Monday, September 9, 2013

'Operational' Law


This special entry, our first post ever, does not follow the standard formatting of IHLToday.com. Instead, this excellent single entry from Prof. Geoffrey S. Corn provides a critical overview of the increasing significance of international humanitarian law (IHL) and its operationalization, highlighting both its advantages and disadvantages. His ringing endorsement of our initiative underscores how we expect to contribute to the advancement of IHL. Please use our comment section and share your valuable thoughts below.
Click the read more button below to read full opinion.

IHL is an increasingly significant focus of international legal discourse. Over the past decade, there has been an undeniable explosion of interest in this field of law that had previously been the domain of a small number of academic aficionados and practitioners. Today, no annual law school symposium agenda would be complete without some treatment of an IHL issue.

This is both a good and bad news story. There are many tick marks on the good side of the ledger: increased government and public awareness of IHL obligations; enhanced understanding of IHL meaning; robust exploration of gaps in IHL coverage and creative proposals to fill those gaps; exponential elevation of IHL compliance as an understood component of strategic legitimacy. In contrast, there are far fewer tick marks on the bad side of the ledger. Indeed, one might ask how can increased interest and attention to IHL have any negative consequences?

The answer lies at the core of this new initiative: an increasingly significant and potentially detrimental attenuation between the understanding of IHL in the abstract, and the appreciation of how IHL interrelates with actual military operational practice. This has been a major focus of my own scholarship (see here:
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2271152). 

My effort to highlight the essential relationship between IHL and operational practice is, I believe, the result of three influences. First, my own experience as a soldier began not as a lawyer, but as a tactical intelligence officer. In that capacity, I was exposed to the complexity of balancing the execution of tactical and operational missions with humanitarian constraint. Second, the profound impact of my time at the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School (https://www.jagcnet.army.mil/8525736A005BC8F9) on my understanding of IHL. The curriculum I was exposed to at the JAG School never treated IHL as a distinct discipline of law. Instead, it was incorporated into a broader treatment of what several visionary JAG experts coined ‘operational law’ – the interrelationship of law to military operations. Finally, my concern that much of the scholarly and academic treatment of IHL fails to account for the realities that influenced the JAG School shift from a law of war course to an operational law course – in short a lack of understanding of the tactical, operational, and strategic context in which the law functions.

It is therefor unsurprising that I believe this initiative will make an essential contribution to the understanding of IHL. To my knowledge, there is no other online venue that seeks to bring together the views of both legal and operational experts in the exploration of IHL topics. This can only produce positive outcomes. Indeed, the focus of the ICT/INSCT panel discussion that will serve as the launching venue for this initiative shares this same objective. Unlike the much more common experience of lawyers sharing their own views on the meaning of IHL, this even will explore the perspectives of academics, operational lawyers, and experienced commanders on several core IHL concepts.

One example highlights the relevance and value of this initiative. Anyone even minimally exposed to IHL understands the law imposes a prohibition against indiscriminate attacks, which is commonly characterized as the ‘proportionality’ rule. That rule necessitates an exercise of judgment by the commander that balances the anticipated military value of an attack against the anticipated harm to civilians and civilian property. How can a lawyer, unacquainted with tactical and operational art, fairly and accurately predict how such a balance should be struck? And how can a commander, minimally versed in the origins and objectives of the IHL rule, fairly and accurately engage in this assessment ensuring a proper allocation of interests? Unless both participants in this analytical process understand the perspectives of each other, the analysis lacks the necessary foundation to produce a truly credible outcome.


Far more important, perhaps, is that those engaged in the exploration and application of IHL concepts value this type of discourse. While gaining insight into various perspectives might not alter interpretations or understanding of the law, it will inevitably inform these. This can only produce positive outcomes, and reveals why this initiative must be embraced by anyone interested in understanding the operational foundation of IHL.

Geoffrey S. Corn
Professor of Law
South Texas College of Law
Houston, TX

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