A few years ago, a 16-year-old boy was killed in an armed encounter. UNICEF called to task both the New Peoples’ Army (NPA) and the military for violating the rights of the child — the NPA for recruiting him and the military for shooting him. Explaining its side, the military said that in a firefight, the general rule to survive is to neutralize anyone holding a weapon in a firing position. In the mayhem of an armed encounter, differentiating if the opponent is a child or an adult, especially if he is firing at you, is very difficult.
The Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict 2007 defines child soldiers as those below 18 years old, associated with an armed force or armed group, and are recruited or used by the said organization in any capacity, that is, as fighters, cooks, porters, spies; some are even used for sexual purposes.
The organization Child Soldiers International reported that between 2012 and 2017, there were 29,128 verified cases of child recruitment in 17 countries. The group further asserted that the 2017 figure (i.e., 8,185 cases of child recruitment) is 159% higher that the 2012 data (3,159 cases). Furthermore, recruitment of girls has also increased. In 2018, there were 893 girls associated with armed groups — four times more than the 2017 figure that registered only 216 girls.
During the Marawi siege in 2017, a report stating that the Maute Group had recruited children as fighters jolted everyone. But this is not something new. There have been persistent reports that the Abu Sayyaf Group uses children as part of the group’s operations. The New People’s Army also uses child soldiers — this author has in fact met, on various occasions, three former NPA members who were once child warriors.
The recent study of this author (on terrorism) found that among the major groups that armed extremist groups target to recruit from are (a) young people living in geographically isolated and depressed areas; (b) economically poor individuals; (c) orphaned children of conflict; and (d) idealistic-fundamentalist youth.
Children are often recruited for the simple reason that they are easier to manipulate or coerce, are more obedient to figures of authority, and are fearless (especially when drugged). Often, they put the opponent in a moral dilemma: Should you shoot a nine-year-old with an AK-47 trained at you?
Recruiting children to armed groups is similar to how an ordinary organization recruits its members — by befriending the potential recruits. The organization offers help in studies and invites the recruits to be members. Once a sense of belonging is established, small tasks are given and the recruits’ capacity are tested and affirmed. When they are hooked, the “education” session (or “formation”) begins.
Young people, in their formative years, yearn for three things — to belong, to be affirmed or recognized, and to commit to a purpose bigger than themselves. An exclusive organization that purports to pursue a noble cause easily appeals to passionate and impressionable youth.
Child soldiers always begin as young militant activists. But unlike other activist groups, armed extremist groups believe that the only way to institute social and political change is through drastic, armed revolution. This makes them dangerous, both to the young recruit as well as to the community.
Having signed almost all major international human rights treaties, Philippine state security forces do not employ child soldiers; the state in fact has a strong commitment to promote and protect the rights of the child. It is the armed rebel groups that employ child soldiers in the Philippines.
Child soldiers pose a number of issues in the country. While they are victims of the armed groups that recruited them, they equally have the capacity to victimize others. The news anchor Ces Drilon, in recounting her kidnapping in 2008, said that one of her guards was a minor. Hence, should child soldiers be treated as victims or as combatants? Note that once they are treated as combatants, they lose many protections accorded to civilians.
Since they are minors, what accountability do their parents/guardians have? If they surrender, what law should be used — is it the Juvenile Justice Law? What if they have killed or have participated in a heinous act? Likewise, are they entitled to the same “reintegration” package given to other rebel returnees (e.g. livelihood package, housing, employment etc)? Note that the government’s current reintegration was designed for adults or individuals who can be accorded legal status. If the surrendered individual is below 18 years old, should the same package be given? Who should act as the legal guardian?
Note that girls most often perform “support” roles in armed groups. Most of the time, they fall outside official statistics and are unseen by child protection agencies; often they are neglected in the planning and programming of interventions. But the same question must be asked — what accountability do they have in the eyes of the law? If they surrender, what kind of package should be given to them?
Given that the major consideration of the government’s peace agenda is social and community cohesion, what program intervention must be instituted to facilitate the healing and reconciliation of child soldiers — so they may heal themselves and their families and reconcile with the communities they have victimized?
In the end, “(r)egardless of how children are recruited and of their roles, child soldiers are victims, whose participation in conflict bears serious implications for their physical and emotional well-being. They are commonly subject to abuse and most of them witness death, killing, and sexual violence. Many are forced to commit violent acts and some suffer serious long-term psychological consequences. The reintegration of these children into civilian life is an essential part of the work to help child soldiers rebuild their lives” (UN Office of the Special Representative for the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict).
Jennifer Santiago Oreta is an Assistant Professor of the Ateneo de Manila University Department of Political Science, and Director of the Ateneo Initiative for Southeast Asian Studies.