This story was produced in cooperation with UNICEF Philippines
In the 1960s, a conflict erupted in the Mindanao region of the Philippines between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the latter seeking to establish a region with greater autonomy from the central government. In the following years, the MNLF split into several different groups including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The MILF recruited children after they lose their parents or as a result of their community coming under attack. They were mostly used in carrying out patrols, performing sentry duty, preparing food and providing medical support, but also in hostilities to defend their community. “Jihad” was obligatory from the age of puberty, which the MILF leadership defined, at that time, at 13 years for boys and 11 years for girls.
With the listing of the MILF in the annexes of the report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict for recruiting and using children in 2003, UNICEF Philippines Country Office carried out different projects aimed at improving the situation of children and strengthening the prevention of grave violations committed against boys and girls. For instance, a project entitled “Upholding the rights and well-being of children affected by armed conflict” as part of the UNICEF-Government programme for 2005-2009 was implemented in 19 provinces. Basic or emergency assistance was provided to over 33,000 displaced children or to children who lived in conflict-affected communities between 2005 and 2007. In early 2007, UNICEF and the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) launched the “Days of Peace” campaign to promote a climate for peace in Mindanao through a programme providing basic health services and a long-term commitment focused on early childhood education for children most affected by conflict.
These complementing activities contributed to building trust and confidence between the MILF and UNICEF. The latter continuously enhanced its dialogue with the MILF while seeking the support of the Philippine government. The projects demonstrated UNICEF’s commitment and willingness to support the MILF communities.
This led to the issuance of a Joint Communiqué between UNICEF and the MILF in 2007 upholding children’s rights and protection in armed conflict. The communiqué was the first agreement between the MILF and a UN agency to be signed during the MILF’s diplomatic outreach with the international community as part of the peace process to gain credibility and legitimacy as a liberation movement.
“The 2007 joint communique facilitated the continuous confidence-building between the armed group and the United Nations, as well as between the MILF and the government.”
This initial agreement became the foundation of much larger agreements and ignited the dialogues between the Government and the MILF.
In August 2009 the UN-MILF Action Plan to end the Recruitment of and Use of Children in Armed Conflict was signed. The MILF considered its listing in the annexes of the Secretary-General reports on children and armed conflict for recruiting and using children as a grave accusation, and thus showed a willingness to abide by international law to be removed from the UN list. The implementation of the Action Plan eventually resulted in the disengagement of nearly 2,000 children from MILF’s ranks and subsequently to the armed groups’ delisting from the annexes of the Secretary General’s report in 2017.
“The listing/delisting mechanism acted as an important incentive to secure commitments from the MILF to protecting children and to ensure a continuous dialogue with the UN amid the peace process.”
In parallel to its support on the implementation of the Action Plan, the UNICEF Child Protection team continued its informal discussions bilaterally with the Philippine government and with the MILF leadership to ensure that the peace process addresses child protection concerns.
“In all these dialogues, UNICEF stressed the importance of including child protection issues and mainstreaming children’s rights in any bilateral agreement between the Philippine government and the MILF leadership, highlighting that the dividends of any peace agreement will ultimately benefit the next generations.”
These advocacy efforts contributed to aligning the 2009 Agreement on the Civilian Protection Component of the International Monitoring Team signed between the Government and MILF with the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict’s provisions.
In 2014, the historic signing of the Comprehensive Agreement of the Bangsamoro made the creation of a self-governing region an attainable reality and created further momentum for the implementation of the Action Plan.
The peace agreement led to the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law in July 2018, which contains provisions that promote, protect and fulfill children’s rights.
 Association with the MILF is based on a strong belief that the Bangsamoro’s right to self-determination is the ‘jihad fiy sabilillah’ (Jihadul asghar). The concept of jihad (Jihadul Asghar) has thus become about fighting to protect a peaceful way of life. By engaging in this kind of jihad, children believe that they will be rewarded through instant acceptance to heaven, either as a martyr (shahid) or dying of old age but having lived the life of a mujahideen (holy warrior). Parents also described their children’s involvement in the MILF-BIAF as the fulfillment of a religious duty.