War is the Enemy: An Open Letter to Digital Citizens

Along the de facto border between India and Pakistan lies Kargil, a small district in Kashmir, where, 21 years ago, an armed conflict led to horrible bloodshed. I was a month short of turning three when I lost my father, a captain in the Indian Army, to the Kargil War. As a child, you slowly come to understand the concept of living, breathing, and existing— but for me, confronting the reality of death came first. Through death, I learned the meaning of life. I was alive—I was here, but my father was not. The war took him away from me.  

The Oxford dictionary gives two different meanings of peace:

  1. “Freedom from civil unrest or disorder; public order and security
  2. “Freedom from anxiety, disturbance (emotional, mental, or spiritual), or inner conflict; calm, tranquility.”

In the study of international relations, peace is understood as the absence of war. The moment of stillness between one war and another. Meanwhile, war itself has evolved—it is no longer limited to physical battlefields—missiles, bombs and bullets. Now, nations can attack their enemies online—inflicting damage to critical infrastructure, government functions, and even healthcare facilities without necessarily incurring any repercussions. And cyberattacks can undermine the stability of Democracies and modern society—disrupting any sense of “freedom from anxiety.” The Internet—revolutionary technology originally designed to help us work, communicate, and live—can be turned against us. 

Armed conflicts have guidelines that protect civilians, and hold countries accountable for illegal actions— there is no corresponding unifying legal framework for cyberwarfare. On October 19th, the International Committee of the Red Cross published a statement to the First Committee of the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, emphasizing the risk state-sponsored cyber operations pose to international security and, most importantly, to people. The statement urged nations to restrict certain cyberattacks in accordance with international humanitarian law, especially during a global pandemic, when the world is even more reliant on digital connection. The UN Secretary-General has even created a roadmap for digital cooperation, in part, to assure that citizens worldwide are protected in the digital space. Despite this, cyberspace is still vulnerable and unprotected, which means we are vulnerable and unprotected.

With cyberwarfare the number of civilians directly impacted expands exponentially—it doesn’t just impact the nations directly involved in the conflict. Once a digital attack is unleashed, it can spread, unhindered, from nation to nation—and the technology behind it can be repurposed for future attacks. We’ve already seen attacks cause damage to critical infrastructure, including power and water facilities. Targets have included everything from governments and schools to NGOs and hospitals. Without action from our leaders, it will only get worse—the attacks more brazen—and the fallout could be devastating.

Many have lost their homes, homelands, or, like me, a family member to war.

The traumatic aftermath of war is felt collectively as a nation. We watch the bloodshed on our TV screens, keep count of the slain, and we rage. I looked for revenge—to get back at whoever had caused my mother to cry in our bed every evening as I tried to wipe away her tears with my tiny 6-year-old hands. My hatred grew, cemented by a simplified child’s understanding of our situation. The deeply rooted essence of my activism is a direct result of my evolution from that hate-filled child to the activist I am today, who believes that peace is the only way of healing.

It might have a new shape, a new form—but I recognize war and the devastation it can bring when I see it. We have an opportunity to protect tomorrow’s digital world—to stop cyberwarfare from jeopardizing our safety, our societies, and our future. We must not stay silent as the Internet becomes a battlefield—we must act now!

Written by Gurmehar Kaur, Digital Peace Now’s Global Ambassador