In recent years, a wide array of new technologies have entered the modern battlefield, giving rise to new means and methods of warfare, such as cyber attacks, armed drones and robots, including autonomous weapons. While there can be no doubt that international humanitarian law (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.
With a view to contributing to the debates on the impact of these new technologies on humanitarian law and policy, from March to June 2014 the ICRC hosted a Research and Debate Cycle focusing on “New Technologies and the Modern Battlefield: Humanitarian Perspectives”. This interactive summary will guide you through the various ethical, legal, scientific, and military challenges posed by new technologies and the elements of answers given by experts, via reference documents, articles, blog posts, conference videos, interviews and more.
In Greek mythology, the parable of Icarus illustrates the human desire to always go farther at the risk of colliding with the limitations of our nature. It also evokes the ambiguity of our thirst for knowledge and progress. Icarus and his father Daedalus are attempting to flee their enemy in Crete in order to reach Greece. Daedalus has the idea of fashioning wings, like those of birds, from wax and feathers. Intoxicated by flight, Icarus forgets his father’s cautionary advice and flies too close to the sun. The heat melts the wax of his artificial wings, they crumble, and Icarus plunges into the sea and perishes.
The first successful motorized flight is credited to the Wright brothers. Their aeroplane, the Flyer, travelled several hundred metres on 17 December 1903, remaining in the air for less than one minute. The invention of the aeroplane then opened up enormous possibilities: the promise of eliminating distances between continents, countries, and people, facilitating trade and discovery of the world, as well as understanding and solidarity across nations.
While it took humankind thousands of years to make Icarus’s dream a reality, it took only a decade to improve aeroplanes sufficiently for them to be used for military purposes, causing immeasurable human suffering. The first aerial bombardment reportedly took place on 1 November 1911 during the Italo-Turkish war in Tripolitania. On 5 October 1914 a French aircraft shot down its German counterpart in the first aerial duel in history. A combination of new technologies soon improved bombing techniques and, in the decades that followed, torrents of incendiary bombs (incendiary weapons are now regulated by international law) destroyed whole cities, such as Guernica, Coventry, Dresden, and Tokyo. Icarus’ dream nearly led to humanity’s downfall when the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in the nuclear era (look at ICRC’s resources and positions on nuclear weapons). A little more than a century after the Flyer took off, drones piloted at a distance of thousands of kilometres are dropping their deadly payloads on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. It is also technically feasible to give drones the capacity to decide autonomously when to use their weapons.
A little more than a century after the Flyer took off, drones piloted at a distance of thousands of kilometres are dropping their deadly payloads on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.
Only a few generations back, people could expect to witness in their lifetimes one or perhaps two technological changes directly affecting their daily lives. Yet scientific and technical progress has followed an exponential, not a linear curve. We have no doubt reached the point where the graph of that curve is becoming a nearly vertical line. With each passing day, science exerts more and more influence over societies, even those farthest from the centres of innovation. Yet science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s observation is more timely than ever:
The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.
The dazzling scientific and technical progress of recent decades has given rise to unprecedented means and methods of warfare. Some of these new technologies (such as surveillance and combat drones) are already in use, while others (combat robots, soldier enhancement techniques) are still in the experimental and developmental stages (read the summary of the ICRC’s legal interpretation of such weapons). These developments herald the possibility of a quantum leap in the methods of waging war, for some technologies are not just an extension of earlier ones (such as faster aircraft or more powerful explosives), they can profoundly change the ways in which wars are fought or even disrupt the international balance of power. Four trends are indeed emerging that dissociate new technologies from conventional weapons: first, the automation of weapons systems (both offensive and defensive) and, as a consequence, the delegation of a growing number of tasks to machines; second, the increased remoteness of the attacker from the battlefield (Boothby article) which, linked to a third trend – progress with regard to the precision, the persistence, and the reach of weapons systems. New trends in cyber operations have led to a fourth evolution: the potential to use less and less physical and/or kinetic force to achieve equivalent or even larger effects. Considering such profound evolutions in the ways war is waged, one essential question is that of the adaptability of international humanitarian law (IHL). On the one hand, it remains fundamental to recall, as former ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger, Former President of the ICRC Jakob Kellenberger is a former Swiss diplomat and former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). reasserted as he opened the annual San Remo Round Table in September 2011 (Keynote address by Kellenbeger), that IHL has always developed in response to new challenges raised by novel weaponry, driven by the fundamental principle that the only legitimate goal in war is to weaken the military forces of the enemy (read the St Petersburg Declaration of 1868 which first mentioned the principle) and that, by necessity, means and methods of warfare were not unlimited. On the other hand however, one cannot ignore or underestimate the fact that new technologies are changing the way we think about going to war and the way we conduct war in an unprecedented manner, (read our interview with Peter Singer), which necessarily poses questions as to how IHL can respond to such changes.
The first aerial bombardment reportedly took place on 1 November 1911 during the Italo-Turkish war in Tripolitania. On 5 October 1914 a French aircraft shot down its German counterpart in the first aerial duel in history.
That said, the first and foremost question is to precisely define the means and methods covered by the term “new technologies”, which is the subject of impassioned debates among philosophers, legal scholars, and the military. This may appear futile, for the same reason as it may be vain to determine an exact date after which a technology can be considered new, since scientific and technical progress is, by definition, constantly evolving. The point here, rather, is to seek to identify general trends characterizing a number of technological innovations in the conduct of war – and, more broadly, the use of force – in recent years. What distinguishes drones, autonomous weapon systems, nanotechnology, cyberwarfare, and the like from the conventional means and methods of warfare used up to now? A panel of experts gathered in Geneva in March 2014 attempted to define the scope of the debate.
More generally, that panel addressed the legal and ethical challenges posed by new technologies, including the highly controversial questions of whether new technologies will (or already do) redefine the interpretations of the fundamental rules on the conduct of hostilities, or whether and how they will impact distinction, proportionality, precautionary measures. In addition, experts also addressed the blurred lines between the lawfulness/ethical acceptability of a particular weapon as such and the lawfulness/ethical acceptability of the way that weapon may be used. Indeed, while any weapon can be used unlawfully, only some cannot ever be used lawfully.
This inaugural discussion of the ICRC Research and Debate Cycle highlighted some of the most pressing questions, and covered a wide spectrum of technologies either currently used in war or being developed for military purposes. From the technical and ethical problems posed by remote warfare, to the questions of attribution and responsibility, scroll through the pages of this e-briefing to become familiar with the experts’ insights and to further explore these challenges.