International armed conflict
Definition[edit | edit source]
|International armed conflict|
| even if one, several, or all of them deny the existence of an armed conflict. Some scholars have suggested that the fighting must be of a certain intensity before international humanitarian law (IHL) comes into effect, but the prevailing view is that any “resort to armed force between States”, however brief or intense, triggers the application of IHL. Furthermore, the law does not prescribe any specific form for the resort to force, so hostilities between the belligerent States may involve any combination of kinetic and cyber operations, or cyber operations alone.
It is unclear what effect cyber operations unaccompanied by any use of kinetic force would have to have in order for IHL to apply. Although it seems generally accepted that if cyber operations have similar effects to classic kinetic operations and two or more States are involved, the resulting situation would qualify as an IAC, the law is unsettled on whether cyber operations that merely disrupt the operation of military or civilian infrastructure amount to a resort to armed force for the purposes of IHL.
In the cyber context, States often act through non-State intermediaries and proxies. In such situations at the outset of an armed confrontation, the relevant State must exercise a sufficient degree of control over the non-State entity that commences hostilities against another State for the situation to qualify as an IAC. However, the correct legal test to use in this regard is the subject of an ongoing controversy. The prevailing standard for the characterization of an international armed conflict is that of “overall control”, which requires that the State provides some support and that it participates in the organization, co-ordination, or planning of the relevant operations. A separate standard, the “effective control” test, requires that the State must exercise control over the entire course of the operations in question. While there is still disagreement as to whether the “effective control” test is the controlling test for the purposes of attribution under the law of State responsibility, there is consensus that the “overall control” test is the correct one for conflict qualification under IHL. The latter is also confirmed by decades of consistent practice by international criminal tribunals including the ICTY, the ECCC, and the ICC.
National positions[edit | edit source]
"International humanitarian law only applies to cyber operations when such operations are part of, or amount to, an armed conflict. Most so far known cyberattacks have not been launched in the context of an armed conflict or met the threshold of armed conflict. At the same time, when cyber means are used in the context of a pre-existing armed conflict, as has been done in many current conflicts, there is no reason to deny the need for the protections that international humanitarian law provides. This includes that cyber means and methods of warfare must be used consistently with the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions, as well as the specific rules flowing from these principles. When assessing the capacity of cyber means and methods to cause prohibited harm, their foreseeable direct and indirect effects shall be taken into account. Constant care shall be taken to ensure the protection of civilians and civilian objects, including essential civilian infrastructure, civilian services and civilian data.
The unique characteristics of cyberspace, such as interconnectedness and anonymity, may affect how international humanitarian law is interpreted and applied with regard to certain cyber means and methods warfare. The related problems can nevertheless mostly be solved on the basis of existing rules. New technologies do not render the existing rules of international humanitarian law meaningless or necessarily require new legal regulation. Furthermore, while international humanitarian law is lex specialis in an armed conflict, it does not override other areas of international law, such as human rights law, which may continue to apply throughout the conflict."
Cyberoperations that constitute hostilities between two or more States may characterise the existence of international armed conflict (IAC). Likewise, prolonged cyberoperations by government armed forces against one or more armed groups or by several armed groups between themselves may constitute a non-international armed conflict (NIAC), where such groups show a minimum level of organisation and the effects of such operations reach a sufficient threshold of violence. They are generally military operations concurrent with conventional military operations: that is why it is not difficult to categorise an armed conflict situation. While an armed conflict consisting exclusively of digital activities cannot be ruled out in principle, it is based on the capacity of autonomous cyberoperations to reach the threshold of violence required to be categorised as such. Although virtual, cyberoperations still fall within the geographical scope of IHL, insofar as their effects must arise on the territory of the States party to the IAC and on the territory where the NIAC hostilities occur.
"Germany reiterates its view that IHL applies to cyber activities in the context of armed conflict. The fact that cyberspace as a domain of warfare was unknown at the time when the core treaties of IHL were drafted does not exempt the conduct of hostilities in cyberspace from the application of IHL. As for any other military operation, IHL applies to cyber operations conducted in the context of an armed conflict independently of its qualification as lawful or unlawful from the perspective of the ius ad bellum.
An international armed conflict – a main prerequisite for the applicability of IHL in a concrete case – is characterized by armed hostilities between States. This may also encompass hostilities that are partially or totally conducted by using cyber means. Germany holds the view that cyber operations of a non-international character, e.g. of armed groups against a State, which reach a sufficient extent, duration, or intensity (as opposed to acts of limited impact) may be considered a non-international armed conflict and thereby also trigger the application of IHL.
