Aid Agencies Can’t Police Themselves. It’s Time for a Change

Written by

The spreading “Oxfam scandal” will affect the entire humanitarian sector painfully. It brings into plain sight what observers of the internal workings of NGOs have known for a long time: NGOs have an organisational reflex of banning outsiders from their kitchen, and keeping their potentially dangerous secrets hidden.

Abuses of power are common in any situation where vulnerable people depend on powerful service providers. But the key question that still haunts this sector is how organisations should deal with the rotten apples – the abusers of power. Even though Oxfam has taken earlier abuses and misconduct seriously, the organisation has acted alone and resorted to internal measures in dealing with the problem.

The case of the Oxfam country director hosting sex parties in the staff house in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake – perhaps it is only the tip of a rapidly expanding iceberg.

What matters is how organisations respond to such incidents. Have trespassers been sanctioned, and was the harm done redressed? Were the disciplinary procedures transparent, and have efforts been made to avoid the repetition of these events?

New Mapping of Children Affected by Armed Conflict

Written by

On February 16 to 18, decision-makers from all over the world came together to discuss current and future security challenges at the Munich Security Conference (MSC), which has become the major global forum for discussion of security policy. At the conference, Save the Children will launch its new report The War on Children: Time to End Grave Violations against Children in Conflict. The report is based on a new mapping of children in armed conflict conducted at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Our findings are quite alarming: we find that more than half the world’s children are living in conflict-ridden countries, and furthermore, one in six children live in close proximity to where the actual violence occurs.

Children are Hard Hit by Conflict

Children are often and severely affected by armed conflicts. We are constantly reminded of this through pictures and news reports from the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Nigeria, Yemen, and Somalia. The UN has defined six ‘grave violations’ of children in armed conflict. These include killing and maiming, recruitment of child soldiers, sexual violence, abduction, attacks on schools and hospitals, and denial of humanitarian access. In addition to being directly exposed to killing, physical harm, and illegal recruitment, children also suffer more indirectly from the consequences of war. Children living in conflict-affected areas often miss out on education, lack access to clean water, and suffer from mortality risks due to illnesses and malnutrition, or lack of vaccines and medical care such as basic maternity services.

The Knowledge Gap

Since the mid-1990s, the issue of war’s impact on children has been high on the international agenda. Despite this, we do not have systematic and detailed information on the numbers of children that are killed in armed conflict worldwide. However, we do have quite detailed information about where, within countries, that conflicts take place. Hence, we can say something more certain about the number of children that live in conflict-affected areas, or ‘conflict zones’.

Combining detailed information on the location of violent conflict events from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) and population data from CIESIN (2005) and the UN (2017), we have been able to estimate the number of children that live in close proximity (defined as 50 km or less) to where conflict events are taking place.

Key Findings

The main findings from our mapping exercise include the following:

  • In 2016, approximately 1.35 billion children under the age of 18 (59% of all children) were living in a conflict-affected country.
  • In 2016, approximately 357 million children (that is, one in six) were living in a conflict zone.
  • In 2016, approximately 165 million children were living in high intensity conflict zones, i.e. conflicts with more than 1,000 battle-related deaths.
  • The number of children living in conflict zones has been steadily increasing since the year 2000, although the number of countries with armed conflicts has remained quite stable during the same period.
  • Asia is the world region with the highest total number of children living in conflict zones.
  • The Middle East is the world region in which a child has the highest probability of living in a conflict zone.

Policy Recommendations

Our initial mapping of children in conflict-affected areas has several implications for policy and further research.

First, the actors who are actively working to address and reduce the impact of war on children need to support the generation of more systematic knowledge on the various ways in which children are affected by armed conflict, both directly – through killing and maiming, child soldier recruitment, and sexual exploitation, and indirectly – through adverse health effects. In short, more resources should be invested in generating and managing data related to children and armed conflict across time and space.

Second, there is of course an urgent need to protect the more than 350 million children that live in conflict zones today. Concrete recommendations in this regard include the following:

  • Supporting peacekeeping operations in conflict-affected areas.
  • Designing and upholding credible sanctions against armed groups in conflicts to prevent child soldiering and the use of sexual violence against children.
  • Increasing aid to conflict-ridden countries in order to rebuild infrastructure and health systems.

This blog post was orginally posted on the PRIO blog. You can read the full PRIO background report here. For a shorter overview, read our PRIO Policy Brief.

For more information, read Save the Children’s full report on The War on Children.

From Principle to Practice: Humanitarian Innovation and Experimentation

Written by

Humanitarian organizations have an almost impossible task: They must balance the imperative to save lives with the commitment to do no harm. They perform this balancing act amidst chaos, with incredibly high stakes and far fewer resources than they need. It’s no wonder that new technologies that promise to do more with less are so appealing.

By now, we know that technology can introduce bias, insecurity, and failure into systems. We know it is not an unalloyed good. What we often don’t know is how to measure the potential for those harms in the especially fragile contexts where humanitarians work. Without the tools or frameworks to evaluate the credibility of new technologies, it’s hard for humanitarians to know whether they’re having the intended impact and to assess the potential for harm. Introducing untested technologies into unstable environments raises an essential question: When is humanitarian innovation actually human subjects experimentation?

Humanitarians’ use of new technologies (including biometric identification to register refugees for relief, commercial drones to deliver cargo in difficult areas, and big data-fueled algorithms to predict the spread of disease) increasingly looks like the type of experimentation that drove the creation of human subjects research rules in the mid-20th century. In both examples, Western interests used untested approaches on African and Asian populations with limited consent and even less recourse. Today’s digital humanitarians may be innovators, but each new technology raises the specter of new harms, including biasing public resources with predictions over needs assessment, introducing coordination and practical failures through unique indicators and incompatible databases, and significant legal risks to both humanitarians and their growing list of partners.

