Child Soldiers or Victims?

http://bulatlat.com/main/2011/03/05/child-soldiers-or-victims/

05-March-11, | Ina Alleco R. Silverio, Bulatlat.com

The children of political activists and human rights workers who have fallen victim to extrajudicial killings are orphaned, their young lives marred and damaged by the experience of losing their parents to state violence. As for the child victims of extrajudicial killings themselves, their brutal killing at the hands of the military prove the extent of the AFP’s impunity—not even the most innocent are spared.

A decade ago, novelist and comic book writer Neil Gaiman and a few others wrote and published under DC Vertigo an illustrated novel called “The Children’s Crusade.”

In a nutshell, it is about a group of children each of whom lived in a different country and a different time and who died or were killed in the most cruel of ways either through neglect or through abuse. They disappear all the children in the world living in the present time because, as they said, all children should be saved and rescued because adults and how they run the world inflict so much pain and damage on the innocent.

 

“They kill children here,” they said, justifying their action. One by one, they took thousands and thousands of children from this world and brought them to another place where they could play and laugh forever.

The book sends a timely message, one that would never be irrelevant given the current human rights situation in the world and in the Philippines. All the hurt in the world is felt a millions times worse by children who, in their innocence and helplessness, could do nothing to defend themselves or to escape the circumstances of despair, sadness and death that surround so many of them.

The Issue of Child Soldiers.

If one has to write about the issue of child soldiers, good journalists and political analysts regardless of their own personal political biases should be aware that since 1988, ahead of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the NPA have already adopted and implemented the policy of prohibiting the recruitment of children below 18 to serve as combatants. They should be aware of this the same way that they know about the various laws and declarations of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GPH) regarding the rights of the child and how they must be protected and upheld.

It would also be most instructive to take into consideration the explanations the leadership of the CPP and the NPA have made that children between the ages of 15 and 18 may be trained and directed by the mass organizations never for the purpose of participation in combat, but to enable them to keep themselves safe when their homes and communities are attacked by soldiers.

These children who are given instruction on quick evacuation and first-aid cannot be in any definition be considered combatants: they do not carry firearms, and they are not members of the NPA.

The government under the previous administration of then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was consistent it its accusations that the NPA is guilty of child recruitment. As for the new government under President Benigno Aquino III, it has yet to issue any statement on the matter even as it began its peace negotiations with the NDFP on February 15 this year. All the same, however, already, human rights groups have documented 37 cases of extrajudicial killings of activists under the Aquino government. This translates to one victim of extrajudicial killing per week. Human rights watchdogs say that the new Internal Peace and Security Plan (IPSP) of the AFP called “Oplan Bayanihan” is no different from the Oplan Bantay Laya implemented during the Arroyo regime, which killed 1,206 in nine years.

The issue of child soldiers is something that children’s rights advocacy groups and the rest of the human rights community have become passionate about because , as they assert, the government and its armed forces actually tag innocent children — the children of farmers and indigenous peoples — as combatants so it could justify itself when the AFP ends up killing children civilians. Also, they assert that this labeling is part and parcel of the over-all campaign to demonize the NPA and distract the public from what is really happening: the government slowly, systematically, and on a mass scale, killing children not just by having the AFP riddle their small bodies with bullets, but by starving them, denying them health, housing and education services.

Child Soldiers or Victims?

In late 2006, the representatives of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, the GRP panel, the GRP Monitoring Committee, the Philippine National Police/Task Force Usig; the Inter-Agency Legal Action Group (IALAG) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) formed a technical working group (TWG) “to clean up the different lists of incidents/cases of alleged political killings submitted by different groups for possible similarities, discrepancies, double count or inaccuracies.”

The TWG came out with a report “to assist the Government in reading the “temperature” and address the situation on the ground, and provide inputs for an intelligible response to the local and international public regarding allegations against the State.” The compilation of the report entailed analyzing and deconstructing the complaints human rights organizations filed with the Joint Monitoring Committee against the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP), as well as the comprehensive list of the said HR groups of extrajudicial killings and abductions they charge to GRP forces.

Included in the TWG’s report on the extrajudicial killings are 10 cases of political killings involving 12 children and minors as victims, all of which have been filed against the GRP: the Blanco children John Kevin (3), Dexter Blanco (1 and ½), and the then unborn baby (eight months), killed July 21, 2005; Mary Jane Jimelo (9), killed May 8, 2001; Nina Angela Apolinar (9), killed May 20, 2002; Berni Ani (15), Mylene (11), and Raymond (4) Golloso, killed July 23, 2003; Joey Santos (15), killed January 29, 2004; Aldassir Padiwan (10), killed January 2, 2005; Dante Salgado (17), killed January 31, 2006; Amante Abelon Jr. (5), killed March 20, 2006; and Wilmer Masimid (3), killed April 25, 2003.

