Tag Archives: accountability

Humanitarian experimentation

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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.

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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.

Conundrums in the Embrace of the Private Sector

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The humanitarian sector faces an unprecedented number of crises globally. The growing operational and financial deficit in the capacity of governments and humanitarian organizations to respond has led to calls for changes in the way such crises are understood and managed.  This involves a strong focus on cooperation and partnerships with the private sector.  A large part of the allure is the notion that private-public partnerships will make humanitarian response faster by entrenching market-oriented rationalities, thus enhancing effectiveness. This is also how the private sector presents itself:

One should never underestimate the power of private companies who offer aid. Companies are almost always focused on efficiency, good negotiation, building their reputation (their brand) and getting things done on time and on budget (Narfeldt 2007).

Here, I will try to complicate this narrative by pointing out some conundrums in the vigorous humanitarian embrace of the private sector.

Back in 2007, Binder and Witte noted the emergence of a new form of engagement through partnerships between companies and traditional humanitarian actors, often based on a desire to demonstrate corporate social responsibility (CSR) and to motivate employees. In parallel, they observed that the War on Terror had enlarged the scope of traditional work with a role for commercial players to provide relief services. Today, these trends continue as public-private partnerships have emerged as a (donor) preferred humanitarian strategy to increase efficiency and accountability (see for example Drummond and Crawford 2014), goals that to some degree seem to merge as efficiency has become an important way of demonstrating accountability. The rationale for a greater inclusion of the private sector in humanitarian action is that partners can contribute to humanitarian solutions with different expertise and resources. Private companies are profit-driven and thus incentivized to comply with the specific deliverables and time frames set out in contracts. Donors are attracted to low overhead and lesser need for constant engagement and monitoring. Moreover, the private sector owns much of the infrastructure on which information and communication technologies are based.

The objections to private sector engagements are well-known and predictable. The outsourcing of humanitarian action has been criticized by commentators pointing to the loss of ground truth, and to the often poor-quality resulting from the private actors’ lack of understanding of humanitarian action, contextual knowledge, and crisis management skills. It is argued that companies are, by their very nature, mainly interested in “brand, employee motivation and doing more business” (Wassenhove 2014). Intensified private sector engagement thus leads to a marketization of humanitarian values (Weiss 2013) where “the humanitarian ethos is gradually eroded” (Xaba 2014).

In the following, I will instead question the idea of efficacy by challenging some of the assumptions underlying the turn to the private sector. I consider how the call for intensified cooperation overlooks persistent tensions inherent in the humanitarian market and in actors’ rationalities. I also identify what seems to be a fairly prevalent sentiment, namely, the assumption that such cooperation may serve the double objective of delivering humanitarians from the much-loathed Results-Based Management (RBM) regime while simultaneously delivering aid more effectively.

The first difficulty is structural: the turn to business cooperation is informed by the notion that the humanitarian market is inherently efficient and effective because it is a regular market. However, as noted by Binder and Witte, the humanitarian market may be characterized as a “quasi-market,” which exhibits an indirect producer–consumer relationship. In the market for humanitarian relief, the consumer (i.e. the aid recipient) neither purchases nor pays for the delivered service. Aid agencies are the producers, donors the buyers, and aid recipients the consumers. As a result, the market is loaded with asymmetries and uncertainties: Donors have difficulty determining whether the services they pay for are indeed adequately delivered, while recipients have few means of effectively making complaints or airing grievances. Nielsen and Santos (2013) note, for example, the often unanticipated and inappropriate delivery of equipment, as well as personnel. In a trenchant critique, Krause (2014) describes this as a market where agencies produce projects for a quasi-market in which institutional donors are the consumers and populations in need are part of the product being packaged and sold by relief organizations.

Interestingly, the currently most successful technology-based humanitarian endeavor is also a concerted attempt to remedy the quasi-status of the humanitarian market: Over the last decade, the international development community has invested heavily in the so-called financial inclusion agenda, aiming to make poor people less aid-dependent; this is sometimes labelled ‘resilience through asset creation.’ The partnership between the World Food Program and MasterCard, for example, uses “digital innovation to help people around the world to break the cycle of hunger and poverty.” For the World Food Programme, this is part of a broader strategy to move away from food aid and to improve food security through cash assets. As I have noted elsewhere, the underlying rationale is that access to financial services such as credit and savings will “create sizeable welfare benefits” as beneficiaries of aid are drawn further into the market economy as customers. The goal of implementing “cost-effective” electronic payment programs is to help beneficiaries “save money, improve efficiencies and prevent fraud.” The belief is that cash can ‘go where people cannot’ andprovide them with choice. However, while these strategies are motivated explicitly by the desire to turn the beneficiary more directly into a customer, the accountability regime constructed around these systems remains directed upwards to donors.

The second assumption to be examined is that of shared motivation and shared values, going beyond disapproving criticisms of ‘neoliberal governance strategies.’  I think it is important to recognize that call for intensified private sector collaboration masks a rather thin shared understanding of both the nature of humanitarian work and of the competence, presence, and relevance of the private sector, and that this impinges on how this collaboration plays out. Binder and Witte observed that past attempts to pursue partnerships with corporate agencies have often been frustrated as agencies have been unclear about the intended outcomes for the partnership, or have viewed it as a way of developing a long-term funding arrangement. According to Nielsen (2014), private-humanitarian collaboration is currently characterized by underlying disagreement about what constitutes ‘meaningful’ innovation, and how that impinges on responsible innovation and on accountability and CSR more broadly; there is a sense that the humanitarian customer often “does not know what s/he wants.” The private sector actor is frustrated about having to take all the risk in the development of products, while humanitarians fret about taking on future risks, as they will be the ones to face public condemnation and donor criticism if the product fails to aid beneficiaries in the field. Mays et al. (2012) identify a mismatch between humanitarian and business systems, leading to a clash between entrepreneurial and humanitarian values and the imperative to save lives and alleviate suffering. This resonates with my own observations, as humanitarians complain about being offered inadequate or unfeasible solutions; about being used as stepping stones to market access to the greater UN market; or simply about differences in rationality, where the private sector partner frames the transaction commercially by ‘thinking money’ and the humanitarian partner by ‘activity on the ground.’

