20 October 2023
In recent decades, civilians have become increasingly involved in activities closely linked to hostilities due to the ever-evolving nature of contemporary warfare. The initial findings of our joint initiative with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) indicate that the ongoing process of digitalization of our world has further accelerated this trend.
Today’s armed conflicts reveal a growing involvement of civilians through cyber and other digital operations. Civilians can directly participate in defensive or offensive cyber operations against specific targets. Alternatively, they can be indirectly involved through the deployment of bot programmes on external devices providing hackers (also known as bot herders) with remote control capabilities. Civilians will be often involved in armed conflict, either as part of a group – ranging from professionally organized groups to state-sponsored entities, criminal groups with varying degrees of internal organization, or loosely organized collectives – or as part of private technology companies.
These developments carry significant implications for civilian populations. They create confusion surrounding the identification of lawful military targets and entities that require protection against direct attacks. Consequently, civilians, civilian digital infrastructures, and services are at a higher risk of falling victim to erroneous, unnecessary, or unlawful attacks, or being subjected to other security measures. This in turn has consequences for civilians and civilian objects beyond those directly targeted, as attacks can pose risks to those relying on civilian digital goods and services, as well as those in proximity to the attacked digital infrastructures.
‘The ICRC is concerned about the growing involvement of civilians in digital operations related to armed conflicts. The more civilians take part in military operations, and the more civilian infrastructure is used for military purposes, the greater the risk of civilians and civilian infrastructure being targeted. ’ underlines Tilman Rodenhäuser, Legal Adviser at the ICRC.
Our recent expert meeting, conducted in collaboration with the ICRC, was specifically aimed at addressing the growing involvement of civilians in cyber and digital operations during armed conflicts. Over one and a half days, scholars, practitioners, and cyber experts delved into various aspects, including civilian cyber activities, the concept of 'direct participation in hostilities, limits on civilians' cyber activities under international humanitarian law (IHL), hacker groups in contemporary armed conflicts with discussions on their legal status and related state responsibilities. Additionally, the meeting addressed practical and legal challenges faced by technology companies operating in conflict-affected contexts.
These discussions form an integral part of our ongoing joint initiative with the ICRC on the digitalization of armed conflicts and contribute to the current analysis and understanding of how the law can play a role in mitigating the human cost of civilians' growing involvement in cyber and digital operations during armed conflicts.
Professor Marco Roscini, our Swiss IHL Chair who leads this research at the Geneva Academy, emphasized the urgency of the matter, stating, ‘This major issue is evolving very rapidly. Our aim, through our research and this meeting, is to assess the continued relevance of IHL in this context and to develop recommendations aimed at mitigating the identified risks and addressing new protection needs.’
The resulting report from this meeting, along with its executive summary, will be of interest to legal practitioners, scholars, political decision-makers, academics, researchers, lawyers, and technology experts. It will also inform the final set of recommendations emerging from this comprehensive research.
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Vance Culbert is a senior development and humanitarian professional who has managed operations for NGOs and UN agencies over the past twenty years. He just started as a Visiting Fellow at the Geneva Academy and will stay with us until the end of October.
This online short course focuses on the specific issues that arise in times of armed conflict regarding the respect, protection and fulfilment of human rights. It addresses key issues like the applicability of human rights in times of armed conflict; the possibilities of restricting human rights under systems of limitations and derogations; and the extraterritorial application of human rights law.
This project will explore humanitarian consequences and protection needs caused by the digitalization of armed conflicts and the extent to which these needs are addressed by international law, especially international humanitarian law.
The Rule of Law in Armed Conflicts project (RULAC) is a unique online portal that identifies and classifies all situations of armed violence that amount to an armed conflict under international humanitarian law (IHL). It is primarily a legal reference source for a broad audience, including non-specialists, interested in issues surrounding the classification of armed conflicts under IHL.