The TWG made the recommendation that the deaths of the children should be investigated so it can be determined “if the children died in crossfire during military/police operations, massacres, direct assaults/killings, or were child combatants who participated in an encounter.” The fact that the TWG even dared to imply that the children were possible combatants and hence legitimate targets of GRP forces exposes an inherently malicious political agenda: that of deflecting blame that is rightfully directed against the GRP.

The TWG, however, failed to accomplish this. Closer scrutiny of the cases reveal common circumstances that all contribute to establish the accountability of the GRP’s armed forces and to reveal a comprehensive campaign directed against political activists, sympathizers, and members and officials of progressive party-list groups. The TWG also failed in its attempt to justify the killings as the result of military encounters; or to clear the military from accountability.

The process the TWG utilized to select the 10 specific cases of political killings of children and minors is not immediately apparent, but it appears that the cases were chosen randomly. At closer analysis of the report, however, it becomes obvious that the TWG had no intention of shedding light into the cases but instead do the opposite: obfuscate the truth and lay the ground for conclusions that are unfounded, unjustified, and malicious.

Concretely, the TWG made the barest and most inaccurate mention of the circumstances that led to the death of the children. It based its observations and conclusions on the complaints against the GRP, but deliberately or not, the TWG still managed to commit certain inaccuracies in its report on the one hand (such as mistakes in the ages of the children victims); and neglecting to report that besides the children who were killed, the cases also involved other children and minors who survived (such as the cases involving Bernie; the Golloso children; Aldassir and Dante).

For instance, the TWG stated that three-year old Amante Jr. “died with his family when some armed men fired at them in Castillejos, Zambales.” The fact that Amante Jr was shot once in the head and died helpless in the embrace of his mother who was also shot once in the head was not mentioned. The alleged intelligence agents shot and killed Amante Jr. when they failed in their main objective to kill the father – they vented their frustration on the little boy.

The eight-year old Nina, according to the TWG, “died with her family in a mass killing.” The TWG did not use the more apt term “massacre” nor did it describe the brutality of the attack that killed Nina and her family. The perpetrators fired at least 53 M-16 bullets (based on the shells found surrounding the house).

Neither did the TWG include the detail that 10-year old Aldassir was shot in the torso, and when he died while in the custody of his and his parents’ killers, the soldiers threw his body out of the moving truck like a bag of garbage. Aldassir’s younger brother, eight-year old Almujayyal whom the soldiers also took with them even heard one of the soldiers declare his brother dead “Nagdaran pa in truck kiyaruk siya sin sundalu daing ha truck, miyatay na kunu.”

While the TWG reported that nine-year old Mary Jane was raped and killed, it did not mention that the little girl was found stuffed in a sack and that her small body bore marks of strangulation and possible drowning.

In the meantime, the TWG did not give the least consideration for the testimonies of witnesses in the killings. It disregarded the written and signed accounts of the witnesses including the parents of the children killed wherein they directly attributed the deaths to the military, citing specific names and battalion units.

In the case of the Golloso children, the leadership of the village where the fatal shooting took place submitted an affidavit belying the assertion of the 2nd IBPA and CAFGU unit under the command of Col. Romeo Cabatic that the children were killed in an encounter between the soldiers and some other armed group. Eleven village officials and 42 residents signed the affidavit.

Fifteen-year old Aeta boy Joey was accused of being a member of “a rebel group” and killed by the 69th IBPA led by Col. Herbert Yambing. This information the TWG included but not the fact that Joey’s own employer submitted a signed affidavit stating that the boy tended carabaos and sold tomatoes for him and that on the day Joey was killed, he had asked permission to go and play basketball with other Aeta children in a nearby community.

The TWG also did not cite the fact that the families of the victims and the human rights groups who helped them file complaints went not only to the JMC but also to the Commission on Human Rights and the courts.

It is also noticeable how the TWG attempted to clear the AFP from criminal liability for the killings by insinuating, in certain cases, that the children were either combatants or were in the custody or company of rebel groups to justify their killing.

Seventeen-year old Dante was resting with other bamboo cutters inside a house when they were startled awake at 4:00 am by a loud burst of gunfire. Soon after, at 7:00 am, Dante and his cousin Alan, 18, left to buy food for their breakfast. Then there was another round of gunfire which sent the workers running for cover. At 12:00 noon, four soldiers came and ordered those in the house to come out. The soldiers asked if any of their companions were missing and when they answered in the affirmative, they produced Allan. The soldiers left taking the boy with them. The next day both Allan and Dante were found by their relatives in a funeral parlor. Witnesses say the two boys were last seen alive while under the custody of elements of the 71st IBPA, but that the soldiers charged the two boys of being with the rebels.