Finally, the erstwhile push for business management approaches to humanitarian action was the result of a push for greater accountability and a need to professionalize humanitarian work. Perhaps the most significant import was Results-Based Management (RBM), a management strategy “focusing on performance and achievements of outputs, outcome and impact,” which provides a framework and tools for not only planning activities, but also risk management, performance monitoring, and evaluation. Over the course of time, humanitarians have become exasperated and frustrated with the RBM rationale, both because it is sometimes seen to be contrary to principled humanitarian assistance, and more often because RBM and the results agenda engenders a type of bureaucratization where humanitarians feel that they are “performing monitoring” instead of monitoring performance (borrowed from Welle 2014).

While some humanitarians now strive for a shift towards systems accountability (where they will be held to account with respect to their responsibility for maintaining functional and workable supply-chains or information sharing systems, not specifically demarcated deliverables), others see the private sector as the solution to the RBM straightjacket. There seems to have emerged a notion that increased private sector involvement may in fact allow humanitarians to kill two birds with one stone. Much of the attraction of partnerships and outsourcing to the private sector seems to be that RBM obligations can be offloaded to these actors, through subcontracting and outsourcing that details deliverables and outcomes. Hence, the private sector is both envisioned to be faster at delivering RBM-like outputs — now imagined as a separate objective for humanitarian actors — and quicker to deliver humanitarian response.

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Note: This blog, written by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO), was originally posted on the website of the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA).

Humanitarian innovation, humanitarian renewal?

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The continued evolution of the humanitarian innovation concept needs a critical engagement with how this agenda interacts with previous and contemporary attempts to improve humanitarian action.

Accountability and transparency have been central to discussions of humanitarian action over the past two decades. Yet these issues appear generally to be given scant attention in the discourse around humanitarian innovation. The humanitarian innovation agenda is becoming a self-contained field with its own discourse and its own set of experts, institutions and projects – and even a definitive founding moment, namely 2009, when the ALNAP study on innovation in humanitarian action was published.[1] While attempts to develop a critical humanitarian innovation discourse have borrowed extensively from critical discussions on innovation in development studies, humanitarianism is not development done in a hurry but has its own distinct challenges, objectives and methodologies.

I will focus here on concrete material innovations, most commonly referred to as ‘humanitarian technology’. Discussions on such humanitarian innovations regularly acknowledge the need to avoid both fetishising novelty in itself and attributing inherently transformative qualities to technology rather than seeing how technology may fit into and build upon refugees’ existing resources.

Renewing humanitarianism

While it is obvious that internal and external reflections on a humanitarian industry and a humanitarian ethos in need of improvement are much older pursuits, I will start – as most scholars in humanitarian studies do today – with the mid-1990s and the ‘Goma-moment’. To recover from the moral and operational failures of the response to the Rwanda genocide and the ensuing crisis in the Great Lakes region of Africa, humanitarianism turned to human rights based approaches (HRBA) to become more ethical, to move from charitable action to social contract. Yet HRBA always suffered from an intrinsic lack of clarity of meaning as well as the problem of states being the obliged parties under international human rights, a particular problem in the context of displacement, whether internal or across borders.

A decade or so later, in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and in the face of accusations about poor governance, insufficient coordination, incompetence and waste, the humanitarian enterprise embarked on institutional reform to become better. Responses were to be maximised through Humanitarian Coordinators, funding was to become more efficient through Central Emergency Response Funds and, most importantly in the everyday life of humanitarian practitioners, the Cluster approach allocated areas of responsibility to the largest humanitarian actors.

The need for greater accountability and transparency were drivers for both HRBA (with its moral intricacies) and humantiarian reform (with its bureaucratic complexities). What is now happening with accountability and transparency within the technological-innovation-as-renewal paradigm?

If Rwanda and the Indian Ocean tsunami were the events ushering in HRBA and humanitarian reform, Haiti was the much heralded game-changer for technology whose use there (despite many practical problems and malfunctioning solutions) is generally assessed as positive.[2] In the years since, a host of new technology actors, initiatives, technical platforms and methodologies has emerged. New communications technology, biometrics, cash cards, drones and 3D printing have all captured the humanitarian imagination.

Thinking about problems and difficulties is often framed in terms of finding technical solutions, obtaining sufficient funding to move from pilot phases to scale, etc. However, as ideas about progress and inevitability dominate the field, the technology is seen not as something we use to get closer to a better humanitarianism but something which, once deployed, is itself a better, more accountable and transparent humanitarianism.

So institutionalised have transparency and accountability become that they have now vanished off the critical radar and become part of the taken-for-granted discursive and institutional framework. Accountability and transparency are assumed to be automatically produced simply by the act of adopting and deploying new technology. (Interestingly, the third tenet usually listed with accountability and transparency, efficiency, is also a basic assumption of this agenda.)

Accountability, participation and transparency

A 2013 report published by UN OCHA, Humanitarianism in the Network Age, argues that “everyone agrees that technology has changed how people interact and how power is distributed”.[3] While technology has undoubtedly altered human interaction, an assumption that proliferating innovative humanitarian technology unveils power, redistributes power or empowers needs to be subjected to scrutiny.

The classic issues in humanitarian accountability – to whom it is owed and by whom, how it can be achieved and, most crucially, what would count as substantively meaningful accountability – remain acutely difficult to answer. These issues also remain political issues which cannot be solved only with new technical solutions emphasising functionality and affordability; we cannot innovate ourselves out of the accountability problem, in the same way as technology cannot be seen as an empty shell waiting to be filled with (humanitarian) meaning.

This speaks particularly to the quest for participation of those in need of humanitarian protection and assistance, “helping people find innovative ways to help themselves”. In practice, we know that humanitarians arrive late in the field – they are not (at least not outside their own communications) the first responders. Affected individuals, their neighbours and communities are. Yet we should be concerned if the engagement with technological innovation also becomes a way of pushing the resilience agenda further in the direction of making those in need more responsible than well-paid humanitarian actors for providing humanitarian aid.

The arrival of the private sector as fully respectable partners in humanitarian action is in principle a necessary and desirable development. Nevertheless, while expressing distaste for the involvement of the private sector in humanitarian response is passé, talk of the importance of local markets and of ‘local innovation’, ‘indigenous innovation’ or ‘bottom-up innovation’ inevitable begs the questions: is the private sector one of the local participants as well as those in humanitarian need, and what do they want out of the partnership?

The current drive towards open data – and the belief in the emancipatory potential of open data access – means that transparency is a highly relevant theme on the humanitarian innovation agenda. Yet, on a pragmatic level, in an avalanche of information, it is difficult to see what is not there, particularly for individuals in crisis with limited access to information technology or with limited (computer) literacy.

