Ethical Obligations for Humanitarian Information Activities

Translating humanitarian principles and human rights into the context of information activities.
Ethics is not just being rational and affective. Our choices must also seek to be effective... Acts are, therefore, the ultimate outcome of ethics. The practical field of humanitarian ethics is deliberately known as humanitarian action because of this basic moral insight that ethics without action is nonsensical.
Hugo Slim

Introduction | The Need for Obligations

Humanitarian action is at a crossroads. The rapid emergence and adoption of digital information communication technologies (ICTs), combined with increasing dependence on digital data across all sectors of society, has redefined the nature of how emergencies unfold and fundamentally changed the roles that humanitarian actors and affected populations play before, during, and after a crisis occurs.

The networked age has brought with it operational, technical, legal, and ethical questions that exceed the scope of existing humanitarian principles and ethical, moral, and legal frameworks. As a result, humanitarian actors are now doing their work without sufficient and agreed ethical guidance specific to the current and potential future use of information, data, and ICTs.

Technological change is not the only factor challenging the relevance and suitability of the ethical frameworks available to humanitarian practitioners. The increasingly prominent and commonplace reliance on partnerships with private sector actors to support the use of ICTs and data in humanitarian response, establishment of data sharing agreements with Governments, and engagement in research and development activities with a wide range of non-humanitarian actors is affecting the longstanding definitions of humanitarian independence and humanitarian space. At the same time, affected populations themselves are more connected than ever before, allowing for more active agency through the very technologies on which humanitarians are ever more reliant.

Humanitarians today lack sufficient ethical guidance adapted to the realities of humanitarianism in the information age to responsibly navigate the challenges and realities of the digital age. This lack of guidance creates challenges to the continued relevance and effectiveness of the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence.2 The importance of addressing this gap cannot be overstated. How humanitarian actors address the absence of common ethical guidance for their use of information, ICTs and data will determine—positively or negatively—the future of humanitarianism itself. As the 1994 Great Lakes Crisis spurred a transformational moment of professionalization for humanitarian action,3 so does the current, historical moment.

This document (hereafter, “Obligations”) attempts to apply the foundational sources of ethical humanitarian practice to humanitarian information activities (hereafter, “HIAs”). The Obligations builds upon the January 2017 publication of The Signal Code: A Human Rights Approach to Information During Crisis, which sought to identify extant international humanitarian and human rights law and standards, as well as other relevant and accepted international instruments, that provide all people basic rights pertaining to the access to, and provision and treatment of information during crisis. The Signal Code is employed as an underlying framework for how the Obligations is structured and from where they are, in part, derived. Humanitarian Information Activities are defined in the context of this document with the following definition taken from the Signal Code:

"… Activities and programs which may include the collection, storage, processing, analysis, further use, transmission, and public release of data and other forms of information by humanitarian actors and/or affected communities. HIAs also include the establishment and development of communications capacity and infrastructure by responders and/or populations. These activities occur as part of humanitarian action throughout the response cycle and include, but are not limited to, improving situational awareness; disaster preparedness and mitigation; intervention design and evaluation; connecting populations to response activities and to each other; and supporting ongoing operations, including delivery of assistance."4

It is essential to distinguish between the different types of HIAs as well as other types of ‘information activities’ conducted by humanitarians in order to determine the legitimacy of a particular intervention. Based on the standard that HIAs must support effective delivery of humanitarian assistance and be based on the needs of affected populations, HIAs fall into two central categories:

  1. Activities that constitute or directly support the provision of information as aid; and
  2. Activities that directly support the provision or delivery of other forms of aid.

Beyond these two categories, humanitarian actors engage in a wide range of other information activities. These include any activity that utilizes ICTs and/or digital data but does not directly constitute or support the delivery of humanitarian assistance. While standards for such activities are in many ways still lacking, sector-specific guidance on interventions including monitoring & evaluation, planning, and other similar activities are not the focus of this document.

The Obligations intends to move one additional step beyond the Signal Code’s interpretation of international humanitarian and human rights law and standards to the theory and practice of HIAs. It seeks to translate the humanitarian principles and related standards of professional conduct, which ostensibly form the basis of “humanitarian ethics,”5 into the specific context of HIAs. These standards primarily include, though are not limited to, the following:

  • The Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, including the Sphere Core Standards and the Protection Principles;6
  • The Core Humanitarian Standard;7 and
  • The ICRC Code of Conduct.8

The Obligations is presented in the tradition of frameworks which translate the moral and ethical principles of the humanitarian community to specific domains. An example of such frameworks include those now recognized as Sphere companion standards:9

  • The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action;10
  • Cash Learning Partnership;11
  • Interagency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) Minimum Standards for Education: Preparedness, Response, Recovery;12
  • The Livestock Emergency Guidelines and Standards Network;13 and
  • Small Enterprise Education and Promotion Minimum Economic Recovery Standards.14

