Year Ahead – The Future is at the Edges: Essential Themes for 2024
2023 has witnessed in real-time, and often on social media, the brutality inherent in the conduct of hostilities. Faster visibility, endless opportunities for global communications, and algorithmic skewing expedite simple narratives with winners and losers, heroes and victims, rules or lawlessness. This oversimplification is seductive, proliferating, and can blur the edges of important international debates into didactic sound bites around what is right or wrong. From challenges to the confidence vested in the legal order to a range of technical interpretations of key principles such as proportionality, there is an even more pressing need for reputable platforms for robust discussion and debate.
Ensuring that there is space to engage in discussions around the valuable role international humanitarian law (IHL) plays will be even more important in the coming year. From encouraging a more nuanced examination of armed conflict through the legal prism rather than exclusively political, to raising the benefits of IHL to either help or harm pathways to peace (as the Australian Foreign Minister says “how we fight matters”), the thematic of the legitimacy of IHL should be on the agenda.
Going forward we will also need to move some of the formerly “edge” conversations and themes relating to IHL to the centre. How we frame and situate these conversations is critical, including how IHL interfaces with climate change, women and other minoritised groups, and technological advances. These are the topics we cannot afford to only add at the end of conferences, in footnotes, or at the edges of panels and discussions. There is too much interest, concern and relevance to get such issues right in our analysis of IHL provisions.
Climate challenges are, and have always been, existential to the security and survival of the human race. The environment is often portrayed not as a dominant factor in change, compared to the impact of war and revolution, but it has always been central. A recent and interesting example of this is the newly released movie, Napoleon. Overshadowed by narratives of the omnipotent man, the world’s largest volcanic eruption that nobody has ever heard of changed the climate so dramatically that food production in some parts of the world largely ceased. As a result, the global order changed in ways attributed to the battle-hungry Napoleon, when in fact, it was environmental factors at least as much as the Corsican man that changed the contours of Europe.
The importance of understanding the complexity of society by including the perspectives of gender, age, and disability, is also growing in recognition. There are louder calls today to unpack what the needs and consequences of armed conflict are on diverse people and communities. The credibility of IHL will be eroded if such themes continue to be deemed secondary. Fundamental aspects of international law require review to be more inclusive and protective. In the face of extraordinary budgets for defence in the face of a climate emergency, we need to bring back discussions of disarmament as well as mitigating harms of armed conflict. The implications of long-term harm to the environment in armed conflict need to be given greater attention.
We need to hold the nuance of a world that has always been complex, and encourage voices and perspectives previously left at the edges or outside the door with the common language of IHL. We need to listen to the experts and voices on climate change, gender, and technology. We need to find methods to bring back confidence in a system that adds value if applied and we need to find ways to listen openly to a diversity of views.
Dr Helen Durham is a global expert in international humanitarian law, humanitarian action and diplomacy.
Dr Kobi Leins is a global expert in AI, international law and governance.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Becky Vanshur