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Present and future threats


When one thinks and talks about war today, the ever-emerging concept, almost a leitmotif, is the fight against terrorism - arguably the only topic of agreement among States. With the fast- paced emergence of new technologies which consequently influence warfare, international law and, more specifically, international humanitarian law attempt to provide answers to legal implications and regulation of their use in armed conflicts. New technologies, on the other hand, have also found their use in humanitarian work. An unfortunate trend today has regrettably been seen in continued violations and lack of respect of law of war with serious implications worldwide.

The world is going through a new period of reshaping. The influence of Western States is diminishing, 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.

New activists and solidarity networks are challenging the State’s omnipotence. New media can be used to foster cooperation, but also conflict. The mention of human rights in multilateral forums by some evokes distrust in others, for whom it is the reflection of a new imperialism. The only element on which there seems to be international consensus today is countering terrorism.

Today, new technology can be used for humanitarian work in various ways.

Meanwhile, 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 “identités meurtrières” (murderous identities).

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. The perverse use of these destructive actions for terrorist purposes has made the protection of cultural property a priority (though we should not forget that other cultural and religious treasures have been destroyed or damaged by the fighting in Yemen and Syria, far from international attention). Since individuals are vulnerable both physically and in terms of their cultural identity, according to Christiane Johannot-Gradis Christiane Johannot-Gradis, Traditions for Tomorrow Christiane Johannot-Gradis worked at the ICRC for many years as a delegate and jurist in the field and at headquarters. She also co-founded and co-directs an international non-governmental organization, Traditions for Tomorrow, which works to protect intangible cultural heritage in Latin America, in particular in conflict or post-conflict situations. , protection of cultural heritage becomes one of the central issues during armed conflicts. She reminds us that cultural heritage is both tangible and intangible and that the law which protects it is not limited to the law of armed conflict. 


In 2001, the Taliban destroyed the world's tallest Buddha statues, which towered over Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley for centuries. Today, they've risen again as 3D light projections.

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. States employ private contractors instead of conscripting citizens. Absent a desire for “perpetual peace”, 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?

Nowadays, aerial bombardment is carried out by States that are reluctant to commit ground troops in operations overseas. States’ hesitancy to put troops in harm’s way can lead to the use of weapons and tactics, such as remote bombing or indirect fire, that imply a tacit acceptance of increased civilian casualties. However, the recurring polemics over the civilian losses that these attacks cause show that perceptions of the acceptability of civilian deaths among the general public are changing. The study of aerial bombardment throughout the century is particularly revelatory, not only of the development of military technologies but also of the evolution of mass attacks against civilian populations. It is for this reason that Richard Overy Richard Overy, University of Exeter, UK Mr Overy is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Fellow of the British Academy and of King’s College. gives a historical perspective on the evolution of aerial bombardment since World Wars and puts in context the use of airpower in today’s armed conflicts.

Several phenomena appear 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. One very important question with emerging new military technologies is their regulation. According to Dr Rain Liivoja Dr Rain Liivoja, University of Melbourne, Australia Dr Liivoja is a Senior Lecturer and Society in Science – Branco Weiss Fellow at Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne, where he co-directs the Programme on the Regulation of Emerging Military Technologies (PREMT). He is also an Affiliated Research Fellow of the Erik Castre ́n Institute of International Law and Human Rights, University of Helsinki. , many international lawyers have examined the adequacy of existing legal framework to the use of new technology, but they did not deal extensively enough with the prior development of the law as a result of, or despite technological change. Additionally, what emerged as an important topic from technological and legal perspectives are autonomous military systems. For that reason, in his analysis, Tim McFarland Tim McFarland, University of Melbourne, Australia Mr McFarland is a PhD candidate in the Asia Pacific Centre for Military Law at the Melbourne Law School. He is undertaking his doctoral studies as part of the research team working on the Emerging Technologies of Warfare as a Challenge to the Law of Armed Conflict project. attempted to identify factors that will shape the legal implications of their use. He contends that the most challenging instances are those in which systems are programmed to “make decisions” that are regulated by law.

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. Furthermore, 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. Another problem currently being examined by the ICRC is the use of explosive weapons in urban areas.

<p>The city of Aleppo was populated by over 2 million people and has been under siege by several opposing factions in a brutal civil war since 2012.<br />
© Published under a <a href=Creative Commons license with attribution to Dylan Charles and

<p>The city of Aleppo was populated by over 2 million people and has been under siege by several opposing factions in a brutal civil war since 2012.<br />
© Published under a <a href=Creative Commons license with attribution to Dylan Charles and

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The city of Aleppo was populated by over 2 million people and has been under siege by several opposing factions in a brutal civil war since 2012.
© Published under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Dylan Charles and

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. Recently, in an unprecedented joint appeal, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Ban Ki-moon, Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is a South Korean diplomat who was the eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations from January 2007 to December 2016. and Peter Maurer Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC Peter Maurer has been President of the ICRC since 1 July 2012. In this position, his priorities include strengthening humanitarian diplomacy, engaging States and other actors for the respect of international humanitarian law, and improving the humanitarian response through innovation and new partnerships. , president of the ICRC, called upon States to use all the means at their disposal to ensure that parties to conflicts “respect the law”.


Ban Ki-moon and Peter Maurer issuing a joint warning about the impact of today’s conflicts on civilians, appealing for urgent and concrete action for addressing human suffering and insecurity. 31 October 2015, Geneva, Switzerland. © ICRC Photo Archives

International humanitarian law establishes limits in war. Wars without limits are wars without end. And wars without end mean endless suffering.

Peter Maurer