For example, one popular humanitarian innovation uses big data and algorithms to build predictive epidemiological models. In the immediate aftermath of the late 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, a range of humanitarian, academic, and technology organizations called for access to mobile network operators’ databases to track and model the disease. Several organizations got access to those databases—which, it turns out, was both illegal and ineffective. It violated the privacy of millions of people in contravention of domestic regulation, regional conventions, and international law. Ebola was a hemorrhagic fever, which requires the exchange of fluids to transmit—a behavior that isn’t represented in call detail records. More importantly, the resources that should have gone into saving lives and building the facilities necessary to treat the disease instead went to technology.

Without functioning infrastructure, institutions, or systems to coordinate communication, technology fails just like anything else. And yet these are exactly the contexts in which humanitarian innovation organizations introduce technology, often without the tools to measure, monitor, or correct the failures that result. In many cases, these failures are endured by populations already under tremendous hardship, with few ways to hold humanitarians accountable.

Humanitarians need both an ethical and evidence-driven human experimentation framework for new technologies. They need a structure parallel to the guidelines created in medicine, which put in place a number of practical, ethical, and legal requirements for developing and applying new scientific advancements to human populations.

The Medical Model

“Human subjects research,” the term of art for human experimentation, comes from medicine, though it is increasingly applied across disciplines. Medicine created some of the first ethical codes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but the modern era of human subject research protections started in the aftermath of World War II, evolving with the Helsinki Declaration (1975), the Belmont Report (1978), and the Common Rule (1981). These rules established proportionality, informed consent, and ongoing due process as conditions of legal human subjects research. Proportionality refers to the idea that an experiment should balance the potential harms with the potential benefit to participants. Informed consent in human subjects research requires that subjects understand the context and the process of the experiment prior to agreeing to participate. And due process, here, refers to a bundle of principles, including assessing subjects’ need “equally,” subjects’ ability to quit a study, and the continuous assessment of whether an experiment balances methods with the potential outcomes.

These standards defined the practice of human subjects research for the much of the rest of the world and are essential for protecting populations from mistreatment by experimenters who undervalue their well-being. But they come from the medical industry, which relies on a lot of established infrastructure that less-defined industries, such as technology and humanitarianism, lack, which limits their applicability.

The medical community’s human subjects research rules clearly differentiate between research and practice based on the intention of the researcher or practitioner. If the goal is to learn, an intervention is research. If the goal is to help the subject, it’s practice. Because it comes from science, human subjects research law doesn’t contemplate that an activity would use a method without researching it first. The distinction between research and practice has always been controversial, but it gets especially blurry when applied to humanitarian innovation, where the intention is both to learn and to help affected populations.

The Belmont Report, a summary of ethical principles and guidelines for human subject research, defines practice as “designed solely to enhance the well-being of a client or patient and that have a reasonable expectation of success,” (emphasis added). This differs from humanitarian practice in two major ways: First, there is no direct fiduciary relationship between humanitarians and those they serve, and so humanitarians may prioritize groups or collective well-being over the interests of individuals. Second, humanitarians have no way to evaluate the reasonableness of their expectation of success. In other words, the assumptions embedded in human subjects research protections don’t clearly map to the relationships or activities involved in humanitarian response. As a result, these conventions offer humanitarian organizations neither clear guidance nor the types of protections that exist for well-regulated industrial experimentation.

In addition, human subjects research rules are set up so that interventions are judged on their potential for impact. Essentially, the higher the potential for impact on human lives, the more important it is to get informed consent, have ethical review, and for subjects to extricate themselves from the experiment. Unfortunately, in humanitarian response, the impacts are always high, and it’s almost impossible to isolate the effects generated by a single technology or intervention. Even where establishing consent is possible, disasters don’t lend themselves to consent frameworks, because refusing to participate can mean refusing life-saving assistance. In law, consent agreements made under life-threatening circumstances are called contracts of adhesion and aren’t valid. The result is that humanitarian innovation faces fundamental challenges in knowing how to deploy ethical experimentation frameworks and in implementing the protections they require.

First Steps

The good news is that existing legal and ethical frameworks lay a strong foundation. As Jacob Metcalf and Kate Crawford lay out in a 2016 paper, there are significant enough similarities between biomedical and big data research to develop new human subjects research rules. This January, the United States expanded the purview of the Common Rule to govern human subjects research funded by 16 federal departments and agencies. Despite their gaps, human subjects research laws go a long way toward establishing legally significant requirements for consent, proportionality, and due process—even if they don’t yet directly address humanitarian organizations.

Human rights-based approaches such as the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Signal Code go further, adapting human rights to digital humanitarian practice. But, like most rights frameworks, it relies on public infrastructure to ratify, harmonize, and operationalize. There are proactive efforts to set industry-focused standards and guidelines, such as the World Humanitarian Summit’s Principles for Ethical Humanitarian Innovation and the Digital Impact Alliance’s Principles for Digital Development. And, of course, there are technology-centric efforts beginning to establish ethical use standards for specific technologies—like biometric identification, drone, and big data—that offer specific guidance but include incentives that may not be relevant in the humanitarian context.

That said, principles aren’t enough—we’re now getting to the hard part: building systems that actualize and operationalize our values. We don’t need to decide the boundaries of innovation or humanitarianism as industries to begin developing standards of practice. We don’t need to ratify an international convention on technology use to begin improving procurement requirements, developing common indicators of success for technology use, or establishing research centers capable of testing for applicability of new approaches to difficult and unstable environments. A wide range of industries are beginning to invest in legal, organizational, and technological approaches to building trust—all of which offer additional, practical steps forward.

For humanitarians, as always, the stakes are high. The mandate to intervene comes with the responsibility to know how to do better. Humanitarians hold themselves and their work to a higher standard than almost any other field in the world. They must now apply the same rigor to the technologies and tools they use.


This post originally appeared on the blog of Stanford Social Innovation Review.

