Last Friday, the Policy Exchange, a British think tank dedicated to the development and promotion of new policy ideas, published a Report entitled ‘The Fog of Law: An Introduction to the Legal Erosion of British Fighting Power’. The Report makes fascinating reading and deserves serious attention. Written by Thomas Tugendhat and Laura Croft, its aim is to explain how the cumulative effect of legal developments taking place over the past decade has undermined the ability of Britain’s armed forces to operate effectively on the battlefield. The Report questions the desirability of what it calls ‘legal mission creep’ and offers seven policy recommendations designed to reverse it or at least arrest its future development.
Undermining the warfighting ethos
Flexibility, initiative and the acceptance of risk and responsibility are central to British military doctrine. As the British Defence Doctrine puts it, one of the key components of the ‘British way of war’ is ‘a style of command that promotes decentralised command, freedom and speed of action and initiative’. ‘The Fog of Law’ brings together a considerable body of examples to suggests that the growing legal regulation and civilian oversight of the armed forces—in particular the spread of inquiries, the extension of civilian duty of care standards and the constant threat of litigation—have begun to undermine the warfighting ethos of the military and restrict commanders’ freedom to act. A series of legal developments have contributed to this change. However, Tugendhat and Croft direct their fiercest criticism against the European Convention on Human Rights, which they describe as the ‘main weapon used in the legal challenge against the [UK Ministry of Defence]’ (p. 17). In their view, the extension of ‘a civilian understanding of duty of care and rights guaranteed by the ECHR’ to combat operations represents a ‘legal intrusion into decisions made in a time of war’ (p. 28).
It is important to stress that ‘The Fog of Law’ does not advocate the complete exemption of the armed forces from the rule of law. The Report makes abundantly clear Tugendhat and Croft’s view that the problem is not the imposition of legal constraints on the armed forces as such, but the extension of civilian law to the military. Indeed, their entire discussion seems to be predicated on an underlying assumption that civilian law and military law are distinct normative regimes and that their respective spheres of application can, and should, be neatly separated from one another. Civilian law and oversight are thus depicted as alien forces which ‘intrude’, ‘assault’ and ‘intervene’ into the military sphere, ‘encircling’ it and ‘encroaching’ upon its autonomy. This is the stuff of high drama, but the accuracy of the picture painted is open to question. The assumption that there is law for civilians and law for the military seems to mistake both the nature of the problem and its solution. Read the rest of this entry…