In this blog, Tom Ansell looks through an International Humanitarian Law lens at cutting mobile network and internet access, such as recent targeting of telecoms by the Israeli military during their ongoing retaliation against Palestinian people in Gaza. Whilst the cutting off of utilities such as electricity and water are considered to fall under a ban on collective punishment, International Humanitarian Law does not mention cutting off communication infrastructures. When we consider how vital phone and internet services are for human dignity, organizing relief efforts, and documenting war crimes or countering misinformation, it might be time to consider the deliberate cutting off internet and telecoms access as a breach of International Humanitarian Law and so a war crime.
During the Israeli ground invasion unfolding in Gaza, and the accompanying aerial bombing campaign, there have been widespread reports of internet and communications blackouts – caused by heavy and deliberate bombardment of telecoms infrastructure, and confirmed by the UN. Whilst slightly different compared to ‘switch offs’ by governments, and paling in comparison to the bombing of civilians, cutting off people’s (particularly non-combatants) means of communications and creating a ‘blackout’ is nevertheless an important and under-reported element of modern warfare. International Humanitarian Law (IHL), the so-called ‘laws of war’ which are made up of a number of legal conventions and treaties (most famously the 1949 Geneva Conventions, itself signed by Israel) and have been signed by most countries around the world, don’t mention preserving civilian communications.
So, considering how important mobile and internet access is not only for keeping in touch, but also coordinating societal responses to disasters such as war and documenting the associated chaos, should we consider telecoms infrastructure in a similar way to how we consider water infrastructure in war, as something off-limits for military targeting and thus protected?
Cutting off water, medical systems, and electricity are already War Crimes
During a war, an occupying power (i.e., the military or armed forces that has invaded) has several legal obligations set out in IHL. Breaking these are considered ‘war crimes’, and are punishable at the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal. Cutting off water, medical systems, electricity, food, aid, and unnecessarily targeting civilian infrastructure are considered War Crimes because they amount to ‘collective punishment’ of a civilian population. This is expressly forbidden by Article 33 of the 1949 Geneva Convention on Civilians – and since then there have been various updates and treaties that form part of IHL that also expressly forbid targeting or deliberately destroying ‘Objects Indispensable to the Survival of the Civilian Population’. These generally refer to foodstuff, water, and medical supplies (evidently vital to survival), and whilst telecommunications aren’t on the same existential level of food and water, with an estimated 6.7 billion smartphone subscriptions worldwide in 2023 (according to Statista), and the embeddedness of mobile phones in our lives, I’d suggest that smartphones have become indispensable to the survival of civilians in general.
Telecommunications and internet access is fast-becoming seen as a human right, too; closely linked to existing rights of Assembly, Expression, and Development. For example, in 2023 the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the UN said that “It may be time to reinforce universal access to the Internet as a human right, and not just a privilege” . Various countries around the world are also enshrining the right to internet access and connection in their laws, from its inclusion within the constitution of Greece , the Kerala High Court in India upholding access to the internet as covered by the right to education in the Indian Constitution, to Costa Rica’s Constitutional Court ruling that all Costa Ricans have the fundamental right to access information technology, especially the internet. Whilst it is true that Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law are different (for several legal reasons), IHL intends to protect the life and dignity of innocent people in war—meaning that there is at least a strong relationship and affinity in their intent.
Smartphones are vital for connecting and coordinating, especially in times of conflict
Let’s not forget that when we talk about cutting off all means of communication and access to the internet, we aren’t just looking at people not being able to contact their loved ones or the outside world (as bad as that is). People’s lives are put at risk by a ‘communications blackout’, because emergency relief is very often coordinated via mobile data and internet connections. When communications were cut off in Gaza on October 27, the Palestinian Red Crescent society reported that it had lost contact with its control room in Gaza, and that people were unable to call the 101 emergency number. If emergency aid organisations are unable to keep in contact with their staff, they can’t know if their staff are safe – nor can they know if their efforts to deliver food, medical, or other relief has been successful or needs to be targeted elsewhere.
A 2012 Save the Children report (completed in partnership with the Vodafone Foundation) makes it clear how important mobile phones are for providing information during a disaster. For example, after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, information messages were sent out via the mobile network ‘Voila’ by the International Federation of the Red Cross –95% of recipients said that the information they received was useful, and 90% said that the information they received helped them make a preparation or change as a result. And it’s not just information that’s sent through mobile networks, either, with emergency cash transfers often sent in this way.
We can see the value of access to mobile data in the current violence in Gaza (and previous instances too), with Israel apparently warning civilians in Gaza of impending military action or airstrikes by phone call or automated text message. Quite how these warning messages can be received without mobile network access, though, is an open question.
Documenting serious war crimes and countering false information
It’s certainly true that cutting off mobile communications and access to the internet is an act with fewer direct deaths and injuries than other more grave offences, yet having access to mobile data is important in documenting and ‘proving’ these other serious crimes. This has become extremely clear during the conflict in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion in February 2022, with the Ukrainian government even setting up an online service (‘e-Enemy’) for people to submit their pictures, videos, and messages that document brutality against civilians and other war crimes. This crowd-sourced evidence could prove vital in securing convictions for crimes should Russian military commanders or even politicians end up in front of the ICJ or a tribunal. And, as AccessNow warns, cutting off the internet could lessen the chances of Palestinians documenting serious war crimes. Allowing people to access social media and present their own documentary-style proof of their lived experience gives people voices, and also allows the countering of false and dangerous narratives with documentary evidence.
So, should cutting off the internet and telecommunications be a war crime?
International Humanitarian Law specifies a wide spectrum of ‘war crimes’, and whilst we often immediately think of the most grievous, any breach of IHL is a criminal act. Hence, and considering mobile connectivity’s important role in preserving human dignity, coordinating emergency aid response, documenting war crimes, perhaps the deliberate targeting of telecommunications should be included in the definition of ‘collective punishment’.
Image by Troy Squillaci on Pexels.
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About the author:
Tom Ansell is the Coordinator of the Humanitarian Studies Centre and International Humanitarian Studies Association.
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