Accountability and transparency thus seem to be missing in the implementation of the humanitarian innovation agenda, although innovation should be a means to enhance these objectives (among others) to produce a better humanitarianism.

Conclusions

First, we must beware of the assumption of automatic progress. We may be able to innovate ourselves out of a few traditional challenges and difficulties but most will remain, and additionally there will be new challenges resulting from the new technology.

Second, innovation looked at as a process appears suspiciously like the reforms of yesteryear. What, for example, is the difference between ‘bottom-up innovation’ and the ‘local knowledge’ valued in previous efforts to ensure participation? And are the paradigm shifts of innovation really much different from the moral improvement agenda of approaches such as the human-rights-based humanitarian aid?

Third, the increasingly self-referential humanitarian innovation discourse itself warrants scrutiny. With almost no talk of justice, social transformation or redistribution of power, we are left with a humanitarianism where inclusion is about access to markets, and empowerment is about making beneficiaries more self-reliant and about putting the label ‘humanitarian’ onto the customer concept in innovation theory.

 

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[1] www.alnap.org/resource/9207
[2] See the IFRC World Disasters Report 2013 on Technology and Humanitarian Innovation.
www.ifrc.org/publications-and-reports/world-disasters-report/world-disasters-report-2013/
[3] www.unocha.org/hina

 


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This blog is based on Kristin B. Sandvik’s article, ‘Humanitarian innovation, humanitarian renewal?’, published in a special Forced Migration Review supplement on ‘Innovation and refugees’.

Is it acceptable to lie for a good cause?

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Humanitarian organizations may easily succumb to the temptation to misuse numbers and statistics in order to promote their own causes. Does the end justify the means?

Disasters are most dangerous for moms reported Save the Children’s Carolyn S Miles in Huffington Post when presenting the organization’s State of the World’s Mothers report for 2014. The claim was followed by a number: women and children are ‘14 times more likely to die in a disaster than men’. A sky-high number when one is talking about differences in death rates and a colossal injustice if the information is reliable. But it’s not.

Humanitarian organizations fight for attention for their good causes in a challenging everyday media environment. Attaching a number to a dramatic claim is an effective way of endowing it with trustworthiness. And numbers also form the basis for headlines. As a result there may be a considerable temptation to select the highest and most dramatic numbers, even though the researchers behind the numbers may urge extreme caution. Sometimes organizations use numbers that have no basis in research whatsoever. Often these ‘mythical numbers’ are reproduced from other organizations’ reports and go from strength to strength as they circulate between humanitarian and international organizations, the media, and politicians.

The claim that women and children are up to 14 times more likely than men to die in a disaster is a classic example of a ‘mythical number’. It took fewer than five minutes to find and cross-check the source. Save the Children was citing a report published by Plan International in 2013. This report contains a reference that at first glance seems to be to an article published in a research periodical, Natural Hazard Observer, in 1997. The article turns out, however, to be a two-page opinion piece authored by a pastor associated with Church World Service, an American ecumenical organization. Pastor Kristina Peterson does not provide any sources to back up her claim. Interestingly, both Plan International and Save the Children have qualified the original claim by adding the words ‘up to’ in their own reports, even though these words do not appear in the original article ­– apparently suggesting that the original claim went too far.

My target here is not the way in which Save the Children cites its sources, but its uncritical use of numbers that simply should have been checked and rejected. It is difficult to understand how a large, professional humanitarian organization can fail thoroughly to check numbers that it uses so directly for marketing purposes. And although the claim referred to above is the most serious error, it is not an isolated case of a number that has shaky foundations. Another key claim in Save the Children’s press release is that ‘statistically, it is more dangerous to be a woman or a child in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) than an armed fighter’. This claim is impossible to substantiate. In order to make such a comparison, Save the Children would need to know at the very least how many soldiers there are in the DRC and how many have died both on and off the battlefield. It would also need equivalently reliable figures for mortality among women in the DRC. No such figures exist, and accordingly neither Save the Children nor anyone else can verify this claim. The report also claims that more than 5.4 million people have lost their lives as a result of war in the DRC. This is another ‘mythical number’. While it does indeed originate from extensive surveys conducted by another humanitarian organization, the International Rescue Committee, the methods used by the latter organization to calculate its figures have been strongly criticised. Much of this criticism is summarised in the Human Security Report.

Save the Children is by no means alone, but shares the company of a succession of humanitarian and international organizations when it comes to the use of mythical numbers. One frequently heard claim is that there are 300,000 child soldiers worldwide. This number has been used by a range of children’s rights organizations in order to draw global attention to the suffering of child soldiers. The number was advanced originally by Rachel Brett of the Quaker UN Office. It was promulgated worldwide by a UN report in 1996, but is not supported by any solid evidence. Like many other mythical numbers, it has remained remarkably constant despite changing circumstances. Several wars involving a high number of child soldiers, such as the wars in Angola, Liberia and Nepal, have now ended. This has not, however, caused any reduction in the number. As far as we are aware, no one has made a serious attempt to calculate the actual number of child soldiers. Probably this is impossible.

The same applies to the much-cited claim that there will be 200 million climate refugees by 2050. The number originates back to a report written in the mid-1990s by Norman Myers, a British environmentalist. Myers has no research expertise in the field of human migration and provides no documentation to demonstrate how he arrived at this number. Nevertheless it is frequently referred to both by humanitarian organizations and by international governmental organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and took on a new lease of life when it was reproduced in the highly influential Stern Review in 2006. Thus endowed with renewed authority, the number has been presented repeatedly by the media as a ‘new finding’ from a ‘research report’. This is despite the fact that all references to it can be traced back – via just a few detours – to Myers’ 1995 report. In reality there is no clear definition of the term ‘climate refugee’. And few people ask whether this undocumented number is really as dramatic as the reports indirectly suggest. The answer is no, not necessarily. Many ‘climate refugees’ are very likely among the people who relocate from increasingly difficult living conditions in rural areas in order to try their luck in cities, which in the vast majority of cases will be within their own countries. Even though estimates for human migration in general are uncertain, as many as 200 million people worldwide may have relocated from rural areas to cities in the course of just 10 years, between 2005 and 2015, according to the UN’s Population Division.

Why do humanitarian organizations choose to use numbers that they know – or ought to know – are wrong? I would hazard to suggest that this has nothing to do with the competence of the organizations’ analytical departments. Rather, the temptation not to discard an attention-grabbing number is sometimes simply too great, even though one may doubt its reliability. Specialist expertise or knowledge of advanced statistical methods is seldom required in order to ascertain whether a number is mythical. What one does need is a fundamentally critical approach to sources and some understanding of what constitutes proper research evidence.

