International Committee of the Red Cross
Address: 19 Avenue de la paix, 1202 Geneva, Switzerland
Stakeholder group: International and regional organisation
Established in 1863, the ICRC is an independent international humanitarian organisation headquartered in Geneva. It defends and promotes the respect of international humanitarian law (IHL) and is dedicated to protecting the lives and dignity of victims of war and to providing assistance. Along these lines, it cooperates with governments, the private sector, and other entities affected by international and internal armed conflict and violence.
Together with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and 192 individual national societies, the ICRC makes up the so-called International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
Digitalisation is increasingly present in the context of armed conflict and violence. On one hand, affected populations are in demand for digital tools, which humanitarian organisations need to provide in a responsible manner. On the other hand, states use cyber operations as part of warfare with humans affected by the consequences of such operations and other digital risks. To this end, humanitarian organisations also use digital tools to improve their operations. The ICRC addresses the implications of technology, which are multifold and range from data protection for humanitarian actions to the application of IHL to cyber operations in armed conflict. We host expert and intergovernmental discussions and have developed a number of (digital) tools to help improve awareness and understanding of IHL and relevant standards. The ICRC cooperates with other organisations on digital policy issues.
Digital policy issues
The ICRC has explored the impact of AI tools in armed conflict, in particular their use by armed actors. In a document titled Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in Armed Conflict: A Human-Centred Approach (2019, revised 2021), we argue: ‘Any new technology of warfare must be used, and must be capable of being used, in compliance with existing rules of international humanitarian law.’ The document touches on the use of AI and machine learning (ML) technologies capable of controlling physical military hardware. It argues that from a humanitarian perspective, AWS are of particular concern given that humans may not be able to control such weapons or the resulting use of force, and AI-controlled AWS would exacerbate these risks. The ICRC has urged states to adopt new international rules on AWS. The position paper also emphasises the potential for AI to exacerbate the risks to civilians and civilian infrastructure posed by cyber and information operations, as well as changing the nature of military decision-making in armed conflict. The ICRC calls for a human-centred approach to the application of AI in armed conflict that preserves human judgement and jointly with the United Nations Secretary-General, ICRC’s president is calling for establishing new prohibitions and restrictions on AWS. The question has been further explored in other reports, such as Autonomy, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics: Technical Aspects of Human Control (2019).
Cyber operations during armed conflict
The use of cyber operations during armed conflict is a reality today and is likely to increase in future. Through bilateral confidential dialogue, expert discussions, participation in intergovernmental processes, and constant monitoring and analysis, the ICRC is raising awareness of the potential human cost of cyber operations and the application of IHL to cyber operations during armed conflict. Our efforts on this matter date back over two decades. Ever since, the ICRC has held the view that IHL limits cyber operations during armed conflict just as it limits the use of any other weapon, means and methods of warfare in an armed conflict, whether new or old.
Over the years, the ICRC has been actively involved in global policy discussions on cyber-related issues, including those held within the UN (various Groups of Governmental Experts (GGEs) and the Open-Ended Working Groups (OEWGs)). In addition, we convene regional consultations among government experts on how IHL applies to cyber operations, and global expert meetings, such as the potential human cost of cyber operations and avoiding civilian harm from military cyber operations during armed conflicts. Our legal views on how IHL applies to cyber operations during armed conflict are found in a 2019 position paper that was sent to all UN member states in the context of the different UN-mandated processes on information and communications technology (ICT) security. The ICRC explores innovative solutions, such as a digital emblem, to protect medical and humanitarian missions in cyberspace.
Recently we have focused on non-state actors such as civilians and technological companies getting more and more involved in cyber operations. We first issued three documents. The first focuses on the growing trend of civilians at large getting involved in digital operations and the related risks. The second focuses on when might digital tech companies become targetable in war. And last and more specifically on hacking, we published a paper called 8 Rules for “Civilian Hackers” During War, and 4 Obligations for States to Restrain Them.
‘Protection’ in the digital agae 1The ICRC deals with privacy and data protection within its mandate and context of IHL. In this Atlas, following the Digital Watch Observatory taxonomy, privacy and data protection are part of the human rights basket.
Without undermining the positive impact technology can bring in conflict, including enhancing access to life-saving information and potentially minimising collateral damage, protection work must consider the risks in the digital age. In other words, it must encompass the protection of the rights of people when their lives intersect with the digital sphere. This question remains under-regarded and a blog post tries to shed light on this grey area.