Just as these domain-specific frameworks were developed over time in a broad consultative and consensus-based manner, so too should the minimum technical standards for HIAs be developed. The combination of the Signal Code and Obligations is meant to contribute to this process and, at least in part, form the foundations of the discussions that will yield this critical set of rights-based standards for humanitarianism in the digital age.
This document follows the structure of the Core Humanitarian Standard as close as possible, while expanding on the reasoning and sources of these obligations. The first chapter provides a brief overview of each obligation and connects them to their corresponding rights. Each subsequent chapter details each obligation in three sections:

  1. The obligation text itself;
  2. The basis and source of the obligation; and
  3. The steps necessary to achieve implementation of each obligation.

Many of these steps are taken directly from existing humanitarian guidance, such as Sphere and the Core Humanitarian Standards. The source is noted following each step. Where there are gaps in existing guidance,
recommendations are noted.

The Obligations articulates how humanitarians’ primary ethical obligations in information activities extend from the rights of all human beings, and how humanitarians can engage in these activities while upholding foundational principles of ethical humanitarian practice. While the Obligations by itself will not answer all the critical questions and challenges that translating humanitarian ethics into the context of the networked age requires, it is intended to begin an iterative process of translation, inquiry, and consensus-building essential to the future of humanitarian practice.


add definitions here


The rights apply to all people and regardless of the use of any specific technology.


The rights reinforce and translate existing bedrock rights adhered to by humanitarian practitioners into the specific context of HIAs.


Humanitarians are defined by their commitment to realize the core humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence in how they assess need, design and manage programs, and provide assistance to affected populations. Additionally, humanitarian action is rooted in respecting accepted international human rights standards. Humanitarianism is thus a profession defined by adherence to its underlying ethical principles and committed to ensuring and enhancing the dignity of the individuals and populations it seeks to serve during all phases of response.15 The centrality of these principles to the humanitarian work of UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations is formally enshrined in UN General Assembly Resolutions 46/182 and 58/114,16 as well as the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Disaster Relief (hereafter ICRC Code of Conduct) and the Humanitarian Charter.17

Pictet asserts that humanity is the principle from which all the other principles flow.18 It consist of three elements: to prevent and alleviate suffering, to protect life and health, and to assure respect for the individual.19 Humanitarian assistance is defined in the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Field Handbook as “assistance intended to save lives and alleviate suffering among a crisis-affected population.”20 The Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative defines humanitarian action similarly:

"The objectives of humanitarian action are to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity during and in the aftermath of man‐made crises and natural disasters, as well as to prevent and strengthen preparedness for the occurrence of such situations."21

In short, to be considered humanitarian, an activity must meet the aims of these three elements. When actors22 engage in humanitarian information activities (HIAs), they are ethically obliged to abide by humanitarian principles and international human rights standards in a fashion constant and equal to their application during any other form the provision of humanitarian assistance. All actors engaged in the provision of humanitarian assistance have a duty of care specific to how they create, collect, process, share, use, and dispose of information, including data from and about individuals and populations.

This duty of care also applies to how humanitarians research, develop, innovate, test, and integrate new approaches for utilizing data, information, and information communication technologies (ICTs) into their work. Humanitarians are bound by widely accepted standards of human subjects research, informed consent, and data privacy and security for both experimental and accepted approaches to conducting HIAs. Additionally, humanitarians must ensure that HIAs are distinguished from and do not contribute to military operations, commercial interests, and political activities; these distinctions must be consistent with core humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence.

This duty of care is derived from, though not limited to, five rights all crisis-affected people have related to in-formation, including the collection and use of their personal and community data. Previously articulated in the Signal Code, these rights can be identified as existing among currently accepted human rights law and covenants, including the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other instruments and International Humanitarian Law.

Central to this duty of care is the premise that information itself is aid; it is a prerequisite for the delivery of and access to all other forms of aid. Information enables the alleviation of suffering, the protection of life and health, and helps assure respect for the individual. The role information plays in crisis contexts makes it a necessary component of realizing the right to a life with dignity, the right to life, liberty, and security of person, and the right to humanitarian aid.

Those affected by crises are not merely beneficiaries, but active agents in their environment. They will seek in-formation to meet their needs as they perceive them. Therefore, information should never be treated as simply providing an efficiency or advantage to responders, but instead as critical assistance itself required by the crisis-affected, upon which the delivery of all other aid and their well-being is contingent and connected. Humanitarians form a core part of this information ecosystem when they collect, create, and provide information affected populations, organizations, the public and other stakeholders by engaging in HIAs. Humanitarians must recognize the potential positive and negative roles they play in evolving information ecosystems, and seek to ensure that the affected have access to culturally and contextually appropriate information in order to meet their needs.

