Technology, Humanity, and the End of War

by , , , | May 26, 2021

End of War. NH 58406: Surrender of Japan, Tokyo Bay, 2 September 1945.


The role of new technologies in targeting—including GPS-guided weapons, battle networks, collateral damage estimation methodology (CDEM), cyber, drones, and autonomous weapons—has been the focus of extensive analysis by security and legal scholars. But this scholarly literature has pointed almost exclusively at the use and effects of such technologies during hostilities, whether for targeting or protective effects. In addition, common perceptions about how emerging technologies may impact the conduct of war—whether a self-aware artificial intelligence (AI) making independent decisions or armies of autonomous robots waging a campaign—have dominated the discourse. But the transition from hostilities to the end of war is also critical and, if poorly-managed, can result in the failure of the overall mission. Although emerging technologies have significant potential to enhance humanitarian and security objectives at the end of conflict—just as they already do effectively in disaster management and relief—such opportunities have received little to no attention.

One underlying purpose of the law of armed conflict is to regulate and limit the effects of conflict to enable the warring parties to disengage and return to peace. In essence, a long-term benefit of the law’s detailed rules for the protection of civilians, civilian infrastructure, religious and cultural property, and the environment is to preserve conditions on the ground that make a more durable peace between the parties possible. New and emerging technologies offer untapped opportunities in this regard, particularly as a conflict winds down and as the complicated process of post-conflict peace restoration begins.

To that end, this post examines specific ways in which technology may facilitate the end of war and ease the transition from war to peace, while upholding key security and humanitarian objectives. And yet these capabilities are rarely prioritized in the same way as the tools of war. Governments and others should therefore make a deliberate choice to resource such capabilities.

Emerging Technologies: Not a Panacea but a Valuable Tool

In considering how technology can be used to meet overarching goals at the end of war, a critical first exercise is to ask: what key functions are needed?

Envisioning an AI that can answer questions such as “when should we end the war?” or “what should I do to help civilians?” is simply beyond the actual ability of the technology and does not accurately describe AI’s potential contribution. AI-enabled capabilities can be extremely powerful, as seen in widespread financial and medical applications, but they perform best at tasks that are narrower and specific, and where reliable and exploitable data are available and abundant. Other emerging technologies also offer discrete but consequential capabilities that could make a significant contribution to strategic and humanitarian goals as a conflict transitions from hot battlefield to post-conflict rebuilding.

To that end, and mindful of the speed at which emerging technologies evolve and the need to be constantly attentive to any underlying ethical or legal concerns, several current and emerging technologies are well suited to this task:

Machine learning tools to aid assessment and decision-making. Machine learning tools can help process volumes of data from a variety of sources (public and non-public, government and civil society), fuse information, and help identify patterns that may not be obvious to humans. These tools are not necessarily suited for making decisions; rather, they can help provide additional context and insight to inform human decision-making.

• Machine learning tools to optimize functions. Machine learning can also be used to solve specific complex problems, such as optimization of supply chain management, allowing more efficient and adaptive use of available resources. The same tools could be used to speed up the delivery of foodstuff and medical supplies in war-torn areas.

Blockchain. A blockchain is a distributed approach to securing transactions using computing power and exchanges between trusted participants, creating a secure, shared and immutable tool for recordkeeping between and among disparate entities. These exchanges are auditable, making this approach useful for evidentiary purposes. Within alliances but also between warring parties, blockchain minimizes misinformation, increases trust, and guarantees the validity and security of the information shared.

Autonomous systems and remotely piloted vehicles. Pilotless vehicles can provide capabilities such as surveillance or logistics with greater persistence and without risk to human operators. Unmanned air, land, or sea vehicles can access areas where communication is limited, manpower for manning the platforms is unavailable, or affected communities have become isolated (for example where roads have become unusable) as a result of the conflict.

