Executive Summary

This section summarizes each obligation, focusing on its key components and respective value as related to upholding the rights of affected populations. This overview is followed by dedicated chapters for each obligation, comprised of (1) a detailed presentation of the obligation, (2) the basis or source of the obligation, (3) the value and importance of the obligation, and (4) the quality criteria, key actions, and organizational responsibilities required for implementing the obligation as derived from core humanitarian standards and related ethical, moral, and legal frameworks.

The following nine obligations derive from the five rights articulated in the Signal Code and commonly accepted core humanitarian ethical and moral frameworks. These nine obligations are consistent with and incorporate the ethical obligations established through the ICRC Code of Conduct, the Humanitarian Charter and Sphere, the Core Humanitarian Standard, and other relevant accepted sources. Each ethical obligation applies to all humanitarians and their respective organizations at all times without exception in the context of HIAs. Download the Obligations poster

1. Humanitarians ensure that humanitarian information activities are based on the needs of affected populations. 

All humanitarian actors have an obligation to ensure that HIAs are based on the needs of affected populations. The recognition of need as the primary basis for humanitarian aid is established in IHL and humanitarian ethical and moral frameworks. As HIAs constitute aid or support the effective delivery of other forms of assistance, they must also be based on the needs of affected populations. Information communication technologiess and data should never be used simply because they can be; the humanitarian need and potential benefits must be clear, causal, and defined. 

The emergence of non-humanitarian partners—many of whom engage in activities described as “data philanthropy,” “ICT4D,” “crisis mapping,” and “humanitarian innovation”—make this obligation all the more critical. If humanitarians cannot determine the humanitarian need that a proposed information activity is intended to address, it is inappropriate for them to engage in such interventions.

To fulfill this obligation, humanitarians must be capable of assessing the degree to which a particular HIA is based on a genuine humanitarian need. While traditional needs assessment methods provide sufficient information to inform HIAs that support the provision of other forms of aid (e.g. food, water, shelter), these methods fall short in determining the needs-basis of HIAs that constitute aid in themselves (e.g. those that provide or support the provision of information as a form of aid). Humanitarian actors thus require a common approach for assessing needs as they relate to information and, in turn, designing HIAs that respond appropriately to these needs. By ensuring that HIAs are designed and delivered based on the needs of affected populations, humanitarians may mitigate a wide range of potential harms, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Exploitation of affected populations; exclusion of particularly vulnerable, underrepresented, and/or ‘invisible’ groups; 
  • Waste of humanitarian resources due to duplication of efforts; 
  • Eroding the trust of affected populations and/or the legitimacy of overall response operations. 

2. Humanitarians maintain minimum standards of competency, capacity, and capability throughout the course of a humanitarian information activity.

Humanitarians have an obligation to maintain minimum standards of technical and ethical competency, capacity and capability in every stage of an HIA. These elements form the basis of humanitarian performance: the set of competencies, capacities, and capabilities required for humanitarian actors to fulfill their duty of care to affected populations. 

This obligation is essential to the identification, prevention, and mitigation of a wide range of threats and harms inherent in the design, management, and evaluation of any HIA. If humanitarian actors do not possess the necessary competency, capacity, and capability to responsibly and ethically execute an HIA, realizing the other obligations becomes increasingly difficult. Critically, this obligation is what compels humanitarian actors to develop, agree, and uphold minimum technical standards for the different types of HIAs. In short, this obligation gives all the other obligations effect and ensures, through its realization, a basis for training, monitoring and evaluation, and other key actions necessary for learning and accountability.

By maintaining minimum standards of competency, capacity and capability in every stage of an HIA for their own staff and any implementing partners or service providers, humanitarians may mitigate a wide range of potential harms. These harms include but are not limited to the following: 

  • Violation of the human rights of affected populations through negligence and/or malice; 
  • Creation of new protection threats or magnification, multiplication, and/or mutation of extant protection threats through a failure to identify, analyze, and anticipate potential ethically and operationally dangerous ongoing or proposed interventions; 
  • Failure to recognize the need to cease an HIA to protect the rights and safety of a population; 
  • Lacking the technical skill and capacities to ensure that data is accurate, credible, and not misleading to other humanitarian actors and affected populations; 
  • Deploying tools, procedures and systems that cannot be responsibly secured, maintained, applied, audited, and decommissioned or disposed of, risking the privacy, dignity, and human security of an affected population. 

