New York. The International Committee of the Red Cross acknowledged “the real and growing threat” posed by cyber attacks against civilian infrastructure in future conflicts and warned that they could risk a humanitarian crisis during a conflict, its president told the UN Security Council on Wednesday.
While the ICRC cannot confirm any cyber operations with human casualties, it is increasingly concerned about the destructive effects of cyber operations on a broader aspect of human lives with electricity being cut off and hospitals halting operations.
“I am addressing the real and growing threat posed by cyber-attacks against critical civilian infrastructure, and I call on you to prevent what some experts consider a ‘humanitarian crisis in the making’,” ICRC President Peter Maurer said in the video-teleconference presided over by Indonesia, who holds the Council presidency for the month.
“If hospitals cannot provide life-saving treatment in the middle of a health crisis or an armed conflict, the whole communities will suffer. If electricity supply is interrupted, there is a real risk that water, health care, and other essential services will be disrupted,” he added.
Maurer warned about possible cyber-attacks against nuclear facilities in the future that would bring “severe and widespread humanitarian consequences”.
He said the frequency of sophisticated cyber-attacks against critical civilian infrastructure is increasing and evolving faster than anticipated only a few years ago.
There is no evidence so far that could link cyber operations to conflict, but the use of cyber operations during conflict “is no longer a hypothetical scenario”.
“Over the past years, several states have stated publicly that they used cyber operations in military operations. As an increasing number of states are developing military cyber capabilities, the ICRC expects that their use is likely to also increase in future conflicts,” he said.
The ICRC has called on UN member states to “reaffirm and clarify the legal framework that protects critical civilian infrastructure” from cyber operations, in particular during conflict, he said.
“Cyber operations against healthcare facilities are unlawful and unacceptable -- in times of crisis, in times of conflict, at all times,” Maurer said, adding that there has been an increase in cyber operations against medical facilities during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Beyond health systems, there is a need for greater clarity on the legal framework governing cyber operations against critical civilian infrastructure -- water and sanitation systems, electricity supply, installations containing dangerous forces,” he said.
The new legal frameworks should improve the existing international humanitarian law that prohibits attacks on civilian infrastructure by all means and methods of warfare.
“There should not be any doubt on the prohibition to attack civilian infrastructure, to attack medical facilities, during conflict, whether through bombs or cyber means,” he said.
“As the president of a humanitarian organization whose work is critical to millions of victims of conflict around the world, I am acutely aware of the challenges in managing a safe digital transformation.”
“The ICRC congratulates Indonesia and its co-sponsors for continuing the important discussion on harmful cyber operations with the Security Council and other member states. Cyber-attacks are a known threat: now is the time for preventive action,” Maurer said.