We’re wrapping up our first week here, and the past 2 days we’ve had some major highlights in the discussion as far as I’m concerned. I feel like I couldn’t possibly do justice to all of our speakers and guests and the intricacies they’ve brought to the table, so I’m picking and choosing based on my own personal interests.

Yesterday we looked at the intersection between IHL and Human Rights Law, two bodies whose basic purposes are linked at a basic desire to protect vulnerable populations and ensure human dignity. Our speaker from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights sparked some heated and fascinating discussions regarding the application of the two bodies of law depending on specific circumstances. The discussion, of course, revolved around when these two bodies of law convene: Human Rights Law, concerned primarily with how states treat their own citizens (or individuals within their territory) and IHL, concerned with protecting civilians and other persons hors de combat (out of the conflict) during times of armed conflict. There are pieces of both that are arguably applicable simultaneously – so how does one determine which set of rules prevails? It’s a complicated discussion, including considerations of lex generalis and lex specialis that veer farther into legalese than I would normally be dealing with.

ihl-classToday, we were treated to two outstanding discussions, one on the conduct of hostilities and one concerning weapons and issues of targeting. Both were absolutely fascinating, revolving around the concepts of achieving goals from the military perspective while still abiding by IHL and honoring the principle of distinction. Conducting hostilities is a matter of  balancing decisions in terms of what is considered ‘excessive’: balancing military necessity and humanitarian concerns. Operationally its quite difficult because you’re talking about rules that have to be applied, and in practice they are applied under a great deal of pressure and in the heat of the moment. These decisions are inherently about life & death which adds an extra layer of difficulty and importance. Here we focus on three basic principles: distinction, proportionality, and precaution.

The starting point for our afternoon session on weapons was that it’s not a question of the legality of each weapon specifically, but about how we can take into account all of these issues we’ve been discussing (particularly distinction, proportionality, and precaution) when making decisions about which weapons to use in any given situation, and how to target them and deploy them. The most important part is how it really works in the field during a dynamic targeting process. We discussed the concept of “the dilemma of the strategic corporal”.  This is the notion that leadership in complex, rapidly evolving mission environments devolves lower and lower down the chain of command to better exploit time-critical information into the decision making process, ultimately landing on the corporal, the lowest ranking non-commissioned officer. This was followed by a fascinating discussion on the law of armed conflict (LOAC) and two cardinal principles of 1) no indiscriminate attacks, and 2) no unnecessary suffering. An interesting piece to look at for more information is the Rules of Engagement Handbook, from the International Institute of Humanitarian Law, developed in Sanremo in 2009.

It’s been an engrossing and active first week. This weekend we go on an excursion offsite, and the Krakow for a brief break before we get back into sessions on Monday.

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