In context: With the internet permeating nearly every facet of our lives, cyber warfare has emerged as a significant tool for many rogue nations. While it is generally not treated with the same gravity as physical war crimes by human rights advocates, this stance could potentially evolve in the future, as suggested by a recent statement from the lead prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
According to Karim Khan, the top lawyer at the ICC, The Hague is poised to initiate investigations and prosecutions related to cybercrimes that breach international law. Although many leaders and security experts have long advocated for specialized laws to address cyber warfare, Khan believes that existing international laws are adequate for bringing cybercriminals to justice.
In a recent article from Foreign Policy Analytics (via Wired), Karim asserted that cyber warfare could have a profoundly disruptive impact on people's lives and could be employed to facilitate war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Furthermore, it could serve as a means to support physical attacks on sovereign nation-states, underscoring the need for international criminal justice to confront this escalating threat.
Karim noted that while there is no specific provision in the Rome Statute dedicated to cybercrimes, he also highlighted that the International Committee of the Red Cross has unequivocally stated that cyberattacks should exclusively target military objectives and not civilian installations such as power grids and hospitals.
For those unfamiliar, the Rome Statute is a treaty adopted by the ICC in 1998 to address four core international crimes, including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression.
Karim explained that his perspective on the gravity of cybercrimes arises from the fact that the lines between physical and digital battlefronts in warfare have long been blurred. The digital realm can generate "damage and suffering comparable to what the founders of the ICC sought to prevent." To tackle cybercrimes that harm civilian populations, Karim affirmed that his office will "collect and review" evidence related to unlawful cyber activities by nation-states.
Since the publication of the article, the ICC has officially announced that it will pursue prosecutions in cases of rogue cyber operations that contravene the Rome Statute.
In a statement provided to Wired, an ICC spokesperson clarified that these cases would only be addressed under "appropriate circumstances" and when "the gravity is sufficiently grave." However, neither Khan nor the spokesperson provided details on how this new policy might be employed to hold Russia responsible for its ongoing cyber attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.