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The Army Lawyer


Reflections on Multi-National Interoperability from the IIHL



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The logo of the International Institute of Humanitarian Law.

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In amplifying TJAG’s mantra to “Be Ready” we must understand our multi-national partners. If you are to assume anything in a multi-national military operation, assume your multi-national partners view the world, and, relevant to this article, the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), differently than you. The consequences of an opposite assumption could have significant legal and, more importantly, operational impacts. Compounding the challenges when working with a multi-national partner whose experience may vary from zero understanding of LOAC to incredibly sophisticated insight—the partner nation will almost certainly have different permissions and authorities enabling more or less operational flexibility.

Understanding interoperability is not just an operator requirement—those who advise operators must understand how their legal advisor counterparts operate as well. And you must understand this before an operation. You may think you have an understanding of how partner forces interpret LOAC, but you need to know. How can you gain this knowledge? Strategic engagements, multi-national training exercises, or courses at the International Institute for Humanitarian Law (IIHL) are a few examples of where to gain the insight necessary to properly advise commanders on the multi-national battlefield.

The IIHL is an independent, non-profit organization located in San Remo, Italy. The Military Department of IIHL was created to support governments’ military institutions and organizations in providing specific training in the field of International Humanitarian Law (IHL)/LOAC, in order to fill the gaps in knowledge and to enhance the capacities of military institutions and organizations engaged in situation of armed conflicts and international operations. Training courses provide a sound understanding of fundamental issues and deliver practical and experience-based instruction, supported by exercises and case studies to reinforce participants’ understanding. Course leaders and participants come from across the world, ensuring a unique environment with a diverse, challenging, and stimulating international perspective. All of the training conducted by IIHL shares the following overarching objectives: (1) Increase participants’ ability to apply the relevant international norms underpinning the crucial issues relating to the protection of non-combatants in armed conflicts; (2) Encourage the sharing of different nations’ perspectives with regard to interpretation of LOAC principles, policies, operational constraints, and monitoring mechanisms; (3) Provide military officers and government officials with the opportunity to learn how to apply the principles and rules of IHL/LOAC; and (4) Promote the respect and implementation of the relevant corresponding IHL/LOAC frameworks and instruments.

The IIHL’s geographic location is far from where most of its participants serve, which facilitates a more collegiate atmosphere, one where students are more prone to speak and learn freely—something referred to as the Spirit of San Remo. Due to its neutral status and location, the IIHL has the ability to draw nations otherwise unreachable in standard Department of Defense schools, such as Russia, China, and Pakistan. The participants include legal advisors, commanders, politicians, diplomats, academics, members of non-governmental organizations, and interested civilians. It is in this forum where some LOAC interpretation differences come to light and where nations can begin to understand and appreciate, if not agree on, LOAC principles. Based on a fairly robust and diverse sampling of students passing through the IIHL, there is no wholesale agreement on LOAC and some perspectives are, frankly, troubling. A training venue such as the IIHL, however, is a far better place to learn and adapt to these differences than the Joint Operations Center at a forward deployed location.

So what? Before advising your commander in a multi-national operational environment you must be ready. First, you must truly know LOAC and the specific national authorities and permissions you and your commander must follow. Next, be aware of how your counterpart may see things—what is the same, what is different. Those differences may impact how your commander allocates assets. From an operational law perspective, just because your counterpart calls herself a legal advisor (LEGAD) or himself an OPLAW attorney does not mean they have the same training and education. For example, in many other nations, such as France and the Netherlands, the LEGADs are not attorneys and may have no formal legal education. This is important when trying to understand other nations’ perspectives. It’s not that attorneys are better, but it is that attorneys are trained to think in a different way. Another assumption one might have is that a partner-nation LEGAD and the U.S. judge advocate have the same understanding of military terminology. Experience suggests otherwise. You may be working with a senior legal advisor of a close ally who does not know the difference between indirect fire and warning shots. Or you find your U.S. Army based view of hostile act and hostile intent—and what that entitles you to do on the battlefield—differs from that of our North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. More fundamentally, keep in mind that there is often a language barrier when working with multi-national partners, even amongst English speaking countries—don’t assume everyone knows and understands what you are talking about. Whatever the situation, there is no room for ego or pride when advising commanders or troops on the ground. Moreover, if your commander belongs to a nation who needs something more or different to lawfully engage a target, you need to know. Sort it out early.

Regardless of one’s “expertise” on a subject, there is great value in understanding a different point of view. It may reinforce your understanding or it may do the exact opposite. Either way, you are learning and developing a better understanding to advise your commander. Conveniently, you are also helping your counterparts. The more assumptions we can turn into facts, the better we can advise our commanders. And, given we are in the customer service business, providing sound, timely, and relevant legal advice to our commanders is a priority.

The IIHL offers a variety of courses for all experience levels, exposing participants to a variety of nations and perspectives all eager to better understand LOAC. For more information, feel free to consult the website at http://www.iihl.org/ or contact Major Phil Maxwell at philip.c.maxwell.mil@mail.mil or phil.maxwell@iihl.org. TAL


MAJ Maxwell is a Teaching Fellow at the International Institute of Humanitarian Law in San Remo, Italy.