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The soldier's moral compass

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The soldier's moral compass
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The speech delivered by Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama at the inauguration of the South Asia Regional Joint Defence International Humanitarian Law Course in Colombo on Monday.

The laws of war today are largely contained in the two Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907) and the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. Those documents have laid down the parameters on how wars can be fought, what weapons can be used and what persons can be attacked.

Soldiers conscious of their responsibility

These laws, incomplete as they are, can be explained on the basis of two humanitarian principles; First, individual persons deserve respect as persons, using the term person to refer to self-conscious, autonomous, human beings, endowed with rights. Second, human suffering ought to be minimised.


These principles are universally accepted and militaries of all democratic states are bound by international law to observe these rules in the prosecution of war. The soldier is not only subject to the codes of international law, but also those of the law of the land.

A soldier is trained to kill. He may be ordered to, or he may order others to break the Sixth Commandment - "Thou shall not kill". He can commit, in the course of duty, an intensely personal act, the memory of which may haunt him for the rest of his life.

As many of us know only too well, he may hold the enemy in the sights of his rifle and then watch him fall and is not protected by the veil of remoteness and distance that shields the sailor in his ship and the airman in his aircraft. In plain language, the act of killing poses the soldier's ultimate moral dilemma.

The intensity of the soldier's predicament is heightened, when we are engaged in internal security operations within our own country. We are then no longer fighting an external, identifiable enemy; we face our own fellow citizens.

Furthermore, not only the public, but also, of course, the soldier himself is today far better educated and knowledgeable than in the past. He tends to be quizzical of authority. Consequently, whether he likes it or not, he answers to a more acute and troubling conscience. But, conscience itself is difficult to define.

Socrates likened it to an inner voice telling him what not to do. The temptation for a soldier in facing this dilemma is to do nothing and sit back. Thus, "conscience", in this sense is probably a flawed moral judgement, which if it produces action, only leads to guilt.

The controversy of whether war can be "just", has raged over centuries. The founder of modern international law, the eminent Dutch jurist, Grotius in his seminal treatise - De Jure Belli ac Paris concluded that although war may be undertaken for a just cause, it may be unjust if it gives rise to unjust acts.

However, the whole nature of war has undergone a drastic change. Today, the innocent are no longer immune. In insurgency, the peasant by day is the guerrilla by night. Terrorism that deliberately targets non-combatants has to be countered with a robust response from the military. Some suggested responses to terrorism also involve the violation of individual freedoms and liberties.

The rights of terrorists are infringed in the same manner that the rights of a criminal before the court are infringed by passing a sentence upon him. If violence is employed against terrorists, only as a last resort, both procedural and institutional justification becomes credible.

However, when non-combatants are knowingly endangered, even if such risk is necessary to facilitate an effective response, the case is less certain.

In the context of Sri Lanka's military operations against the terrorist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which the FBI had recently categorised as the world's deadliest terrorist outfit, the Armed Forces have scrupulously adhered to international humanitarian law and the law of the land.

It is precisely to avoid civilian casualties that the Sri Lankan security forces have desisted from taking on high profile LTTE cadres who are legitimate targets since they operate from locations using civilians as human shields.

Sri Lanka is a thriving and functioning multi-party democracy. Chapter (iii) of its Constitution covers the entire gamut of fundamental rights, which have been entrenched and made justiciable. Thus, any person aggrieved by an infringement or imminent infringement of his or her fundamental rights can apply to the highest court in the land, namely the Supreme Court and seek remedy.

Moreover, the Defence Ministry had on 12th April 2007 re-circulated to the Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force as well as the Inspector General of Police, directives on protecting the fundamental rights of persons arrested and/or detained, which had been issued by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on 7th July 2006.

The re-circulated directive is accompanied by instructions from the Secretary/Defence that the Service Commanders and the Inspector General of Police arrange for officers of their respective services to be fully informed of the Presidential directive and to ensure its full implementation.


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