Digitalization of armed conflict brings new threats for civilians

Digitalization of armed conflict brings new threats for civilians

A statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delivered by Chris Harland, Deputy Permanent Observer, at an “Arria-formula" meeting on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its impact on hate speech, disinformation and misinformation, New York, 19 December 2023
Statement 19 December 2023 United States of America

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In situations of armed conflict, access to digital technology, including that powered by artificial intelligence, can save lives.

For example, it enables people to seek information about where to find safety, allows them to contact and find family members they have lost contact with, and permits medical facilities to function.

Digital technology is used by humanitarian organizations and governments to assist people as effectively as possible. However, the digitalization of armed conflict also brings new threats for civilians.

What we observe today is likely foreshadowing the future: digital threats will become a growing concern for civilians.

The malicious use of digital technologies and the spreading of harmful information is increasingly destabilizing societies and aggravates vulnerabilities among the civilian population. Digital technologies permeate our lives and societies, and cyber and information operations are no longer abstract or "only online".

"Harmful information" includes that which physically or psychologically harms people during armed conflict, in violation of IHL or human rights law, or that is otherwise likely to have harmful effects on civilians. When rhetoric dehumanizing the civilian population associated with the opposite side is amplified, we also see significant humanitarian impact and long-term risks.

The ICRC has been flagging this trend on numerous occasions. In October this year, the ICRC launched a new report drafted by its Global Advisory Board on Digital Threats in Armed Conflict.

The report set out four guiding principles and 25 recommendations for belligerents, states, humanitarians and technology companies on the issues being discussed here today.

Allow me to highlight a few of these recommendations.

In armed conflicts, belligerents must comply with their legal obligations, and assess, prevent, or mitigate the harm that their operations may cause to civilians, civilian infrastructure and other protected persons.

This may be done, for example, through applying fine-grained geographic, temporal and system "fencing" of cyber operations. Belligerents must at the same time respect and protect freedom of expression and ensure the safety of journalists. Shutting down the internet can have a significant impact on civilian populations and should be avoided.

States should build resilience against digital disruption through cyber security and raise awareness of the legal rules on the protection of civilians that apply in armed conflict, especially among private actors. Societies should build resilience against harmful information.

When new rules and norms are developed, states need to build upon and not undermine the existing protections in IHL. Segmenting data and communications infrastructure used for military purposes from civilian ones is important, such as through separate data "clouds".

Disinformation and misinformation campaigns against humanitarian actors put those trying to help and those who need this help the most at direct risk.

States, and particularly their military and political leaders, have a critical role in the preservation of humanitarian space, and we ask your support to ensure it is upheld, even in most polarized crises.

Technology companies should take measures to detect harmful information that may exist on their platforms, in particular in relation to situations of armed conflict, and their policies should align with IHL and human rights standards.

Humanitarian organizations should prepare to be the target of harmful information that may affect their operations and reputation, and be prepared to respond appropriately, both online and offline. For example, following the breach of one of its databases in 2022, the ICRC has invested in enhancing the protection of its data.

Separately, we are engaging actively with cyber communities to disseminate IHL principles and their applicability in cyber space.

The ICRC welcomes further discussion on practical ways to reduce the impact of harmful information on protected persons and objects in armed conflict.

I thank you.