When organizations choose to put forward numbers that they know – or ought to know – are undocumented, this may create an impression that they believe that it is justifiable to lie when they consider the circumstances to be in any event precarious and the objective to be sufficiently important and good; that it is not so important for all the details to be accurate so long as the overall message gets through. There are three main reasons why this conclusion is troubling. Firstly, global humanitarian and international organizations are important contributors to the policymaking of governments worldwide. Their aim is to get governments and others to act. If the evidentiary basis for their arguments is weak or distorted, this will reduce their effectiveness. Secondly, the use of exaggeratedly large numbers may cause the general public to become jaded. This may contribute to a vicious circle where dramatic numbers and spectacular campaigns become increasingly necessary in order to attract attention and justify action. Thirdly, this is a problem for the organizations themselves. Humanitarian organizations generally enjoy special trust as the providers of international aid. They should not take this trust for granted.

Humanitarian organizations can themselves take steps to cultivate a critical approach to numbers within their own analytical and informational departments. A process of quality assurance for numbers that are used aggressively for marketing should be a minimum requirement. There is never a good reason not to check one’s facts one last time, but it does require the inclination to change.

Henrik Urdal is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and is directing a research project on conflict trends in collaboration with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

A Humanitarian Technology Policy Agenda for 2016

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The World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 will feature transformation through innovation as a key theme. Leading up to the summit, OCHA has voiced the need to “identify and implement….positions that address operational challenges and opportunities” (OCHA 2013) relating to the use of information technology, big data and innovations in humanitarian action.

In this blog post we sketch out four areas in need of further research over the next two years to provide policymakers, humanitarian actors and other stakeholders with up to date and relevant research and knowledge.

1.    Empowerment and Accountability

  • Pivoting humanitarian action: Maximizing user-benefit from technology

Affected populations are the primary responders in disasters and conflict zones, and actively use information technology to self-organize, spread information about their condition, call for aid, communicate with humanitarian actors, and demand accountability. New technologies also have the potential to put responders at the center of the entire life cycle of humanitarian action – from needs assessment and information gathering, to analysis, coordination, support, monitoring and evaluation.  It is crucial that member states, humanitarian organizations and volunteer & technical communities (V&TCs) improve their actions to take advantage of this opportunity. The 2016 Summit should strengthen the end-user perspective in the development of guidelines for V&TCs.

  • The changing meanings of accountability

Increasingly over the last 20 years, the humanitarian community has focused on issues of agency accountability and professionalization of humanitarian action, vis-à-vis donors as well as beneficiaries. However, the technological revolution in humanitarian action and the increasingly central role of large telecom and tech companies makes it necessary to broaden the focus of accountability considerations.  For example, OCHA is now considering developing guidelines for how formal humanitarian organizations and V&TCs should cooperate with these companies. Leading up to the 2016 Summit, there is a need for more reflection and research on how technology can be used to enhance accountability in humanitarian action for all parties, including new actors.


2.    The role of aggregated data

Data collection and the importance of aggregated data have come to occupy an important role in humanitarian action. As illustrated by the 2013 World Disasters Report, big data and remote sensing capabilities provide an unprecedented opportunity to access contextual information about pending and ongoing humanitarian crises. Many notable initiatives such as the UN Global Pulse suggest that the development of rigorous information management systems may lead to feasible mechanisms for forecasting and preventing crises. Particular attention should be paid to three issue areas:

  • Veracity and validity

Multiple data transactions and increased complexity in data structures increase the potential for error in humanitarian data entry and interpretation. Data that is collected or generated through digital or mobile mechanisms will often pose challenges, especially regarding verification. Although significant work is underway to establish software and procedures to verify data, understanding the limitations posed to veracity and validity of humanitarian data will be critical.

  • Identity and anonymity

As humanitarian data is aggregated and made public, the chances for re-identification of individuals and groups increase at an unknown rate. This phenomenon, known as the mosaic effect, is widely recognized but little understood. There is little understanding of the dangers that shared anonymous data would pose in a humanitarian context, where data may be limited, but the potential damage of re-identification would be quite extreme.

  • Agency and (dis)empowerment

The aggregation of humanitarian data from multiple data streams and sources decreases the likelihood that individuals and groups reflected in that data will be aware of, and able to influence, the way in which that data is used.  This principle, sometimes referred to as informational self-determination, presents a challenge to digital and mobile data collection contexts generally, but is highly problematic in humanitarian contexts, where risks associated with personal information are particularly grave.


3.    Enabling and regulating V&TCs

Remote volunteer and technical communities (V&TCs) now play an increasingly important role in humanitarian contexts – generating, aggregating, classifying and even analyzing data, in parallel to, or sometimes in collaboration with more established actors and multilateral initiatives. They increasingly enjoy formalized relationships with traditional humanitarian actors, processing and generating information in the support of humanitarian interventions. Yet individual volunteers participating in such initiatives are often less equipped than traditional humanitarian actors to deal with the ethical, privacy and security issues surrounding their activities, although some work is underway. Although in many ways the contribution of V&TCs represents a paradigm shift in humanitarian action, the digital and volunteering revolution has also brought new concerns with regards to the knowledge and understanding of core humanitarian principles and tasks, such as ‘do no harm’ and humanity, neutrality and impartiality.

In considering the above issues, attention should be paid to inherent trade-offs and the need to balance competing values, including the following two:

  • Data responsibility vs. efficiency. There is an inherent tension between efficiency and data responsibility in humanitarian interventions. Generally, protecting the privacy of vulnerable groups and individuals will require the allocation of time and resources—to conduct risk assessments, to engage and secure informed consent, to implement informational security protocols. In humanitarian contexts, the imperative to act quickly and decisively may often run counter to more measured actions intended to mitigate informational risks to privacy and security
  • Western values vs. global standards. It has also been argued that privacy is a Western preoccupation, without any real relevance to victims of a humanitarian crisis facing much more immediate and pressing threats. This argument highlights the important tension between mitigating informational risks to privacy and security, and the need to efficiently and effectively expedite humanitarian aid. It does not account for the concrete risks posed to individual and collective security by irresponsible data management, however.

