In this PHAP Expert Legal Briefing, Naz Modirzadeh and Dustin Lewis, from the Harvard Law School Program on International Law in Armed Conflict, explored developments in technology, accountability, and international law pertaining to armed conflict. The background concern is that in war, as in so many areas, power and authority are increasingly expressed algorithmically. Advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics may implicate—and possibly transform—numerous aspects of armed conflict. For instance, increasingly sophisticated forms of technical autonomy may affect the conduct of hostilities (including the development and use of “autonomous weapons”). But they also might relate to other elements pertaining to war, such as guarding and transporting detainees, providing medical care, and delivering humanitarian assistance.
The presenters summarized a recent report from the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict. That report introduces a new concept—war algorithms—that aims to elevate algorithmically-derived “choices” and “decisions” to a central concern regarding technical autonomy in war. The report defines a “war algorithm” as any algorithm that is expressed in computer code, that is effectuated through a constructed system, and that is capable of operating in relation to armed conflict. Through the “war algorithms” lens, the presenters linked international law and related accountability architectures to relevant technologies.


Naz Modirzadeh Naz Modirzadeh is the founding Director of the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict (PILAC). She regularly advises and briefs international humanitarian organizations, UN agencies, and governments on issues related to international humanitarian law, human rights, and counterterrorism regulations relating to humanitarian assistance. For more than a decade, she has carried out legal research and policy work concerning a number of armed conflict situations. Her scholarship and research focus on intersections between the fields of international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and Islamic law.
Dustin Lewis Dustin Lewis is a Senior Researcher at the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict (PILAC). With a focus on public international law sources and methodologies, he leads research projects on the theoretical underpinnings and application of international norms related to contemporary challenges concerning armed conflict.

Event host

Angharad Laing Angharad Laing Executive Director, International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP)

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Target audience and event access

The Expert Briefings specifically target legal experts and humanitarian practitioners needing an advanced legal knowledge.

Further resources

During the event the following resources, websites, and videos were mentioned by speakers and participants:

In addition, the following courses were recommended in order to learn more about algorithms, artificial intelligence and machine learning: