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. 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, 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.
Pictet asserts that humanity is the principle from which all the other principles flow. It consist of three elements: to prevent and alleviate suffering, to protect life and health, and to assure respect for the individual. 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.” 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.
In short, to be considered humanitarian, an activity must meet the aims of these three elements. When actors 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 information, 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. These rights are as follows:
Humanitarians have primary loyalty to crisis-affected populations above any other partner or stakeholder. This first and foremost entails upholding the principle of humanity through the impartial delivery of aid. Information activities undertaken by humanitarians are no different in this regard than other forms of aid. This duty to ensure the rights and dignity of crisis-affected populations is rooted in universally accepted human rights articulated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and always takes precedence, including when it conflicts with their obligation to respect national law. When a conflict cannot be resolved, the humanitarian’s primary duty to meet the needs, respect the rights and ensure the dignity of crisis-affected populations may require either ceasing or not initiating an ongoing or proposed HIA.
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 information 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.
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 interdependent application in reference to, and in support of, the other obligations:
Affected Population Needs | Humanitarians ensure that humanitarian information activities (HIAs) are based on the needs of affected populations.
Competency, Capacity, and Capability | Humanitarians maintain minimum standards of competency, capacity, and capability throughout the course of an HIA.
Agency of Affected Populations | Humanitarians ensure and encourage the agency of affected populations throughout the course of an HIA.
Minimize Adverse Effects | Humanitarians identify and minimize adverse effects throughout the course of an HIA.
Meaningful Consent | 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.
Ensure Data Privacy and Security | Humanitarians ensure data privacy and security at every stage of an HIA.
Reduce Future Vulnerability | Humanitarians ensure that humanitarian information activities strive to reduce future vulnerability and neither degrade nor disrupt local capacity.
Coordination | Humanitarians coordinate, ensure complementarity, and prevent duplication of efforts in designing and implementing HIAs.
Transparent and Accountable | Humanitarians are transparent and accountable throughout the course of an HIA.