This is our modest contribution to an agenda for research and policy development for humanitarian technology. We would like to join forces with other actors interested in these challenges to contribute to a necessary debate on a number of issues that touch upon some of the core principles for humanitarian action. The ambition is to strengthen humanitarian action in an innovative and accountable manner, making us better equipped to help people in need in the future.

Note: This blog, written by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO), Christopher Wilson (The Engine Room) and John Karlsrud (NUPI), was originally posted on the website of the Advanced Training on Humanitarian Action Project (ATHA).

UNHCR – A Humanitarian Organization with a Mandate to Protect Civilians in Refugee Camps

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It is difficult to imagine a more humanitarian space than that of the refugee camp, whose foremost purpose is to provide refugees with temporary shelter, assistance, and protection until they are voluntarily repatriated to their country of origin, locally integrated in the host state, or resettled to third countries. The categorization of refugee camps as civilian and humanitarian is not, however, unproblematic. Refugee protection has always been deeply affected by greater security issues; rather than serving as civilian and humanitarian safe havens, camps for refugees (and internally displaced persons) have on a number of occasions become notorious for serious problems of insecurity, including armed attacks, arbitrary killings, torture, exploitation and military recruitment. But who can, and should, be held responsible under international law for these human rights violations?

This is the initial question discussed in my book Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps: Unable and Unwilling States, UNHCR and International Responsibility. Here, I examine the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) international responsibility for human rights violations taking place in refugee camps. The book argues that UNHCR under certain circumstances can, and should, be held responsible under the International Law Commission’s nascent framework of the Articles on the Responsibility of International Organizations. Specifically, UNHCR’s international responsibility will depend upon an evaluation of the host State’s ability and willingness to provide effective protection.

UNHCR and the Protection of Civilians in Refugee Camps

The book essentially finds that UNHCR’s mandate to provide refugees with ‘international protection’ includes the provision of physical safety and basic rights, and that UNHCR furthermore holds an affirmative duty to act and intervene to secure the basic human rights of refugees. That said, it is clear that UNHCR occupies a challenging place in the international arena when it is both entrusted with an ambitious mandate and also frequently caught in a vice between the preferences of actors such as donor governments and host states. It is to be a norm entrepreneur, supervisor and enforcement agency of refugee rights at the same time as it is expected to be a cooperative partner to states and NGOs, and the ultimate provider of material assistance. As Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps highlights, UNHCR’s protection role has become increasingly pragmatic, focusing more on the provision of food and shelter, and refugee security has as such had to give way for other competing priorities.

Considering the clear link between UNHCR’s international protection mandate and physical security, why, then, does the physical security and basic human rights of refugees and others of concern to UNHCR appear to be only a peripheral issue within the organization? The book presents several explanations. Firstly, UNCHR appears to believe that if it ‘flaunts’ its own responsibility, this risks detracting attention from the responsibilities of host states, who, after all, have the primary responsibility to protect refugees on their territory.  Secondly, however, because it surfaces at the crossroads between state sovereignty, national security and international human rights, refugee security is generally considered to be ‘high politics’ and exposes a tension between human rights norms and realpolitik. Organizations such as UNHCR tend to view attention to physical protection issues as a threat to their neutrality, impartiality and independence. Thus, for fear of jeopardizing relationships with governments, UNHCR appears to emphasize ‘soft diplomacy’ and prioritize less controversial tasks, such as the provision of material assistance, in the face of ‘hard’ human rights concerns. But, as even UNHCR itself has noted, it has a duty to fulfill its mandate regardless of ‘political circumstances and imperatives’. UNHCR’s challenge thus lies in staying true to its main principles, and not throwing them overboard as soon as it meets resistance. This logically means that UNHCR also cannot expect to please all sides.

Without downplaying the fact that UNHCR often has to make choices between bad and less bad options on the ground, it is arguable that without an increased focus on basic human rights and physical protection, UNHCR runs a real risk of ‘simply administering human misery’. More importantly, ignoring refugee security arguably affects the situation as much as confronting it. While UNHCR’s international protection mandate may be ready to be fully implemented in theory, because it appears not to be a current priority within the organization, it is far from certain that the mandate is fully understood, and applied thereafter, among the main actors concerned with protection and security within UNHCR.

Wide Scope for Improvements

Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps suggests that there is wide scope for improvements within UNHCR aimed at strengthening refugee protection. First, in order to ensure full and proper implementation, it is important to clarify UNHCR’s mandate vis-à-vis physical security both internally within the organization, and externally among its operative and implementing partners. In 2009, the UN Office of Internal Oversight (UN OIOS) undertook an extensive study of UNHCR’s approach to the safety and security of staff, operations and persons of concern. This study suggested that UNHCR’s mandate was often misunderstood among the main actors dealing with security issues.

A clarification of this mandate will hopefully also lead to a security focus that is more proportional between staff security and refugee security, and, on an international level, this may alleviate the current eclipse of UNHCR’s mandated responsibilities vis-à-vis physical protection of refugees and others of concern in refugee camps by the more pragmatic and operational activities of actors such as UN OCHA. In fact, recent years’ activities within the Security Council concerning the ‘protection of civilians’-framework have contributed to UN OCHA, whose mandate is essentially that of coordinating humanitarian response (and thus not protection), becoming the primary actor involved in refugee camp security. In a 2005 report by the UN Secretary-General, no mention of UNHCR’s role in protection monitoring is made – rather it is suggested that UN OCHA shall collect data on attacks against refugee camps and collate baseline information on issues such as security related to internally displaced persons.

A clarification of UNHCR’s mandate may also lead to improvements with regard to training and administering UNHCR staff: a shortage of protection staff seems to be an endemic problem within the organization, and is something which clearly has serious consequences in some operations where UNHCR has not even been aware of persistent rights violations. UNHCR must also reward staff who voice protection concerns – currently there appear to be no institutional incentives to do so.

It is also arguable that the current system of periodic rotation of staff between departments, headquarters and the field deprives UNHCR from any true expertise or staff specialization in the field of refugee physical security. Roughly speaking, there seems to be a general sentiment that each individual UNHCR staffer shall be able to tackle most of UNHCR’s various tasks, whether these tasks concern refugee camp security or material assistance. This system arguably impedes upon UNHCR’s possibility to use the skills acquired over the years to best effect. As one UNHCR staff argued in a 2005 study of UNHCR organizational culture: ‘Rotation is a serious problem … If a finance specialist has to move and become a programme person, it lowers things down to the lowest common denominator.’

