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Government contends with issues concerning minors in 2007

December 31, 2007 ·  By Nora O. Gamolo, Senior Desk Editor

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By Nora O. Gamolo, Senior Desk Editor
Monday, December 31, 2007

Children—those who haven’t reached the age of majority or not yet age 18—became major items in news reports in 2007, primarily because of reports of their suffering during the government’s anti-insurgency campaign in the countryside.

They became the main participants in a children’s rally conducted recently in Malacañang to stop state military offensives in the regions. Before the Christmas season set in, they sent a card to bring their message to Malacañang.

Children in war was also the subject of a new book primarily funded by the United Nations Children’s Fund, entitled Uncounted Lives: Children, women and conflict in the Philippines that gave life accounts of children in the heavily militarized areas of Abra, Mindoro Oriental, Capiz, Leyte, Surigao del Sur, Compostela Valley, North Cotabato and Maguindanao.

The book told of child warriors of insurgent groups the New People’s Army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, but the researchers say that it did not encounter forcible conscription of child soldiers into these insurgent groups. If any, the children joined voluntarily, seeing their involvement as a way of defending their families and communities from abusive state security forces.

The researchers discovered that individuals who are still legally children have volunteered to join armed groups, with some parents willingly giving their consent and with communities approving of their personal choice to be combatants. They are normally not combatants, though, but their services are used in military support work like couriers.

State-led militarization has resulted in disruptions in the schooling of children, health services, livelihoods and access to potable water.

“Children face higher risk when they are perceived as relatives, supporters or members of the insurgent groups,” said Ma. Esmeralda Ma­caspac, executive director of the Children’s Rehabilitation Center. “They are worse off when displaced from their communities, such as during evacuations, than children who stay in their localities.”

Inside evacuation centers, children experienced trauma, anxiety, sadness, a sense of loss, deep sense of a lack of control and scepticism about the future.

The study recommended measures to remedy poverty, backwardness and weak governance through development projects in the countryside. It also recommended a stepping up of relief and rehabilitation efforts, and the strengthening of human right mechanisms in counterinsurgency operations, such as improved monitoring, reporting and verification of human rights violations, more public discourse on human rights and international humanitarian law, and more protection for communities.

The military dismissed the report, but for many of its supporters, including the government’s recommendatory Council for the Welfare of Children (CWC), the book was a way of hearing the stories of these children straight from them.

For all the controversy the book generated, it was simply a needs assessment of children and women affected by armed conflict in eight of the country’s most war-torn provinces.

In a backhanded way, children’s issues became paramount again because of the uproar from children’s advocates and feminists over reported plans to release former legislator and known Arroyo ally, Romeo Jalosjos, from prison. Serving time for statutory rape of an 11-year-old, Jalosjos sprang himself from prison in December 22 and went back to his hometown even while the government rescinded his release order.

In September, the Philippine government sent its official third and fourth report to the United Nations “to catch up with its reporting requirements,” a major commitment on implementing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that the country ratified in 1995. For all the flak it has been getting from child rights advocates, the Philippines is supposedly a model in implementing child laws in the world.

The official report showed that as of mid-2007, more than 20,000 children in 64 conflict-affected barangay units (45 in Mindanao, 15 in Visayas and four in Luzon) had been provided basic services such health and nutrition, early childhood care, basic education, and technical-vocational education and training. Other measures undertaken were youth organizing, rights advocacy, community-based peace education, and disaster management.

In the conflict-ridden regions of Sulu, Samar, Surigao del Sur, Quezon, North Cotabato and Maguindanao, more than 10,000 families who were displaced because of escalating hostilities between government forces and nonstate actors were given emergency relief and psychosocial support services (like art therapy); 3,000 pupils received school packs; and around 60,000 internally displaced persons, including children, were provided with medicines and water purifiers.

The provision of these services were facilitated through NGO partners involved in community organizing in rural, remote and hard-to-reach areas. A sustained community-organizing strategy helps empower disadvantaged families and build community resilience and capacity to cope with emergency situations.

The Philippines recently agreed to join the monitoring and reporting mechanism initiative following the UN Security Council Resolution No. 1612 that asks for the establishment of mechanism on six grave violations of children’s rights in situations of armed conflict in countries where recruitment of children is still being reported.

With support from Unicef, the Sub-Committee on Children Affected by Armed Conflict and Displacement of the Council for the Welfare of Children has pushed for the establishment of the monitoring and reporting mechanism on children involved in armed conflict.

The official report incorporated official data from the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, as well as the report of Melo Commission (created under Administrative Order No. 157 on August 21, 2006), which investigated extrajudicial killings of media men and social activists do not indicate cases involving children and minors.

However, it also incorporated reports from the multisectoral alliance Karapatan (the Filipino word for “rights”) that showed that out of 185 cases of extrajudicial killings from January to November 2006, 17 were minors, students and youth.

That there had been children and minors involved in extrajudicial killings had also been corroborated by Amnesty International and the Asian Human Rights Commission, as well as the Philip Alston report on extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

The report indicated, however, that figures on extrajudicial killings in the country are borne out not only by NGO reports, but also by the reports of the Commission on Human Rights, Melo Commission and the Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Professor Alston. Yet, the official report also said, “While the figures are varied, they indicate a very serious threat to the right to life, survival and development [of children, among others].”

It suggested that the Commission on Human Rights, through its Child Rights Center, must now take extra efforts to do continuing surveillance, monitoring, reporting, investigation, and prosecution of cases involving children and minors.

As an independent human rights institution, the commission is expected to take the lead in bringing the perpetrators to justice and should stand ready under any and all circumstances to promote and protect the right to life, survival and development, particularly of children.

The commission’s ability to network with NGOs and grassroots organizations should be maximized to monitor violations of children’s rights in remote and hard-to-reach villages and conflict-affected communities.

To be continued

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