Watchlist conducted a two-week mission to the Philippines in August, spending time in Manila and central Mindanao. With conflicts in the Middle East and Central Africa taking precedence in the international media spotlight, the situation of children and armed conflict in the Philippines has been underreported. According to the 2012 Secretary-General’s report, grave violations against children – particularly recruitment and use of child soldiers, killing and maiming, and attacks on schools and hospitals – continue to be perpetrated in the Philippines. Three armed groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Abbu Sayyaf, and the New People’s Army, have been listed in the Secretary-General’s Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict for more than five years, earning them the label of ‘persistent perpetrators.’ This mission was a first step by Watchlist to establish partnerships in the country and help raise the profile of this long running conflict and its impact on children.
Positive developments have taken place over the past three years, in particular the signature of an action plan between the UN and the MILF to end the group’s practice of recruitment and use of children and the establishment of a civilian protection component within the International Monitoring Team that oversees the ceasefire between the MILF and the Government of the Philippines. However, fighting has reignited in Mindanao following the emergence of an anti-ceasefire splinter group of the MILF, bringing yet more violence to the lives of children including fresh clashes in August. The action plan with the UN is still far from being implemented. Its timeframe is now outdated and discussions to extend it and to ensure adequate compliance are progressing very slowly.
In parallel to these discussions, the Filipino Congress is reviewing a bill that would potentially provide special protection of children in situations of armed conflict and penalties for perpetrators of violations. If adopted in its current form, the bill would prohibit all six grave violations and would apply to both State and non-State armed actors. Interestingly, the bill would also prohibit families from coercing, compelling, or encouraging children to join an armed group or force. This is an important provision within the Philippines context, where armed groups and local communities are often inter-twinned – a situation that has made the prevention of child recruitment by these groups a particularly challenging task.