Children and schools caught in Philippine conflicts, UN concerned about AFP tactics

Surigao evacuation

12-May-11, 12:10 PM | Carlos H. Conde,

MANILA, Philippines – The soldiers descended on the Lumad (tribal) villages of Lianga where, according to human rights and tribal groups, they put up checkpoints that restricted the movement of residents and imposed a blockade that severely constrained the food supply to the communities.

The militarization of the villages in Lianga and two other towns of Surigao del Sur, in the southern Philippines, in 2008 and 2009 also forced hundreds of villagers to evacuate.

The children at two schools specially built for the Manobo tribe – the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development and the Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur – suffered the most as a result of the militarization, according to advocacy groups. Because of the food blockade, children went to school on empty or half-empty stomachs. Worse, classes had to be suspended.

Soldiers also descended on the school itself, where they supposedly harassed and taunted students and teachers, according to a report first published in the online news site Worse, the military branded the two schools, which have won recognition from the government and are run by a Lumad organization called Mapasu with the cooperation of the local Catholic diocese and the NGO Sildap, “communist fronts.”

What happened to the two tribal schools are emblematic – and in some sense an extreme case study – of a phenomenon in the Philippines and elsewhere of government and rebel forces occupying schools, disrupting not only the learning process of the students, but the lives of whole communities as well.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, in an annual report on children and armed conflict he delivered to the UN Security Council and made public Thursday, revealed that 15 of the 22 “country situations” the UN monitored involved attacks on schools and hospitals.

“I am concerned about the increasing trend of attacks on schools and hospitals,” Ban said in the report.

His special representative on children and armed conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, said “2010 proved another tragic year for children in conflicts all over the world.”

A statement on the report released by Coomaraswamy’s office said “direct and physical damage to schools seems to be the most reoccurring violation, but there are also reported incidents of closure of schools and hospitals as a result of direct threats and intimidation, military occupation. Schools are often used as recruiting groups for children.”

The Philippines stands out in the report because, unlike other countries where insurgents are the ones attacking schools, soldiers are the worst violators, according to the UN report.

(Read the full report here: )

In a section of the report on “grave violations committed against children in armed conflict” in the Philippines, Ban noted an “upward trend in the number of attacks on schools and hospitals and their personnel in 2010.” There were 41 such cases last year, compared to only 10 in 2009, although Ban pointed out that “this may be partially attributed to the use of schools as polling stations during the May and October elections.”

Still, of the 41 violations recorded in the country last year, 14 were committed by the military, four by the communist New People’s Army, one by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, two by the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, six by private militias of local politicians, and the remaining 14 cases attributed to “unidentified perpetrators.”

“Schools have been targets of improvised explosive device attacks and burning. In addition, teachers are increasingly targeted; 11 teachers were reportedly killed during the reporting period,” the report said.

The UN report also said that school occupations by the military and the paramilitary CAFGU (Citizens’ Armed Forces Geographical Unit) increased last year, “in contravention of national legislation prohibiting such practice.”

In remote communities across the country, it said, the military and CAFGU “have been using functioning public school buildings as barracks and command centers, including for storing weapons and ammunition. In some situations, the soldiers were observed approaching children, questioning them and allowing them to handle weapons.”

Children’s rights advocates have long complained about the military’s practice of targeting schools during counterinsurgency operations. “Military troop’s encampment in schools and other public places has instilled a culture of violence and has disrupted the socio-civic activities in the communities,” the Davao-based children’s rights group Kabiba Alliance for Children’s Concerns said last year, following reports of the military attacking schools in the Southern Mindanao region.

The group detailed a case last year in New Bataan town, Compostela Valley Province, in which children were allegedly recruited into the military’s Barangay Defense System (BDS), which is essentially a network of residents spying on the NPA. “Children are required to report to the BDS outpost. They are used as spies and couriers by the military,” it said.

One case involved a 14-year-old boy who would report to the BDS post at the barangay hall twice a week for 12 hours each time. Encamped behind the barangay hall, the group said, was a squad of the military.

This, it said, “is a clear violation of children’s rights to protection and safety” and “brings uncertainty and distress among children, where their basic rights to survival, protection, development, and participation are at risk.”

Aside from targeting schools, the UN report also said the Philippine military continued to use children for military purposes. “A common pattern observed involved children being used in counterinsurgency operations, and often in pursuit of NPA rebels in remote areas of the country,” it said.

And in one of the most scathing indictments of the counterinsurgency strategy called Oplan Bantay Laya, the UN secretary-general said the plan “permits and encourages soldiers to engage with civilians, including children, for military purposes, using them as informants, guides and porters. Three cases involving boys, aged 13, 15 and 16-years old, were verified in 2010.”

It also said that the UN’s country task force monitored “numerous allegations” of recruitment and use of children by the CAFGU, “who reportedly pressure and coerce children to join their ranks.”

The UN report also said the military continued to detain children. “Children in detention reported being physically abused, interrogated under extreme duress, subject to ill treatment and subjected to acts tantamount to torture to extract information on insurgents. Four incidents involving four girls and one boy were verified and involved the 11th, 34th, 25th, 54th infantry Battalions of the Philippine Army (IBPA). Such incidents also led to the displacement of families for fear of being targeted as alleged members of NPA,” the UN said.

The Philippine military has said that it was working with such agencies as the UN to prevent children from enlisting or being recruited into its ranks.

“Among the AFP’s first priority is to prevent recruitment of child combatants. We complement the child protection laws with our own operations and guidelines to facilitate the rescue of these children; and we cooperate with other government agencies and organizations to trace these child combatants’ families or guardians, and in finding the best solutions congenial to their rehabilitation, needs, and development,” Brig. Gen. Francisco N. Cruz Jr., commander of the armed forces’ Civil Relations Service, said in a statement last year.

While the military has repeatedly accused the NPA of recruiting minors, the UN report gave short shrift to the allegation, noting merely that “the task force also continues to receive credible reports of children associated with the New People’s Army (NPA) surrendering to the police and Armed Forces of the Philippines.”

It did, however, mention that the number of child casualties in armed encounters increased in 2010, with 38 children killed and 40 injured. “Of those, verified incidents implicated NPA, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and private militias of local politicians. The perpetrators were not identified in 13 incidents of killing and 10 incidents of maiming,” the report said.

The UN report, meanwhile, said there had been an increase in child recruitment by the MILF, verifying at least four incidents “involving eight children carrying automatic weapons and performing military functions in MILF areas of Central Mindanao.”

Earlier, the UN said the MILF has made progress in the registration of children in its ranks and was confident it would not be long before these minors are removed from conflict situations and returned to schools, where they belong. It also said it had secured a commitment from the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, which represents communist rebels to peace negotiations with government, that it would consider forming an action plan to ensure that children or minors are not among its combatants.

“Despite the negative developments in 2011 – such as attacks on schools and the number of parties that continue to commit grave violations – it is encouraging to note that more and more parties are approaching the United Nations to enter into an action plan to get off of the secretary-general’s list of shame,” said Coomaraswamy, referring to the UN’s list of countries or groups that use children in armed conflicts.