violators reaching up to life imprisonment and a fine amounting to P5 million.
To be sure, efforts to protect child soldiers and children caught in the maelstrom of war have been undertaken. In 2017, Unicef and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) completed an action plan to end recruitment and use of children, with 1,869 children disengaged from the MILF’s armed forces. Unicef continues to follow up the situation of these children, as well as that of their siblings, by making family visits and facilitating their access to essential services.
“The passage of this law is timely, especially since we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the most widely ratified treaty in the world,” says Unicef Philippines representative Lotta Sylwander. “Children are innocent, they should not be in any way used as combatants and helpers, or become collateral damage.”
The passage of the law brings the Philippines in compliance with international obligations, including the UN CRC, particularly the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and various UN Security Council resolutions related to children affected by armed conflict.
Also, worth celebrating are the progressive and gender-sensitive provisions in the law, including guarantees of access to education of girls even in situations of armed conflict, as well as access to reproductive health services.
Addressing a gathering of journalists some years back, MILF chair Murad Ebrahim pointed to his favorite granddaughter, who was frolicking amid the “serious” proceedings. “I was a fighter for the Moro cause at a very young age,” Murad said with a rueful tone, “and so were my own sons, including her father. It is my dream that she will come of age without having to repeat our family history.”
Together with the MILF chair, all Filipinos must share in the prayer for peace, a peace that will bless all children with childhoods free from harm. And, yes, including the children being targeted by the government in its relentless, ruthless and mindless campaign against children trapped in the “war” against drugs and criminality.
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