The amendment to the Code of Court Martial Procedure (軍事審判法) passed on Aug. 6, whereby military personnel accused of crimes will now be tried in civilian courts, may be an “extremely big change” to the legal system, as some commentators have put it, but do not let the hype deceive you: It is highly unlikely that the new regulations will help prevent abuse in the armed forces — in fact, they could make matters worse.
It is tempting to regard the amendment, along with the end to the court martial system (at least in peacetime), with optimism. After all, the poor handling by military prosecutors of the case of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘), who died on July 4 after being mistreated by his superiors, was the direct cause of mounting pressure on the government to reform the system under which such cases are investigated and tried.
The lack of transparency, along with well-founded suspicions that members of the armed forces are protecting one another, would suggest that the best way to handle abuse in the military is to bring in an external regulatory agency — in this case, civilian prosecutors and courts, who do not have the institutional and personal binds that insulate members of the armed forces.
The hope is that investigators, prosecutors and judges who have no personal stake in the military will be able to go where their counterparts in the armed forces would not, for one reason or another, dare venture. Civilians will therefore be able to cast a light into the darkness of the military clique and, it is hoped, end the corruption and abuse that has been only partly exposed via Hung’s unfortunate fate and that of others who have come out since.
However, here is the catch: There is absolutely no guarantee that the “extremely big change” will perform the miracles that are expected of it. In fact, as anyone who has worked in secretive government communities such as the military or intelligence will tell you, the introduction of external “meddlers” — and this is exactly how civilian prosecutors will be perceived — will likely make it more, not less, difficult to adequately investigate and try crimes committed in the ranks.
The reason is simple and often valid: Agencies involved in matters of national security are not, by their nature, altruistic, and will often refuse to share information with others on the grounds that doing so would compromise national security. The classification of information and the use of restricted areas by defense and intelligence agencies are enough to prevent access to individuals or institutions that do not have clearance, especially when they are civilians.
Such agencies are already parsimonious in their sharing of information with the arms-length (still internal) oversight bodies — military tribunals, review committees, etc — that have been set up to monitor their activities. Giving civilians the responsibility to investigate and try crimes will only compound the problem.
There will never be a guarantee that civilians will have 100 percent access to the material and evidence they need to investigate and try a case; historical precedent, including this writer’s personal experiences in the intelligence community, shows that perfect cooperation does not occur, and that institutions involved in matters of national security will be very selective in what they pass on to civilians.
What is worse is that, aside from not being given all the material, there is no way for civilians to know whether something (and if so, what) is being kept from them. In other words, they cannot know what it is that they do not know.
What has been hailed as a rare instance of bipartisan action in the legislature could end up ensuring that the people who are put in charge of investigating crimes in the military are unable to do so. Facing a mounting scandal, legislators and government officials were understandably compelled to do something, and the revisions to the code are just that — something.
However, this is not the remedy that the situation calls for. What is required is a thorough reform of the military court system and a direct assault on the longstanding practices in the armed forces that make abuse and corruption possible. Undoubtedly, doing so means tackling vested interests within an institution that civilians have always apprehended.
Yet if the rot that threatens to collapse this indispensable component of the nation’s ability to defend its way of life is to be cleansed once and for all, politicians and legislators will have to overcome their fears and do what is necessary. Half-baked measures adopted for nothing more than political expediency will not suffice.
J. Michael Cole is a deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.