Armed forces and the law
by Nic Sommer
In Action on "Civvy Street"
most cases, soldiers know how to respect humanitarian law when
fighting armed combatants. But what if they have to face unruly
civilians? A new ICRC training course hopes to provide some
ICRC trainer, David Roberts, conducts a course
in humanitarian law for military personnel in the Philippines.
Soldiers firing rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse stone-throwing
youths. A convoy of military jeeps passing through a destitute
neighbourhood. Soldiers standing face to face with an angry
crowd, while others escort mothers and children to school
through a hostile barrage of threats. These images, broadcast
daily on the television, are so familiar that it seems as
though an army's natural role is to be outside your front
door, helping to keep order when riots get out of hand.
In principle, of course, it's quite different armies are
supposed to be formed, trained, financed and equipped for
the primary purpose of defending the frontiers of the state
against an external enemy. But in the past half century, and
particularly in the last decade, soldiers have been increasingly
called upon to work in close proximity to civilians
whether in peacekeeping operations, such as the Balkans, or
in helping the authorities restore order during civil unrest.
And it's in these situations, where casualties are few in
comparison with all-out conflicts, that soldiers run a greater
risk of being accused of brutality.
"It's not just because the TV cameras are more likely
to be around at the 'wrong' time it's because soldiers are
being asked to do a job for which they have little or no training,"
says David Roberts, a retired British army officer with 30
years' experience in situations as diverse as Northern Ireland
and the Gulf war. "In fact, you could say that a soldier's
basic training puts him directly at odds with what is required
of him in a civil support role: he's trained to stop an enemy
with if necessary lethal force. It requires a totally
different mindset when working in a civilian environment."
For the past ten years, Roberts has been bringing his experience
to bear in the ICRC's Unit for Relations with the Armed and
Security Forces (FAS). This unit helps armies set up teaching
modules on international humanitarian law including the
Geneva Conventions which should then become part of every
soldier's essential training. Since mid- 2002 Roberts has
been introducing a new element: the essential rules for military
personnel mobilized for internal security operations or
in other words, helping to keep order at home or in the context
of a United Nations peacekeeping operation.
This is an area where the Geneva Conventions have less to
say the basic principles of international humanitarian law
apply, particularly concerning the proportionate use of force
and respect for the civilian population, but the legal framework
is different. Here, the reference is to everyday national
law and to international human rights law and standards,
a field that few in the armed forces know much about.
"There are essentially four practical problem areas
facing soldiers called out onto the streets," says David
Roberts. "These are adequate training, appropriate equipment
(including weapons), suitable tactics, and the right attitude.
But on top of that is the question of knowing the law and
if we look at just the armies from developed countries, that's
probably the biggest challenge of all."
As in other areas of life, ignorance of the law is not an
excuse and the consequences can be tragic: unarmed civilians
mistreated or killed, increased tension between polarized
communities, a government's policy in tatters... and a soldier,
if found guilty of abuse, will be punished, bringing dishonour
on himself and his unit. It can be a nightmare for a soldier,
often not knowing where a deadly threat might come from, and
hesitant to take action which might turn out to be inappropriate.
Then there's the challenge of learning to work effectively
with the police. Their primary objectives and methods are
quite different from the armed forces, but out there on the
urban battlefield, they take precedence over the military.
"In my country we have procedures which enable members
of the public to get legal action taken if there are complaints
against soldiers' behaviour. There is a lot to do in training.
And police officers, unlike soldiers, live and spend time
in the community they are more aware of how people think
Capt. Esau Mlobane, Legal Officer, Zimbabwe Army
"We have established a peace training centre, which
will be open to all sections of the armed forces as well as
civilian officials, and one of the purposes is to help mutual
understanding of the roles of each, and to practise joint
procedures. There are many areas where we must develop training,
including in human rights law."
Capt. Pablo Leon, Trainer, Chilean Army
"Human rights courses are being incorporated into basic
training, for both officers and enlisted men. Officers will
not be promoted if they don't have clearance from the human
rights commission, which means they have to demonstrate their
knowledge. A lot of effort must go into adapting soldiers
for the internal role."
Lt-Col. Tomasito B. Mangulabnan, Chief, Internal Affairs
Division, Philippines Army
Military and police
"The growing interaction between police and the military
has prompted the ICRC to produce new teaching modules, specifically
adapted to internal security operations," says Jean-Nicolas
Marti, deputy head of the FAS in Geneva. "We began offering
training for police forces in the early 1990s, and then in
1996 produced a manual, To serve and to protect, that has
been widely distributed in many languages. What we are trying
to do now is to put both police and military concerns together,
in what is legally a rather 'grey zone'."
In the cool of an elegant Italian villa, at the International
Institute of Humanitarian Law in San Remo, some 20 military
officers from around the world watch as David Roberts illustrates
the principle of proportionality with the help of two flowerpots
and two walnuts. The former represent villages, in which the
latter small bands of dissidents have hidden. Two units
are dispatched to eliminate the rebels one of which cracks
the rebel force without damage to the village, while the other
does exactly the opposite. It's the sort of demonstration
that sticks in the mind and maybe will help the course
participants repeat the message back home.
His co-presenter is Graham Dossett, a former senior police
officer in England. His presence in itself emphasizes what
Roberts insists is essential for effective training for
the military and the police to do it together. Much of Dossett's
presentation concerns the potential difficulties that arise
when soldiers are called on to carry out searches of civilian
property, make arrests and detain people. Sloppy attention
to detail failure to respect the law could lay the military
open to accusations of all kinds, as well as legal action,
and could result in someone who ought to be arrested walking
At the end of the lectures, the participants are split into
groups to work on "what would you do if..." case
studies. In one of them, a small unit of very tired and tense
soldiers, who have spent the night arresting alleged rebel
supporters, are faced with a few hundred women advancing towards
them, holding metal dustbin lids which they are striking with
heavy knives. The army unit is in position outside their headquarters,
with orders that no one must pass. What should the commander
After the discussion a participant asks Roberts what action
had in fact been taken, that day back in August 1971 in Northern
Ireland. A ghost of a smile crosses his face before he replies:
"Why not ask the women? not one of them passed, but
not one of them was hurt..."As we know from so many events
in recent memory, not all confrontations between the military
and civilians pass off so smoothly. Will the new training
module succeed in helping future generations of soldiers to
deal with such situations with the right dose of military
professionalism and humanity?
Nic Sommer is ICRC Press officer in Geneva.
Top | Contact
Us | Credits | Previous
issue | Webmaster
© 2003 | Copyright