Melo Commission Report: Findings

Feb. 23, 2007

1. Command Responsibility defined

Contrary to the apparently inaccurate notion of command responsibility entertained by some officers in the AFP, command responsibility in the modern international law sense is also an omission mode of individual criminal liability wherein the superior officer is responsible for crimes committed by his subordinates for failing to prevent or punish them (as opposed to crimes he ordered).

The doctrine of command responsibility is not unfamiliar, being a guiding principle in military organizations. The doctrine was formalized by the Hague Conventions IV (1907) and X (1907) and applied for the first time by the German Supreme Court in Leipzig after World War I, in the Trial of Emil Muller. Muller was sentenced by the Court for failing to prevent the commission of crimes and to punish the perpetrators thereof.

The 1946 Yamashita case[85] is a decision of the US Supreme Court which was appealed from the Philippine Supreme Court, when the Philippines was still a colony of the United States. The US Supreme Court convicted Yamashita as the superior of the Japanese forces which committed unspeakable atrocities throughout the Philippines, acts of violence, cruelty, and murder upon the civilian population and prisoners of war, particularly a large-scale massacre of civilians in Batangas, as well as wholesale pillage and wanton destruction of religious monuments in the country. The US Supreme Court determined that Yamashita possessed the duty as an army commander to control the operations of his troops, and was criminally liable for permitting them to commit such despicable acts. Various laws of warfare were cited as basis of such superior responsibility: Articles 1 and 43 of the Regulations annexed to the Fourth Hague Convention of 1907, Article 19 of the Tenth Hague Convention of 1907, and Article 26 of the 1926 Geneva Convention on the wounded and sick. The Court concluded that Yamashita possessed:[86]

an affirmative duty to take such measures as were within his power and appropriate in the circumstances to protect prisoners of war and the civilian population. This duty of a commanding officer has heretofore been recognized, and its breach penalized by our own military tribunals.[87]

In the Medina case,[88] concerning the infamous My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, it was held by an American Court Martial that a commander will be liable for crimes of his subordinates when he orders a crime committed or knows that a crime is about to be committed, has power to prevent it, and fails to exercise that power.

After the Hague Convention, the first international treaty to comprehensively codify the doctrine of command responsibility is the Additional Protocol I (AP I) of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, Article 86(2) of which states that:

the fact that a breach of the Conventions or of this Protocol was committed by a subordinate does not absolve his superiors from responsibilityif they knew, or had information which should have enabled them to conclude in the circumstances at the time, that he was committing or about to commit such a breach and if they did not take all feasible measures within their power to prevent or repress the breach.

Article 87 obliges a commander to “prevent and, where necessary, to suppress and report to competent authorities” any violation of the Conventions and of AP I. In Article 86(2) for the first time a provision would “explicitly address the knowledge factor of command responsibility.”[89] While the Philippines signed and ratified the Geneva Convention of 1949, it has only signed and has not ratified AP I.

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