Biometrics. Biometrics can be a powerful tool for providing humanitarian aid, with appropriate attention to and safeguards regarding data security and ethical concerns. For example, fingerprints, DNA, or retinal scans could be employed for registering displaced persons and finding more efficient ways to tailor and deliver assistance. Facial recognition software, in particular, may be used to identify victims, help families unite in the wake of the conflict, and enhance medical treatment by allowing medical teams to quickly access medical records.

This list is by no means exhaustive. However, it offers a set of tools to highlight and analyze how these advantageous and even unique capabilities could be leveraged to preserve public order, tend to affected populations, and stabilize the security environment across the spectrum of ending conflict, from preparing and then facilitating the end of conflict to supporting the restoration of peace.

Preparing to End a Conflict

Conflicts do not simply end. Rather, parties to a conflict look for opportunities to gain or solidify strategic advantage or to seize or even create windows for negotiation. The new and emerging technologies described above, among others, can greatly facilitate steps to prepare for the end of conflict even while hostilities are ongoing. For example, consider the need for an accurate, real-time assessment of the factual situation: If a commander does not understand the situation clearly, he or she may miss an opportunity for peace.

Autonomous systems and drones can gather credible information on damage in conflict areas and the movements of fighters and civilians, creating an accurate picture for decision-makers to consider. Machine learning tools can then analyze such data—potentially even in combination with data gathered from other sources—to inform military commanders and leaders in real time. Blockchain tools offer the means for verifiable communications between fighting parties, enabling greater trust in the validity and security of the information they share and the systems used to exchange and store communications. Blockchain also minimizes the disruptive impact of deep fakes, fake news, and other destabilizing misinformation tactics. Fighting parties who share a common picture of the conflict may then find it easier to initiate ceasefire discussions or peace negotiations. In many cases, both parties may have the impression that their military activities are successful in a particular region, but the truth may paint a picture of equilibrium, impasse, or significant failure, encouraging one or both parties to reconsider the continuation of military operations.

Similarly, where government neglect or inefficiency is a root cause of the conflict, providing much-needed humanitarian assistance may remove some immediate necessity for hostilities and encourage parties to consider ending the conflict. Humanitarian assistance can often be difficult or impossible to provide when hostilities are ongoing, but new and emerging technologies open a window to do so without putting humanitarian workers in danger.

Autonomous platforms with appropriate sensors can assist in locating and retrieving ordinance and mines without risk to humans. Third parties, including humanitarian actors, can also use emerging technology to gather information to facilitate humanitarian access, including humanitarian needs and the safest measures to provide assistance. Blood and other perishable medical supplies can be delivered by drones and other autonomous systems to areas that are otherwise difficult or dangerous to reach. Natural language processing and sentiment analysis can help identify the most critical needs. The use of the Whiteflag Protocol allows parties to use blockchain technology to “notify others of their planned and ongoing activities, for more effective aid and military deconfliction,” making it possible “to disclose valuable information real-time, such as emergencies and danger areas, to improve overall situational awareness.” Progress in these areas may encourage both militaries and civilian populations to be more amenable to shifting their efforts from fighting to restoring peace.

Facilitating the End of Conflict

Once hostilities begin to wind down, such technologies can also inform and facilitate negotiations, helping to establish the foundations for peace, no matter how tenuous. Beyond continued and further use of the technological capabilities mentioned above, the wide array of sensors and tools available to gather and verify data can create a consensus set of facts shared by the warring parties as well as third parties who might facilitate the end of conflict through negotiation and/or humanitarian assistance. For example, using drones to document situations in the area of conflict will provide negotiators with instantaneous “ground truth.” Biometric data will allow for a more accurate picture of the movement of refugees and others on the battlefield. Stationary sensors will enable verification of the location and movement of both military units and civilian populations. This trusted set of facts can then facilitate negotiations by ensuring that all parties are operating from a shared factual picture.

