Cyber operations have become part of armed conflicts, and the international community recognizes that the use of ICTs in future conflicts between States is becoming more likely. The ICRC is concerned about the potential human cost of cyber operations and has documented areas of particular concern in the past. In March 2021, States recognized that cyber operations may seriously affect civilian infrastructure and thus result in 'devastating humanitarian consequences'.
The ICRC urges States to work towards providing more clarity on the limits that existing rules of IHL impose on cyber operations. For the ICRC, there is no question that IHL imposes limits on cyber operations during armed conflicts – just as on any weapon, means and method of warfare used by a belligerent in a conflict, whether new or old. This view is widely shared among States. It is now critical for States to focus on the questions of how and when IHL – and especially its principles of humanity, necessity, proportionality and distinction – apply to cyber operations, as emphasized in a 2021 report by the UN-mandated Group of Governmental Experts.
As part of its mandate to work for the understanding and dissemination of knowledge of IHL, the ICRC has therefore launched this series of short papers on how and when IHL applies to the use of ICTs. These papers recall when IHL applies to the use of ICTs and provide explanations on the established IHL principles of humanity, necessity, proportionality and distinction.