WHEN THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT NEEDED HELP EXPEDITING HUMANITARIAN EFFORTS IN CENTRAL AMERICA, THEY CALLED THE U.S. ARMY JAG CORPS.
In the fall of 1998, Hurricane Mitch brought devastation to Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. For four days, the forces of nature combined to deliver over 80 inches of rain and sustained winds up to 200 miles per hour.
When this Category 5 tropical storm subsided, 11,000 lives were lost, billions of dollars in property were destroyed and the population was in shock. A massive humanitarian crisis was at hand and the United States government quickly responded with an equally massive relief effort.
How did multiple governmental agencies and the Department of Defense smoothly carry out such a relief effort? With the help of the U.S. Army JAG Corps.
The overall effort of the humanitarian mission was to help the Central American population recover from this catastrophe. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was tasked with distributing food, plastic sheeting, blankets, water, emergency health care and other emergency supplies to those in immediate need. In addition, search and rescue efforts had to be organized and carried out, and engineering/rebuilding support was needed to repair the devastated infrastructure.
The Army JAG Corps took the lead role in handling the complex legal issues involved in expediting such a large humanitarian effort. Among other things, the JAG Corps assisted with and advised on legal concerns in many areas of the law, including:
- International law
- Status of Forces Agreements
- Interaction with non-government and private voluntary organizations
- Interaction with U.S. State Department agencies and personnel
- Acting as a host national military base
- Diplomatic clearances
- Fiscal Law
- Foreign disaster assistance operations
- Force protection
- Coordination of U.S. personnel with host nation military personnel
- Legal assistance
- Civil law
- Administrative law
- Contracting with local providers for goods and service
- Foreign claims processing and settlement
- Information operations
- Public relations
- Military justice and Military personnel law
- Environmental law
When a mission of this size is undertaken, an extensive list of legal ramifications must be dealt with. As the U.S. Army has learned, long-term change — such as the clean-up in Central America — cannot be achieved unless it is protected by the letter of the law. JAG Corps Attorneys were instrumental in solidifying the positive change in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, and were proud to take part in it.
"Within 30 minutes from the time I stepped off the C-130 that flew us to El Salvador, my predecessor was briefing me and preparing to hand off the legal shop to me."
Captain Mark Hannig
JAG Corps Attorney serving in Central America from November 1998 to January 1999.