Ladies and gentlemen,
As we come to the close of our time together here at our inaugural International Law Conference, I would like to extend my gratitude to all of you for making this conference such a dynamic and interesting forum, and for assisting us in advancing our dialogue on the diverse issue that legal counsels, who deal with armed conflicts, face today. A goal which is, “per se“, crucially important, and which makes this event especially essential.
The last three days have been full of debate and discussion, with the wide range of participants from different backgrounds allowing for an especially fertile dialogue on a broad range of issues. I hope that this time also allowed you to gain an insight into how we, in Israel, deal with some of these issues.
As Justice Barak Erez put it, here, where the conflict is very close to home, and represents an existential threat, these issues are more than theoretical, and have real and lasting repercussions on Israeli society, and the wider region.
I am incredibly pleased and proud to have overseen the inception of this forum, the establishment of which, and the broad participation which it has been able to produce.
The purpose of the conference was to open up these pressing issues for consideration, and allow for cross-pollination between the various disciplines represented here. This conference was not intended to address issues regarding operation ”Protective Edge”, nor the legitimacy of the IDF’s conduct during such time.
As I noted at the outset of this conference, the interpretation and application of LOAC, in the context of increasingly asymmetrical types of warfare, presents a great deal of challenges. These are issues common to the militaries of many liberal democracies, engaged in conflict in different parts of the world. Terror has many faces, but its inherent nature, and the tactics favored by those extremists who practice it, are fundamentally the same, exploiting the commitment of democratic nations to international humanitarian law.
As your host, I would like to draw together the points that were debated, to offer my own thoughts about the significance of what we have achieved here, and at the end, to talk about how we can continue the vital work that we have embarked upon together.
On a preliminary note, I would like to point to the importance, which I believe has been highlighted over the last few days, of active dialogue and debate between the academic and practitioner worlds. While the last few days have seen many different points of view represented among participants, the resulting exchanges have been both enlightening and informative.
Moreover, I hope that over the course of the conference, you were able to experience some of the issues and scenarios that Israeli practitioners confront. It is my belief, that sharing and comparing our diverse experiences and challenges, allow us to expand our perspectives on the issues at hand, and reach more comprehensive and inclusive determinations on the complex issues before us.
As regards the issues discussed, I feel that over this conference, we saw the way in which the principles of the law influence the practice, as well as how the practice influences the interpretation and understanding of the principles in this field.
From the standpoint of the law, for example, we discussed, in depth, about how we define membership in armed groups, with a considerable number of questions being raised, as to the practicality of the ‘continuous combat function’ test. This is a particularly vital issue for the IDF, especially, as we have seen how terrorist structures adapt themselves in response to our perceptions and practices, always seeking to minimize their exposure to our response.
From the practical perspective, we also managed to, quite literally, get down in the mud, to see first-hand, some of the operational challenges faced by our forces in the field. While these challenges are found, today, in our battlefield, tomorrow, or indeed already, they may be faced by your militaries.
Importantly, we were also able to meet, and hear, from field commanders, and listen to their perspective on the way the laws of war are applied under fire. The commanders we met exemplify the professionalism, prudence, and humanity that we expect from our command staff. This is the result of the solid grounding that they have received in their training, as well as of the legal advice provided to them.
The trust and confidence we put in our men and women in the field, for being reasonable and competent commanders, is a basic perspective that is crucial to appreciate in our service in the MAG corps. At the same breath, this perspective does not grant immunity, from constant review and examination, and commencing investigations in the appropriate cases.
Ladies and gentlemen,
For me, the overarching message of this conference has been that it is imperative to put theory into the context of practice, to ground our interpretations of LOAC in a way that accommodates the realities of the modern battlefield. LOAC have a crucial role in limiting the effects of armed conflict. However, to retain its power, this body of law must also retain its relevance
It was Cicero that said “inter arma enim silent leges”, meaning, during war, the laws are silent.
But I think that today, we can all agree with the words of the esteemed former Chief-Justice Aaron Barak, when he said, and I quote: “every battle a country wages must be waged in accordance with rules and laws“. There is no place for an approach that allows for the total erasure of normative values in the face of military necessity. Rather we must seek balance, and give proper weight to the humanitarian aspects of the law, while remaining aware of the attempts by many different entities, who for various reasons, seek to narrow the operational freedom enjoyed by military forces.
Our nations’ military forces must maintain their commitment to LOAC, but we must also be aware of attempts to manipulate and distort these laws, and we must try to develop and interpret them in a way that does not negate our ability to protect ourselves and our civilian population. Indeed, faced with asymmetric warfare, in which armed groups increasingly seek to exploit their civilian populations, in pursuit of their nefarious goals, LOAC must be interpreted and implemented, such that they remain relevant and responsive to these challenges.
And it is in meeting these challenges, that we, as legal counsels who deal with armed conflicts, are called to do our most important work. It is my sincere hope, that this conference will inspire us all to continue in this critical endeavor.
We should, and indeed I hope, that we will keep on learning from each other, even after this conference comes to a close. The issues that we have dealt with over the last three days, though numerous, are but the tip of the iceberg of the challenges facing our discipline in today’s world. Indeed, while we have had the pleasure of having five sessions to discuss these and other issues, we could easily have spent another five sessions dealing with further issues of interest. This conference was not intended to cover all of the diverse issues facing us today, nor the issues which I am currently reviewing in my official capacity.
Rather, it is my hope, that this conference is but the start of a journey, and that this should be but the first of many such forums. It is my sincerest wish, that together, we can create channels for official communication and conversation, as well as informal dialogue.
Specifically, I hope that we can maintain the dialogue that we have established here, between military practitioners and scholars. A dialogue, which need not be tied to this particular location, or to the IDF, but rather, that this should become a permanent forum to address the pressing present day issues, that arise in the context of modern armed conflict. I believe, that such rich and diverse exchanges greatly assist all of us, in our valuable mission to safeguard civilian populations, while protecting, and upholding, the values our societies share.
I would like to ask of you, to take some time to contemplate how we might continue with this process. Personally, I envision a professional forum of practitioners, with academic participation, which may then serve as a platform, and an organ, for determining the continuation of this process through future venues and conferences.
Such an endeavor is ambitious, but also highly possible, and most importantly, required. I hope that I have planted the seed for such a venture, and I trust that other hands will be able to continue this work.
Finally, I would like to thank you all for coming, from all over the world, to participate. I would like to thank all of our speakers and participants for all their valuable contributions, as well as to all the MAG staff who prepared and facilitated this conference.
Thank you, and have a safe journey home.