Skip to main content

Are we living through the worst period in history?

Analysis / Humanitarian Action / Review-related / Sexual Violence 10 mins read

Are we living through the worst period in history?

Sirte, Lybia, 17/08/2016. (R. Garcia Vilanova/ICRC)

Vincent Bernard is the editor in chief of the International Review of the Red Cross. This article is an adaptation of his editorial for The evolution of warfare, and is the first instalment of a blog series on the history of armed conflict and humanitarian action.


We are living through an age of pessimism.

The lack of stable livelihoods and the preponderance of unresolved conflicts have forced millions of people onto the roads or into makeshift boats, while rich countries close their borders. Radicals call for isolation from the rest of the world and, at the same time, for taking the fight to the enemy. The world seems to be entering a period of selfishness, of one-sided power grabs and of rallying around murderous identities.

Has the desire for “perpetual peace” gone? Are the rich and disillusioned countries resigning themselves to the idea of a “forever war”, carried out in a routine fashion by governments which have neither the will nor the means to solve the underlying problems? Are we, then, living through one of the worst period in world history?


Warfare in a connected yet divided world

For those who want to help limit the effects of violence, understanding and anticipating the evolution of war remains a necessity. But war has always been a chameleon – it is ever-changing, adapting to new circumstances and camouflaging itself in international relations, national security and political rhetoric. Today, once again, war has transformed and escapes easy delineation.

As the world goes through a new period of reshaping, the influence of Western States diminishes, while other States are coming (or returning) to centre stage internationally. The system inherited from the Second World War is being called into question, and new military and economic relationships are emerging, against the backdrop of shrinking natural resources. The mention of human rights in multilateral forums by some evokes distrust in others, for whom it is the reflection of a new imperialism. New activists and solidarity networks are challenging the State’s omnipotence. New media can be used to foster cooperation, but also conflict. The only element on which there seems to be international consensus today is countering terrorism.

In a connected yet divided world, the front is everywhere and nowhere at the same time; war is both omnipresent and absent. Cyberspace itself has become the symbol of a new, ill-defined battlefield, with no contours or borders. We are witnessing a resurgence of terrorist attacks that instantly transform vacation spots or cultural and commercial venues into scenes of war. In response, these attacks elicit the use of means and rhetoric of warfare against elusive networks, or rather, rhizomes ‒ for, like those underground stems, they spread, emerging to strike where no one expects them.


“The notion of heroism has been perverted by those who portray cowardly murders as so many glorious victories and proudly broadcast videos of their crimes on YouTube.”


While some armed forces are increasingly seeking to replace their soldiers with machines that can strike beyond borders ‒ be them drones or automated weapon systems – others are making their own people into human bombs let loose amidst crowds of civilians. The contrasting figures of the drone pilot and the suicide bomber undoubtedly represent the two ends of the spectrum of contemporary violence.

The notion of heroism, traditionally associated with obedience to a warrior’s code of honour, now seems either to be absent or to have been completely perverted by those who portray cowardly murders as so many glorious victories and proudly broadcast videos of their crimes on YouTube. Making violence into a spectacle, and spreading it through the media, has also become a remote-warfare tactic. The Taliban’s media campaign around its destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan foreshadowed its more recent demolishing of the historical heritage of Timbuktu, Mosul and Palmyra.

Another effect of technology is to give those who possess it options for low intensity warfare that cost far less than it would to implement real military, economic and political solutions. In the past, a “state of war” was formally declared and became the central concern of an entire nation until peace was restored. Now it is taking a new form in Western States. At once unending and unexpressed, it is brought to public attention only through sporadic attacks and ubiquitous security measures.

Yet while constantly changing, war also shows its old faces. The nuclear threat, to which the Review’s previous issue was dedicated, remains a sword of Damocles hanging over humanity. Some States are reinvesting in conventional arsenals ‒ a navy, tanks or long-range artillery. As in the Middle Ages, cities are besieged in Syria and Iraq. The civil wars in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo hardly involve new technology or heavy weapons, yet they are among today’s deadliest conflicts.


Dissonance between law and behaviour

The confusion surrounding the metamorphosis of warfare now also seems to be affecting the progress of the effort, begun 150 years ago, to limit the effects of violence through international humanitarian law (IHL). Indeed we are seeing repeated attacks on civilians, humanitarian aid and health-care facilities, along with the rise of identity politics and the ebbing of solidarity movements. Is the grand design of developing a “universal law” to contain violence failing?

