MILF to stop recruiting child soldiers – UN special envoy

Published by rudy Date posted on December 13, 2008

The Philippines’ main Muslim separatist group has agreed to stop recruiting child soldiers and return those in its ranks to civilian life, a United Nations official said Friday.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, revealed that during her talks with MILF leader Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF has committed to enter an immediate action plan with the UN to stop the recruitment and use of children as soldiers by totally separating the young ones from their ranks and helping them return to civilian life.

“The MILF gave its word that they will direct their commanders in the field immediately,” Coomaraswamy said in a press conference held at the Discovery Suites Hotel in Ortigas.

Officials of the 12,000-strong MILF, which has been fighting for a Muslim homeland in Southern Mindanao since 1978, met with Coomraswarmy as part of her mission to discuss ways to stop recruitment of children by armed groups in this country.

Coomaraswamy visited the country on the request of the UN Security Council to discuss ways and means of securing the release of children being recruited by the MILF, New People’s Army and the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group. She met with government officials, such as Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Hermogenes Esperon, among others.

A United Nations Children’s Fund-commissioned study on children and women released on April showed that the MILF has been recruiting children in their ranks since the Philippine government declared an all-out war against the rebels in 2000 because of poverty, lack of access to basic social services, influence of their families, peers and community members. The MILF assuming custodial role for orphans whose parents are killed in the war is also a factor.

MILF practice

Young Muslim children undergo training by the MILF when they reach the age of puberty—13 to 14 years old for boys and 11 to 12 for girls. Aside from combat operations, these children are also “tasked to carry out patrols, perform sentry duty, prepare food and provide medical assistance.”

During her visit, the Philippine government issued an order strictly prohibiting the recruitment of anyone below the age of 18 into pro-government paramilitary units, Coomaraswarmy said Friday, the last day of her tour.

The UN official added that she was considering “possible dialogue,” with the 5,000-strong communist New People’s Army (NPA), which has been waging a Maoist rebellion since 1969.

The MILF and the NPA have both been accused of recruiting children into their ranks. Previously, both groups insisted the children joined willingly and served as spies, couriers or aides.

Asked on how confident they are that the MILF would fulfill such promise, Coomaraswamy said she believes that the fact that the MILF wants to be legitimized is a good sign.

“The MILF does not view their group as rebels, but as leaders of their province. As such, they would want to be removed from the terrorist list that’s for sure,” Coomaraswamy pointed out. “We maintain a good faith in them.”

She added that the UN sanctions stated in the UN Security Council 1612 that include freezing of assets, travel bans and embargoing of arms are a clear warning.

Share of the blame

But the identified rebel groups don’t have to take all the blame.

The UN also scored the Philippine government for allowing children to be involved in the paramilitary Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units and Community Volunteer Organizations operating in conflict areas.

“We told them that they should also investigate their ranks for violations against children,” she said. “They immediately agreed to immediately issue a directive that will compel all local units to strictly adhere to the existing national legislation that no one under 18 shall be tapped for such service.”

The UN official also recognized that while the Philippines has a strong framework of laws on children and armed conflict, its implementation is yet to be strengthened.

She complimented the government in the upcoming amendment of Republic Act 7610, which would exclude the prosecution of children arrested for reasons related to armed conflict.

“RA 7610 should be amended so that children who are arrested for reasons related to armed conflict will be spared from punishment,” she said. “They [children] are victims, not perpetrators.”

Zones of peace

Republic Act 7610 cites children as zones of peace, and therefore, should not be recruited to become members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, its civilian units or any other armed groups nor be allowed to be used as guides, while Republic Act 8371 prohibits the recruitment of children of indigenous cultural communities into the armed forces under any circumstances.

Republic Act 9208 provides sanctions against child engagement in armed conflict here and abroad, while Republic Act 9231 seeks the elimination of child labor that includes commissioning children to armed groups.

Fighting slammed Coomaraswarmy deplored the recent surge in fighting between government forces and MILF guerrillas in southern Philippines which has forced thousands of children to flee to overcrowded evacuation centers.

She also insisted for the government to investigate those within the Philippine security forces who are allegedly responsible for violations against these children.

“Children are affected in multiple ways by the conflict in the Philippines. However, they should remain zones of peace and all the parties to the conflict, civil society, religious leaders and the government must consider their protection as a priority,” she said.

The MILF action comes after the United States in October made it a federal crime for rebel groups in the Philippines and 16 other countries to recruit or to use soldiers under the age of 15. 
–AFP And Llanesca T. Panti, Manila Times

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