Looking ahead – the ICRC policy agenda in the UK and Ireland in 2021

Conflict in a time of Covid-19

The pandemic has stopped many aspects of life, but it has not stopped conflict, despite UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ repeated calls for a global ceasefire last year.

The UK and Ireland are both embarking on unprecedented vaccination campaigns in the race to defeat the virus.

We all hope that the vaccine will see life return to some semblance of normality in the coming year. But this race needs to extend to people in conflict zones – they must have equal access to the vaccine.

In 2021 the ICRC is appealing for CHF 2.3bn (£1.9bn) – our largest ever budget. It’s a sad reflection of the growing needs we’re seeing in conflict zones.

Part of what makes us unique is that we can reach places in conflict zones that are off limits to others. To do so, we rely on unearmarked funding, which ensures we can prioritise according to the humanitarian need.

Both the UK and Irish governments have been strong supporters of the ICRC in this regard.

We look forward to building on this invaluable support as we continue to make sure that people in conflict zones are not overlooked when countries are understandably prioritising their own.

Killer robots and the technological revolution

Autonomous weapons – or killer robots to use the vernacular – are often spoken about in the future tense. But autonomous weapons and artificial intelligence are on today’s battlefields, while nations are on the cusp of cyber warfare.

Take the recent Solarwinds hack as an example of cyber warfare. The attack, attributed to “nation-state actors”, can be viewed as part of the ‘hybrid warfare’ mentioned by General Sir Nick Carter, in his annual RUSI speech.

We have published numerous articles that set out our position on new technology in war and cyber warfare. This includes a comprehensive report on the limits we want to see applied to autonomous weapon systems.

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We acknowledge that there are undoubted benefits in the advancement of battlefield technology, for example, greater accuracy in weapon systems that should result in less civilian harm.

But at the root of everything is international humanitarian law – the rules that protect humanity in the darkest of times. Technology should not bypass these rules. Legality must be factored in at the development stage. This means we need to act now.

Data protection is another area of focus for us this year. On these shores, we may worry about what social media giants or Covid-19 tracing apps are doing with our data. The same data protection and privacy concerns apply in conflict-zones, but for different reasons.

New technology brings many advantages to humanitarians. It can be hugely beneficial in helping us to reunite families, for example. But acquiring personal data brings numerous risks.

As such, protecting people’s personal data is an integral part of protecting their life and dignity. This is of fundamental importance to humanitarian organisations and we will continue to raise awareness of this issue.

Enhancing respect for international humanitarian law (IHL)

The modern-day battlefield is a complicated place. Seldom are wars fought between two states. Instead, conflicts today tend to comprise multiple complex relationships between states and armed groups.

Why do we need to engage UK or Irish authorities on IHL? This is the ICRC’s bread and butter. But it’s not only to reaffirm their own knowledge, practices and standards, it’s also about their relationships with others.

The UK retains significant military power and a well-developed diplomatic ‘soft-power’. Much of its influence in conflict settings isn’t derived from direct military intervention, but rather from its position of supporting parties to conflict in various ways. All indications are that the forthcoming Integrated Review will affirm this approach.

Over the years, the UK has developed sound processes and mechanisms for making these ‘support relationships’ effective militarily.

The ICRC would like to see the UK continue to set the example in leveraging its considerable influence in these arrangements to better protect civilians, who are often exposed to increased risk of harm from support relationships in conflict. We are working closely with our counterparts in the UK armed forces to do exactly that.

Climate change and conflict

Of the 20 countries deemed most vulnerable to climate change, 12 are mired in conflict. Our goal this year is to push the cause of people in conflict-affected countries and ensure they are not overlooked by climate action.

The biggest opportunity is in November, in Glasgow, as the UK plays host to COP26. Heads of state, climate experts, negotiators and international organisations, such as the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, will get together with the aim of agreeing coordinated action to tackle climate change.

While people in conflict zones are among the most vulnerable to climate change, there is a gap in funding. A greater share of climate finance needs to be allocated to places affected by conflict to help communities adapt to climate change. 

Sexual violence in conflict

Despite clear legal prohibitions, sexual violence remains widespread during conflict. It has grave humanitarian consequences and is also on the increase, a cruel secondary impact of the pandemic.

It affects men, women, girls and boys, but is largely perpetrated against females, who are often least empowered to get help or justice amid a conflict.

It is our duty to reach survivors, do no harm in supporting them, and work with local communities and the international community to put an end to this hideous abuse.

The UK has championed the cause in recent years and this year Ireland will take up its seat on the UN Security Council, giving Dublin an influential voice in global affairs.

We look forward to constructive dialogue with both governments on tackling sexual violence in conflict.

Helen Alderson is the head of the ICRC UK and Ireland regional delegation

Source : Icrc