3. Humanitarians ensure and encourage the agency of affected populations throughout the course of a humanitarian information activity.

Humanitarians have an obligation to ensure and encourage the agency of affected populations by engaging and consulting with them throughout the course of a humanitarian information activity. Humanitarian action is fundamentally people-centered. Approaches for promoting the agency of affected populations are well established in core humanitarian frameworks, broader norms and best practices within the sector. Extending and upholding these approaches throughout the course of an HIA, e.g. at the different stages of the project and data life-cycle, is critical not only because it ensures that affected populations remain central to such activities, but because doing so empowers crisis-affected people to make informed decisions about their involvement in HIAs. 

Fostering the agency of affected populations requires that representative participation and feedback mechanisms figure centrally in any HIA, and that affected populations remain sufficiently informed throughout the course of an HIA. For participation to be meaningful, it must be representative and robust. A representative cross-section of the affected population must be engaged in a significant way at each stage of an HIA. From design and development through deployment or delivery of a particular solution or service, humanitarians must also ensure that this engagement does not place any particular sub-group at risk, especially when those groups are not substantively included in the design or execution of the HIA. 

In turn, to ensure that engagement and consultation with affected populations is not unidirectional, humanitarian actors must establish feedback mechanisms through which populations can actively inform and provide critical feedback on the elements of different HIAs that concern them. Finally, affected populations cannot exercise agency in an HIA unless they are duly notified of the existence, initiation, scope, and cessation of an HIA. The requirement holds not only for HIAs that directly involve or impact affected populations, but also for HIAs that utilize and/or impact affected populations’ data—even in circumstances when that population is not aware of the activity. By ensuring the agency of affected populations by engaging and consulting with them at every stage of an HIA, humanitarians may mitigate a wide range of potential harms, including but not limited to: 

  • The implementation of HIAs without the affected population knowing that they are occurring, that their data is being collected, or that they have rights that may pertain to how, when, and why the activity is undertaken; 
  • The infliction of harms through the collection, use, and sharing of inaccurate and/or potentially harmful data and information without the knowledge and engagement of the affected population necessary to ensure rectification and redress;
  • Deployment of culturally inappropriate, technologically foreign, or contextually inappropriate HIAs; and
  • Disengagement by an affected population from existing services and systems due to a perceived lack of agency and control over their data, access to services, receipt of appropriate and/or timely information, and other outcomes expected from HIAs and related operations. 

4. Humanitarians identify and minimize adverse effects throughout the course of a humanitarian information activity.

Humanitarians have an obligation to identify and minimize potential adverse effects at every stage of an HIA consistent with the protection required in any other sub-sector of humanitarian assistance. In many cases, information and data-related activities in the humanitarian sector are treated as being somewhere on a scale of impact between “protection neutral” and “protection positive” in their perceived potential effects. They are not. 

Instead, ICTs, information and data—whether in the context of a recognized HIA or simply as an ambient, external dynamic in a particular operational environment—must never be treated as inherently protection neutral or protection positive. The unique, specific threats and harms of these activities and technologies should be intentionally addressed in any protection assessment matrix as threat vectors unto themselves. By identifying and minimizing adverse effects of HIAs, humanitarians may mitigate a wide range of potential harms, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Targeting of populations or humanitarian actors through identifying their real or perceived locations, vulnerabilities, or other attributes about them because of the intentional public release, security breach or intercept, or other disclosure of information or data generated through humanitarian activities; 
  • Economic or social exploitation of an affected population; 
  • Exacerbation of discrimination and social exclusion against a specific population based on ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation, infectious disease status, sexuality, or other demographic distinction; 
  • Loss of trust in humanitarian actors by the affected population, stemming from violations of domestic or international privacy, data handling standards and regulations, and minimum standards of data protection by humanitarian actors; and
  • The violation of human subjects research protections and other human rights of a disaster-affected population, regardless of whether an HIA does or does not increase the vulnerability of a population to pre-existing and/or new threats and harms.

5. Humanitarians promote and protect the dignity of populations by ensuring free and meaningful consent, and by abiding by internationally accepted human
subjects research protections throughout the course of a humanitarian information activity.

