MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Human rights groups asked the Philippine president on Wednesday to retract a threat of airstrikes against tribal schools he accused of teaching students to become communist rebels, warning that such attacks would constitute war crimes.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said international humanitarian law "prohibits attacks on schools and other civilian structures unless they are being used for military purposes," adding that deliberate attacks on civilians, including students and teachers, "is also a war crime."
Left-wing Rep. Emmi de Jesus of the Gabriela Women's Party asked Duterte to retract the threat, saying government troops may use it as a pretext to attack indigenous, or Lumad, schools and communities in the country's south which have come under threat from pro-military militias in recent years.
Angered by recent communist rebel attacks on government forces, including a gunbattle last week that wounded five members of his elite presidential guards, Duterte has called off peace talks with the Maoist guerrillas and threatened their perceived sympathizers.
In a news conference late Monday after delivering his annual state of the nation address, Duterte condemned the insurgents for destroying bridges and torching schools in the countryside. But he said the rebels were sparing Lumad schools, which he alleged were operating under guerrilla control without government permits.
"Get out of there, I'm telling the Lumads now. I'll have those bombed, including your structures," Duterte said. "I will use the armed forces, the Philippine air force. I'll really have those bombed ... because you are operating illegally and you are teaching the children to rebel against government."
Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch said Duterte, by calling for an attack on schools, "is directing the military to commit war crimes."
Conde urged Duterte to sign a 2015 international political statement, the Safe Schools Declaration, that commits governments to supporting the protection of students, teachers and schools in times of armed conflict.
Duterte became president last year after campaigning on his extra-tough approach on crime as a prosecutor and later as mayor of southern Davao city. He has remained popular despite thousands of deaths in his nationwide anti-drug crackdown.
Duterte also called for the abolishment of the Commission on Human Rights, an independent agency created under the constitution to investigate rights violations. He demanded that the commission and the ombudsman — an anti-graft prosecutor — route requests to investigate police and military personnel through him and laid down conditions under which he would allow those investigations.
Duterte said if the ombudsman failed to address atrocities committed by insurgents, "then do not investigate my army and police."
Junance Fritzi Magbanua, an administrative officer of the Mindanao Interfaith Foundation Inc. which runs indigenous schools in the south, said Duterte's threats have heightened fear among Lumads already affected by attacks by the military and the security forces of big mining companies because of their resistance to mining.
"The words uttered by President Duterte are frightening because they give a go-signal to the armed forces to bomb our schools," said Magbanua, who is among 300 teachers, students and parents who traveled to Manila this week to join street protests and complain before the Commission on Human Rights over reported shootings and troop encampment in their schools.
There are about 200 Lumad schools in the south with about 4,000 students and 88 teachers. One campus has been recognized by the Department of Education, while the rest have been issued permits to operate, she said, denying that they teach students to become communist rebels.
"We only hold chalk, ball pen and paper," she said, asking Duterte to visit the schools if he wants to find out.
Save Our Schools Network, a non-government group advocating children's right to education, said there have been at least 68 military attacks affecting 89 Lumad schools since last July.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla denied soldiers were behind the attacks and said troops have gone to the tribal communities to secure them and allow government-recognized schools to be established.
Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.