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Published: June 18, 2024

Saving lives by enhancing humanitarian logos

By: Ebe Brons

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Once a symbol of safety, humanitarian logos are now less effective at protecting workers in conflict zones. To address this, Ebe Brons, founder and CEO of the Centre for Safety and Development (CSD), proposes a unified logo design to enhance recognition and reduce the risk of attacks.

There has been a worrying increase in attacks on humanitarian organisations in recent times. In fact, 2023 was a record-breaking year for aid worker fatalities.

Showing a humanitarian logo used to be a way to improve security. The warring parties would recognise your logo, know you are one of the good guys and leave you alone. This has changed.

We have seen many humanitarian organisations attacked while showing their organisational symbol. Apparently, this logo does not provide the same security as in the past, even when this sign is considered neutral and warring parties accept the organisation’s presence.

Although an NGO logo does not have the same international legal stature as the Red Cross symbol, it is a clear sign of humanitarian presence.

Logo visibility is, therefore, paramount. The chances of an unwarranted attack increase if a logo is not recognised. So, how can the humanitarian community improve the visibility of its logos as a shield against attacks?

It starts with accepting that, even in this networked and digital age, the fog of war and uncertainty in situational awareness are problems for all active in risk areas.

This uncertainty is not an excuse to attack humanitarians. But even in a peaceful world, knowing everything all the time by everyone is not easy. In wartime, I would not bet my life on it.

The face of war is also changing rapidly. Yes, drones, cameras and other sensors have made the battlefield more transparent. But when a combatant sees through the camera of a drone, a satellite, or a sensor, is that the same as seeing it with your own eyes? It often is not. And what if the combatant is not a human but an artificial intelligence (AI) system? What does seeing even mean?

A complicating factor is that the pace of the battlefield is speeding up. Incoming weapons are faster. They are detected at the last moment and decisions are made with a deadline of just a few seconds.

In such a world, recognising humanitarian logos is becoming more important and, at the same time, more difficult.

This train of thought also assumes that every combatant knows all the humanitarian logos. But, of course, they do not.

Do we, as humanitarian actors, feel comfortable that our lives lie in the hands of a single combatant who probably does not know your logo, has a few seconds to decide to attack you and can hardly distinguish your logo through a small camera several miles up in the sky? It’s a very uncomfortable thought.

How can we take this single combatant, operating a deadly weapon system, into account?

The answer is to align the logos of humanitarian actors. This would improve the chance that a combatant or AI system distinguishes a humanitarian actor in the fog of war.

One simple and effective option is to add a wide red oval line around all humanitarian logos used in risk areas. This would enhance the contrast while still allowing the individual logo to be distinguished.

This would also align all the logos together as a standard that is easier for combatants, operators, pilots and AI systems to recognise. I have added some made-up logos below to give you an idea.

Implementing this idea will involve overcoming some practical hurdles. Who would manage this system? Who is entitled to use this field logo? Will it be respected? These are all fair questions that need to be answered.

On the other hand, what stops you from using this enhanced logo? You can add it to your organisational logo in risk areas and communicate it to the warring parties.

I understand that international law would not protect this enhanced or field logo like the Red Cross symbol. However, it would be a start to improving the visibility of humanitarian organisations. And, in this way, it could play a part in reversing the worrying trend of increasing attacks on humanitarian workers.












About the Author:

Ebe Brons is the founder and CEO of the Centre for Safety and Development (CSD). The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views or position of the author’s employer.

Banner image credit: ChildFund / Jake Lyell
Logo images credit: Ebe Brons


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