End impunity! Reducing conflict-related sexual violence to a problem of law

Written by

In our recent article, End impunity! Reducing conflict-related sexual violence to a problem of law, we question the taken-for-granted center-stage position of international criminal justice in international policy responses to conflict-related sexual violence. We address how central policy and advocacy actors explain such violence and its consequences for targeted individuals in order to promote and strengthen the fight against impunity. With the help of apt analytical tools provided by framing theory, we show how the UN Security Council and Human Rights Watch construct a simplistic understanding of conflict-related sexual violence in order to get their message and call for action across to wider audiences and constituencies – including a clear and short causal chain, and checkbox-solutions. The narrowing down of complexity serves important purposes, in that it brings with it opportunities for action in a field within which ‘the urge to do something’ has gained a particular stronghold.

However, by framing conflict-related sexual violence as first and foremost a criminal – and individualized – act, the multilayered, complex, social, and collective phenomenon of harm that it also is, is increasingly peeled away from understandings of the problem. This narrative about conflict-related sexual violence and its solution resonates and gains support because of its simplicity. It reduces sexual violence into clear-cut categories of rational, individual and evil perpetrators and powerless, broken victims – ideal causality on the one hand, massive suffering in need of legal catharsis on the other; in short, to a problem against which something can be done. Individualization of guilt corresponds poorly, however, to the collective crime and structural explanations that academic theories about conflict-related sexual violence underscore. Thus, the cost of the simplistic narrative is that the phenomenological understanding gets separated from its enabling social structures, including the collective out of which the phenomenon arises. Moreover, the deterrence rationale upon which the call for criminal prosecutions is based carries limited empirical weight.

We therefore ask for a more precise recognition of what criminal law can and cannot do with conflict-related sexual violence, and hold that the problem with the focus on ending impunity is not that it is an irrelevant task, but that it is not the solution its proponents claim it to be. Paralleling criticism of carceral feminism domestically, we see a need for greater attention to the political, economic and gendered inequalities and structures within which sexual violence take place. Conflict-related sexual violence is indeed part of a repertoire of illegitimate warfare, and a reaction to the chaotic, desperate and demoralizing experiences that war brings with it, but it is also the result of gendered hierarchies, subordination, and poverty, and a continuum of violence that transgresses war and peace.

It is important to recognize the narrative processes at work that keep favoring criminal law – and to question whose voices and what stories matter, what reality “fits,” and what complexities are lost. This is important not because criminal law is inherently bad – but because conflict-related sexual violence is not a problem that can be exclusively solved in the court room.

This post first appeared on the blog of Law & Society Review

Humanitarian experimentation

Written by

Humanitarian actors, faced with ongoing conflict, epidemics, famine and a range of natural disasters, are increasingly being asked to do more with less. The international community’s commitment of resources has not kept pace with their expectations or the growing crises around the world. Some humanitarian organizations are trying to bridge this disparity by adopting new technologies—a practice often referred to as humanitarian innovation. This blog post, building on a recent article in the ICRC Review, asserts that humanitarian innovation is often human experimentation without accountability, which may both cause harm and violate some of humanitarians’ most basic principles.

While many elements of humanitarian action are uncertain, there is a clear difference between using proven approaches to respond in new contexts and using wholly experimental approaches on populations at the height of their vulnerability. This is also not the first generation of humanitarian organizations to test new technologies or approaches in the midst of disaster. Our article draws upon three timely examples of humanitarian innovations, which are expanding into the mainstream of humanitarian practice without clear assessments of potential benefits or harms.

Cargo drones, for one, have been presented as a means to help deliver assistance to places that aid agencies otherwise find difficult, and sometimes impossible, to reach. Biometrics is another example. It is said to speed up cumbersome registration processes, thereby allowing faster access to aid for people in need (who can only receive assistance upon registration). And, in the case of responding to the 2014 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, data modelling was seen as a way to help in this response. In each of these cases, technologies with great promise were deployed in ways that risked, distorted and/or damaged the relationships between survivors and responders.

These examples illustrate the need for investment in ethics and evidence on the impact of development and application of new technologies in humanitarian response. It is incumbent on humanitarian actors to understand both the opportunities posed by new technologies, as well as the potential harms they may present—not only during the response, but long after the emergency ends. This balance is between, on the one hand, working to identify new and ‘innovative’ ways of addressing some of the challenges that humanitarian actors confront and, on the other hand, the risk of introducing new technological ‘solutions’ in ways that resemble ‘humanitarian experimentation’ (as explained in the article). The latter carries with it the potential for various forms of harm. This risk of harm is not only to those that humanitarian actors are tasked to protect, but also to humanitarian actors themselves, in the form of legal liability, loss of credibility and operational inefficiency. Without open and transparent validation, it is impossible to know whether humanitarian innovations are solutions, or threats themselves. Aid agencies must not only to be extremely attentive to this balance, but also should do their utmost to avoid a harmful outcome.

Framing aid projects as ‘innovative’, rather than ‘experimental’, avoids the explicit acknowledgment that these tools are untested, understating both the risks these approaches may pose, as well as sidestepping the extensive body of laws that regulate human trials. Facing enormous pressure to act and ‘do something’ in view of contemporary humanitarian crisis, a specific logic seems to have gained prominence in the humanitarian community, a logic that conflicts with the risk-taking standards that prevail under normal circumstances. The use of untested approaches in uncertain and challenging humanitarian contexts provokes risks that do not necessarily bolster humanitarian principles. In fact, they may even conflict with the otherwise widely adhered to Do No Harm principle. Failing to test these technologies, or even explicitly acknowledge that they are untested, prior to deployment raises significant questions about both the ethics and evidence requirements implicit in the unique license afforded to humanitarian responders.

In Do No Harm: A Taxonomy of the Challenges of Humanitarian Experimentation, we contextualize humanitarian experimentation—providing a history, examples of current practice, a taxonomy of potential harms and an analysis against the core principles of the humanitarian enterprise.

