Law: Rights and wrongs of war

Lawyers have swapped gowns for camouflage to advise the Army in Kosovo.
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The Independent Culture
THREE YEARS ago, Jo Bowen was a newly qualified solicitor working the magistrates' court lists in Bath. Last week she found herself among the tens of thousands of Kosovo refugees at the Macedonian relief camp of Brazda. She was asked to advise on an incident in which a Macedonian soldier had used his rifle butt to strike a Kosovan Albanian. Major Bowen is one of two solicitors sent to Macedonia by the British Army to advise its commanders in the field on rules of engagement and the protocol of the Geneva Convention.

But while the Army waits for orders to enter Kosovo, and it becomes more caught up in the daily tragedies of the refugees, Major Bowen has had to tailor her legal advice to suit the Army's ever-changing role. The Brazda request for help came from British soldiers working at the camp who had heard about the assault. "This is a very tricky situation," explains Major Bowen. "The only way a British soldier could help is by somehow coming between the rifle butt and the refugee, and using the law of self- defence."

The Brazda incident highlights the increasingly legal complexity of stationing a peace-keeping force carrying out a humanitarian mission on neutral territory in a war zone. It needed to be handled carefully as there is no existing bilateral agreement between the host nation, Macedonia, and the UK, to govern the British Army in Macedonia.

There are practical difficulties too. "The camps are run by the Macedonians and the UNHCR. Our influence here, in terms of security, is limited," says Major Bowen. If Nato gives the order for its forces to go in to Kosovo, either as peace-keepers or to take on the Yugoslav army, Major Bowen and Major Eliot Glover, the second solicitor deployed, will be expected to play a battlefield role. "We may not be riding in the Challengers," says Major Glover, a solicitor in Torquay until two years ago, "but we will be with headquarters vehicles, available to give advice on the ground where needed." Nato's legal tactical support has been strengthened by the arrival of two more UK lawyers who joined the Nato headquarters in Skopje earlier this month.

The principal legal challenge thrown up in a peace-keeping operation is expected to focus on the soldier's right to protect himself. Snipers will be among a number of possible headaches for commanders and legal advisers on the ground. UK domestic law and Army regulations mean the soldier can only use reasonable force to deal with the threat. A sniper taking occasional pot-shots at a British Army unit will not merit a disproportionate response if the soldiers are there solely to keep the peace. For example, a heavy concentration of artillery fire to take out a single sniper may not be justified. To remind them of their duty to the law, every soldier now carries a special law card which outlines the law of self-defence.

If the political leaders give the order for a ground offensive, which turns into a "full-blown" conflict, the soldiers will be subject to new rules. The lawyers will have to advise on the interpretation of the Geneva Convention. And as combatants, the two lawyers, part of the Army Legal Service and each armed with 9mm pistols, are not only expected to provide legal input but also, if necessary, to act as soldiers in the field. Major Glover is attached to 4th Armoured Brigade, a force of 3,000 soldiers, 14 Challenger tanks and two companies of Warrior infantry. Major Bowen is part of the National Support Element attached to the 1,200-strong combat support group which services the Brigade.

While the Army awaits Nato's order to move in to Kosovo, much of the legal work relates to the Army's relationship with the Macedonian authorities. This relationship has already been tested. A number of road traffic accidents involving British Army vehicles led to the Macedonian authorities ordering soldiers to appear before their courts by summons. Major Bowen explains: "I had to meet the local police chief and explain that we had exclusive jurisdiction in these matters." The poor roads and the Macedonian custom of driving hell for leather whatever the road conditions has led to a number of crashes. Some of these "smash and bash" cases have already generated compensation claims. Major Glover helped to set up a proper legal procedure so that local people whose property or land has been damaged by the Challenger tanks or other heavy armour can be compensated.

While the lawyers on the ground have no say in the legal consequences of going in to Kosovo, they do have to respond to an ever-changing political climate. "Things can develop very quickly here," says Major Glover, "so we have to brief commanders on a number of possible scenarios. The situation is changing all the time."