Three-year old Wilmer was playing inside the house of his paternal grandmother when soldiers came and shot him. They also shot his father William who was resting in an upstairs room. William was accused of being a member of the NPA.

In summary, there are more important points that expose the 10 cases of political killings of minors and children as directly perpetrated by the military or paramilitary units such as the CAFGU, or, at least, as a consequence of the GRP’s military campaign against political activists.

First, the children in the 10 cases of political killings of children and minors were killed either in their own homes, their area of employment, or in the presence or company of their own parents.

Second, they were killed while in the middle of activities that could hardly be categorized as actively hostile or military in character; for instance, Aldassir was sleeping, and so were Bernie and Nina; Joey was heading off to play basketball; Dante was buying food; Amante Jr was riding a motorcycle sandwiched between his mother and father, and the Blanco children were preparing to leave with their parents to go to the clinic because their mother was scheduled to give birth.

Third, all the witnesses and direct eye-witnesses point to the military, paramilitary or intelligence agents as perpetrators who carried out the killings with complete impunity.

Fourth, the victims either had parents who were activists – Nina’s father and mother were affiliated with Bayan Muna and Gabriela respectively; Amante’s father Amante Sr. was with Anakpawis and vice-president of the Alyansa ng Magsasaka sa Gitnang Luzon (AMGL) – in the military’s Order of Battle – Wilmer’s father William was in the OB; Bernie’s father Ernesto was a barangay chairman who was accused of being an NPA sympathizer – or the victims themselves were ordinary civilians accused of being NPA members, as in the cases of Joey and Dante.

Fifth, the killings were conducted in varying hours of the day, regardless of whether there were witnesses or that the killings were conducted in public. All these denote impunity.

All in all, the brutal execution of these children are all-too consistent with the GPH ’s counterinsurgency programs – under Arroyo, it was called Oplan Bantay Laya (Operation Freedom Watch) — which the TWG report makes no mention of. The GRP and its agencies deliberately hype the distorted concept of “child soldiers” and accuse the children it victimized and whose lives it destroyed of being armed and therefore legitimate targets as a malicious means to divert the attention from the true violators of children’s and human rights: the GRP and its armed forces. This twisted accusation that there are “child soldiers” in the Philippines all the more exposes children to violence and renders them vulnerable to the most vicious of human rights violations.

The cases of extrajudicial killings of children filed against the GPH and included in the TWG report make up only a part of the hundreds of cases of children victims of human rights violations since ex-president Arroyo came into power in 2001. As of 2007, there were 54 cases (49 of which are well-documented) of children killed by the military during operations. Five years later, no justice has been given to these children and their families.

Continuing Violations Against Children’s Rights Under Aquino

The last decade under Macapagal-Arroyo saw a a steep rise in the number of cases of children victimized by the government’s military operations. The government asserts that it upholds human rights, but the facts speak for themselves and are in sharp contradiction to this.

In the meantime, post–2006, more human rights violations against children have taken place. The following cases have been documented by human rights groups from various regions. Some of these have also been reported by the AFP itself and its media dispatches. These, some would say, are clear indications of what can be expected from the Aquino government when it comes to human rights.

In September 14 last year, “Rose” (not her real name), 17, was paraded before the media by the 84th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army. The 84th IB-PA falsely claimed that she was a “would-be recruit” of the NPA who escaped.

In July 2010, “Boy” (not his real name), 17, of Brgy. Tagaytay, Magsaysay, Davao del Sur was reportedly forced to join a special operation of the 39th IB-PA last July to penetrate an NPA camp and steal weapons.

Also sometime last year, “Jerry” (not his real name), 17, of Brgy. Malawanit, Magsaysay, Davao del Sur was reportedly abducted and tortured to force him to admit to being an “NPA child warrior.” Jerry was able to escape and reveal his ordeal to the public.

Another minor, “Donna” (not her real name) of Dungan Pekong, Matanao, Davao del Sur, was misrepresented before the media as an “NPA child warrior.”

He was not yet 16 when “Jomar” (not his real name) and his friends were recruited and made to undergo a 45-day military training in October 2008 by the 1001st Infantry Brigade of the Philippine Army, in its headquarters in Brgy. Tuburan, Mawab, Compostela Valley. He was formally admitted as a member of the paramilitary Citizens Armed Geographical Unit in December 2008. As a CAFGU element, Jomar was accosted by the NPA last June 2010, but the NPA immediately released him after his age ws revealed.

