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Conference cycle: New technologies and the modern battlefield

Events and highlights / Law and Conflict / Videos 7 mins read

Conference cycle: New technologies and the modern battlefield

New technologies and the modern battlefield: Humanitarian perspectives was a series of high-level public events and experts meetings coordinated by the ICRC on several continents throughout 2014.

In recent years, a wide array of new technologies has entered the modern battlefield, giving rise to new methods and means of warfare, such as cyber-attacks, armed drones and robots. While there can be no doubt that IHL applies to them, applying pre-existing legal rules to new technologies may raise the question of whether the rules are sufficiently clear in light of the new technologies’ specific characteristics and foreseeable humanitarian impact.

This conference cycle addressed the novel humanitarian, legal and ethical challenges posed by new technologies. Scroll down to access the wealth of resources generated by the series of expert panels.

Access the video playlist


Opening Conference: The challenges of new technologies

25 March 2014

This introductory panel addressed the various ethical, legal, scientific, and military issues that new technologies raise for humanitarian law and action. More specifically, the discussion started on the question of what the term new technologies really means, and why this has attracted so much attention. Experts then discussed the impact of such new means of warfare on IHL, in particular how the main principles regulating the conduct of hostilities have (or not) been reinterpreted and applied. The panellists also examined the relevance of international regulation, both from a legal and from an ethical point of view.

The event gathered military researcher Dr Roberta Arnold, GSCP fellows Dr William Boothby and Dr Nils Melzer, ICRC legal advisor Laurent Gisel, international law professor Marco Sassòli, and Emeritus Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Noel Sharkey.


Second event: Autonomous Weaponry and Armed Conflict

Thursday 10 April 2014

Held during the American Society of International Law’s (ASIL) Annual Meeting, the panel analyzed automated weapons systems through the lens of international humanitarian law, international criminal law, and international human rights law. The experts considered what legal and ethical limits, if any, should be placed on the use of automated weapons systems. They debated who should be held accountable for international law violations caused by automated weapons systems. The panel also explored the political and military advantages and disadvantages of the deployment of automated weapons systems, and examined whether there are ethical reasons to place limits on the use of automated weapons systems.

The event gathered chief engineer John S. Canning from the Naval Surface Warfare Center of the US Navy, UN Special Rapporteur and international human rights law professor Christof Heyns, Col. (Ret.) Dick Jackson from the US Army, Harvard lecturer Naz K. Modirzadeh and Prof. Markus Wagner from the University of Miami.


Third event: New Warfare Technologies, New Protection Challenges

24 april 2014

This humanitarian action webcast, co-produced by the ICRC and the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA), explored contemporary technological developments and discusses the resulting challenges that emerge for humanitarian protection.

The experts examined the following questions: To what extent have new technologies changed the way that modern actors think about conduct during armed conflict? What are the legal challenges and considerations that access to advanced technologies bring forth? How can and should humanitarian agencies harness new technology? How do new technologies influence traditional views and operational strategies for humanitarian intervention and humanitarian assistance?

The event gathered ICRC Strategic Advisor Claude Bruderlein, Human Rights Watch senior researcher and Harvard Law School instructor Bonnie Docherty, Prof. Michael Lewis from Ohio Northern University, Prof. Brian Rappert from the University of Exeter, Emeritus Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Noel Sharkey, and Dr Peter Singer from the Brookings Institute.


Fourth event: Internet in bello. International humanitarian law and cyber operations

22 May 2014

Cyber warfare figures prominently on the agenda of policymakers and military leaders around the world. New units to ensure cyber security are created at various levels of government, including in the armed forces.

But cyber operations in armed conflict situations could potentially have very serious consequences, in particular when their effect is not limited to the data of the targeted computer system or computer. Indeed, cyber operations are usually intended to have an effect in the ‘real world’. The panel gives an overview of the recent debates concerning the applicability and application of international humanitarian law rules on the conduct of hostilities to cyber operations.

The event gathered Netherlands Ministry of Defence advisor Duco Le Clercq, ICRC legal advisor Laurent Gisel, chief scientist Dr Herbert Lin from the China Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, research fellow Dr Xu Longdi from the China Institute of International Studies, senior research fellow Heather Roff from the University of Oxford, and Prof. Bradley J. Strawser from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.


Fifth event: Soldier Enhancement: New Technologies & the Future Battlefield

27 May 2014

Convened by the Australian Red Cross and the ICRC in Canberra, the panel discussed the legal implications of physical and cognitive enhancement technologies (such as the use of drugs to enhance or change cognitive function and combat sleep deprivation), DNA-hacking, gene therapies (“gene-doping”) and human-machine interfaces.

The event gathered UNSW Canberra lecturer Dr Ned Dobos, ICRC director of international law and policy Helen Durham, Group Captain Ian Henderson from the Royal Australian Air Force, and Dr Rain Liivoja from the Asia Pacific Centre for Military Law.


Sixth event: Technological Innovation and Principled Humanitarian Action

24 June 2014

Several organizations have introduced new technologies to improve their humanitarian work, whether in the realms of assistance (e.g. mobile cash transfers, GIS mapping), protection (e.g. collecting information on affected populations and on violations), and communication (e.g. social media). In some instances, new technologies have made it possible for affected communities to become active participants in the delivery of humanitarian aid. Although such an introduction of new technologies stems from a commitment to improve the quality and the extent of humanitarian activities, actors in this field need to be aware of, understand and prevent the potential negative impacts.

The event gathered the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies director Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, the International Review of the Red Cross editor-in-chief Vincent Bernard, senior advisor Lars Bromley from UNOSAT, David Ohiambo from the Kenya Red Cross, and ICRC deputy director-general Balthasar Staehelin.

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Closing conference: Challenges raised by increasingly autonomous technologies

24 June 2014

Jointly organized by the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland and the ICRC, this expert panel was dedicated to the victims of armed conflict, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the first Geneva Convention.

Although technological progresses have spurred the development of increasingly autonomous weapons, the precise delineation between an armed drone and a fully autonomous weapon system (sometimes termed a ‘killer robot’) is unclear. Armed drones are widely seen as the beginning of a trend that will lead to the use of systems capable of targeting and killing one or more persons with complete autonomy from human intervention. On the other hand, non-armed drones are used to assist humanitarian action in the field and unarmed surveillance drones are used for civilian rescue and law enforcement.

The panel explored the positive and negative impacts of autonomous technologies in the modern battlefield. While some argue that these technologies can enhance humanitarian protection, others see any benefits outweighed by the negative effects of increasing resort to lethal force with attendant “collateral damage”.

This closing conference gathered ICRC vice-president Christine Beerli, Geneva Academy director Prof. Andrew Clapham, Prof. Dario Floreano from EPFL, Maj. Gen. Adrian Foster from UN DPKO, satellite imagery analyst Josh Lyons from Human Rights Watch, OHCHR chief of the rule of law, equality and non-discrimination branch Mona Rishmawi, and Swiss ambassador Valentin Zellweger.


The main findings of this conference cycle are available as an e-Briefing on “New technologies and the modern battlefield: Humanitarian perspectives”.

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