It’s Time to Create a New Kind of Geneva Convention

Caroline Brandao speaking about the International Humanitarian Law at the Boma France Campfire. Credit: Boma France

Caroline Brandao speaking about the International Humanitarian Law at the Boma France Campfire. Credit: Boma France

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know exactly how many people died during a war. But experts have enough data to make pretty good estimates. During World War II, for example, somewhere between 70 million and 85 million people were killed. To put this in perspective, that’s roughly 3% of the global population in 1940.

In most modern wars, civilian deaths greatly outstrip the number of armed combatants killed. In WWII, there were some 45 million civilian deaths.

The International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is a set of guidelines that attempts to limit the impact of armed conflict. In particular, it is meant to protect individuals who aren’t participating in hostilities. The document consists of international state practices that are considered legally binding — it includes the Geneva Conventions, the Hague Conventions, and a number of other internationally ratified treaties.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the IHL doesn’t try to prevent war. Rather, it is a document that attempts to strike a balance between “humanitarian concerns and the military requirements of States.” Yet, it is far more than just a document.

At the Boma France Campfire,  Caroline Brandao, Head of the IHL Unit at the French Red Cross, described the IHL as though it were an entity in its own right, calling it a “living branch of law” that is “beautiful and alive.” According to Brandao, this is a creation that saves lives and restores dignity — that, if followed, makes it possible to “realize an impossible dream.” She called it a tool that could allow us to bring forth “a utopia,” a future that’s centered on humanity and justice.

In order to properly use this tool, however, Brandao stated that, like all entities, it needs to evolve.

“The scientific and technological progress of recent decades has made it possible to access new means and new methods of warfare,” she said, noting that many of these new technologies, such as drones, are already being used. These developments herald a break in the way that wars have traditionally been fought. As a result, Brando stated that the IHL needs to be expanded to account for these new forms of war.

One of the most immediate needs Brandao called for is a “digital Geneva Convention” that accounts for the rise of cyber warfare. This, agreement, she argued, it long overdue. To obtain the evidence needed to support her case, Brandao traveled back in time nearly a decade. “In 2009, a secret program was launched to sabotage the electrical systems and computer systems at the main uranium enrichment center in Natanz, Iran. The worm affected 45,000 computer systems, 30,000 of which were located in Iran. The other 15,000 impacted systems were computers and power plants located in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.” As is true of actions covered by the current Geneva Convention, a digital Geneva Convention could have helped prevent, or at least limit the ferocity, of this attack. 

Of course, this is just one of the ways that our regulatory frameworks need to be updated. Brandao stated that we also need to account for the increase and evolution of space technologies, artificial intelligence, and similar technologies.

Brandao asserted that these updates, coupled with the appropriate enforcement mechanisms, could help us move one step closer to ending war — if not for all, then at least for civilians.