reports in this article that due to an incident where officers administered inappropriate punishments to a conscript, the Ministry of Defense is called to develop a standardized code of discipline.
Earlier this month the recruit, who was caught napping during physical training, had his shirt removed and icepacks were placed under his armpits and on his crotch. Nine officers, from the sergeant who imposed the punishment up to the battalion commander, are currently under investigation by the military police.
In response, politicians and researchers have called the Ministry of Defense to create a unified code of service discipline, notably to prevent such incidents from happening. It is believed that by providing codified guidelines, it would reduce the risk of having an officer or a non-commissioned officer imposing a disproportionate, degrading or unusual punishment.
Amongst the experts quoted by the Taipei Times is National Chengchi University international affairs professor Chen Wen-chia, who notably said that:
“Complete trust and flawless teamwork must exist for a military organization to function. […] Knowing how to strike a balance between discipline and trust is the test of good leadership.”
We could add to Prof. Wen-chia’s wise words that this balance is particularly essential to maintain in the armed forces of a democratic state, where the general public’s trust in military institutions is itself a strategic asset. This balance is all the more difficult to maintain when the state faces the constant risk of being drawn into a major armed conflict threatening its existence. As conscripts have not voluntarily joined the armed forces, would eventually go back to civilian life, and would eventually – negatively or positively - influence the general public’s support towards military institutions, this balance is even more challenging to maintain.
Another researcher, retired army major general Richard Hu, told the Taipei Times that “creating a separate military justice system is not necessary for maintaining discipline”. In support of his argument, he referred to the absence of military courts in Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the fact that in France, military courts are convened only in exceptional circumstances.
MGen (ret’d) Hu indirectly evokes something often misunderstood by most observers: military justice does not equate to military discipline. The former is one of the tools to restore the latter, a broader concept. Maintaining discipline is the very essence of military organization, notably to ensure efficiency and morale, but it is also an obligation for commanders to prevent and, where necessary, punish violations of international humanitarian law.
By the way, discipline is maintained in many ways. Yes, by imposing (or threatening) sanctions that dissuade offenders from reoffending and discourage others from doing the same. But what a military organization really wants is self-discipline: the kind that comes naturally from within, after individual and collective training, following the example set by leaders, and reacting to collective positive reinforcement from peers. So even when military authority or superiors are absent, the individual soldier would nevertheless, by a mixture of habit and reasoned will, intrinsically act in a proper military and professional way because it is the ‘right thing to do’.
If MGen (ret’d) Hu’s quote means that there is no obligation to have military courts to maintain discipline, he is right (although many would argue that simply transferring criminal jurisdiction from military to civilian courts is not a ‘silver bullet’ to avoid impunity as it seems to be). Yet, as commanders are required to exercise and instill “rigorous supervision of the armed forces and strict internal discipline […] required to ensure that military personnel obey orders when in danger and do not abuse their power” a system is needed. It does not have to be a court or a judicial system. Nevertheless this system, whether administrative, disciplinary or penal summary proceedings, must be fair, meeting minimum standards. Among those are the requirements of legality, predictability and proportionality of punishments. Consider the following from the 2019 Yale Draft Principles for Military Summary Proceedings:
The State shall define by law which offences are subject to summary proceedings, the applicable penalties, and periods of limitation.
A commander may not impose any punishment that is cruel, unusual, inhuman, degrading, or disproportionate. Periods of detention should be of relatively limited duration, reflecting the fact that summary proceedings are designed for the adjudication of minor offences.
In summary, to prevent sanctions and punishments from being left entirely to the ‘whims and fancies’ of frontline officers, there’s a need for a military justice system. Not necessarily a court system, but still a fair one. Otherwise, in seeking to strike the right “balance between discipline and trust” as Prof. Wen-chia puts it, the latter will be harmed and ultimately, the former would be more difficult to maintain through soldiers’ inherent positive motivation.
The opinions expressed are those of the author alone.
 Céline RENAULT, “The impact of military disciplinary sanctions on compliance with international humanitarian law”, International Review of the Red Cross, vol. 90, no. 870, June 2008, 320.