Monitoring the human rights situation is an integral part of UNHCR’s exercise of its international protection mandate, and international protection cannot be advanced without full knowledge and understanding of the human rights situation. It appears as if UNHCR needs to reconsider the manner in which it collects, analyzes and, perhaps most importantly, uses the information on protection concerns in refugee camps. UNHCR’s experiences with security concerns in refugee camps are currently neglected or disguised through generalizations and shortcuts in the monitoring process. As such, new incidents can flourish. UNHCR’s internal evaluations have also shown that many field staff are not sufficiently aware of the relevant policies and guidelines, or about their monitoring roles and responsibilities. This was also emphasized in the 2009 UN OIOS Report, which inter alia found that UNHCR lacked adequate guidelines for security and protection officers in the field to enable joint assessment and physical protection of refugees and other persons of concern, and that the accountability framework, reporting mechanism, definition of security responsibilities and arrangements for monitoring the implementation of security measures were not adequately defined. It is clear that the protective effect of UNHCR’s protection monitoring depends upon how the gathered information is used.

More Protection, Less Material Assistance

A renewed focus on UNHCR’s international protection mandate might entail that UNHCR focuses less on providing material assistance. However, experience suggests that in cases where UNHCR has been unable or otherwise unwilling to provide material assistance, other organizations have stepped into the void. Such was the case in Thailand, when UNHCR sought to minimalize its involvement in the camps that were controlled by Cambodian military factions. This clearly suggests that there is an abundance of international and non-governmental organizations that can provide material assistance. Only UNHCR, however, has the mandate to provide international protection.

UNHCR’s accountability is the topic of an upcoming panel – organized by members of and affiliates to the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies – at the Humanitarian Studies Conference in Istanbul October 24-27, 2013. More information about the conference and the panel ‘UNHCR and the Struggle for Accountability: an examination of parallel regimes’ is found on http://www.humanitarianstudiesconference.org/. The book Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps: Unable and Unwilling States, UNHCR and International Responsibility can also be pre-ordered through Brill’s webpage: http://www.brill.com/products/book/protecting-civilians-refugee-camps.

Killer Robots: the Future of War?

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In September 2013, PRIO and the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies hosted the breakfast seminar “Killer Robots: the Future of War?”. The goal of the seminar was to contribute to the public debate on autonomous weapons, and identify key ethical and legal concerns relating to robotic weapon platforms. The event was chaired by Kristin B. Sandvik (PRIO), and the panellists were Alexander Harang (Director, Fredslaget), Kjetil Mujezinovic Larsen (Professor of Law, Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, UiO) and Tobias Mahler (Postdoctoral Fellow, Norwegian Research Center for Computers and Law, UiO). Based on the panel discussion, the following highlights the prospects of banning autonomous weapons and legal and ethical challenges in light of current technological development.

 Killer robots and the case against them

As a result of technological advancement autonomous weapon platforms, or so-called lethal autonomous weapons (LAR), may well be on the horizon of future wars. Such development, however, raises legal and ethical concerns that need discussion and assessment. Chairing the seminar, Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, highlights that such perspectives are absent in current political debates in Norway, and points out that “autonomous weapons might not be at your doorstep tomorrow or next week, but they might be around next month, and we think that it is important that we begin thinking about this, begin understanding what this is actually about, and what the complications are for the future of war.”

Killer robots are defined as weapon systems that identify and attack without any direct human control. As outlined in the Human Rights Watch Losing Humanity Report, unmanned robotic weapons can be divided into three categories. First, human controlled systems, or human in the loop systems, are weapon systems that can perform tasks delegated to them independently, but where humans are in the loop. This category constitutes the currently available LAR technology. Second, human supervised systems, or human on the loop systems, are weapon systems that can conduct targeting processes independently, but theoretically remain on the real-time supervision of a human operator who can override these automatic decisions. Third, fully autonomous systems, or the human out of the loop systems, are weapon systems that can search, identify, select and attack targets without any human control.

Alexander Harang highlights four particular issues when using such weapon systems. Firstly, killer robots may potentially lower the threshold of armed conflict. As Harang emphasizes, “it is easier to kill with a joystick than a knife”. Secondly, the development, deployment and use of armed autonomous unmanned systems should be prohibited, as machines should not be allowed to make the decision to kill people. Thirdly, the range and deployment of weapons carried out by unmanned systems is threatening to other states and should therefore be limited. Fourthly, that the arming of unmanned weapon platforms with nuclear weapons should be a banned.

As a response to these challenges, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots urgently calls upon the international community to establish an arms control regime to reduce the threat posed by robotic systems. More specifically, the Campaign calls for an international agreement to prohibit fully autonomous weapon platforms. The Campaign is an international coalition of 43 NGOs based in twenty countries, supported by eight international organisations, a range of scientists, Nobel laureates and regional and national NGOs. The Campaign has already served as a forum for high-level discussion. So far, 24 states at the UN Human Rights Council have participated in talks. The Campaign has also brought these demands further at the 2013 meeting on the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), where more than 20 state representatives participated. Harang emphasizes that “the window of opportunity is open now, and [the issue] should be addressed before the military industrial complex proceeds with further development of these weapon systems.”

Finally, Harang notes the difficulties in establishing clear patterns of accountability in war. Who is responsible when a robot kills in the battlefield? Who is accountable in the event of malfunction where an innocent civilian is killed? In legal terms, it is unclear where the responsibility and accountability lies, and whether this is somewhere in the military chain of command or with the software developer. One thing is certain: the robot cannot be held accountable or be persecuted if IHL is violated.

 

The legal conundrum

Although unmanned robotic technology is developing rapidly, there is a slow evolution on the laws which governs these matters. In the legal context it is important to assess how autonomous weapon systems exist and conform to existing legislation; may it be international humanitarian law, human rights law or general international law. Harang emphasizes that this technology also challenges arms control regimes and the existing disarmament machinery. In particular, this issue raises concerns with regards to humanitarian law, in which distinction between civilian and combatants in war is a requirement. Addressing such legal concerns, Kjetil Mujezinovic Larsen reflects on how fully autonomous weapons can be discussed in light of existing international humanitarian law. Larsen sets out some legal premises for discussion on whether such weapons are already illegal and whether they should be banned or not.

Under IHL, autonomous weapon platforms can either be inherently unlawful or potentially unlawful. Such weapons can then be evaluated with considerations to two particular principles of IHL, namely that of proportionality and distinction. Inherently unlawful weapons are always prohibited. Some weapons are lawful, but might be used in an unlawful manner. Where do autonomous weapons fit?

