Nigeria: training the trainers to teach IHL

Soldiers at checkpoints often ask us for painkillers, bandages and other medical supplies when we are on our way to conduct a course about international humanitarian law. Hearing this it is less surprising to hear the comments from participants invited to attend the ICRC's Training of Trainers course.

Of the three courses I have participated in the pattern is quite familiar. On the first day, the trainer assesses the knowledge and opinions of the attendees. Often, the officers have some knowledge of the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) but little idea about the role of the ICRC in respect of its promotion.

Remarks often heard are " What is the relationship between the Red Cross and LOAC " , " Why is LOAC a subject of interest to the Red Cross " or " LOAC is a constraint to conducting war. " Herein is the challenge for the trainer and I warm up to another ten days of " capturing another objective. "

 Capturing the objective  

To reorient the mindset of officers is like dislodging an enemy in a particularly entrenched position. The attacker needs much more than direct firepower and has to phase the attack if he is not doomed to fail.

 Phase 1 of capturing the objective is to address the question " who does the law protect in war? " Always, the answer is; " the law protects'YOU'" . When you are no longer in combat due to sickness or injury, the law gives you the opportunity of a second chance at life. It requires the enemy to take you to a medical facility in stead of butchering you. The law says you become a Prisoner of War (PoW) when you might be " killed in action " (KIA). As I keep expanding on the advantages to the officers in the classroom, conviction starts to give way to doubt.

 Phase 2 further tests the officers. Sometimes I ask to see their wallet and usually they carry pictures of their wife and children. Still'assaulting'them with my barrage of questions, I ask if they have been on any operation in Bakassi Peninsula, or with ECOMOG or the UN and the answer is mostly affirmative. Together we try to recollect how we spent our time (when we were not out on patrol or facing enemy fire). They remember using quiet periods to look at these pictures of loved ones and reminisce over the times (good and bad) we spent with them. We recollect how we pray that the mission ends well so that we can go back to them and make amends for quarrels that had no basis. Then I ask how they will feel if these families were killed or raped and their properties looted by the adversary before their return. Naturally, the officers think it is preposterous for the adversary to do a thing like that. I explain that preventing these situations is at the heart of LOAC.

 Phase 3 is the final assault - the Battle Exercise (BATEX). The scenario is of a an impending attack on an enemy position close to a civilian area that has two places of worship, a hospital and so on. Does the law say we most leave the enemy alone? The answer is of course NO. It just means that the commander has to plan more thoroughly so that he is able to employ the best means and methods to achieve his mission.

Recently, a senior officer asked during a disse mination session if I thought the LOAC was practicable. My response was that I am now retired and one day he would also be retired and then the definition of what it means to be a civilian becomes clearer. In the event of hostilities, how would you feel if the adversary could treat you and your family any way he wishes?

Moreover, members of the armed forces who claim to be carrying out instructions from the State but go on to contravene the Geneva Conventions (GCs) have failed in their responsibilities. By ratifying the GCs and other IHL laws, the State has clearly laid down how it wishes to defend itself.

 Mop up  

At the end of each TOT, the trainer samples class opinion again. Their comments often reveal a positive shift in opinion and show that members of the armed forces are like other people. They desire to live peacefully but if forced to fight they wish to fight by the rules if they are sure that their adversaries will do the same. Most participants promise to spread the word amongst their colleagues. Here is the reward for the facilitator. " Objective captured, Sir " .