PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Virtual military training and international humanitarian law

According to piece by Michael Peck at Wired’s Danger Room blog, the ICRC has been considering the international humanitarian implications of military simulation- and game-based training:

The International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Geneva, is pondering whether the violence in video games violates international law. Lest anyone fear that UN helicopters are going to swoop down and confiscate their PS3, ICRC spokesman Bijan Frederic Farnoudi emphasized that so far, the issue has only been a side discussion during a recent ICRC conference. Farnoudi says no formal ICRC recommendation is planned at this time, but the organization is contact with the game industry and will be publishing a Q&A on its Web site.

The ICRC discussion was spurred by the work of a couple of Swiss human rights groups: Pro Juventute and TRIAL, a legal organization that describes itself as putting “the law at the service of the victims of international crimes.” A 2009 report (.pdf) by these groups examined 21 video games, mostly first-person-shooters. They found numerous violations of international humanitarian, human rights and criminal law.

While the authors of the report say their goal is not to prohibit video games, “the message we want to send to developers and distributors of video games, particularly those portraying armed conflict scenarios, is that they should also portray the rules that apply to such conflicts in real life.”

But the more interesting question isn’t human rights violations in commercial games, but humans rights violations in Pentagon video games. As cash-strapped militaries switch from expensive live training to cheaper computer games, it is inevitable that accidentally or not, there will be a military training game that features illegal behavior (or behavior that some human rights group will complain is illegal).

When Danger Room asked about video games and war crimes, two U.S. Army spokesmen immediately reacted with laughter. And sure, the idea does sound ridiculous at first. But humor might be a just a little bit premature. Christian Rouffaer, head of the ICRC’s international humanitarian law and video games project, told Danger Room that while there is no law regulating military training methods, “a soldier trained on a computer or by any other means to shoot wounded enemy combatants would probably not be the only one to be prosecuted as it is primarily the responsibility of his commander to train, educate and to give him lawful orders.” In other words according to the ICRC, military training that violates the Geneva Conventions is still a crime — even if that training is virtual.

We’ve previously discussed the Pro Juventa/TRIAL report on PAXsims here.

Some of the comments on this at Wired are already suggesting that the ICRC is misguided (for example, “Did the IIRC hire PR folks who previously worked for PETA?,” “And Europe and the UN wonder why they are not taken seriously,” and “News flash, ICRC:  Video games are FAKE!”) However, I think it is important to underscore (as Michael does in the article) that the ICRC is only at a very preliminary stage in considering this. Moreover, the ICRC is absolutely right.

The observance of international humanitarian law is not just a question of the decisions taken by individual soldiers on the battlefield. It is even more so about command responsibility, and the obligation of military and political leaderships to make clear what is permissible and impermissible in the context of military operations. Training is a key part of this. If you want soldiers to make appropriate moral and legal decisions in warfighting situations, their obligations need to be clearly laid out to them. Moreover, it needs to be communicated that these obligations are imperatives, and are not to be forgotten when it seems convenient to do so. Integrating those lessons into regular training (rather than simply a brief humanitarian and legal obligations lecture alone) is by far the most effective way of ingraining IHL-compliant combat responses.

In my own brief experience of military service many years ago, it was clearly drilled into us that all conduct needed to be in compliance with international humanitarian law—and, what’s more, I was legally obligated to disobey an order from a superior officer if it violated IHL. There was no “I was just obeying orders” wiggle-room, or “it depends on circumstances.”

If my former drill instructor could make that point crystal clear, surely virtual, video, and game-based training ought to be able to follow a similar standard. We certainly wouldn’t tolerate law enforcement training software that implied it was OK to falsify evidence, or medical training software that encouraged medical students to violate the Hippocratic oath. Military training, real or virtual or otherwise, is the same—it is a simple matter of promoting and inculcating professional standards.

The ICRC, moreover, has a particular and generally recognized role in promoting and monitoring compliance with international humanitarian law. In flagging these issues, the organization is doing exactly what the international community expects of it.

(picture at top: the I-JTAC TRS Proof-of-Concept Dome)

UPDATE

Since the piece in Wired appeared, there has been some additional coverage of the issue that suggests the ICRC is interested more generally in encouraging game manufacturers to include IHL compliance in entertainment video games (see, for example, the report on Kotaku). This is a rather different issue than the use of videogames for military training purposes. However, popularizing issues of IHL by reaching out to gaming companies also makes sense, in light of the ICRC’s general role of promoting great public knowledge of the subject.

2 responses to “Virtual military training and international humanitarian law

  1. Major Tom 08/12/2011 at 4:27 am

    I totally agree. We should be setting an example.

  2. Brant 09/12/2011 at 12:44 pm

    it almost hurts to read some of the comments over at Armchair General

    http://www.armchairgeneral.com/forums/showthread.php?t=117094

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