IN FOCUS: The NDFP’s Special Office for the Protection of Children

The National Democratic Front of the Philippines Special Office for the Protection of Children (NDFP SOPC) has documented at least eight cases of minors killed since Marcos Jr. came to power in July last year. Prompted by the recent spate of child murders perpetrated by the GRP (Government of the Republic of the Philippines), we sat down with Ka (Comrade) Coni Ledesma, Chairperson of the SOPC to discuss the work they do, its history, and the NDFP’s strict policy against child soldiers.

The NDFP’s adherence to international humanitarian law

As a national liberation organization and movement committed to uphold the interests of the Filipino people against foreign domination and local oppression, the NDFP has always adhered to the principle of according full respect for innocent human life in the conduct of its armed struggle. In fact, the NDFP has reinforced this commitment by publicly declaring its voluntary adherence to the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law in general and taken further concrete steps to ensure that its forces operating throughout the country observe these conventions.

As early as 1988 ahead of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC), the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA) categorically adopted the policy prohibiting the recruitment of children below the age of 18 years as regular members or armed fighters of combat units of the NPA. This was again reflected in the 1999 Memorandum on the Minimum Age Requirement for NPA Fighters which outlined the revolutionary movement’s recognition of the special rights of children in the context of armed conflict.

On 15 August 1991, the NDFP National Council formally declared its adherence to international humanitarian law with particular attention to Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions relating to the protection of victims in armed conflict that includes Article 4 on the fundamental guarantees provided for children. On 5 July 1996, the NDFP officially deposited its Declaration of Undertaking to Apply the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Protocol I of 1977 to the Swiss Federal Council and to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which reiterated the CPP-NPA-NDF’s compliance to international humanitarian law governing the rules of war. This was once again reiterated in the landmark 1998 Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHIRHL) between the GRP and the NDFP.

These documents formed the basis for the NDFP Declaration and Program of Action for the Rights, Protection and Welfare of Children released on 24 April 2012. This program of action initiated the process of setting up the SOPC, marking a “milestone achievement of the revolutionary movement,” shared Ka Coni.

“With the goal to bring attention to the situation of children, the NDFP, together with a group of lawyers and legal experts belonging to International Legal Assistance Team (ILAT), carefully crafted this significant document, where one of its programs is to set up the SOPC”, Ka Coni explains.

Ka Coni further shares, “The SOPC is under the human rights desk of the NDFP. It is part of the peace talks when the talks are ongoing. But even without the talks, the office continues to function.”

Monitoring the situation of children in armed conflict

One of the main functions of the SOPC is the monitoring of the situation of children in the conduct of the armed revolution especially in the countryside. The SOPC regularly produces reports and research on the situation of children in the Philippines. In 2022, the SOPC in cooperation with the CPP’s official publication Ang Bayan published The Dirty War on Children – a 2-year report on the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police’s (PNP) grave violations of children’s rights under international humanitarian law.

“We are currently researching the life situation of children in the countryside. Likewise, we are busy preparing our report on the violation of children’s rights under the last two years of Duterte regime and the current Marcos II regime,” Ka Coni explains. She further notes recent cases of child rights violations including “the brutality inflicted on baby River, the three-month old baby of Reina Nasino, former political prisoner, and victim of illegal arrest and trumped-up charges, who died after they were forcibly separated.”

NDFP Special Office for the Protection of Children head Coni Ledesma

“There are also the cases of baby Rhea and baby Marx whose parents are members of the NPA. These babies—a newborn and a two-month-old—were illegally taken and held hostage by the military to force their parents to surrender. While baby Rhea is now safe with her relatives, baby Marx is still with the DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development) under the tight surveillance of the military for two years already,” Ka Coni explains. 

When asked about the current situation of children in the Philippines, Ka Coni responds, “As with the rest of the large majority of the Filipino people, children are living in poverty. Many are forced to work to survive, infringing upon their right to develop as they enjoy their childhood.  In the entire country, their right to education is given scant importance.  They lack classrooms and proper school facilities like libraries and laboratories. Their families are burdened with prohibitive school fees.  Health-wise, so many get sick and they don’t get the healthcare they need. There is evidently no significant concern given to uphold the rights and welfare of children.”

In contrast, Coni shares how the People’s Democratic Government (PDG) is providing services to support children and their families in the countryside: “Where there are Organs of Political Power, they have programs for education, health, hygiene, nutrition, gardening, herbal medicines, child protection units, psycho-social support and training especially for trauma, leadership training, arts, music, sports and defence – the basic things in life that the Manila government neglects and fails to provide.

“The children are very much involved in these programs. For example, the education program –has  literacy classes, which are not only for children but also for adults who cannot read and write. The schools are set up wherever possible. They have two hundred schools but the reactionary armed forces either burned down or occupied their schools in clear violation of international humanitarian law.”