These same systems can also be promoted as means for the verification of ceasefires and methods to monitor future compliance with the provisions of a peace agreement. Stationing a drone over a contested area where a cease-fire has been agreed will allow constant monitoring and recording of any border incidents. In an environment marked by distrust and uncertainty, blockchain tools can ensure verification for the transfers of goods, services, and money and even the movement of people, and remote sensors can provide trusted sources of information. Biometrics can support demilitarization schemes and the return of displaced civilians by allowing individualized fingerprint, DNA, and retinal scan verification to confirm that groups and fighters have disarmed and that families are reunited. These technologies also serve as confidence-building tools to introduce the foundations for sustainable peaceful engagements.

Supporting the Restoration of Peace

Finally, a peace agreement or a mere cessation of hostilities is, while monumentally significant for ending conflict, only a step on the path to a durable peace. Countless steps remain to build and affirm the necessary trust between the parties, creating conditions on the ground for the safe return of civilian populations, and restoring or creating the capacity to promote public welfare and order. Once again, new and emerging technologies can help restore and sustain peace. Blockchain can be used to provide independent verification of collected data, such as date and time-stamped information on damage to buildings and communities, the location and disposition of displaced persons, the dispersion of unexploded ordinance and mines, and records of humanitarian violations as a step towards justice. Blockchain technologies can also facilitate communication between previously warring parties and others involved in sustaining peace by adding an uncontested layer of verification.

Machine learning tools could then help inform decisions regarding the most pressing needs for reconstruction and the management of scarce resources. Autonomous systems, especially important for work that is dangerous to humans, could collect information needed for machine-learning driven assessments for rebuilding, suggesting logistics paths, and identifying areas where reconstruction is needed. For example, in areas where significant destruction has occurred, the use of autonomous systems can enable analysis of road networks, assessments of structural integrity of buildings and bridges, and confirmation of terrain impacts without having to consider the limits of human safety. Biometrics can facilitate the identification and reunion of displaced persons with families as well as the identification of the dead. Nanotechnology and other sensors could be used to search for and facilitate the use of resources such as clean water and waste reduction or disposition, as well as in medical procedures. Virtual medicine, along with the use of drones to deliver perishable medical supplies, can help individuals injured during the conflict to recover more quickly and rejoin the workforce or otherwise reengage with society.

Accountability is an essential and challenging component of any transition and stable post-conflict environment. These new and emerging technologies can provide robust assistance to investigations and evidence-gathering efforts to support war crimes prosecutions and truth commissions. Beyond contributing to documentation and publication of potential war crimes, biometrics would assist in victim, witness, and perpetrator identification. And as noted above, blockchain could play a role in evidence collection by providing a trusted means for evidence verification and safe records of violations.

Reprioritizing the End of War

History is replete with examples of technology influencing the conduct of war, from the invention of gunpowder to the internal combustion weapon and nuclear weapons. In the past few decades, States and other parties have similarly harnessed emerging technology to field precision weapons and battle management networks. These recent developments have changed the character of war by allowing faster identification of military objectives, distributed functions contributing to targeting decisions, and more precise attacks on identified threats. Militaries around the world continuously seek to leverage technology, looking at artificial intelligence in particular to increase both effectiveness and efficiency in war.

Unfortunately, governments and militaries have not prioritized technological developments to realize humanitarian goals in war, focusing instead on capabilities that they believe will provide them with a competitive edge. The failure to channel emerging technologies towards humanitarian and security objectives is a costly omission: wars demand much blood and treasure compared to the relatively simple measures that can be taken toward sustainable stability.

Fumbling transitions from war to peace increase the risk that such peace will not hold, a tragic lesson that too often is not learned. Leveraging technologies at the end of conflict can enhance information gathering, alleviate harm, and enable sustainable and credible avenues for trust, security, and justice, strengthening a path to a durable peace.


Professor Laurie Blank is a Clinical Professor of Law, the Director of the Center for International and Comparative Law, and the Director of the International Humanitarian Law Clinic at Emory University School of Law.

Eric Talbot Jensen is a Professor of Law at Brigham Young University.

Dr. Daphné Richemond-Barak is an Assistant Professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, IDC Herzliya, Senior Researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism and Adjunct Scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point.

Dr. Larry Lewis is the Director of the Center for Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence at CNA.