Larsen explains that unlawful weapons are weapons that, by construct, cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, such as chemical and biological weapons. As codified under IHL, such weapons are unlawful with regards to the principle of proportionality, for the protection of combatants. This prohibition does not immediately apply to autonomous weapons, because it is concerned with the effect of the weapons on the targeted individual, not with the manner of engagement. The concern with autonomous weapons lies precisely in the way they are deployed. So, if autonomous weapons are used to deploy chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, then they would clearly be unlawful.

Furthermore, as outlined in IHL, any armed attack must be targeted at a military target. This is to ensure that the attack distinguishes between civilians and combatants. If a weapon is incapable of making that discrimination, it is inherently unlawful. Due to the inability of robots to discriminate between civilians and combatants, using them would imply uncontrollable effects. Thus, such weapons are incapable of complying with the principles of distinction, which is fundamental in international humanitarian law.

The Human Rights Watch’s Losing Humanity Report states that “An initial evaluation of fully autonomous weapons shows that even with the proposed compliance mechanisms, such robots would appear to be incapable of abiding by the key principles of international humanitarian law. They would be unable to follow the rules of distinction, proportionality, and military necessity”. However, as Christof Heyns states in his report to the Human Rights Council “it is not clear at present how LARs could be capable of satisfying IHL and IHRL requirements [.]”

As Larsen highlights, the question of compliance is a big controversy in the legal sphere. From one legal viewpoint, the threshold for prohibiting weapons is rather high. Hard-core IHL lawyers will say that prohibition will only apply if there are no circumstances whatsoever where an autonomous weapon can be used lawfully. For example, there are defensive autonomous weapons that are programmed to destroy incoming missiles. Autonomous weapons are also used to target military objectives in remote areas where there is no civilian involvement. Under these circumstances, autonomous weapons do not face the problem of distinction and discrimination. However, the presumption of civilian status in IHL states that in case of doubt as to whether a civilian or an individual is a combatant or a civilian, he or she should be treated as a civilian. Will technology be able to make such assessments and take precautions to avoid civilian casualty?  How can an autonomous weapon be capable of doubt, and act on doubt?

In addition to such legal concerns, Larsen also discusses a range of ethical and societal concerns. Some argue that autonomous weapons will make it easier to wage war, because there is less risk of death and injury to own soldiers. Such technology can also make it easier for authoritarian leaders to suppress their own people, because the risk of a military coup is reduced. Furthermore, using autonomous weapons increase the distance between the soldier and the battlefield, and make human emotions and ethical considerations irrelevant. The nature of warring would change, as robots cannot show compassion or mercy.

On the other hand, some scholars argue that such weapons may be advantageous in terms of IHL. Soldiers, under psychological pressure and steered by emotions, can choose to disobey IHL. An autonomous weapon would not have the reason or capacity to snap, and robots may achieve military goals with less violence. This is based on the argument that soldiers can kill in order to avoid being killed. As robots would not be subject to such a dilemma, it could be easier for them to capture and not kill the enemy.

Potentially, autonomous weapons can make the use of violence more precise, leading to less damage and risk for civilians. This, however, requires a substantial development of software. Throughout history, weapons have always been a passive tool that humans have actively manipulated to achieve a certain purpose. Larsen suggests that if active manipulation is taken out of the equation, perhaps autonomous weapons cannot be considered as weapons in the IHL sense. Perhaps the IHL is as such insufficient to resolve the legal disputes about LAR. This would call for the establishment of new laws and regulations to outline the issue of accountability. Alternatively, a ban could resolve the dispute of the level of unlawfulness, by constituting them as inherently unlawful. Regardless, Larsen emphasizes the urgent need of a comprehensive and clear legal framework, particularly due to the rapid technological development in this field. Larsen also notes that lawyers have to defer to technology experts to define whether such technology can comply with current legal frameworks.

 

Technological determinism?

Due to technological advancement, Tobias Mahler argues that it is realistic to expect automated and autonomous technology to be implemented in all spheres of society in the near future. In this context, how realistic is a ban of killer robots? Mahler views the chances to be slim, and foresees a technological domino effect, implying that once some states acquire autonomous robots other states are expected to follow. From a technological and military perspective, the incentives for doing so are fairly strong.

In addition to the conventional features of LARs, such as surveillance equipment, robustness and versatility, robots can also be programmed to communicate with each other. This would imply programming different vehicles to share and exploit the information they collect, advancing the strategic approach to finding and attacking targets. Such communication between machines is already used in civilian technology such as autonomous vehicles, and is also assumed to be in use in the military complex. Such development and advanced of military technology is not presented to the public, due to strategic and security considerations. Thus, the technological opportunities of LARs are immense for the military sector.

Mahler emphasizes that although the military hardware may look frightening, the real threat lies in the algorithms of the software determining the decisions that are made. It is the software that controls the hardware and makes decisions concerning human lives. Robots rely on human specifications on what to do through software. Due to limitations of what programmers can specify, software development is prone to shortcomings and challenges. How do we deal with the artificial intelligence of autonomous robots?

Software malfunctions as well as hacking are problems in all spheres where technology is used. In a future comprised by technology any device could cause potential harm for civilians. In this context, Mahler suggests that there is still not full clarity to what a killer robot is. Questioning the relative lethality of autonomous weapons, he suggests that “in 20 year, when everything will be autonomous, you might be killed by a door.” However, he points out that the concerns related to autonomous weapon systems should be ignored or avoided. This argument simply points to that such challenges are present in both the civilian context and the military context.” Nevertheless, it is unclear who the responsible party would be when using killer robots.

Other concerns raised by Mahler regard whether LAR technology differs from other types of weapon technology, and may change the nature of war. In a war situation, would soldiers prefer to be attacked by another soldier, or a killer robot? How will the dehumanization of war impact soldiers and the public? It is correct to assume that soldiers would prefer to fight with other soldiers? A soldier in a combat situation could make an ethical consideration and show mercy, contrary to robots. However, there is not much evidence which suggests that mercy is commonly used among soldiers. On the other hand, governments could gain great public support by promoting LARs as a means to limiting loss of soldiers. As Mahler states, “people are really concerned about loss of lives of their soldiers, and if there is any way to protect them, then one might go that way.”

One of the questions that remain unanswered is whether software-developers are able to program software sufficiently advanced for autonomous war machines. One way of dealing with such concerns would be to develop robots that comply with IHL. Mahler ponders whether a pre-emptive ban may be too late in light of the current technological development. Perhaps the aim should be to regulate the robots and artificial intelligence in a way so they comply with the current legislation.