Despite the prevailing pessimism, violence has continuously declined throughout history. The more violence decreases, the less tolerance we have for it, and so we persuade ourselves that we are living in the worst of times. The media play a contradictory role in this. On the one hand, they reinforce the illusion that we are living in the dark ages by focusing instantly and almost exclusively on disasters; on the other hand, they report on them, thereby urging us to refuse to accept the “horrors of war” as inevitable.

In view of the magnitude of such horrors in the past, it would be wrong to conclude that there is less respect for IHL today than before. In fact, international law has made impressive strides in recent years, particularly in the areas of arms regulation and international criminal justice. Paradoxically, IHL may even have emerged stronger from its challenging by those who derided it as obsolete at the start of the “war on terror”.

Indeed the People on War survey recently conducted by the ICRC have demonstrated an almost universal agreement the wounded and sick have the right to healthcare, and an overwhelming majority of the people surveyed reject attacks on hospitals, ambulances and health-care workers. (Yet the survey also reveals worrying views on torture and civilian casualties and suffering.)

If there is a problem with IHL, it is not one of erosion of substance, awareness or spread. Instead, it may be one of dissonance – between the rules of war on paper and actual behaviour on the ground, and between higher expectations of good conduct and the ways many wars are actually fought.


“Never before in history have we been so well informed about the suffering of victims. Never before have there been so many solutions for aiding and protecting victims of conflicts.”


This being said, several contemporary phenomena appear to us to be of particular concern for humanitarian law and action now and in the future.

Firstly, there is the problem of anticipating and regulating new military technologies. For decades, armies lived on the heritage of the Second World War, confining themselves mainly to modernizing the weapons of 1945. Developments in communications, cyber techniques, robotics and laser and nanotechnology portend not only new weapons, but also new tactics and new kinds of warfare. Some of these advances can lead to greater targeting accuracy and minimize civilian losses. Others, however, could unleash unprecedented tragedies – for example, through their indiscriminate impact.

Secondly, even without the use of new technologies, it is disturbing to note that the most basic rules of humanitarian law are so often violated in today’s conflicts, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, among others. The number of attacks against health-care workers and facilities in countries at war is a particularly striking illustration of this, coming as it does 150 years after the adoption of the First Geneva Convention, whose purpose is to protect the wounded and those who care for them in time of war. Despite this, we continue to see inexcusable sexual violence and terrorist attacks against civilians, despite the fact that these are some of the most basic prohibitions under IHL.

Finally, in view of these recurring violations, the question of the political will to respect and ensure respect for humanitarian law is particularly acute today. The achievements of international law in general and humanitarian law in particular must be preserved, and emphasis must be placed on ways of implementing the existing rules. This is the purpose of the inter-State process to strengthen the mechanisms of respect for the law, facilitated by Switzerland and the ICRC. After the International Conference at the end of 2015, States committed to continuing this work.


In our times, the temptation towards negativism and cynicism seems particularly appealing. But never before in history have we been so well informed about the suffering of victims. Never before have we had so many ways of connecting with one another and engaging in dialogue. Never before have there been so many technical and legal solutions for aiding and protecting victims of conflicts. Voices calling for more humanity in war are being raised far beyond humanitarian circles. No, this is not humanity’s darkest hour. Whether we condemn ourselves to perpetual war depends on our ability to make those solutions come to life.

More from this series:

The evolution of warfare: Focus on the law – George Dvaladze, 16 February 2017.

From ‘false news’ to ‘fake news’: 3 lessons from history – Audrey MacKay, 23 February 2017.


The evolution of warfare, IRRC no. 900

Evolution of Warfare, International Humanitarian Law, Humanitarian Action, ICRC, Red Cross Red Crescent, History

Photo © Australian War Memorial

On the occasion of the remembrances marking the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the Review asked historians, legal scholars and humanitarian practitioners to look back at this century of wars from a humanitarian point of view. The contributions collected in this issue illustrate the changing face of conflict by placing human suffering ‒ so often relegated to the backdrop of history ‒ front and centre. They also touch upon positive developments and innovations in the field of humanitarian action and law.


The evolution of warfare is available at


Share this article


There are no comments for now.

Leave a comment