THE United Nations has stricken off the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Islamic armed group in the Philippines fighting for self-determination in Mindanao, from the list of armed groups recruiting and employing child warriors.
With Malaysia as third-party facilitator, the government and the MILF forged a final peace deal in 2014, ending four decades of deadly armed struggle in Mindanao that claimed the lives of over 120,000 individuals.
At least 1,869 child soldiers have been disengaged from the MILF in an effort that began in 2009, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) said early this week in announcing the removal of the MILF from the UN’s list of armed groups employing minor combatants or those 18 years old and below.
Unicef Philippines described the removal of the MILF from the list as “a stride and a victory toward realising children’s rights in the Philippines.”
“The MILF’s commitment to protect and promote the rights of children in their communities continues today, even as they are delisted from the UN report,” Unicef Philippines Representative Lotta Sylwander said in a statement.
“Fostering lasting peace for children involves continued vigilance by all concerned, including the government, civil society, elders, parents and children themselves to ensure they are not involved in or used in armed conflict.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres lauded the MILF for its efforts in implementing the 2009 UN-MILF Action Plan, a measure aimed to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children in the armed conflict.
“Regarding the MILF, I commend it for the significant progress in implementing its action plan to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children. In this regard, all 1,869 children identified by MILF as associated with its armed wing underwent formal disengagement in a series of ceremonies, the last of which was held in March 2017,” Guterres said in the recently released UN Secretary-General’s 2016 report on children and armed conflict.
The report is presented annually to the UN Security Council and highlights trends and patterns of grave violations and progress made to protect children, among others.
Unicef facilitated the work on the 2009 UN-MILF Action Plan to end recruitment and use of children, which was completed early this year.
Sylwander said the disengagement of MILF child soldiers will facilitate their access to appropriate support and services from government and development partners to enjoy all their rights to health, education and protection.
The programme of support to disengaged/at-risk children and their families through Unicef is being supported by the governments of Japan and Canada, among others.
The MILF instituted safeguards through its command structure to regularly monitor and screen troops to prevent children from associating or re-associating, Sylwander said.
She added the United Nations will continue the monitoring of violations against children committed by all parties in conflict.
In the Philippines, children continue to be direct victims of grave violations in the context of the armed conflict, affecting their rights to life, survival, development, protection and education, among others, Unicef said.
Thousands of children and families have been displaced in recent years by armed conflict, mainly in Mindanao, the agency added, noting that in 2017, the Marawi crisis displaced approximately 359,000 individuals, 205,000 of them being children.
President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law in Mindanao on May 23, hours after the Islamic State-inspired Maute Group attacked and clashed with government troops in Marawi City, the major Islamic city in the Philippines.
The Marawi battle that continues to rage today killed at least 150 government troops and over 800 terrorists. Video footage recovered by the military showed the Maute Group also employed minor combatants.
For the MILF, their delisting from the UN list of armed groups employing child soldiers is a welcome development that was a result of “its sincere efforts to comply with UN-MILF Action Plan.”
Edward Guerra, MILF panel chair for the UN-MILF Action Plan, noted that they campaigned against the recruitment of child soldiers not only with their commanders but also more importantly in Muslim communities.
“It is important for parents and the MILF (members) to understand that this campaign is for their children and they should encourage them to go to school instead of joining armed groups,” he said.
As part of its commitment to the action plan, the MILF leadership had issued a general order to its base commanders and officers to prohibit the recruitment of children under 18 as well as gave unimpeded access to Unicef-led monitoring teams.
The implementation of the UN-MILF Action Plan to curb the employment of child soldiers was also aimed to contribute towards the normalisation track of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), the final peace agreement between the government and the MILF.
The CAB’s annex on normalisation deals with the decommissioning of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, the armed wing of the MILF, and help them lead productive civilian lives in the proposed new Bangsamoro region.
However, almost three years after the CAB was signed by the government and the MILF, the enabling law that would establish the new Bangsamoro region that would replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has yet to be approved by the Philippine Congress.