***

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, SJD Harvard Law School, is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and a Professor of Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo. Her widely published socio-legal research focuses on technology and innovation, forced displacement and the struggle for accountability in humanitarian action. Most recently, Sandvik co-edited UNHCR and the Struggle for Accountability (Routledge, 2016), with Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, and The Good Drone (Routledge, 2017).

Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, PhD International Relations Lancaster University, is a Senior Researcher at Copenhagen University, Department of Political Science, Centre for Military Studies. She is an international authority on the issue of humanitarian biometrics and security dimensions and is the author of The Politics of Humanitarian Technology (Routledge, 2015). Her research has also appeared in Citizenship Studies, Security Dialogue, Journal of Intervention & Statebuilding, and African Security Review, among others.

Sean Martin McDonald, JD/MA American University, is the CEO of FrontlineSMS and a Fellow at Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab. He is the author of Ebola: A Big Data Disaster, a legal analysis of the way that humanitarian responders use data during crises. His work focuses on building agency at the intersection of digital spaces, using technology, law and civic trusts.

Unpacking the Myth of ICT’s Protective Effect in Mass Atrocity Response

Written by

Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) are now a standard part of the mass atrocity responder’s toolkit, being employed for evidence collection and research by NGOs, governments, and the private sector. One of the more notable justifications for their use has been to supplement or improve the protection of vulnerable populations. In a new article published in the Genocide Studies and Prevention Journal, we argue that there is little evidence for the assertion of this protective effect by ICTs in mass atrocity producing environments, which we have labeled the Protective or Preventative Effect (PPE). This blog post argues that the mass atrocity community needs to engage more critically with a widespread perception that ICTs have innate protective effects in mass atrocity response. More testing and validation of potential harms is necessary to ensure that civilians on the ground are not negatively affected by ICTs. Risks to individuals and communities include for example the theft,  appropriation and distortion of personal data, geotracking of ground movements and surveillance of speech, communication, movements and transactions through hand-held devices

Technologies performing remote sensing, crowd mapping, individual identification through facial recognition and big data analytics have significantly impacted mass atrocity response over the past 15 years. These include smartphone apps, remote sensing platforms such as satellite imagery analysis and surveillance drones, social media and data aggregation platforms.

Such technologies are primarily adopted due to their low-cost relative to analogue intervention, and their ability to be remotely deployed in otherwise inaccessible or insecure environments. The specific applications of these technologies and platforms are diverse and constantly evolving, but can generally be divided into two broad categories:

  • Prevention/Response applications seek to create novel situational awareness capacity to protect populations and inform response activities.
  • Justice/accountability use-cases aim to detect and/or document evidence of alleged crimes for judicial and/or advocacy purposes.

These ICTs are now effectively treated as indispensable force multipliers that supplement or supplant traditional mass atrocity response activities. However, in the absence of validation of these claims, adoption of these technologies can be said to be largely supply-driven.

As ICT use in mass atrocity and human security crisis response has been mainstreamed over the last two decades, so has a set of generalized and hitherto largely invalidated claims about their effects on the nature and effectiveness of response. These claims constitute technological utopianism—the notion that technological change is inevitable, problem-free, and progressive. Moreover, the adoption of this technology-reliant and remote posture encodes within it the idea that the direct result of deploying these technologies and platforms is the prediction, prevention, and deterring of mass atrocity related crimes—a form of technological utopianism known as solutionism, which holds that the right technology can solve all of mankind’s problems.

Within atrocity response, this approach is exemplified by the much-publicized Eyes on Darfur campaign, where the public viewing of satellite images from Darfur was framed as action in and of itself—the assumption being that simply “knowing about atrocities” is enough to mobilize mass empathy and as a result engender political action. Implicit in this is the idea that technology itself can fundamentally alter the calculus of whether and how mass atrocities occur.  The adoption of this view by civil society, we argue, means that responders are not simply adopting a set of tools and techniques, but a theory of change, built upon a technologically utopian worldview.

Underlying this theory of change is the imbuing of these platforms and technologies with an inherent “ambient protective effect”—e.g. transforming the threat matrix of a particular atrocity producing environment in a way that improves the human security status of the targeted population. The underlying assumption of this protective effect is that increased volumes of novel and otherwise unobtainable data over a large-scale geographic area or environment may cause one, some, or all of several potential ambient protective effects which will prevent or mitigate the effects of mass atrocities.

Our article argues that the human security community—particularly mass atrocity responders—must come to terms with the fact that there is a difference between knowing about atrocities and doing something about them. Monitoring is a precondition for protection, but it is does not have a protective effect in and by itself.

More research is needed to determine the validity of the assumptions encoded into ICT use, and to address their relationship to a growing body of scholarship indicating possible direct and indirect pernicious effects of attempting to project a PPE through technology. In some cases, these may be exposing civilians to new, rapidly evolving risks to their human security and mutating the behavior of mass atrocity perpetrators in ways which harm target populations (for example by providing perpetrators with sitting duck targets through real-time information about population movements;  or about settlements and survivors not harmed in a bombing campaign, for example) . To do no harm to civilians, we must start by recognizing that the unpredictable knock-on effects of ICT use can cause real harm to civilians—for example, crowd-sourced data can be used to foment violence as well as preventing it—and  that the prevailing technological utopianism may prevent responders from noticing.

This post comes from Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Nathaniel A. Raymond. Kristin is a Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and a professor of  Sociology of Law  at the University of Oslo. Nathaniel is the Director of the Signal Program on Human Security and Technology at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. This post was also published on the ATHA blog of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

Building a Sociology of Law for the Humanitarian Field

Written by

Legal sociology has paid significant attention to human rights, but in contrast to legal anthropology, little focus has been given to humanitarianism. In this contribution, we ask, what does a legal sociological research agenda for the humanitarian field look like?

