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International Law and Peace Operations: Second Reality Check at GCSP

Does Law Contribute to Peace Operations’ Success?

What is the state of the international law currently applicable to peace operations? What other best practices states and international organisations should adopt as policy guidance when conducting peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions? And above all, are there gaps between law and reality on the ground and if yes, why and how should they be filled?

The Security and Law Programme at GCSP tried to answer these complex questions on 3 May in the second appointment of its new Security and Law: A Reality Check series, a public dialogue exploring how international law matters in security affairs.

After the success of the launching event with Harold Koh on ‘The Trump Administration and International Law’, this second Reality Check addressed a direct question: ‘Does Law Contribute to Peace Operations’ Success?’. The event was the occasion for the official launch in Geneva of the new Leuven Manual on the International Law Applicable to Peace Operations (CUP, December 2017): prepared by an International Group of Experts at the invitation of the International Society of Military Law and the Law of War (ISMLLW), the Manual provides the first comprehensive restatement of all international norms applicable to peace operations and is recognized as the most authoritative guidance in the field, combining legal rules with policy recommendations where the law is silent or unclear.

The discussion was introduced by Brig Gen (retd) Jan Peter Spijk, President of the ISMLLW, and Alfons Vanheusden, Senior Legal Advisor at the Belgian Ministry of Defence and Assistant Secretary-General of the ISMLLW. They presented the Manual and gave an overview of the drafting history behind this accomplishment. The long-standing commitment of the ISMLLW to the clarification and implementation of the law of war and the reputation of the members of the international group of experts, as well as the rigour of the editorial process, manifest the contribution that the Manual is meant to bring to peace missions.

The panel was moderated by Tobias Vestner, Cluster Leader of the Security and Law Programme, who addressed individual questions to the four speakers, covering both the legal and policy facets of the current debate. Maj Gen (retd) Adrian Foster, former Deputy Military Adviser at the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and Associate Fellow at GCSP, set out from the beginning the crucial issues that remain unsettled and will need clarification to increase the impact of the Manual. He explained that the application of the Leuven Manual only to operations receiving the consent, or at least the acquiescence, of all major parties to the conflict does not always reflect current practice, especially when peace forces are mandated to fight against armed groups parties to non-international armed conflicts. Maj. Gen. Foster added as well that the overall sense of uncertainty on the applicable law often results from overlapping and vaguely formulated mandates, which explain why peace forces usually rely on the Rules of Engagement to understand their tasks. Tristan Ferraro, Senior Legal Advisor at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in turn, described the consequences on the status of peace forces deriving from participation in hostilities: he recalled the importance of distinguishing between cases in which peace operations are not mandated to use force, but whose members can become combatant by directly taking part in hostilities, and those in which, since troops are mandated to use force beyond self-defence, the military branch of the peace force becomes a party to the conflict, in addition to soldiers individually participating in hostilities. Mr Ferraro also gave an overview of the role of the ICRC in the assistance to states and international organisations to ensure that their internal policies reflect applicable international law. Annika Hilding Norberg, GCSP Peacebuilding Cluster Leader, praised the contribution of the Leuven Manual to the clarification of the regulatory framework of peace operations: she demonstrated that the Manual is the final outcome of a long series of policy initiatives setting the standards applicable to peace operations, which have been fully integrated in the new publication, and expressed her hope that the Manual will encourage the revision and update of existing policies. Finally, Air Cdre (retd) William Boothby, Associate Fellow at GCSP, enumerated the different existing options to hold both states and individual peacekeepers accountable for violations of international law: he stressed that generally applicable international law on state responsibility and international criminal law do represent an answer, but also recommended that troop contributing states adopt policies ensuring that responsibility is not evaded and justice is delivered fully.

In line with the Reality Checks’ innovative approach, a new tool was introduced during the event: through the app ‘Poll Everywhere’ and simply connecting their laptops and smartphones, the audience was asked to answer the question at the centre of the debate throughout the event. The resulting live survey allowed assessing the real-time impact of the discussion on the position of the participants.

Once again, the public discussion had a remarkable turnout, which facilitated a positive as well as frank question and answer. Interestingly, all remarks directly challenged the speakers’ submissions with concrete examples taken from the professional experience of the participants. Such dynamic is the precise objective of the new format adopted for the Reality Checks.

Do not miss our third Reality Check: in the last week of June at lunchtime we will bring the discussion to the forefront of the current political and legal debates: ‘Russia and Europe: International Law as Bone of Contention or Common Denominator?’.

Join the debate. Join the Reality Check.