Attorneys from the Americas Discuss Legal Framework for Military Actions

The 2012 edition of The American Military Legal Committee (COJUMA, for its Spanish acronym) took place from August 29-30 in the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) headquarters in Miami, Florida.
WRITER-ID | 3 September 2012

Attorneys from 20 countries in the Americas, discuss solutions to the legal problems that the region's police authorities and armed forces face, during the 2012 edition of the COJUMA conference, on August 29, 2012. (Photo: Raúl Sánchez-Azuara/Diálogo)

The 2012 edition of The American Military Legal Committee (COJUMA, for its Spanish acronym) took place from August 29-30 in the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) headquarters in Miami, Florida. The event was sponsored by the SOUTHCOM and led by Vice Admiral Joseph D. Kernan, Military Deputy Commander, SOUTHCOM. In his opening remarks, VADM Kernan highlighted: “We capture a lot of people, but we don’t have a lot of legal training. That’s why we need to understand the legal ramifications to train our people, and understand our responsibilities under the law, to comply with the civil law.”

COJUMA originated in Panama, in 1996, with the collaboration of eight countries whose intention was to work together to produce a comparative study of the legal systems throughout the Americas. Since then, it has provided a legal foundation to guide attorneys in the defense of the armed forces and civil authorities of its member states, according to Dr. Sylvia Usher, chief counsel for the Uruguayan Ministry of Defense.

Throughout the years, the armed forces have assumed roles to protect the civil populations and provide logistical support, creating many legal voids where military personnel may incur in illegal acts because they are unaware of the law.

COJUMA 2012 included the participation of military attorneys from 20 countries in the Americas, in addition to representatives from U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Air Force South, U.S. Army South, and members of the National Guard, all of whom debated regional problems and ways in which to provide legal aid to members of the armed forces and police of partner nations in fulfilling their responsibilities to defend the population at the same time as maintaining their physical integrity.

For the first time, civil defense and support to authorities has become a hot topic in all military operations. Many countries are faced with threats inside their own boundaries, according to Lieutenant Colonel Dagoberto Gómez Cortés, Colombian internal affairs officer, during his presentation. Many times, criminal and narcoterrorist organizations take advantage of these internal armed conflicts. “We endure that in Colombia, but this war can only be fought from a legal standpoint. Currently, war isn’t won on the battlefield; it’s won from a desk [in an office]. That’s why we need to create a legal framework of security to operate from,” he stated.

For some countries, including those in Central and South America, and the Caribbean, these threats have been there for years, and have evolved from the latent conflicts that threatened national security and its stability. In the past, civil authorities handled the brunt of these threats. More and more, those same authorities now seek support from their defense forces, attorney Samuel Londoño, chief of the International Law and Legal Engagement Division in SOUTHCOM, told Diálogo.

As a result, attorneys must have a clear understanding of the legal considerations inherent to the nature of these internal conflicts and threats, which is why they need to be prepared to counsel the defense forces and their commanders on how to employ their resources to help civil authorities, Londoño specified.

The generalized consensus reached during the conference was to rely on SOUTHCOM’s web-based tool All-Partners Access Network (APAN), to foster understanding between nations; have an enduring forum available for the exchange of information in real time, and jointly create a base document to provide attorneys with tools to manage the legal situations of members of the armed forces and the police.

Because of the continuous spirit of collaboration in COJUMA’s past conferences, the goal of the participants in 2012 is t use APAN to produce a thorough and user-friendly guide on the legal considerations for the defense and support of civil authorities.

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