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The Law of War Imposes Limits on Cyber Attacks Too

The principles of international humanitarian law (IHL) also known as law of war fully apply on cyber warfare, was the conclusion reached at a panel discussion on Applicability of IHL to Cyber Warfare, jointly organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Centre for International Peace and Stability (CIPS) at the NUST Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (NIPCONS), on April 8, 2015.

The panelists included Jamie Williamson from ICRC Geneva, Dr Tughral Yamin, Associate Dean CIPS, and Ali Sultan from Research Society for International Law.

Cyber warfare figures prominently on the agenda of policymakers and military leaders around the world. New units to ensure cyber security are created at various levels of government, including in the armed forces. But cyber operations in armed conflict situations could potentially have very serious consequences, in particular when their effect reaches to civilian computers. The panel gave an overview of the recent debates concerning the applicability and application of international humanitarian law rules on the conduct of hostilities to cyber operations. The panelists acknowledged the equally lethal impact of cyber-attacks as any other military act e.g. by tampering the supporting computer systems one can manipulate the enemy’s air traffic control systems, oil pipeline flows, or nuclear plants. Similarly, the potential humanitarian impact of some cyber space operations on the civilian population is enormous. 

The panelists were unanimous in their opinion that IHL must apply to cyber warfare and the principles of distinction between civilian and military targets must be observed. The lives of civilian must be spared and their livelihoods and the environment in which they live must be respected. Dr Asif Raza, Pro Rector Academics, and Dr Shahid Ahmad Hashmat, Principal NUST Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, also spoke on the occasion and stressed that there was no legal vacuum in cyber space and IHL were applicable whenever cyber-attacks were employed during an armed conflict. However, there were some grey areas that needed clarification with regards to the applicability of IHL in cyber warfare that needed to be clarified and debated upon at state level.

The panel discussion was well attended by representatives from the military, government ministries, think tanks, legal experts and civil society. The ICRC, in collaboration with NUST, is undertaking a series of expert level discussions on various contemporary issues faced in the implementation of IHL due to the ever changing means and methods of warfare to shape the policy debates and decision making at international level.

For further information, please contact:

Lieutenant Colonel Naeem Akbar, NUST – 0333 7204666

Najum Ul Saqib, ICRC – 0300 8529108


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