Humanitarianism is many things to many people. As described by Miriam Ticktin, humanitarianism is ‘an ethos, a cluster of sentiments, a set of laws, a moral imperative to intervene, and a form of government’; it is ‘one way to do good or to improve aspects of the human condition by focusing on suffering and saving lives in times of crisis or emergency; for instance, humanitarians provide temporary shelter, food, and medical care during wartime or immediately after disasters’. The actors involved include affected populations, civil society, host governments, the private sector, international organizations, humanitarian practitioners, the international humanitarian sector and donors.

As academics, it is our task to re-conceptualize this humanitarianism in terms of power, legitimacy and regimes of control and surveillance – both from an internal perspective concerned with humanitarian accountability in the global emergency zone, and from an external perspective that conceptualizes humanitarianism as a form of governance and social fact in global society.

An important aspect here is that as the humanitarian sector continues to expand, the field is legalizing. Beyond international humanitarian law, humanitarian action is increasingly compelled and constrained by a plethora of soft law and legal discourses, and what was once a largely unregulated field of practice is now emerging as a transnational humanitarian space where authority, governance, legitimacy and power is progressively invoked through law.

Historically, humanitarian action has been linked to the normative framework of international humanitarian law (IHL), while emerging as a largely unregulated field of practice. The study of IHL has overwhelmingly been the terrain of doctrinal legal scholars, while the apparent lack of other law has meant that, until recently, legal sociologists have paid little attention to the humanitarian sector. There has also been little sociological concern regarding the consequences of not asking questions about the role of law in the humanitarian project.

As scholars specifically focused on the legal aspects of humanitarian space and the evolving law of humanitarian action, we are interested in normative constructions and contestations regarding conceptualizations of aid, agency, crisis, responsibility and rights within and across different social fields of regulation and governance.  We argue that legal sociology is of central analytical value to this prism, as it focuses on the study of rules, standards, norms; the evolving role of the legal profession and the legalization of conflict resolution in humanitarian governance. Legal sociology can also offer important perspectives on the relative lack of regulation of the humanitarian space, and on the normative orderings that occupy this space in competition with, as a substitution for, or in parallel to legal norms.

In the following, we explore a set of key questions concerning the relationship between humanitarian governance and law:

  • What is the relationship between humanitarian norms and law, and the normative and legal hierarchy of competing humanitarian values?
  • What are the implications of enfranchising non-state actors to partially ‘see like a state’ in humanitarian contexts?
  • What type of authority – and legal authority – do humanitarians have, and how is this authority produced and constrained through rules, norms and standards; including soft regulation, contractual practices and financial policies?
  • What does this authority allow humanitarians to do, and to the extent that humanitarian actors are held accountable, how does this happen?

The relationship between norms and rules

We are interested in the frictions and blind spots that arise in the relationships between humanitarian imperatives (‘do no harm’, ‘aid according to need’), principles (neutrality, impartiality, universality, humanity), and legal frameworks aimed at regulating specific aspects of humanitarian logistics and protection activities. Examples of relationships that need critical unpacking include the relationship between needs-based and rights-based humanitarianism; and the relationship between humanitarian norms, soft law, and due process considerations in refugee resettlement.

There is a similar need for critical inquiry with respect to the relationship and legal hierarchy between humanitarian norms and rules, and neighboring human insecurity fields such as development, human rights, mass atrocity response and international criminal justice.  Specifically, more attention should be given to the substantive aspects of these relationships, and to the implications of mission creeps. For example, ICTs and data are useful prisms for exploring emergent splits between human rights and humanitarians as crisis responding communities. This includes how this split shapes and is shaped by each group’s use of data and the impact the use has on crisis affected individuals and communities. It also includes increasingly divergent perceptions of what responsible approaches to data collection, maintenance, storage and sharing of data look like.

Seeing like a state

Humanitarian organizations are not states. Yet, they are transnational, have thousands of staff, operate and litigate in multiple jurisdictions and are actively involved in sponsoring and pushing for soft law developments. How do we analyze the tensions between the construction of an emergency zone which enfranchises non-state actors to govern; and the structure of human rights law, which requires that individuals have access to accountability mechanisms, including the means for obtaining binding legal redress through state institutions?

For example, legalistic versions of rights-based approaches (RBA) to humanitarian action are premised on the notion that rights holders are entitled to hold the duty bearer accountable. Yet, according to international law and the view of international humanitarian organizations, this right is directed principally at the state and its agents. Humanitarian organizations suggest that they must consider ‘rights-holders with legal entitlements’ but do not see themselves as accountable for the fulfillment of those rights. Organizations sometimes operate with competing definitions of RBA, where humanitarian organizations seek to strengthen the capacities of the rights holders to make claims and of duty bearers to satisfy those claims, but are not themselves directly accountable to persons of concern. What are the implications of enfranchising non-state actors to partially behave and ‘see like a state’?

Questions of authority

Next, we are interested in what type of authority – and legal authority – humanitarians have, and how this authority is produced and constrained through rules, norms and standards; including soft regulation, contractual practices and financial policies.

The broader context for the regularization of humanitarian governance is the accelerating reach of international law into the realm of international administrative governance. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the lack of accountability and transparency raised serious questions about the procedural legitimacy of international organizations. Serious concerns were raised about the emergence of undemocratic liberalism as a consequence of global bureaucratization. The answer to this anxiety about bureaucracy was to bring in more of it: It was thought that rationalization and the emphasis of proper and correct procedures would ensure procedural legitimacy. Hence, the bureaucratization and regularization of humanitarian action takes place mostly through the proliferation of soft norms resulting from multilateral legal agreements, international adjudication, and the increased law-making capacity of international organizations. Legal sociology may here contribute to develop a critical perspective on this aspect of humanitarian governance, for instance by mapping out the role of legal actors and legal authority in humanitarian organizations and transnational coalition networks in humanitarian governance.

