Conclusion | Towards a Rights-Based Approach

Humanitarianism has traditionally been anchored on two foundational concepts: all human beings have certain unalienable rights to assistance and protection, and humanitarian actors have obligations to adhere to agreed standards of professional ethics rooted in a duty to realize these rights. In the networked age, the continued relevance of the humanitarian project thus depends on translating these rights and obligations into a normative framework appropriate for the unique challenges and opportunities that the growing reliance on digital data and ICTs presents.

This initial articulation of a rights-based approach to these issues is the necessary first step in the continued evolution of humanitarian practice. It is now incumbent on the humanitarian sector to use the Signal Code as one tool among many to begin to address the gaps in international humanitarian and human rights law and standards around humanitarian information activities. These gaps will continue to be laid bare by the adoption of new information technologies by responders and affected populations alike in both predictable and unexpected ways.

Emerging international legal norms around data privacy and security make this effort all the more urgent. Without concerted and intentional action by all stakeholders, standards of professional ethics for humanitarians risk becoming increasingly anachronistic and out of step with the impact technology is having on both the contexts in which humanitarians operate and the populations they seek to serve.

Four crucial, interconnected steps are required of humanitarian actors, governments, private sector entities, and international agencies:

  • The human rights of all people to information during crisis, including their rights to protection from harm and human rights violations related to the use of information, must be formally and explicitly recognized and codified under international humanitarian and human rights law;
  • The ethical obligations of humanitarian actors engaged in humanitarian information activities to realize these rights must be articulated and agreed as part of accepted standards of professional conduct;
  • Minimum technical standards for the responsible design and execution of humanitarian information activities based on agreed human rights principles and ethical obligations must be developed and integrated into current humanitarian practice; and
  • Humanitarian actors, governments, private sector entities, and international agencies must collaboratively and quickly support the emergence of an accepted normative framework for humanitarian information activities that fuses human rights, law, ethics, and practice.

The networked age is one of new promise and new peril for crisis affected populations and those who assist them. Technological advancement alone is never enough to navigate the dangers and opportunities of any emerging historical epoch. The continued protection, articulation, and integration of human rights into how humanitarians apply any technology has historically proven the only pathway to responsibility and justice.

The networked age is no different. While the challenges the field faces from the issues raised by The Signal Code may be complex, the way forward is now clear. How any rights-based approach to humanitarian information activities will be formulated, agreed and implemented is a matter for rigorous debate. Whether a rights-based approach is now required, however, is not.