Humanitarians promote the dignity of individuals and populations by ensuring free and meaningful consent. Humanitarians recognize disaster-affected people as autonomous individuals with agency over their bodies and their data, giving them control over how data about them is collected and used. Humanitarians respect the right of all individuals to either refuse or consent to participation in activities involving their bodily integrity and personal data consistent with customary international law. 

This includes distinguishing between operational and experimental uses of data and technology, abiding by and applying internationally accepted human subjects research protections (i.e. the Nuremberg Code, the Belmont Report, and the Helsinki Declaration), and recognizing the humanitarian duty of care towards affected populations when collecting, sharing, processing, aggregating, using, and disposing of their personal data. Human subjects research protections are a regime of customary international law and regulations that exist to ensure the dignity, safety, and autonomy of individuals participating in research and experimental activities, as well as guarantee that participants benefit from the activities’ outcomes. This obligation upholds the basic human rights of affected populations, maintains trust and transparency between responders and communities, and helps ensure that agencies adhere to international and domestic laws that govern consent for the collection, use and processing of individual data. In implementing this obligation, humanitarians may mitigate a wide range of potential harms, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Loss of agency, dignity, and privacy of affected individuals, and subsequent harm arising from the violation of these rights;
  • Loss of right to redress and rectification for harms, and ability to mitigate against future harms;
  • Potential for irrevocable harm in the form of violence and exploitation;
  • Loss of trust between humanitarian responders and affected populations;
  • Violation of international and domestic data and human subjects protections, regulations, and laws. 

6. Humanitarians ensure data privacy and security before, during, and after the
implementation of a humanitarian information activity.

Humanitarians have an obligation to ensure data privacy and security before, during, and after the implementation of a humanitarian information activity in any operational context. When data privacy and security cannot be reasonably defined, agreed upon, and operationally realized for all stages of an HIA, then that activity cannot, by definition, be considered humanitarian in nature. 

Implementing this obligation requires establishing policies and procedures capable of handling Personally Identifiable Information (PII) and Demographically Identifiable Information (DII), including action-based information, with humanitarian organizations and across the humanitarian ecosystem, standardized legal agreements for the sharing of sensitive data, and minimal technical and ethical standards for data handling, management, and information systems. It also requires the creation of accountability mechanisms and common, critical incident reporting procedures, as well as the establishment of minimum standards for competency, capacity, and capability required for core HIAs.

Failure to realize this obligation increases the potential for irrevocable harms affecting the protection status of vulnerable people, such as refoulement, arbitrary detention, trafficking, torture and disappearance, extrajudicial killings, and social and economic exclusion and exploitation. Additional harm may arise due to loss of dignity, financial loss, and the burden of guarding against future harms. Further, in certain circumstances this may cause violations of other rights, such as the right to data agency.

Key areas of harm that this obligation may address include:

  • Potential for irrevocable harm created by loss of privacy affecting the protection status of vulnerable people and populations, including but not limited to: refoulement, arbitrary detention, human trafficking, torture and disappearance, extrajudicial killings, social exclusion, economic exploitation, and expulsion from home communities. 
  • Loss of dignity due to social exclusion and emotional distress related to the breach of private data.
  • Loss of livelihood or other financial losses due to theft, identity loss, or expense of mitigating against future harms arising from the original breach.
  • Erosion of trust between humanitarian responders and the affected population and subsequent loss of access to aid by the affected.
  • Violation of right to data agency and informed consent.

7. Humanitarians ensure that humanitarian information activities strive to reduce future vulnerability and neither degrade nor disrupt local capacity. 

Humanitarians have an obligation to ensure that HIAs strive to reduce future vulnerability and neither degrade nor disrupt local capacity. In placing communities and people affected by crisis at the center of humanitarian response, humanitarian actors recognize the critical importance of local capacity and agency. To improve the resilience of affected populations, humanitarian actors recognize that the investments, programs, and individual activities comprising a humanitarian response must build on local capacity and, wherever possible, help reduce future vulnerability of populations affected by crisis. 

Just as more robust approaches are required for assessing the needs-basis of HIAs, more robust approaches are required for assessing the information-related vulnerability and capacity of affected populations. This, in turn, supports the identification of opportunities for building capacity and reducing future vulnerability of affected populations. Traditional modes of vulnerability and capacity assessment do not often capture critical details related to vulnerabilities and capacities of affected populations vis-a-vis information, ICTs and digital data. Updated and enhanced vulnerability and capacity assessments are thus required to inform humanitarian action in the digital age. 

