Assessing the Impact of Novel Technologies for Humanitarian Protection in Armed Conflict

The digitalization of warfare proceeds quickly, as witnessed during the international armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020 or the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

A key question related to the increasing employment of digital technologies in warfare – artificial intelligence/machine learning, drones, swarms, or ‘human enhancement’ technologies – is whether the existing legal frameworks, including international humanitarian law (IHL), are up to the task when it comes to the efficacy of the law of armed conflict and the protection it affords.

Written by Dr Henning Lahmann, our new Working Paper The Future Digital Battlefield and Challenges for Humanitarian Protection: A Primer provides an overview of the various novel technologies that together form part of the ‘future digital battlefield’ and assesses some of the implications they have for humanitarian protection in armed conflict.

Guiding Future Research on Disruptive Military Technologies

Based on the discussions during a high-level expert workshop conducted in August 2021, the paper identifies five main aspects regarding humanitarian protection that merit further research:

  1. Threshold questions, i.e. whether existing IHL is applicable to the use of digital technologies that might violate the rights of protected persons and objects in modern conflict
  2. The ‘military surveillance paradigm’, i.e. the increasing use of personal data to train and employ systems utilizing machine-learning algorithms and other forms of artificial intelligence
  3. The increasing spatial and temporal dissolution of the conflict zone due to potentially global and constant effects of digital warfare technologies
  4. The question of the positive legal obligations states have to control and safeguard digital warfare technologies
  5. The overarching question, how accountability and responsibility of persons and states employing digital warfare technologies can be ensured.

Without attempting to provide definitive answers, the paper gives an overview of these issues and hints at possible legal solutions.

‘This paper frames the entire topic of our research project ‘Disruptive Military Technologies’ on a general level, identifies the most contentious legal issues, and thus serves as a very good basis for subsequent research we will carry out within this project’s scope’ explains Professor Marco Roscini, Swiss IHL Chair at the Geneva Academy.

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