Conflict & Justice

Underage soldiers: blame mom and dad?


An underpriveleged mother and her child wait in line to receive free bags of Christmas food items from a philanthropist in Manila on December 23, 2010.


Noel Celis

BANGKOK, Thailand — Forcing or seducing a child into soldiering is an unpardonable crime. But should the mothers, fathers or guardians of kids who fall prey to militants face years in prison cells — regardless of whether they advocated or opposed their childrens' service?

In the Philippines, an island nation home to rebel factions large and small, that punishment may soon be enacted. Both the Philippine Senate and House of Representatives are set to agree on a law that would jail child recruits’ parents for six to 12 years. The same punishment could be brought upon anyone with a vague sense of influence — described as “moral ascendency” — over a minor who ends up aiding rebels.

The bill takes a hard line on those complicit in child soldiering or child killing. It raises the penalties for attacking hospitals and schools, and guarantees free legal aid and psychological counseling for child soldiers who break free.

“This includes children being recruited ... in armed conflicts either as fighters, spies, messengers, cooks and couriers,” wrote chief sponsor Rep. Marcelino Teodoro in the bill’s preface. Children exposed to warfare, he wrote, “continue to become victims of killing, maiming, rape and other forms of sexual violence and abduction.” (Teodoro did not return repeated requests for comment.)

Most of the draft law’s contents are extremely laudable, said Charu Lata Hogg, the Asia program manager for Child Soldiers International. “We think it is an excellent step,” she said. 

But Hogg and other human rights watchdogs are somewhat confounded by the uncommon move to penalize child soldiers’ parents who may not have the power to stop their kids from joining a militant group. 

Child Soldiers International, which monitors anti-child soldiering laws across the globe, is not aware of any similar provision, Hogg said. “The section relating to trying family members for criminal responsibility in case a child is recruited by an armed group is open to misuse,” Hogg said.

The possibilities for such misuse are varied, said Bede Sheppard, senior researcher for children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch. The group is also pushing for a removal of the “parents” clause.

“We wouldn't want to see it being used against the parents of children forcibly taken from them and made to join one of the armed groups,” he said.

“We also wouldn't want to see it misused against a venerable uncle, who’s had an honorable service in the army and, because of that, has inspired a young nephew to sign up. And we wouldn't want it used to go after people that the government suspects of belonging to an armed group when they lack strong evidence.”

Though child soldiering is an ancient phenomenon, modern technology is accused of enabling kids to kill more efficiently. 

As the United Nations Children’s Fund puts it: “A child might have been able to wield a sword or a machete but was no match for a similarly armed adult” in centuries past but “a child with an assault rifle, a Soviet-made AK-47 or an American M-16 is a fearsome match for anyone.”

Globally, the UN estimates that there are roughly 300,000 minors assisting armed groups in a variety of roles: combatants or porters, spies or cooks. Figures on the number of minors entangled in armed groups in the Philippines are murky. Government reports contend that, since 2000, conflict has displaced 2 million people, many of them under 18.

The Philippines’ scattered island geography abets isolation and insurgency. Anti-government militants dominate jungles in more unruly corners of the Philippines and almost all sizable insurgent groups have been accused by the UN of illegally recruiting minors to some degree.

Among them: the New People’s Army, a communist group waging a so-called “people’s war,” the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf insurgents, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. 

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The Front, long dedicated to establishing its own Islamic state, is now engaged in a promising peace deal with the Philippine government. Though previously accused of heinous crimes — including a 2007 nine-person beheading spree — the group appears genuinely disturbed by accusations of child soldiering. 

The Front’s commander-in-chief Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, signing a 2010 pact with the UN, agreed to rid its ranks of combatants under 18 even though “setting the age of maturity at the onset of puberty is a religious practice among the MILF.”

Minors drawn into child soldiering tend to come from farming families earning less than $70 a month, according to Philippine Human Rights Information Center research. In the bill itself, the government acknowledges the complex reasons minors end up in the hands of armed groups: poverty, “alternative justice for atrocities,” ideology and “affiliation of family members in armed groups.”

The bill, as it stands, even intends to hold culpable Philippine Army officers who rely on kids as combatants, servants or spies. “It would really bring the Philippines closer into alignment with the best of international standards,” Sheppard said. “Amend it. Then pass it.”