In this regard, Mahler points out the need for further development of the current conceptual framework of war and the law of armed conflict. Perhaps the current concepts used in IHL may be insufficient for the future of war. For instance, in a situation where robots are fighting robots, who are considered to be combatants under IHL? Is it the software programmer or the president who decided to send out the killer robot? Future technology could perhaps be able to distinguish between civilians and combatants using face recognition or iris scans. For now, however, this issue remains unresolved.

Regardless of technological inevitability, further discussion on this issue is necessary. Legal, ethical and societal challenges must be identified, and the means to solve these challenges must be specified. Addressing these issues is important in order to curb unintended humanitarian consequences and implications in the future. Perhaps these consequences may be avoided through a ban on LAR system or that current concepts of IHL need to be broadened in order to tackle legal shortcomings. Maybe software developers will one day be able to write programs that comply with IHL. Nevertheless, it is important to discuss and address these issues based on present knowledge and tools we have in place. The future of war is still not determined.

Literature:

United Nations General Assembly – Human Rights Council (2013) “Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns”. Available at http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session23/A-HRC-23-47_en.pdf

Human Rights Watch (2012) “Losing Humanity Report”. Available at http://www.hrw.org/node/111291/section/1

Campain to Stop Killer Robots (2013) “Who we are”. Available at http://www.stopkillerrobots.org/coalition

The complete video of the “Killer Robots: the future of War?” seminar is available here.

Land of Confusion – Protection of Women and Children in Liberia

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In spite of the efforts made by international actors to have the Liberian National Police’s (LNP) Women and Children Protection Section (WACPS) working to provide women and children with a special recourse to justice institutions, a number of challenges remain unaddressed. Many of these challenges are also a product of how these sections were established and funded, the lack of a coherent and comprehensive understanding of the functioning of justice institutions in Liberia, the challenges reforming or building these institutions represent, and how these new institutions are to interact with traditional institutions and practices. In 2008 there was a WACPS of the LNP in every county capital in Liberia (fifteen in total). In spite of these efforts, however, UNMIL has been forced to recognize the fact that “sexual violence against women and children remains a central reality of life in Liberia” (UNMIL 2008b).

The WACPS were established with the intention of addressing the pressing concerns the international community had with GBV in Liberia. That women and children now had a dedicated section within the LNP which dealt with GBV no doubt would ensure that these issues were addressed by the police. The question which nevertheless remained was: what happened with a case after it was reported to WACPS. For instance, one of the issues the establishment of WACPS was meant to address is the relatively high degree of impunity for GBV crimes. But as a legal specialist interviewed in Monrovia exclaimed to us, “The problem in Liberia is not that victims of rape don’t get justice, but that no one gets justice!” In a country where judges in many cases do not have knowledge of the penal code, and where the police only rarely possess investigative tools and skills, it is doubtful whether the establishment of the WACPS alone will lead to a higher rate of conviction. Furthermore, the problems may be exacerbated by the fact that victims who do report crimes lose faith in the institutions of justice, as reported criminals seldom face convictions. Furthermore, while the institutions of rule of law are to some degree present in Monrovia, they often lack outside of the capital. As one NGO worker involved in GBV work explained, “No place outside of Monrovia has all the pieces of rule of law”. The major international presence in Liberia is in Monrovia, and as such inferences about the spread of rule of law institutions in general, and the WACPS in particular to the whole country must be done carefully – if at all. As one NGO worker said to us in Monrovia, “What’s in it for the victims? Why should they report a rape when they know the perpetrator and nothing ever really happens?”

 “Modern” and Traditional Justice Institutions

The efforts to address GBV and the impunity of perpetrators as well as the general (re)building of the institutions of the rule of law must be seen in the context of which functions the new institutions are to fulfill, and which ones are already fulfilled by the traditional “justice” system. Rather than seeking to supplant the traditional system, one needs to understand how these systems can supplement each other. In this respect it is important to understand how they interact in practice today. As became clear to us, victims of GBV do not always get their cases investigated. As one police officer told us, once a victim has reported a crime the police “investigate, but sometimes compromise.” Recourse to the WACPS in other words is no guarantee that the case will be investigated or passed through the court system. And while it is beyond the scope of this brief to address the desirability of this, one thing is nevertheless clear: As long as the international community has absolutely no understanding of how the traditional system works, there is little chance that effective measures to counter GBV in rural areas will succeed. The view advanced by most representatives of the international community we met during three fieldworks in Liberia simply goes to show the extent to which the UN system lacks the knowledge to address GBV in a comprehensive manner.

 Conclusion

The point of this blog post has not been to denigrate the efforts made by international donors and the UN. Addressing the problem of GBV in Liberia cannot be done without their support. However, these efforts so far have tended to fit the donors’ own agenda rather than the needs on the ground. One consequence of this is that efforts to reform and (re)build rule of law institutions by the international community are done without the most basic knowledge of how the administration of justice functions in Liberia. Furthermore, it is often done without thinking about the consequences of these efforts with respect to other rule of law institutions. As a result, efforts such as the WACPS do not function as well as they were intended. Budgets for logistical follow up are not provided for, the equipment provided does not fit the working routines of the LNP, and while the WACPS might function to some extent when looked upon separately, when seen in relation to other rule of law institutions, the efforts seem quite often misplaced as no efforts are made at addressing the system comprehensively.

Literature

UNICEF (2005) “New women and children protection section for Liberia’s police”. Available at http://www.unicef.org/media/media_28159.html

UNMIL (2008a) “New Confidence in Liberian Police Has More Women and Children Reporting Crime” 15 June. Available at http://unmil.org/article.asp?id=2788

UNMIL (2008b) “Liberia: UNMIL Humanitarian Situation” Report No. 156, 24 November. Available at http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900SID/EGUA7LPQBP?OpenDocument

UNMIL (2008c) “UNPOL Commissioner urges for the protection of women and children against sexual violence and abuse” 01 December. Available at http://unmil.org/article.asp?id=3036

UNMIL (2008d) “Continued human and financial support needed to bolster Liberia’s Police Force” 15 December. Available at http://unmil.org/1article.asp?id=3057&zdoc=1

Norwegian Embassy in Côte d’Ivoire (2008) “Norway commended for supporting Liberia’s recovery” available at http://www.norvege.ci/info/Coop%C3%A9ration/MedaljeseremoniPoliti.Liberia.htm