President Rodrigo Duterte has been on a mission to eradicate drug users and traffickers—and now his administration has set its sights on children. On January 28, 2019, the House of Representatives approved a bill to lower the minimum age of criminal liability from fifteen years old to nine years old. However, due to backlash from many child rights advocacy groups and religious organizations, Philippine lawmakers “compromised” to a minimum age of twelve. Currently under Section 6 of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 (“Juvenile Act”), children as young as twelve can be subject to mandatory confinement in Bahay Pag-Asa or “House of Hope” Centers. Regarded as twenty-four-hour child care institutions with special child-focused rehabilitation programs, these centers are in reality overcrowded detention centers for children ages twelve to eighteen or even adults as old as twenty-eight. Children are detained alongside adults as centers become more and more overcrowded. Without proper food, services, or beds, these centers are already stretched thin for currently incarcerated children. Yet, the government wants to add children ages nine to fourteen to an already inhumane environment.
Since President Duterte took office, his administration has been on a deliberate and ruthless antidrug campaign. Its mission has been to “slaughter them all” which has already claimed an estimated twenty thousand lives. This number includes dozens of children who are being caught in the crossfire of the drug war. Without any regard to human life, Duterte calls these children “collateral damage” as the government continues to kill during the course of supposed anti-drug operations.
This goes beyond a violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Children. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has even recently launched a preliminary examination of Duterte’s drug war concerning alleged crimes against humanity. Though Duterte has since announced that the Philippines will be pulling out from the ICC’s Rome Statute that grants the ICC jurisdiction over crimes against humanity, and he remains adamant that this drug war is a “legitimate police operation,” evidence of deliberate killing of drug users as opposed to drug traffickers paints a different picture.
The administration states that the main motivation for this bill is to deter adult offenders from abusing children as the current law allegedly incentivizes drug gangs to use children “because they know the children will be freed.” Though children under fifteen were indeed freed before the January 2019 bill was approved, the current administration has always held the child responsible. The Juvenile Act does state that anyone who exploits a child shall be imposed a maximum penalty; however, the onus remains on a child and their own actions. Such laws completely ignore the fact that children even at fifteen do not possess the maturity to comprehend what they have done or understand the consequences to their decisions. Many countries recognize that a child does not reach the legal age of majority or age to give consent and take on social responsibilities until at least sixteen, yet the Philippine government ignores this widely recognized truth. Oddly, the government has acknowledged that the age of civil responsibility concerning marriage or the creation of a contract is eighteen, but it holds a child legally responsible for any criminal actions at twelve.
As a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (“CRC”), the Philippines must protect the child who is, as defined by the Convention, below the age of eighteen. As it states, a child, “by reasons of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care,” and State Parties must under Article 19 take all “appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child” and to provide support and care. Yet, the Philippines had been proposing that children as young as nine—with a “compromise” to increase the age to twelve—be convicted and imprisoned until they can be sentenced at age twenty-five. Not only does this directly violate CRC Article 37 against detention and punishment, but some critics believe that this bill will actually cause children to become “well-trained criminals” as they grow up in prisons.
As this war continues to rage on with other leaders like Donald Trump applauding Duterte’s “success” eradicating drugs from the community, the Filipino children are most harmed as they face abuse from perpetrators and the government alike. With nearly thirty-one percent of children living below the basic needs poverty line, many of these exploited children are helpless as the country further enables many to turn to illicit means to make ends meet. The fact that Duterte and his allies believe the next step is to lower the age of criminal liability further shows the continuous neglect of the country’s children.