The ICRC puts a special emphasis on the impact of misinformation and disinformation as they can increase people’s exposure to risk and vulnerabilities. For example, if displaced people in need of humanitarian assistance are given intentionally misleading information about life-saving services and resources, they can be misdirected away from help and towards harm.
Hate speech, meanwhile, contributes directly or indirectly to endangering civilian populations’ safety or dignity. For example, when online hate speech calls for violence against a minority group, it can contribute to psychological and social harm through harassment, defamation, and intimidation.
These issues have been tackled in a document we published in 2021 called Harmful Information.
Misinformation and disinformation can also impact humanitarian organisations’ ability to operate in certain areas, potentially leaving the needs of people affected by armed conflict or other violence unmet. When false and manipulated information spreads, it can erode trust within communities and damage the reputation of humanitarian operations.
For the ICRC, whose work is founded on trust, the spread of disinformation, especially where tensions are high, could quickly lead to humanitarian personnel being unable to leave their offices, distribute live-saving assistance, visit detainees, or bring news to people who have lost contact with a family member.
Ultimately, it is important also to note that information operations have limits under IHL!
Space systems have been employed for military purposes since the dawn of the space era. As the role of these systems in military operations during armed conflicts increases, so too does the likelihood of their being targeted, with a significant risk of harm to civilians and civilian objects on Earth and in space. This is because technology enabled by space systems permeates most aspects of civilian life, making the potential consequences of attacks on space systems a matter of humanitarian concern. Find out more in this blog called War, Law and Outer Space: Pathways to Reduce the Human Cost of Military Space Operations.
Privacy and data protection
The ICRC plays an active role in regard to privacy and data protection in the context of humanitarian action. It has a data protection framework compliant with international data protection standards that aims to protect individuals from a humanitarian standpoint. The framework consists of ICRC rules on personal data protection, which were revised in 2020 in response to the rapid development of digital technologies, while supervisory and control mechanisms are overseen by an independent data protection commission and a data protection officer. In 2019, the ICRC spearheaded the adoption of a resolution on Restoring Family Links While Respecting Privacy, Including as it Relates to Personal Data Protection at the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. In 2022, we pushed for the adoption of a resolution on Safeguarding Humanitarian Data at the Council of Delegates of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
Despite the wide range of data sources employed and dealt with by the ICRC, specific attention is dedicated to biometric data, which is often used in forensics and the restoration of family links. To manage this highly sensitive information and to ensure the responsible deployment of new technologies (including new biometric identification techniques), the ICRC has adopted a Biometrics Policy, which sets out the roles and responsibilities of the ICRC and defines the legitimate bases and specified purposes for the processing of biometric data.
Data protection is also addressed by the ICRC Handbook on Data Protection in Humanitarian Action. The Handbook provides suggestions as to how current data protection principles apply to humanitarian organisations and builds on existing regulations, working procedures, and practices. The second edition specifically provides guidance on the technical aspects of data protection by design and by default and covers technological security measures. In addition, through dedicated chapters, it addresses the potential and risks of digital technology such as blockchain, AI, digital identity, and connectivity for data protection in humanitarian action.
The ICRC has argued in favour of the digitalisation of the Geneva Conventions and on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of these very treaties and additional protocols, released an IHL digital app. The app provides access to over 75 treaties including the Geneva Conventions, and allows users to read through the content and familiarise themselves with the text. The ICRC has a number of databases on IHL, including its customary IHL database and the ICRC national implementation database.
Research and development
In 2022, the ICRC opened a Delegation for Cyberspace in Luxembourg, which serves as a safe and secure space to do due diligence research and develop and test solutions and ideas to prepare the ground for the support, protection, and deployment of digital services to affected people on a global scale. It will also further explore what it means to be a digital stakeholder in a manner compatible with its mandate; operational modalities; and the principles of neutrality, independence, and impartiality.
The ICRC’s Law and Policy blog provides a large number of short pieces on cyber operations, featuring tech expert, legal, and policy perspectives.
Online learning is also used by the ICRC to promote the implementation of IHL. In 2019, we launched an e-learning course entitled Introduction to International Humanitarian Law aimed at non-legal practitioners, policymakers, and other professionals who are interested in the basics of IHL. Other online courses are available through the ICRC training centre as well as e-briefings which are available in the e-briefing library.
The ICRC maintains an online training centre and an app with all ICRC publications in English and French.
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