New wars, new weapons—new challenges for the Red Cross
23 May 2019|

Seventy years after the signing of the Geneva Conventions, geopolitics has brought humankind to the brink of another arms race with new weapons and non-human combatants, a senior Red Cross official has warned.

Dr Hugo Slim, head of policy for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the conventions placed deep value on restraint and set important limits on the violence that continued to mark our species.

States must work together to protect the victims of wars and natural disasters, Slim said in a lecture co-hosted by the ICRC and the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

‘We need humanitarian multilateralism urgently today as geopolitics leans towards great-power contest and competition once again and as new technology sees us on the cusp of a paradigm shift in new weapons and non-human combatants.’

Slim said warriors and politicians must distinguish between combatants and civilians; protect civilians, civilian objects and the environment; attack or defend in proportion to the threat using reasonable force that does not impose unnecessary suffering or superfluous injury; provide or allow impartial relief to the wounded, sick, civilians and detainees; and treat all people in their nations’ care humanely.

Developments in warfare demanded new Red Cross practices, and political changes demanded a shift in its diplomatic practice. Decolonisation and liberation had seen more than 100 new states emerge. Some were now major powers and many were middle powers or small states with full-spectrum foreign policy perspectives and significant diplomatic capacity.

It was important for the ICRC to know them all, and its diplomatic expansion was a response to the increasing significance of Asian, Pacific and African states and their potential to be important partners in dealing with specific conflicts, or in global policy development.

States often had distinct and nuanced views on global issues which the ICRC needed to know and understand.

Slim said a new wave of conservatism was driving a rise of so-called ‘illiberal democracies’ and authoritarian governments. That required the ICRC to have a deep understanding of conservative values and to appreciate where conservative and nationalist ethics found common ground with humanitarian values and the Geneva Conventions.

‘The ICRC always needs to develop a meaningful humanitarian dialogue with new political movements of all kinds as they arise and engage in armed conflict. Our sustained dialogue with radically conservative Islamist and Buddhist politics in recent years is an example.’

Slim said the ICRC had to listen to conservative and nationalist political opinion in the same way it engaged with liberal democracy in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The shift from cooperation to competition among the world’s great powers, and the long-range risk of global conflict, required the ICRC to have especially close relations with these powers, their political and military establishments, and their humanitarian auxiliaries such as the Red Cross and civil defence and emergency management departments.

Another major change was the rise in the ‘coalition of warfare’, with diverse and complicated partnered operations between allied states and multiple armed groups, as a feature of war in the Middle East, North and West Africa, and parts of Asia.

Prioritising joint military policy, planning, training and equipping could ensure that all parts of a coalition respected international humanitarian law in equal measure.

‘Here we need Australian support whenever your military forces are part of a coalition’, Slim said.

The ICRC was especially concerned about the use of explosives with a wide impact in urban areas, and persistent attacks against healthcare facilities, staff and patients. It was working with states and armed groups to reduce these violations.

‘On both these humanitarian challenges … we need Australian humanitarian influence close to the ground whenever possible.’

Weapons shaped by new levels of digitalisation, autonomy, robotics and artificial intelligence were the hardest humanitarian challenge to predict because so much of their technology was unprecedented and speculative, Slim said.

‘We’re dramatically improving our understanding of new technology and are also thinking hard with others about the ethical issues arising in the use of new weapons—key questions of human control and the new “baked-in” risks and opportunities of high-tech weapons and AI.’

Any new weapon must still be designed with the ability to comply with international humanitarian law.

But, Slim asked, would humans always retain command and control of such weapons?

‘Will AI technology remain a weapon in the strict sense or become a deep-learning non-human combatant with ethical expertise and responsibility of its own?’

Weapons technology was moving extremely fast but weapons diplomacy was moving extremely slowly. ‘Alarmingly, but not surprisingly, the hot new arms race is accompanied by a negotiations freeze as several states want to get ahead before negotiating.’

Now, wars can last for decades with violence ebbing and flowing across a country, damaging health facilities, water and wastewater systems, schools and businesses, and leaving millions living in run-down areas. The ICRC has had to develop a combination of urgent relief and much longer term humanitarian investments.

‘In one place we need to truck in clean water and food. In another place, we need to repair electricity substations and high-voltage power lines, or maintain massive water-purification plants and miles of complicated urban water pipes. We are repairing schools, upgrading prisons and hospitals, and paying for health staff and water authority engineers.’

The World Bank and others were now funding this work in areas where people risked being ‘left behind’.

Millions of people in places like Mali, Somalia, Afghanistan, Myanmar and the Philippines lived the ‘double vulnerability’ of conflict and climate shocks. ‘We cannot just give people things that restore their former lives. We have to work with them to support their efforts at climate mitigation and climate adaptation.’

Slim said humanitarian assistance in armed conflict was learning fast from work in disaster risk reduction, and here the Australian Red Cross and many Asian states were experts.

Another big change was in the way assistance was provided. Western humanitarian action had deeply colonial traits from when it followed imperial power and had been dominated by the idea that ‘we help you’, Slim said.

Now people affected by conflict wanted to take the lead in the humanitarian response and that was an approach championed by the Australian Red Cross.

Finally, Slim said, it was vital to embed humanity in the hearts and minds of warriors and politicians. The Geneva Conventions recognised a state’s right to win in war. The principle of ‘military necessity’ ran alongside the principle of humanity to guarantee that victory had value alongside compassion.

Australia had a good record of holding both values in recent military engagements, and much of that success turned on the determined cultivation of operational virtues and ethical culture in its armed forces.

Virtue and character were the best generators of judgement, Slim said, and humanity needed to be imbibed and believed as a virtue in war.

This battlefield virtue was painful in that it must be based in a deep double conviction that humanity was right and that winning was right, and the knowledge that those beliefs would not completely overlap.

‘Sometimes it will be infuriating that you could not strike a dangerous enemy because too many civilians would have been hurt in the process’, Slim said. ‘Sometimes it’s painful that you had to strike and many civilians were hurt in the process.’

Politicians and military personnel were asked to make difficult decisions and military culture must be shaped to develop the virtue of humanity as part of warfighting, he said.

‘In this, Australian military training and reflection is some of the best in the world and has informed and improved the ICRC’s own understanding of how to develop the virtue of humanity in military forces.’