Networking and Practicing International Law at NATO (Shaun Hiller)

One of the many great things about participating in the NATO Practicum at Allied Command Transformation Staff Element Europe (ACT SEE) is that I interact with senior legal advisors while participating in legal conferences, briefings, and workshops on important topics in international law. So far I have met and heard the views of many eminent legal practitioners including: Steven Hill, Legal Advisor to the Secretary General of NATO; Andres Munoz, Legal Advisor for NATO Allied Command Operations (ACO); Tom Randall, Former Legal Advisor for ACO; Frank Burkhardt, a Senior Legal Advisor at the German Ministry of Defense; Paul J. Conderman, Special Advisor to the Judge Advocate US Army Europe; Dr. Petra Ochmannova, Deputy Legal Advisor ACT SEE; Lyndon James, a British Solicitor, Judge, and the former Director of International Law for the U.S. 3rd Air Force’s England office. These experienced and extremely knowledgeable lawyers come from five of the Allied nations: the U.S., Spain, the Czech Republic, Germany and the United Kingdom. Though distinguished practitioners, each is personable, engaging, and extremely enthusiastic when discussing international legal topics that they are working on; whether it involves events in the Ukraine, the negotiation of international agreements, law of armed conflict, or aspects of the legal status of visiting forces. By speaking with them, working with them, and observing how they handle situations, I observe international law as practiced rather than just a subject for study.

The first program I participated in was the European External Action Services (EEAS) Protection of Civilians (PoC) workshop. Like the State Department, which is responsible for the diplomatic activity of the United States, the EEAS is the European Union’s diplomatic service. The PoC workshop was held at the headquarters of the EEAS in Brussels, Belgium. While being there in an official capacity made the event more vivid and formal; learning how much effort and resources the European Union expends on protecting civilians was heartwarming.

The workshop began with a presentation by a representative of the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations on how they were handling peacekeeping operations. His presentation highlighted the increasing role protecting civilians plays in UN missions. This was followed with presentations by members of the EEAS committee tasked with creating a protection of civilians’ doctrine. The workshop concluded with the participants providing their input on what the EEAS had created so far. Several participants expressed concern about the limited ways the EU was considering to protect civilians in crisis. The EU military personnel in attendance explained the limitations of the framework exist because many of the conditions that threaten civilians in conflict zones cannot be addressed prior to their occurrence. My personal view on this discussion was that there was a disconnect between the civilian expectations and military realities. The civilian workshop participants did not seem to realize the conflicting requirements placed on military forces in crises. The comments by my fellow workshop participants demonstrated the problem of the fragmentation of authority in international law because of the conflicts different legal regimes could place on each other in conflict and post-conflict situations. Because this is a subject that I am studying at NATO, when it came my turn to speak, I recommended more legal input be included in the EU’s PoC concept so that there is greater awareness of the challenges this legal reality poses to the success of military operations.

The second program that I attended was the NATO Legal Advisors (LEGAD) course. It was a completely different experience from the PoC workshop. In NATO School and Jedi Training, Marissa Harrell spoke about how amazing Oberammergau is, and she was absolutely correct. Unlike the PoC conference, the LEGAD course sought to train legal advisors from 22 nations on how to solve many legal issues that routinely arise during NATO military activities. This outreach is a very important task for NATO because the majority of its legal advisors are military personnel from the 28 member nations of the North Atlantic Alliance. Beyond the challenge posed by the different legal systems—common law/civil law/all with regional differences—and the different international obligations of these nations, many of the course participants have never worked in a multinational environment where English is the primary language. Interoperability is a primary goal of NATO, and increasing shared legal understanding in order to improve military interoperability of NATO’s forces is one of the primary tasks assigned to the ACT SEE Legal Office. To support this our office produces the NATO Legal Deskbook, maintains the CLOVIS database, and is responsible for delivering the 26 blocks of instruction that occur during each NATO LEGAD course (for more on this see Growing Pains by P.J. Campbell). The importance of sharing legal knowledge aside, the best part of participating in the conference was meeting the participants, working with our Course Director Sergeant Major Bjorn Klaiber, engaging one on one with presenters P.J. Conderman, Frank Burkhardt, and Lyndon James about many different legal and political topics. Finally, since I assisted Dr. Ochmannova and Lewis Bumgardner, the ACT SEE Legal Advisor, in organizing the course, it was a great learning experience to see how it all successfully came together.

Finally, I have less than two months left here at NATO and am certain that they will continue to provide as great a learning experience as the first three. I’ve learned many things here, but primarily the many differences between the practice of international law and the other types of law that I have been exposed to during my St. John’s education. The daily guidance from Mr. Bumgardner and Dr. Ochmannova has been invaluable. I am extremely grateful to Dean Walker and St. John’s Law for giving me this opportunity, and will miss many aspects of it when it is over.

[Shaun Hiller is a 3L at St. John’s University School of Law and was selected as the fall 2014 NATO Practicum student.  Shaun was a member of the St. John’s team at the 2014 Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition. In addition, Shaun is a senior staff member on the Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development (JCRED) and the Vice President of the Armed Forces Society. -Ed.]

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