In realizing this obligation, humanitarians may mitigate a wide range of potential harms, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Inaccurate and/or inappropriate assessments of vulnerability and capacity in the context of HIAs lead to poorly designed interventions that may degrade and/or disrupt local capacity; 
  • Short and long-term efforts to build local competencies, capacities and capabilities to support disaster preparedness and resilience are undermined by the injection of outside actors; 
  • Local capacity, voices, solutions, and skilled professionals are displaced; 
  • Failure of outside actors to recognize and design for the local information infrastructure or ecosystem, leading to duplicative or unsustainable interventions.

8. Humanitarians coordinate, ensure complementarity, and prevent duplication of effort in designing and implementing humanitarian information activities.

Humanitarians have an obligation to coordinate, ensure complementarity, and prevent duplication of effort in designing and implementing humanitarian information activities. Coordination plays an essential role in humanitarian response, and a range of coordination processes and systems exist within the humanitarian sector, designed to maximize the efficiency, coverage, and effectiveness of interventions before, during, and after a crisis. While the configuration of these processes and systems varies across contexts, the overarching approach and intent remains the same: assisting people when they most need relief or protection through coherent, effective, and principled humanitarian action in partnership with national and international actors.

The cluster system represents one of the most important mechanisms for humanitarian coordination. Introduced in 2005 under the auspices of the Humanitarian Reform Agenda, the Cluster Approach plays a central role in bringing humanitarian organizations together for coordinated response activities. Unfortunately, information activities are neither officially designated nor recognized as constituting a humanitarian sector on their own, and thus no cluster exists for their coordination. Coordination of HIAs is thus often ad hoc, with individual thematic clusters following different processes and protocols for the coordination of HIAs in their sector, leading to further fragmentation and undermining efforts to ensure complementarity, prevent redundancy, and—most important—prevent harm as a result of HIAs.

In ensuring coordination and complementarity, and preventing redundancy in the design and implemention of HIAs, humanitarians may mitigate a wide range of potential harms, including but not limited to the following:

  • Inaccurate, inappropriate, or duplicative assessments of and response to the needs, vulnerabilities, and capacities of affected populations; exclusion of or failure to cater for particularly vulnerable, underrepresented, and/or ‘invisible’ groups; 
  • Waste of humanitarian resources due to redundancy; and
  • Undermining other efforts within or outside of agency by eroding the trust of affected populations and/or the legitimacy of overall response operations.

9. Humanitarians are transparent and accountable throughout the course of a
humanitarian information activity.

Humanitarians have an obligation to be accountable to and transparent throughout the course of a humanitarian information activity. Accountability and transparency are acknowledged as essential, prerequisite components of principled humanitarian action. Accountability requires, though is not limited to the following critical activities: 

  • Formally investigating when an HIA may have caused harm to an affected population through negatively affecting their human security, human rights, and/or social and economic status; 
  • Communicating the findings of such investigations and after-action reviews; 
  • Establishing the capacity to engage in redress and rectification related to data collection and processing, as well as information dissemination activities. 

The concept of accountability to affected communities is central to the Core Humanitarian Standard and the Humanitarian Charter, and clearly articulated in the ICRC Code of Conduct. Realizing this obligation requires action across the humanitarian programming cycle, and includes the creation of feedback mechanisms and complaint mechanisms. These include mechanisms to address critical incident complaints, define who is responsible and accountable for data-related harms and the protocols for addressing and remedying these harms, and ensuring transparency across related procedures. It also requires ongoing monitoring of outcomes and engaging in sector-wide processes for engaging with and learning from critical incidents. 

In ensuring transparency and accountability throughout the course of an HIA, humanitarians may mitigate a wide range of potential harms, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Contraction of the humanitarian space;
  • Erosion of trust between the affected and humanitarian responders;
  • Limitations data sharing;
  • An increased likelihood of regulation; and 
  • Impunity when targeting humanitarians driven by the perception that humanitarians themselves do not uphold legal or regulatory standards. 

Download The Signal Code: Ethical Obligations for Humanitarian Information Activities