To exemplify, socio-legal and anthropological interest in soft law have mostly focused on international instruments for human rights protection, which has resulted in an unfortunate scholarly tendency to reify soft law as inherently progressive. Yet the power operating in the crafting of soft law and the logic of softness may create inequality between groups or result in oppression. Constituted on ideas of emergency and urgency, humanitarian space is a site with extreme power differences between actors, to the extent that aid affected communities are rarely represented around the table when new soft law instruments are drafted.

We should bear this in mind as we engage critically with the emergent law of humanitarian action. The informality of soft law may jeopardize formalized accountability mechanisms, or weaken the obligations of organizations, humanitarians, private sector actors or states in the humanitarian field. Even when crisis-affected communities participate, the notion of pluralistic participation may conceal that soft law production is actually limited to powerful actors; and contribute to misrepresent how the humanitarian sector is structured both on and according to principles of systemic inequality. Legal sociology could here provide a close study on how best practices and community norms are articulated and codified as soft law.

Accountability 

Finally, we ask what this authority allows humanitarians to do, and to the extent that humanitarian actors are held accountable, how this happens. Here we want to briefly outline two emergent developments.

While scholars have often approached this topic by examining the role and responsibilities of international organizations, the 2015 Steve Dennis versus the Norwegian Refugee Council case from the Oslo District court, and its aftermath provides an interesting case study for gauging the evolving juridification of humanitarian organizations’ duty of care for their staff, and the broader implications of a shift towards court-ordered humanitarian practice. Activities and processes that were before considered ‘good practice’ within a human resources frame are increasingly juridified. This shift also reshapes modes of organizing work and workers. In the aftermath of the Steve Dennis case, organizations have struggled to define what constitutes acceptable levels of insurance for a multinational staff. The distributive effects on peoples everyday professional lives, including how such effects may vary according to nationality, race or religion, merit specific attention.

Finally, questions must be asked about the role of global and national publics in holding states and humanitarian actors accountable for how they contribute to end/engender human suffering. In the human rights field, social movements and legal mobilization are central for holding states accountable. However, while contemporary humanitarianism began as a series of social movements – including the anti-slavery movements, missionary engagements and the internationalization of Red Cross societies – present-day humanitarians appear to have a deeply ambivalent attitude to enlist bystanders, i.e the general public, beyond fundraising and social media support. On the other hand, with the present difficulties facing humanitarians with respect to access to humanitarian space and the declining respect for international humanitarian law, ideas about public engagement may be shifting.

Conclusion

While humanitarianism has global and avowedly benevolent ambitions for ordering and eradicating crisis, manifested through a global system of organizations operating within, in parallel with, above and across the domestic state system, and legitimated by moral universals (neutrality, humanity etc.), it is also a field epitomizing global divisions and inequalities. At the same time, humanitarianism – as a transnational practice field and a cluster of cosmopolitan sentiments – is expanding. As part of this, the field is legalizing. Having outlined a few established practices and emergent developments of the mutually constitutive relationship between law and humanitarianism, we argue that legal sociology is well situated to track this development.

This blogpost builds on research output from the PRIO-project ‘Aid in Crisis? Rights-Based Approaches and Humanitarian Outcomes’, funded by the Research Council of Norway under the AIDEFFECT program. It also appears on the blog of The Sociological Review.

Nordic welfare humanitarianism at Nordic Branding Kick-Off Conference (June 12-13 2017)

Written by

As part of the kick-off event for the Nordic Branding research project hosted by the University of Oslo on 12-13 June, Nordic researchers gathered for a round-table to explore how we, as a critical scholarly community, can make sense of the rise of Nordic welfare humanitarianism as a branding exercise, as a politics of status-seeking, and as norm entrepreneurship. Presentations aimed to unpack the attributes of humanitarianism in the Nordic political context and to trace how the ‘dark sides’ of Nordic welfare ideology have been an integral element in development.

This round-table built on the Nordic Model of welfare humanitarianism cluster at the Global Challenges – Nordic Experiences conference (UiO Nordic 2017). This cluster focused on the multiple ways in which the humanitarian frame shaped the politics of citizenship, with respect to inclusion/selection, exclusion, and ‘normalcy’, how ideas about cost and benefit equations have shifted over time, and how principles of cost-effectiveness and efficiency have been incorporated into notions of the Nordic ‘humanitarian good’, a sensibility both above and steeped in national politics.

In her keynote ‘Branding Nordic Development Cooperation’, Sunniva Engh (Associate Professor, IAKH, University of Oslo) focused on the state of historical research on the aid sector, identifying four distinct periods: 1950s, first projects; 1960s, institutionalization; 1970s, professionalization; and the 1990s, securitization. She noted several common trends and features of Nordic aid models including the increase in aid volume, the common prioritization of issues, and similarities in motivations when aid is interwoven with foreign policy initiatives. Engh identified that substantial historical research already exists in Norway as compared to Sweden and Denmark, observing that existing work was often funded by aid practitioners. Engh observed that academic work on Norway’s history coincided with political and popular ideas of the country as a ‘peace nation’ or ‘humanitarian superpower’, but pointed out that going forward there will be challenges to new research on development, as a vast amount of archival material is still classified. The actors to be studied have a self-interest in sustaining their preferred visions of the past: their willingness to place materials in national, public archives and to give interviews is often limited. Additionally, she noted, research on a broader Nordic level is challenged by the desire of each Nordic country to be construed as an individual and unique harbinger of the Nordic brand. She concluded by noting that, with development aid having a multitude of audiences, it is hard to pin down what branding’s role in aid is – and aid’s role in branding.

In his presentation ‘The Nordics and Empire’, Kristian Bjørkdahl (Post Doc Researcher, SUM, University of Oslo) considered how, even after colonialism, remnants of the relationship between the governed and the empirical power persist. Bjørkdahl’s project is to make sense of the role and relevance of the ‘colonial gaze’ in the Nordic branding of ‘peaceful nations’ and ‘peacemaker’: his point of departure is the need for interrogating the postcolonial ‘situation’ for countries who self-identify as never being colonial powers, actively branding themselves as ‘non’-colonial. Bjørkdahl’s presentation complicated their use of colonial innocence as a tool (‘exceptionalism’) in development and humanitarian aid, reflecting on what the idea of non-complicity does for identity.