Obligations During Humanitarian Information Activities

The following obligations for HIAs derive from the five rights above and extend from, are consistent with, and incorporate the ethical obligations which bind and define all humanitarians through the ICRC Code of Conduct, the Humanitarian Charter and Sphere, the Core Humanitarian Standard, and other relevant accepted sources. These obligations help organizations understand the risks and mitigate the harms related to ICT use and the data life-cycle as they engage in information activities. All of these obligations exist simultaneously, and none of them can be used to abrogate the others. The obligations each exist by themselves but are realized through their inter-dependent application in reference to, and in support of, the other obligations:

  1. Affected Population Needs | Humanitarians ensure that humanitarian information activities (HIAs) are based on the needs of affected populations.
  2. Competency, Capacity, and Capability | Humanitarians maintain minimum standards of com-petency, capacity and capability throughout the course of an HIA.
  3. Agency of Affected Populations | Humanitarians ensure and encourage the agency of affected populations throughout the course of an HIA.
  4. Minimize Adverse Effects | Humanitarians identify and minimize adverse effects throughout the course of an HIA.
  5. Meaningful Consent | Humanitarians promote and protect the dignity of populations by en-suring free and meaningful consent, and by abiding by internationally accepted human subjects research protections throughout the course of a humanitarian information activity.
  6. Ensure Data Privacy and Security | Humanitarians ensure data privacy and security at every stage of an HIA.
  7. Reduce Future Vulnerability | Humanitarians ensure that humanitarian information activities strive to reduce future vulnerability and neither degrade nor disrupt local capacity.
  8. Coordination | Humanitarians coordinate, ensure complementarity, and prevent duplication of efforts in designing and implementing HIAs.
  9. Transparent and Accountable | Humanitarians are transparent and accountable throughout the course of an HIA.

2. International Committee of the Red Cross, “Proceedings of the XXth International Conference of the Red Cross,” International Review of the Red Cross, No.56 (1965): 567-598.3. James Orbinski, “On the Meaning of the SPHERE Standards to States and Other Humanitarian Actors” (London, December 3, 1998).

4. Faine Greenwood et al., “The Signal Code: A Human Rights Approach to Information during Crisis,” Standards and Ethics Series: 02 (Cambridge: Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, 2017),

5. This document uses Hugo Slim’s framing of humanitarian ethics as a principle-based ethics. For more on this framing, see: Slim, Humanitarian Ethics, 39–45.

6. The Sphere Project, Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, 3rd ed. (Bourton on Dunsmore, Rugby: Practical Action Publishing, 2011),

7. CHS Alliance, Groupe URD, and The Sphere Project, Core Humanitarian Standard: Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability, 2014,

8. International Committee of the Red Cross and International Federation of the Red Cross, “Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Disaster Relief,” December 31, 1994,

9. “The Sphere Project | Fostering Greater Coherence among Humanitarian Standards | Standards Partners,” accessed February 28, 2018,

10. Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, “Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action” (The Child Protection Working Group, 2012),

11. “Home—CaLP,” accessed March 19, 2018,

12. Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, “INEE Minimum Standards for Education: Preparedness, Response, Recovery” (Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, 2010),

13. Livestock Emergency Guidelines and, Livestock Emergency Guidelines and Standards (Rugby, Warwickshire, United Kingdom: Practical Action Publishing, 2009),

14. Small Enterprise Education and Promotion Network, “Minimum Economic Recovery Standards,” 2010,

15. International Committee of the Red Cross, “Proceedings of the XXth International Conference of the Red Cross.”

16. United Nations General Assembly, “A/RES/46/182. Strengthening of the Coordination of Humanitarian Emergency Assistance of the United Nations,” Pub. L. No. A/RES/46/182, UNGA (1991),; United Nations General Assembly, “Strengthening of the Coordination of Emergency Humanitarian Assistance of the United Nations,” Pub. L. No. A/RES/58/114, UNGA (2003),

17. International Committee of the Red Cross and International Federation of the Red Cross, “ICRC Code of Conduct”; The Sphere Project, Humanitari-an Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response.

18. Jean Pictet, “The Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross: Commentary,” International Review of the Red Cross 210 (1979): 144,

19. Pictet, 145–50.

20. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UNDAC Field Handbook, 6th ed. (Geneva: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2013), 2, Handbook_interactive.pdf.

21. Good Humanitarian Donorship, “Principles and Good Practice of Humanitarian Donorship” (Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative, 2003), 1,

22. This document uses “actors” to refer to all parties engaging in humanitarian response activities. This includes ‘traditional’ humanitarians, such as Government agencies, national and international NGOs, and the United Nations, and ‘non-traditional’ humanitarians, such as VTOs, private sector partners, and other third-party service providers. 23. United Nations General Assembly, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 217 A.III § (1948),