PHILIPPINES President Rodrigo Duterte would be committing war crimes by calling for an attack on schools in restive Mindanao, says a rights watchdog.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) slammed the president’s comments on Tuesday in the wake of his threats to call for airstrikes on schools for indigenous Lumad children on the southern island that he alleged are teaching “subversion” and “communism”.
“By calling for an attack on schools, Duterte is directing the military to commit war crimes,” HRW’s Asia Division Researcher Carlos H. Conde said in a statement.
The firebrand president’s latest tirade against the “subversive” schools came following his decision to call off peace talks with the Communist New People’s Army (NPA).
For nearly five decades, the Philippines military has battled a communist insurgency, resulting in the deaths of 40,000 people. The government says the communist rebels have used tribal areas in the Mindanao countryside as their base of operations.
“I will bomb those schools,” Duterte said during a press conference on Monday.
“I will use the Armed Forces, the Philippine Air Force … because you’re operating illegally and you’re teaching the children to rebel against government.”
Duterte made the threat minutes after his State of the Nation Address (SONA), which also saw him vow to continue his deadly war on drugs that has claimed the lives of more than 5,200 suspects, according to figures provided by the Philippines National Police (PNP). Activists claim the death toll is far higher.
Conde said due to the insurgency, indigenous-run schools have long been targets of the military and paramilitary forces, which accuse them of being NPA “training grounds”. Government security forces in Mindanao, he said, have largely escaped accountability for such abuses.
NPA guerrillas in Far South Mindanao in formation during the 46th Founding Anniversary of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Source: Edwin Espejo
“International humanitarian law – the laws of war – prohibits attacks on schools and other civilian structures unless they are being used for military purposes,” Conde said.
HRW called on Duterte to retract his threat of violence towards the schools before the military acts.
“Instead of denying Filipino children their right to safe education, Duterte should sign the Safe Schools Declaration,” Conde said.
The declaration involves an inter-governmental commitment to the protection of students, teachers, schools and universities from violence during times of war. To date, 67 countries have signed the declaration.
During a recent meeting held at Malacañang Palace, Duterte directed the government panel negotiating with the NDF not to resume formal peace talks unless the rebels agree to stop their attacks against government troops in Mindanao.
Duterte put Mindanao under martial law for 60 days in May after the Islamic State-inspired Maute Group clashed with government security forces trying to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf leader who was designated the “emir” of IS in Southeast Asia.
The government is still conducting clearing operations in Marawi.
The government has also given the green light to extend martial law in Mindanao until the end of the year to fully crush terrorist groups operating on the island.