Contrary to the slogan of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, we are not condemned to be helpless witnesses to technological development. Scientific and technological development does not necessarily mean progress, and the decision to apply an invention for military purposes must give rise to an in-depth study on the impact of the use of the invention, including the positive and negative consequences thereof.
Likewise, each decision to produce, buy, and ultimately use one or another technological innovation for military ends involves a political and civic responsibility, one that is all the more important in that it has direct repercussions for human lives. Because if States have an obligation to ensure that the use of new weapons and new means and methods of warfare is consistent with the rules of IHL, the ICRC as well as civil society also have an important role to play. By reporting on the consequences of weapons and eliciting a debate about their legality, it helps to shape a real international “public conscience”, as referred to in the Martens Clause:
In cases not covered by this Protocol or by other international agreements, civilians and combatants remain under the protection and authority of the principles of international law derived from established custom, from the principles of humanity and from the dictates of public conscience.
The debate that the use of some new technologies for military purposes solicits within civil society and in scientific, military, and political communities should be seen as a positive development: it is a sign of our questioning the compatibility of these new weapons with our legal and moral principles.
Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms
Just as the Wright brothers could not have foreseen the full potential of the aeroplane, so the military possibilities offered by new technologies (and the unprecedented combinations thereof) remain largely unknown. This is why it is essential that States develop effective weapons review mechanisms and anticipate the consequences that the use of new technologies may entail. This should nevertheless not eclipse the fact that one of the greatest dangers to civilians and civilian infrastructure today comes not from new technologies but from old ones. The use of conventional rockets, mortars, bombs and missiles in populated areas has disastrous consequences. Only few nations today are capable of developing and conducting remote operations or replacing humans by machines. Legal and humanitarian research and analysis, as well as a constant and unfaltering dialogue with States, on the impact of all weapons shall remain an essential component of our work.
The ICRC, which has been present in the world’s conflicts for a century and a half, can unfortunately attest to that: contrary to the illusions about an unending ‘progress’ that people nourished at the start of the twentieth century, history has shown that science cannot be placed above its consequences.
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Last updated: June 2016.