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Humanitarian perspectives on the changing face of war


This e-briefing is based on the editorial written by Vincent Bernard, editor-in-chief of the International Review of the Red Cross for the issue on “Evolution of Warfare”. Enriched with various multimedia resources, it looks at the evolution of warfare from the eighteenth century until today, by reflecting on some momentous historical events and various developments and innovations in the field of humanitarian action and law.

Armed conflict has been defined as “the logical outcome of an attempt of one group to protect or increase its political, social and economic welfare at the expense of another group”1. If this is true, one can conclude that humanity is far from finished with it.

Limiting the effects of violence means understanding and anticipating the evolution of warfare. However, 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. Our language seems to be incapable of conveying the reality we are faced with, and we see this in several ways.

First, while some are increasingly seeking to replace their soldiers with machines ‒ unmanned aerial vehicle (drones) or automated weapon systems – that can strike beyond borders, 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.

Second, 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.

Furthermore, 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.

Lastly, 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.

Yet while constantly changing, war also shows its old faces. The nuclear threat, remains a sword of Damocles hanging over humanity. Some States are reinvesting in conventional arsenals ‒ the navy, tanks or long-range artillery. As in the Middle Ages, cities are besieged in Syria and Yemen. 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.

The confusion surrounding the metamorphosis of warfare now also seems to be affecting the progress of the effort, which begun 150 years ago, to limit the effects of violence through international humanitarian law (IHL). There continue to be challenges to apply even the most basic rules, and sometimes even legal categories themselves are being challenged. 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. In this scenario, one is entitled to ask, as does Adama Dieng Adama Dieng, UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser on the Prevention of genocide Mr Dieng is currently a member of the Editorial Board of the International Review of the Red Cross. He held positions at the ICTR, International Commission of Jurists, was a UN Independent Expert for Haiti, and served as Envoy of the UN Secretary-General to Malawi. , special adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the prevention of genocide, whether we are witnessing an erosion of respect for the law. It becomes tempting to conclude that IHL’s relevance is declining today. On the other hand, in substance IHL has grown stronger, as evidenced by a range of new international treaties being ratified by States, international courts and tribunals producing judgments based on IHL, States and non-State armed groups being trained in the law and IHL being integrated into the domestic legal orders. Hence, the question is whether the grand design of developing a “universal law” to contain violence is failing.