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.
The Signal Code: Ethical Obligations for Humanitarian Information Activities translates and applies the foundational sources of ethical humanitarian practice to humanitarian information activities, such as mobile devices, WiFi provision, data collection, storage and analysis, and biometric registration tools. This document represents the first effort to provide humanitarian practitioners and researchers with comprehensive ethical guidance for this increasingly commonplace and critical area of humanitarian practice.
The Obligations builds upon the rights-based approach first articulated in the January 2017 publication of The Signal Code: A Human Rights Approach to Information during Crisis. The Code seeks 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 a crisis. The first volume of the Code is employed as an underlying framework for how the Obligations is structured and from where the obligations are, in part, derived.
Introduction | The Need for Obligations
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, Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster
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. 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, 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.
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:
- Activities that constitute or directly support the provision of information as aid; and
- 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,” 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;
- The Core Humanitarian Standard; and
- The ICRC Code of Conduct.
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:
- The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action;
- Cash Learning Partnership;
- Interagency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) Minimum Standards for Education: Preparedness, Response, Recovery;
- The Livestock Emergency Guidelines and Standards Network; and
- Small Enterprise Education and Promotion Minimum Economic Recovery Standards.
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:
- The obligation text itself;
- The basis and source of the obligation; and
- 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.