Next, in her presentation ‘Nordicity and Peace’, Cecilia Bailliet (Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Oslo) took Johan Galtung’s concept of ‘positive peace’ as the starting point for reflecting on how Nordic states excelled as purveyors of peace, while in reality could be facing crisis in rule of law and basic human rights guarantees. While the locus of this concept is the enjoyment of social justice, non-discrimination and equality, Bailliet noted that much of academic attention has focused on efforts to produce negative peace, ceasefire and mediations. This has led to a lack of attention to the ‘dilemmas of positive peace’. Further, she argued that in the protection of the global human good we should not expect the poorest to shoulder the burden, and criticized the Norwegian government for amending laws in order to deny protection, for the containment of asylum seekers at detention centers, and for the bureaucratic investment in speedy deportations which is subsequently mirrored by a decrease in appeals.

Following Bailliet’s intervention and focusing on ‘Development and Gender’, Anne Hellum (Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Oslo) explored whether branding theory can help us understand any of cases where, analytically, Nordic countries have been seen in a more critical light with regards to global morals. Hellum reflected on how Nordic countries see themselves as contributors to equality and how that can be studied through multi-sited fieldwork. Thematically, Hellum’s presentation focused specifically on the political and social processes leading to the nomination of male candidates to the CEDAW committee as a coordinated effort. Based on this empirical starting point, Hellum posed a set of broader methodological questions: if there is a brand, how do we pin it down empirically? Do we see the rise of a new equality branding paradigm focusing on masculinities? What kind of exceptionalism is at play here?

Moving from gender to global health, in his presentation ‘The Ebola Crisis and Norwegian branding’, Antoine de Bengy Puyvallée (Research Assistant, SUM, University of Oslo) explored the framing of the Norwegian Ebola response, focusing on the repatriation of a Norwegian nurse working for MSF infected with Ebola as an event with a key symbolic importance. Exploring the framing of altruism and securitization, Puyvallée suggested that this event was also illustrative of linkages between the Norwegian self-image as a small, secure state and its humanitarian projects, as illustrated by the Norwegian role and visibility in field hospitals and the vaccine project. Puyvallée noted the strategic prominence of ‘branding smallness’ through the idea that Norway is ‘harmless’ and has ‘little self-interest’.

Finally, in her presentation ‘Branding Nordic Humanitarianism’,  Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies, PRIO and Professor Sociology of Law, University of Oslo) focused on the dearth of critical attention given to the role and relevance of Nordic players in the global emergency sphere, in particular with respect to the rise of Nordic ‘mega’ humanitarian NGOs, such as the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Danish Refugee Council.   Sandvik focused specifically on the slippage between critical concepts and how to gauge their appropriate meaning in the Nordic context. Looking at shifting aid fads, and more specifically the turn from rights-based approaches to humanitarian innovation, ‘trade not aid’ and financialization language, Sandvik reflected on what the labels ‘neoliberal’ and ‘empire’ do in humanitarian studies of the Nordics.  Discussing the significance of the shift from paternalist talk about ‘victims’ to a focus on the need to ‘empower the customer’ (illustrated by the turn to cash), she questioned how the literature on buzzwords might be linked to branding theories in a more productive way. Drawing on Cornwall and Brock (2005), Sandvik noted that buzzwords offer the legitimacy development actors need to justify their interventions, and are used to create problem statements that inherently call for certain kinds of solutions (Cornwall and Brock 2005).

The presentations, when taken together, appear to set the stage for future methodological debates on how critique of humanitarianism is performed in the Nordic context and offer concrete examples of where the use of national and regional branding as an analytic tool can be utilized.

The myth of ICT’s protective effect in mass atrocity response

Written by

Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) are now being employed as a standard part of mass atrocity response, evidence collection, and research by non-governmental organizations, governments, and the private sector. Deployment of these tools and techniques occur for a variety of stated reasons, most notably the ostensible goal of “protecting” vulnerable populations. In a new article published with Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal , we  argue that there is little evidence of the existence of what can be referred to as a causal “Protective or Preventative Effect” (PPE) from the use of ICTs in mass atrocity producing environments.

Historically, the international community’s response, or lack thereof, to mass atrocities, has been shaped by the absence of timely and accurate information. Over the past two decades, the use of ICTs has metamorphosed from a series of prototype use cases of these tools and techniques to a now commonplace component of the human rights and humanitarian sector’s response to mass atrocity and human security crisis scenarios. Accompanying this mainstreaming is a set of generalized and, to date, largely unvalidated claims that ICT changes the nature and effectiveness of mass atrocity response.

The specific applications of new technologies and platforms are diverse and constantly evolving, but can be generally divided into two broad categories of prevention/response and justice/accountability: 1) Uses that seek to create unique situational awareness for population protective purposes and informing response activities, and 2) use cases aimed at detecting and/or documenting evidence of alleged crimes for judicial and/or advocacy purposes.  Additionally, the adoption of these technologies appears to be spurred, in large part, by two major factors: 1) Their comparatively low cost in comparison to other, analog interventions and 2) their ability to be remotely deployed in highly lethal, non-permissive environments that preclude traditional, ground-based approaches.

Thus, ICTs are now effectively treated as indispensable “force multipliers” that may either supplement or, in some cases, supplant mass atrocity responses that rely on humans physically making contact with other humans in the places where mass atrocity events are occurring.

We argue that the adoption of an ever more technology-reliant and increasingly “remote” posture has encoded within it an implicit aspiration to literally predict, prevent and deter these crimes as a direct causal result of deploying these modalities. We propose that this increasingly publicly expressed vision that technology itself can fundamentally alter the calculus of whether and how mass atrocities occur demonstrates that civil society actors have done more than simply adopt tools and techniques: They have adopted a theory of change –which we here label PPE—based on technological utopianism as well, a theory that posits technological change is inevitable, problem-free and progressive.