At the same time, cyber actions can become part of an ongoing armed conflict. In order to fall within the ambit of IHL, the cyber operation must show a sufficient nexus with the armed conflict, i.e. the cyber operation must be conducted by a party to the conflict against its opponent and must contribute to its military effort.
Cyber operations between a non-State actor and a State alone may provoke a non-international armed conflict. However, this will only seldom be the case due to the level of intensity, impact and extent of hostilities required. Thus, activities such as a large-scale intrusion into foreign cyber systems, significant data theft, the blocking of internet services and the defacing of governmental channels or websites will usually not singularly and in themselves bring about a non-international armed conflict."
"The basic principles governing the conduct of hostilities, including by cyber means, such as the principles of distinction, proportionality, precautions in attack and the prohibition of unnecessary suffering and superfluous injury, apply to cyber attacks in international as well as in non-international armed conflicts.
Germany defines a cyber attack in the context of IHL as an act or action initiated in or through cyberspace to cause harmful effects on communication, information or other electronic systems, on the information that is stored, processed or transmitted on these systems or on physical objects or persons. The occurrence of physical damage, injury or death to persons or damage or destruction to objects comparable to effects of conventional weapons is not required for an attack in the sense of art. 49 para. 1 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions. However, the mere intrusion into foreign networks and the copying of data does not constitute an attack under IHL."
"International humanitarian law is also applicable to cyber operations.
In situations of armed conflict, the methods and means of warfare used by the parties to the conflict are subject to regulations under international humanitarian law. This extends to cyber operations implemented by the parties to the conflict. Several principles under international humanitarian law, including the principle of humanity, necessity, proportionality and distinction, are also applicable to acts in cyberspace. In paragraph 28(d) of the 2015 GGE report, those principles are referred to as "established international legal principles." This reference, considered together with the fact that this report affirms the applicability of existing international law, can be interpreted to affirm the applicability of those principles. Meanwhile, Article 49 of the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions stipulates: "'Attacks' means acts of violence against the adversary, whether in offence or in defence." The Government of Japan understands that cyber operations that may cause the destruction or neutralization of military targets, for example, may also constitute "attacks" under international humanitarian law, depending on the circumstances.
In principle, the existence of an "armed conflict" is a prerequisite for the application of international humanitarian law. Under the Geneva Conventions, there is no particular definition of an "armed conflict," and therefore, whether or not a certain incident constitutes an "armed conflict" needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis, taking into account a number of elements, such as the manner of the actual attack and the intent of each party to the incident, in a comprehensive manner. If the effects of cyber operations are taken into consideration, the conduct of cyber operations alone may reach the threshold of an "armed conflict."
As affirming the applicability of international humanitarian law to cyber operations contributes to the regulation of methods and means of warfare, the argument that doing so will lead to the militarization of cyberspace is groundless. For example, cyber operations during armed conflict that cause physical damage or loss of functionality to medical institutions may constitute a violation of international humanitarian law16 and therefore should be appropriately regulated. On the other hand, modes of combat in cyberspace are different from those in traditional domains. Therefore, how international humanitarian law regarding, for example, the scope of combatants applies to cyberspace should be further discussed." 
Appendixes[edit | edit source]
See also[edit | edit source]
- Non-international armed conflict
- Scenario 13: Cyber operations as a trigger of the law of armed conflict
- Scenario 15: Cyber deception during armed conflict
- Scenario 16: Cyber attacks against ships on the high seas
- Scenario 18: Legal status of cyber operators during armed conflict
Notes and references[edit | edit source]
- Common Article 2 GC I (stipulating that the Conventions “shall apply to all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties”).
- ICRC (ed), Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention (CUP 2021), commentary on common Article 2, para 246 (‘Even if none of the Parties recognize the existence of a state of war or of an armed conflict, humanitarian law would still apply provided that an armed conflict is in fact in existence.’).
- See, eg, Jan K Kleffner, ‘Scope of Application of Humanitarian Law’ in D Fleck (ed), The Handbook of International Humanitarian Law (3rd edn, OUP 2013) 45; ILA Use of Force Committee, Final Report on the Meaning of Armed Conflict in International Law (2010) 32; Gary D. Solis, The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War (2nd edn, CUP 2016) 162.
