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ICRC Humanitarian Law & Policy blog: Signalling legal protection in a digitalizing world: a new era for the distinctive emblems?

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Tilman Rodenhäuser, Thematic Legal Adviser, ICRC

Hollie Johnston, Senior Adviser, Australian Red Cross Society

Laurent Gisel, Head of the Arms and Conduct of Hostilities Unit, ICRC

Fabrice Lauper, Technology Adviser, ICRC

Larry Maybee, Legal Adviser, Australian Red Cross Society

The use of digital technology in armed conflict is rising sharply. Such developments come with risks, but they may also provide opportunities. For example, could new technologies help digitally signal that certain infrastructure and assets enjoy protection under international humanitarian law? For 150 years, the red cross and red crescent, and more recently the red crystal, have performed this function in the physical world. Would it be feasible, and advisable from a cyber-security point of view, to mark the digital assets of protected entities in times of armed conflict?

In this post, Tilman Rodenhäuser, Legal Adviser at the ICRC, Laurent Gisel, Head of the Arms and Conduct of Hostilities Unit at the ICRC; Larry Maybee, Legal Adviser at Australian Red Cross; Hollie Johnston, Senior Adviser at Australian Red Cross; and Fabrice Lauber, Technical Adviser at the ICRC present the main concepts and ideas of the ICRC’s research project on the digitalization of the red cross, red crescent, and red crystal emblems.

It is the third year of an armed conflict between the countries of Boronia and Banksia. As the sun rises, two Boronian F-15 fighter aircrafts fly over a city on their way to their pre-planned military objective. What the pilots don't know, however, is that operational planners have identified the wrong target. Instead of the military warehouse they thought they were targeting, the fighter aircraft pilots are heading to a hospital in Banksia, an establishment servicing a community of 55,000 people.

The pilots reach their objective, readying themselves to drop their guided munitions according to the pre-planned target list. Just before they do so, one pilot notices on the head-up display in her cockpit that the assigned target has something painted on its roof: a large red cross on a white background, about ten square metres. She knows that under international humanitarian law (IHL), medical establishments are protected from attack, and that the red cross is a sign of that protection. She immediately aborts the attack.

This fictional scenario demonstrates the importance of the distinctive red cross, red crescent and red crystal emblems in identifying personnel, units, establishments, and transports specifically protected under IHL.

Today, warfare is changing. Cyber operations have become a reality of armed conflict, and States are increasingly developing military cyber capabilities. Such developments come with risks, but they may also provide opportunities. For example, could new technologies help digitally signal that certain infrastructure and assets enjoy protection under IHL? What if the Boronians had aimed to deploy malware to disrupt a range of servers they thought were used for military purposes? Could there be a digital emblem, marker or signal indicating whether some of these servers enjoyed the protection for which the distinctive emblems stand?

The ICRC is studying this question with several partners in a research project on the digitalization of the red cross, red crescent, and red crystal emblems. The project examines whether and how the distinctive emblems could be used in the information and communication technology (ICT) environment, taking a critical look at the technical feasibility and protective value of marking the digital assets of protected entities in times of armed conflict.

In this post, we will present the main concepts and ideas that define this project. In two forthcoming pieces, the ETH Zurich Centre for Cyber Trust and Johns Hopkin University Applied Physics Laboratory will present various technical options from their research for marking the digital infrastructure and data of protected entities.

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