The core of this theory consist in the encoding of assumptions and aspirations into ICTs having an inherently “ambient protective effect” (APE) – i.e. casually transforming the threat matrix of a particular atrocity producing environment in a way that improves the human security status of targeted populations. The APE is based on the assumption that increased volumes of unique otherwise unobtainable data over large scale geographic areas and/or non-permissive environments may cause one, some, or all of the following four outcomes to occur:

  1. Deterrent APE: Perpetrators are less likely to act because of threat of have action documented.
  2. Public Outcry APE: Citizens in nations that have capability to interdict become more activated to push for interventions / protective actions because of immediacy / undeniability / uniqueness of ICT derived / transmitted evidence.
  3. Actionable Intelligence APE: Governments are given new intelligence that they otherwise do not have due to focus of NGOs on poorly monitored / lower politically valued locations that cause them to act.
  4. Early Warning APE: Targeted communities have early warning that enables them to make better, quicker, more informed decisions that are potentially lifesaving.

More research is needed into each of these four points and how they relate to the more general problem with the PPE, which is that it impacts the awareness and acknowledgement of the possible direct and indirect negative effects of ICT. A growing body of scholarship indicates that the attempt to project a PPE through technology may be, in some cases, both exposing affected civilian populations to new, rapidly evolving risks to their human security and negatively mutating the behavior of alleged mass atrocity perpetrators. Technology can have unpredictable or unpredicted knock-on effects: For example, crowd-sourced data is neutral in the sense that it can also be used to forment violence, for example by creating a riot, instead of preventing it.

The human security community broadly speaking–particularly mass atrocity responders, such as humanitarians, human rights advocates and peace builders–must come to terms with the fact that there is a difference between knowing about alleged atrocities and doing something about them; monitoring a mass atrocity crime is different and distinct from preventing it or protecting against its effects. There is a need for members of this broad and diverse community to begin to take seriously the fact that ICT use can cause real harm to civilians.

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (S.J.D Harvard Law School 2008) is a Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies, PRIO and a Professor of Sociology of Law, Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law, University of Oslo.

Nathaniel A. Raymond is director of the Signal Program on human Security and Technology at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI).

Note: this post was also published on the INTLAWGRRLS blog.

Response to Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System

Written by

This post is part of a series of reflections on “Refuge”, by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier.

One of the most pressing challenges of our time is the fact that there are over 65 million persons around the world who are forced to migrate.  Tragically, the international community’s response is marked by the maintenance of refugee and internally displaced person (IDP) camps in the South which hold refugees in limbo for decades.  Alexander Betts and Paul Collier rightly denounce the inhumanity of states which refuse to resettle refuges.  They go on to propose safe havens in developing countries where private corporations and investors could provide work to refugees and citizens of host countries alike. Of concern, the authors pay insufficient attention to the need for strengthened legal perspectives to identify protection concerns raised by their model.

Betts and Collier suggest that refugees should be allowed to seek resettlement after five to ten years if no other solution (return or local integration) is possible.  However, they do not address the fact that denying a person freedom of movement is a violation in itself, and their model would risk violating this, as well as a span of other human rights. With increased focus on private actors playing a greater role in the “safe havens”, there is also concern about the accountability of corporations, UNHCR/IOM, host states, and NGOs.[1]  The authors do not address this fully, nor do they explain how to guarantee transparency when so many non-state actors are involved. On the contrary, they seem to indicate that international organizations (IOs), media, and corporate social responsibility (CSR) pressure should be sufficient to prevent exploitation. It may be suggested that since IOs themselves have been criticized for insufficient accountability in camps, there is no guarantee that they would be able to guarantee the accountability of other non-state actors. Certainly this is evident in the cases of private companies which run detention/reception centers in the West, with little oversight by UNHCR or civil society.

Betts and Collier state that UNHCR excels in humanitarian aid in camps and legal advice to governments, but state that these are no longer the primary skills needed to ensure refugee protection in the twenty-first century (p.58).  It is undeniable that the maintenance of protracted camps are not adequate solutions,  but there remains a strong need for UNHCR to give legal advice to governments in light of the epidemic of immigration reforms resulting in the adoption of accelerated and fast-track procedures to process asylum claims and diminishment of legal aid, right of appeal, and suspension of deportation.[2]  While much of the media focuses on the construction of walls and increase of border patrols to keep out asylum seekers, the most effective measures for increasing deportations have been the construction of restrictive interpretations of the criteria for accessing territory to seek asylum and the conditions for receiving protection.  The proper response to this trend requires the serious engagement of human rights lawyers.

The transformation of a broken refugee system requires a holistic approach, one that seeks to include legal perspectives, instead of excluding them.

[1] See Maja Janmyr, Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps: Unable and Unwilling States, UNHCR and International Responsibility (Brill 2014).

[2] ECRE, Accelerated, prioritized and Fast-Track Asylum Procedures: Legal Frameworks and Practice in Europe (May 2017)

Cecilia M. Bailliet is Professor, Director of the Masters Program in Public International Law at the University of Oslo. Bailliet researches transnational and cross-disciplinary issues within international law including general public international law, human rights, refugee law, counter-terrorism, and peace. Bailliet’s books include The Legitimacy of International Criminal Tribunals (co-edited with N. Hayashi, CUP 2017), Promoting Peace Through International Law (co-edited with K.M. Larsen, OUP 2015), Non-State Actors, Soft Law, and Protective Regimes (CUP 2012), Cosmopolitan Justice and its Discontents (co-edited with K. Franko, Routledge 2011), and Security: A Multidisciplinary Normative Approach (Brill 2009).

Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies
Contact: Centre Director Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert margab@prio.org, PRIO, PO Box 9229 Grønland, NO-0134 Oslo, Norway