In March 2010, a 17-year old boy from Brgy. Old Bulatucan, Makilala, North Cotabato was accosted and tortured by elements of the 57th IB-PA last March following an NPA harassment operation against the soldiers. He was presented to the media as a “child warrior” of the NPA before being turned over to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

Seventeen-year old “Michelle” (not her real name), was reported by her parents to have been abducted by elements of the 34th IB-PA from her home in San Juan de Buan, Western Samar in February 2010. She was taken by government soldiers as part of their tactic to force her parents (both members of the NPA) to surrender to the AFP. Michelle continues to be detained by the DWSD under the authority of the AFP.

A mentally-challenged child from Montalban, Matuguinao, Western Samar named “Jose” (not his real name), remains in the custody of the DSWD. According to reports, elements of the Philippine Army’s 8th Infantry Division accosted Jose in June 2009, made him handle a firearm and forced him to join military operations. He was subsequently paraded before the media as a “child warrior” of the NPA.

These recorded violations, human rights groups insist, are proof that children are not spared in the war between the government and the CPP-NPA. The children of political activists and human rights workers who fallen victim to extrajudicial killings are orphaned, their young lives marred and damaged by the experience of losing their parents to state violence. As for the child victims of extrajudicial killings themselves, their brutal killing at the hands of the military prove the extent of the AFP’s impunity—not even the most innocent are spared.

Upholding children’s rights necessitates much broader participation that goes beyond monitoring and reporting of human rights abuses. There must be a determined effort to prosecute offenders. This is precisely what the government is said to have been deliberately hindering despite the establishment of supposed instrumentalities such as task forces and commissions to address the matter. Any purported “mitigating circumstances” through which the government seeks to justify infringements of children’s rights in times of armed conflict must be seen for what they are: reprehensible and intolerable.

The Philippine government is signatory to the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child and insists that it upholds laws and policies which promote the best interests of Filipino children. The long list of murdered and massacred children proves just how much the GRP gives importance to children’s rights: when not killing the parent, it kills the children. The previous government under Macapagal-Arroyo absolves itself of blame for the lengthy series of human rights violations while heaping praise on the very same military officials who are being accused as perpetrators.

In relation to this, it bears mentioning that the UNICEF in 2005 appealed to the United Nations Security Council to do more to protect the rights of children affected by armed conflict This following UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s submission of a report to the Security Council calling for targeted measures against those who violate children’s rights. The UNICEF said that the UN Security Council should make a ruling that that peace deals and amnesties should not extend, in any circumstances, to those who commit “egregious crimes” against children. The government’s bloody record of extrajudicial killings of children is more than enough reason, as the 2nd Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) Second Session on the Philippines declared, to denounce the inclusion of the Republic of the Philippines in the UN Human Rights Council as ‘unacceptable.’

At the immediate, human rights groups and children’s rights advocacy organizations demand that decisive steps must be initiated to bring the perpetrators of the EJKs of children and minors to justice. The government’s armed forces must be made to cease and desist from further committing atrocities against children, respect their rights as well as the fundamental human rights of all Filipinos. Human rights groups hold the government accountable for the destruction of these children’s lives, and the overall worsening of the human rights situation in the country.

Finally, another issue that should be immediately addressed is the need for the rights of children to be discussed in the joint meetings between the two monitoring committees of the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GPH) and the NDFP.

It has been five years since the TWG of the PNP and the AFP released its report on children human rights victims. Five years since, children’s rights groups said, the government has not given any positive response to calls for justice for the children who were killed as a result of the armed conflict.

Now, under Aquino, reports continue to come out regarding military operations in far-flung communities wherein civilians including children are subjected to harassment and other human rights violations.

Children’s rights advocacy groups assert that genuine, thorough, and objective investigations into the cases of political killings of children and minors – as well the cases of harassment and general victimization of children by military and paramilitary elements — should be immediately initiated and pursued until they are justly resolved and the perpetrators are punished.

Based on principles of International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights, “children in armed conflict” do not only refer to children who are made combatants or who have taken part in hostilities as soldiers, but also those who are caught in the middle of wars. There are many, many more children who have fallen victim to emotional/psychological stress from the trauma and effects of the GRP’s total war on families and communities.

There is no questioning the duty of every enlightened government to protect and provide for the needs of its citizens, including their children. The performance of this duty is rightly regarded as one of the most important of governmental functions, but there is much to be desired in how the government performs this function.