In the course of monitoring violations of children’s rights since 2012, the SOPC has established relations with international bodies such as UNICEF and the ICRC.

“We have relations with UNICEF. Since the time of the Joint Secretariat of the Joint Monitoring Committee (JS-JMC), the UNICEF would request for a report on the violations of children‘s rights every three months. So, we would always give [reports] because complaints were coming in [through the JMC],” added Ka Coni.

Ka Coni further recalls: “when the JMC office was closed, UNICEF continued to ask for reports. In fact, I recently just had correspondence with them [UNICEF]. We’re arranging [to have] a Zoom meeting because instead of them relating with the JS-JMC, they now have to relate directly with the SOPC.”

“We also have regular contact with ICRC. For example, we referred to them the case of baby Marx. The family was informed, and they approached ICRC. There are other cases like that. When we know about such cases, we inform ICRC that the family will contact them, and then they help the family,” Ka Coni elaborates.

The NDFP’s strict policy: No child soldiers

In the past decade, malicious elements from the GRP’s propaganda machinery together with US official agencies and imperialist-funded nongovernmental organizations have thrown numerous allegations against the NDFP for supposedly condoning the recruitment of children to the NPA. Time and again the NDFP has declared that the policy and the law of the People’s Democratic Government (PDG) prohibit the NPA from recruiting children below the age of 18 to serve as combatants.

In the Declaration and Program and Action for the Rights, Protection and Welfare of Children, the NDFP made sure to clearly stipulate in Section 1, under Article III Children in Relation to War the revolutionary movement’s policy on recruitment to the NPA. The said section states: “The NDFP adheres to the decision of the Political Bureau of the CPP’s Central Committee in 1988 stipulating that the New People’s Army may recruit only persons who are 18 years old and older as armed fighters for its combat units.”

According to Ka Coni, the NDFP’s policy can be considered more advanced given that the minimum age of recruitment is at 18 whereas the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the UN CRC permits the recruitment of children 15 years and above as soldiers.

“We were far-ahead of the UN saying the minimum age of recruitment should be 18 years old. And yet, we are still being accused of recruiting child soldiers. There has been regular monitoring of the implementation of that policy [in the NPA].”

Ka Coni continues, “Thus, the NDFP has a very strict position—no child soldiers.”

Reactionary propaganda however relies on the definition of a so-called child soldier as anyone below 18 years of age, who may simply be in a community under attack by the armed forces of the reactionary state and who even if without arms may be misrepresented as ‘combatants’ for allegedly serving as lookouts, messengers or cooks of the NPA. “The UN,” Ka Coni shares, “follows the Paris principle, which states that children, who are living in areas where the NPA camps are present, are already part of the armed conflict, and can therefore be considered as child soldiers. This definition is clearly prejudicial against liberation movements and others [we do not agree with the term non-state actors] waging armed struggle. this, the NDFP would not be put on the list of organisations that have child soldiers.”

The so-called Paris Principles were adopted in 2007 at a UNICEF-organized conference and was built on a set of recommendations by imperialist-funded nongovernmental organizations in 1997. The Paris Principles as an instrument, is primarily an imperialist creation meant to dilute the Geneva Conventions’ guidance in the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. By defining child soldiers as anyone below 18 years of age associated with an armed group in any capacity including “as cooks, porters, messengers, spies,” the Paris Principles dangerously blurs the definition of combatants under international humanitarian law and effectively mislabels children as legitimate targets of armed conflict.

In addition, this UNICEF instrument is highly prejudicial to national liberation movements that exert efforts to protect the rights not just of armed combatants but of entire communities who engage in self-defence against reactionary armed forces. By broadening the definition of child soldiers, it provides the reactionary military, police, and the counterrevolutionary state as a whole the license to consider children in communities fair game for armed assault.

More attention needed on the situation of children

“We continue our work because we feel that it is an important aspect of the revolution to give attention to the children, and to work for their rights, protection, and welfare because they are the next generation. When they grow up in areas where the People’s Democratic Government exists , the children learn to know what childhood should be. In the process of developing the economic and political life of the area, they also come toknow what it means to have their rights respected,” Ka Coni shares.

The SOPC is committed to strengthen its work on monitoring the situation of children in the armed revolution as well as promoting their rights and welfare. At the same time, in terms of people’s support, Ka Coni concludes, “If they know of any violation of children‘s rights , they should report it to the NDFP through its website or the website of PRWC (Philippine Revolution Web Central). These are accessible websites. The more information we get, the better.”

“There is just not enough attention in the Philippines to monitor and protect children‘s rights. That is what I would wish, more attention to the situation of Filipino children,” ended Ka Coni.