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Michigan and Liberia partner to reinforce the role of military legal advisors in promoting the rule of law

Feb. 8, 2021 | By Webmaster

Michigan National Guard

Story by Capt. Andrew Layton

LANSING, Mich. – While the spread of Coronavirus has left an indelible mark on nearly every area of modern life, these currents of change also have brought new opportunities to innovate, problem-solve, and grow. Legal professionals from the Michigan National Guard (MING) and the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) have together done just that by implementing a new program that deepens military adherence to the rule of law and facilitates military support to the prosecution of terrorists.

This engagement is part of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM)’s Office of Legal Counsel initiative known as Command Advice, Investigations, and Coordination (CAIC, pronounced “cake”). This program was developed in Spring 2020 and is presently being piloted in nine West African countries, including Liberia. Michigan and Liberia have been partners under the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program (SPP) for more than a decade, which puts them in an ideal situation to expand mutual capabilities in this way.

“The objectives of this program are to increase commanders' access to competent legal advice by building the capacity of military legal officers, to encourage the use of administrative investigations, such as commanders’ inquiries, to assess and improve operations, and to standardize the management of materials and detainees collected by military personnel in conflict zones to support civilian prosecutions of suspected terrorists,” said Ms. Gisela Westwater, U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training resident legal advisor to AFRICOM. “By leveraging these pre-existing partnerships, relationships are deepening between the U.S. Judge Advocates and African partner legal advisors with appropriate, agreed upon follow-on projects.”

According to Westwater, the comprehensive program is implemented through a series of multilateral and bilateral engagements, with National Guard units taking the lead on bilateral engagements where partnerships already exist.

CAIC kicked off with weekly virtual roundtables during which military legal advisors from the nine African countries discussed rotating topics with their U.S. counterparts. These multinational calls soon transitioned into bilateral activities. So far, these bilateral activities have consisted of monthly one-hour virtual mentorship sessions between two Judge Advocates from the MING and two AFL legal advisors. Discussions are primarily held on a workplace videoconferencing app, but follow-on conversations also take place through email and text message.

“AFRICOM’s CAIC program has enabled the Michigan National Guard’s legal team to keep building on its partnership with Liberia as the countries work together to develop a robust Rule of Law program,” said U.S. Army Col. John Wojcik, General Counsel, Michigan National Guard. “But it’s not just a one-way street. We’re learning just as much from our African partners. A few weeks ago, we did an in-depth review of real-world legal issues around how to transfer a detained person from military authority to civil authority for prosecution.”

Wojcik, whose writings on the topic of detainee operations have been published in a respected professional journal, led the session, drawing on his experiences in Afghanistan. He said he is impressed to see the challenges his counterparts are adept at overcoming.

According to U.S. Army Capt. Jonathan Russell, a Judge Advocate for the Michigan National Guard, the initiative is planned to include eight sessions, each focusing on a different theme – from effective relationship building with commanders and staff, to military justice in combat operations and detainee operations.

The final topic covered during CAIC’s multinational roundtable was “battlefield evidence,” a term used for the collection, handling, preserving, and sharing of materials by the military for use in terrorism prosecutions.

“Most U.S. service members don’t know the challenges that our African partners face in preserving evidence on the battlefield when they detain someone on a terrorism charge,” Wojcik said. “Things get complicated pretty quickly in those situations.”

Continuing from where the multinational roundtables left off, the MING will discuss concrete battlefield evidence strategies with their AFL colleagues as the bilateral engagements continue through the spring. According to Westwater, these in-depth discussions will go a long way in facilitating terrorist prosecutions abroad, a key objective of the United States.

The MING is drafting after-action reports of its bilateral meetings, which AFRICOM will compile with reports on the other eight participating African countries to create a publication to be shared with U.S. and partner and ally forces.

“Understanding our partners’ different military legal structures is key to increasing interoperability,” said Westwater. “This reference document, however, is only the beginning.”

The MING Judge Advocates are committed to leveraging their deepened understanding of the challenges facing the AFL’s legal officers to develop future bilateral engagements focused on addressing the AFL’s most pressing needs.

“Michigan and Liberia began their first cooperation together under the SPP in 2010,” said Russell. “This engagement with our counterparts in the AFL is a natural progression of that partnership. We are building long-term relationships, enhancing mutual understanding, and strengthening the ties between the United States and Liberia each and every time we meet.”