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Cyber warfare and international humanitarian law
by ICRC & agencies
Cyber warfare and international humanitarian law, by Cordula Droege.
All over the world, policy makers and military leaders are considering the implications of cyber warfare. Cordula Droege, an ICRC legal expert, explains that the existing legal framework is applicable and must be respected even in the cyber realm.
What do you mean by "cyber warfare" and why is it of concern to the ICRC?
The concept of cyber warfare is somewhat nebulous and different people appear to mean different things when they refer to it. For the purposes of this discussion, cyber warfare refers to means and methods of warfare that rely on information technology and are used in the context of an armed conflict within the meaning of international humanitarian law – as opposed to the traditional kinetic military operations.
Similarly, such terms as "cyber attacks," "cyber operations" or "computer network attacks" have no internationally agreed legal meaning and are used in different contexts (not always limited to armed conflicts) and with different meanings. Let us use the rather broad term of cyber operations to refer to operations against or via a computer or a computer system through a data stream.
Such operations can aim to do different things, for instance to infiltrate a computer system and collect, export, destroy, change, or encrypt data or to trigger, alter or otherwise manipulate processes controlled by the infiltrated system. The technology can be used in warfare and, under certain circumstances, some of these operations can constitute attacks as defined under international humanitarian law.
Cyber operations can raise humanitarian concerns, in particular when their effect is not limited to the data of the targeted computer system or computer. Indeed, they are usually intended to have an effect in the "real world." For instance, by tampering with the supporting computer systems, one can manipulate an enemy"s air traffic control systems, oil pipeline flow systems or nuclear plants. The potential humanitarian impact of some cyber operations is therefore enormous.
Cyber operations that have been carried out thus far, for example in Estonia, Georgia and Iran, do not appear to have had serious consequences for the civilian population. However, it seems that it is technically feasible to interfere with airport control systems, other transportation systems, dams or nuclear power plants via cyber space. Potentially catastrophic scenarios, such as collisions between aircraft, the release of poisons from chemical plants, or the disruption of vital infrastructure and services such as electricity or water networks, therefore cannot be dismissed. The main victims of such operations would most likely be civilians.
* Below is a link to recent editions of the International Humanitarian Law
Magazine from the Australian Red Cross.


Engaging with Communities: The next challenge for peacekeeping
by Oxfam International
“Listen to us to protect us” war-affected communities tell UN peacekeepers.
New Report by Oxfam calls on UN missions to engage and talk with local groups.
UN peacekeeping missions worldwide – one of the key instruments to protect civilians trapped in armed conflicts - often fail to engage with the local communities they are meant to protect, according to international agency Oxfam.
In a report entitled "Engaging with Communities: The Next Challenges for Peacekeepers", the relief group says that the willingness to engage with communities and take robust action to protect them, vary from one missions to the next. The call comes as the United Nations is debating in the Security Council on November 22 around how best to protect civilians and improve its peacekeeping operations.
Oxfam says that due to a lack of clear guidelines, poor training and preparation of personnel, many battalions on the ground had different interpretations of what "civilian protection" actually meant and the ways to implement it.
"Still in 2010, after years of experience from Kosovo to Congo, the way the international community responds to the major trouble-spots is still inadequate. While the UN Security Council is prioritizing protection of civilians in their mandates, not all missions are doing it in the ground," said Kirsten Hagon, Oxfam"s Head of Office in New York.
"Communities are telling us that they want to talk and connect with peacekeepers. They feel at a loss as to why UN missions will talk to government officials but often fail to even sit down with them. Local communities are best placed to explain what needs to be done for them to feel safe. Peacekeepers need to listen to them."
Oxfam"s report is based on field research in DRC and southern Sudan and on Oxfam"s extensive field experience. Its findings are the result of interviews in southern Sudan and the DRC with conflict-affected communities. The aid group also conducted interviews with representatives of local and regional government, local NGOs, police, the military, as well as both representatives of peacekeeping missions, UN humanitarian programs and agencies.
"The debate at the Security Council on protection of civilians is an opportunity for the UN to give clearer direction to peacekeepers to engage with communities as an essential part of protecting civilians," said Hagon.
The report calls on simple and effective steps to improve the protection of civilians such as for missions to be results-driven, engage with local groups, boost the number of women in UN missions, improve patrols or to establish hotlines between communities and UN missions.
Hagon: "For any major emergency, civilians are always the ones that suffer the most. They bear the brunt of every single crisis. As UN missions aim to protect the families and communities affected by conflicts, engaging with them is the least they can do."

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