An Islamic rebel group in the Philippines will stop recruiting child soldiers and return to civilian life those already in their ranks, according to an action plan announced by a United Nations official who wrapped up a five-day mission in the country today.
“Children are affected in multiple ways by the conflict in the Philippines,” Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, told a news conference in the capital, Manila, in which she welcomed the agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
During her visit, which was requested by the Security Council, Ms. Coomaraswamy sought the release of children recruited by both the MILF and the Maoist New People's Army (NPA), raised concern over the alleged abuse of children by members of the Government forces and paramilitary groups, and called for stronger protections for children caught up in the civil conflict.
She also visited camps for displaced persons in the country, where ongoing clashes between Muslim rebels and Government troops in southern areas have forced about 130,000 people to flee their homes.
“All the parties to the conflict, civil society, religious leaders and the Government must consider [children's] protection as a priority,” she said. Welcoming the decision of the MILF to comply with the Security Council recommendations, she added that: “Possible dialogue with NPA is under consideration in the context of ongoing peace processes.”
During her meetings with the Government, Ms. Coomaraswamy also raised concerns regarding alleged involvement of children in the paramilitary Citizens Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGU) and Community Volunteer Organizations (CVOs) operating in some conflict areas, according to a press release from her office.
The Government agreed to immediately issue a directive that all local units must strictly adhere to existing national legislation that no one under 18 shall be recruited or used in security forces, Ms. Coomaraswamy said.
The Special Representative also urged the Government to take all necessary measures to investigate and take firm action against those within the Philippines Security Forces allegedly responsible for grave violations against children. She welcomed the Government's nomination of focal points within the forces to deal with these issues.
At the press conference, Ms. Coomaraswamy complimented the Government on its strong framework of laws and policies on children and armed conflict, but said she felt implementation was lagging in some areas.
She welcomed, in particular, upcoming legal changes that would exclude from prosecution children who are arrested for reasons related to armed conflict, considering them as victims instead of perpetrators, but said that the Government needed to strengthen its ability to return children associated with armed groups to civilian life.
Ms. Coomaraswamy's visit was organized by the Philippines office of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in collaboration with the rest of the UN Country Team.