Technology, human rights & the cost of war

has a very convoluted relationship with Human Rights. On one hand while technology allowed industrial scale slaughter, the advent of the digital and information ages starting in the 1970s had sharply reduced collateral damage in most wars fought by first world countries since the 1990s. This curve where the largely developed west is able to fight wars avoiding large scale civilian casualties has pushed the boundaries of law like never before.


To be clear much of what we consider human rights though aspirational and desirable in theory, tends to become high politics in practice. These laws are still an evolving field; when you hear “activists” yell “human rights violation” you had better take it with a large pinch of salt. At best these can be described as ideas that gain normative power because of their acceptance by developed countries that have great economic salience and tend to project power overseas with an irritating regularity. In these foreign jaunts – they have largely succeeded in reducing civilian casualties, but this is something that only a first world country can do. It requires enormously expensive equipment, insanely expensive training, and a high value addition industrial and educational infrastructure. This is an industrial and societal advantage that translates into a military advantage – essentially changing in the last decades the economics of war that had held true for the last 10,000 years. Consequently what is economically feasible for the developed world becomes enforced as law for the underdeveloped and developing world, which cannot absorb that economic or human burden.


As a simple example take the recent investigation of Israel’s campaign in summer 2014. One classic tactic that came in for heavy criticism, used by the Israelis to reduce civilian casualties is to call people in the building (usually a pre-identified Hamas weapons storage depot, though mistakes clearly do happen) on their mobile phones and tell them to leave in 2 minutes before blowing up the building from the air. Invariably they do leave and split seconds later the building is bombed by an Israeli plane. Sounds simple doesn’t it? In fact the logistics and cost of it are mind boggling – not just the direct costs but the hidden, indirect costs.

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Camilla Wood

UK based Legal Aid Lawyer

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