- Prosecutor v Tadić (Decision on Jurisdiction) IT-94-1-AR72 (2 October 1995) para 70.
- See, eg, Jean S. Pictet (ed) Geneva Convention IV relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War: Commentary (ICRC 1958) 20–21; Yves Sandoz, Christophe Swinarski, and Bruno Zimmermann (eds), Commentary on the Additional Protocols of 8 June 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 (ICRC 1987) 40; René Provost, International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (CUP 2002) 250; Jann K Kleffner, ‘Scope of Application of International Humanitarian Law’ in Dieter Fleck (ed), The Handbook of International Humanitarian Law (3rd edn, OUP 2013) 45; Andrew Clapham, ‘Concept of International Armed Conflict’ in Andrew Clapham, Paola Gaeta, and Marco Sassòli (eds), The 1949 Geneva Conventions: A Commentary (OUP 2015) 16 para 38; ICRC (ed), Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention (CUP 2021), commentary on common Article 2, para 251; Noam Zamir, Classification of Conflicts in International Humanitarian Law: The Legal Impact of Foreign Intervention in Civil Wars (Edward Elgar 2017) 53–55; Kubo Mačák, Internationalized Armed Conflicts in International Law (OUP 2018) 15–16.
- Cf. Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons Case (Advisory Opinion)  ICJ Rep 226, para 89 (holding that the relevant rules of IHL apply “to all international armed conflict, whatever type of weapons might be used”) (emphasis added).
- Tallinn Manual 2.0, commentary to rule 82, para 11.
- ICRC (ed), Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention (CUP 2021), commentary on common Article 2, para 288.
- ICRC (ed), Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention (CUP 2021), commentary on common Article 2, para 289.
- For State views on this matter, see, eg, Finland, ‘International law and cyberspace: Finland’s national positions’ (15 October 2020), 7 (‘International humanitarian law only applies to cyber operations when such operations are part of, or amount to, an armed conflict. Most so far known cyberattacks have not been launched in the context of an armed conflict or have met the threshold of armed conflict.’); French Ministry of the Armies, ‘International Law Applied to Operations in Cyberspace’, 9 September 2019, 12 (‘Cyberoperations that constitute hostilities between two or more States may characterise the existence of international armed conflict (IAC)’); Germany, ‘On the Application of International Law in Cyberspace: Position Paper’ (March 2021), 7 (‘An international armed conflict – a main prerequisite for the applicability of IHL in a concrete case – is characterized by armed hostilities between States. This may also encompass hostilities that are partially or totally conducted by using cyber means.’); Japan, Basic Position of the Government of Japan on International Law Applicable to Cyber Operations (28 May 2021), 7 (‘If the effects of cyber operations are taken into consideration, the conduct of cyber operations alone may reach the threshold of an "armed conflict."’).
- See further Kubo Mačák, Internationalized Armed Conflicts in International Law (OUP 2018) 39–47.
- Prosecutor v Prlić et al (Trial Judgment) IT-04-74-T (29 May 2013), vol 1, para 86(a).
- See Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v US) (Merits)  ICJ Rep 14, paras 112–15; see further Kubo Mačák, ‘Decoding Article 8 of the International Law Commission’s Articles on State Responsibility: Attribution of Cyber Operations by Non-State Actors’ (2016) 21 JCSL 405, 421.
- Case Concerning the Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v Serbia and Montenegro) (Judgment)  ICJ Rep 43, para 405; but see ICRC (ed), Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention (CUP 2021), commentary on common Article 2, para 304 (arguing that overall control is the controlling test in both contexts).
- See Prosecutor v Tadić (Appeal Judgment) IT-94-1-A (15 July 1999) paras 120–121; Prosecutor v Lubanga (Pre-Trial Chamber 1) ICC-01/04-01/06 (29 January 2007) paras 209–211; Case No 001/18-07-2007/ECCC/TC (26 July 2010) para 540.
- International law and cyberspace - Finland's national position
- Ministry of Defense of France, International Law Applied to Operations in Cyberspace, 9 September 2019, 12.
- Federal Government of Germany, On the Application of International Law in Cyberspace, March 2021, 7.
- Federal Government of Germany, On the Application of International Law in Cyberspace, March 2021, 8.
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Basic Position of the Government of Japan on International Law Applicable to Cyber Operations, 16 June 2021, 6-7