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Armed forces and the law
In Action on "Civvy Street"

by Nic Sommer
In 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 answers.

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."

Acting lawfully

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.

Practice first!

"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 and react."
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 away unpunished.

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 do?

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
Nic Sommer is ICRC Press officer in Geneva.

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