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Published: February 28, 2014

Security risk management and new technologies

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Aid agencies operate in many conflict-affected contexts that are considered by Western powers as threats to international peace and security.  Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) controversially used to respond to these threats, have already changed the contexts in which aid workers find themselves in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now, the potential introduction of LARs (Lethal Autonomous Robotics- weapons systems that can select and engage targets without intervention by a human operator), could further change the humanitarian operational context, as well as the types of threats aid workers are exposed to in the field.

Organisations have their own views on the moral and legal implications of LARs. However, with the technology already in (limited) use by Israel and in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, it is not too early to ask what changes LARS might bring to the humanitarian space over the coming years. It is also worth questioning if drone and LARs spin-off technologies provide a legitimate means through which organisation’s risks can be better managed.

LARs and the Humanitarian Space

Would an organisation be willing to operate in an area where machines have an autonomous lethal capacity? Obvious questions on the potential for hacking, misappropriation and mistake arise, aside from major questions of accountability and feasibility of LARs under International Humanitarian Law.

However, doubts about the actual robotic function can be met with viable counter arguments. Theoretically, LARs could increase the safety of the operational space, removing the ‘fog of war’ sometimes associated with soldiers. At the very least, they will change the nature of threats to NGOs in certain circumstances (e.g. at checkpoints). The prospect of mistake or accidental shooting could also be reduced; as noted by the UN Special Rapporteur, Christof Heyn, a robot can use ‘different tactics to go closer and, only when fired upon, return fire’.

Heyn’s report calls for NGOs to ‘consider the implications of LARs for human rights and for those in situations of armed conflict, and raise awareness about the issue’. Concerns surrounding staff security and the implications for effective organisational risk management should be included in this debate.


Technological Innovation and Increased Humanitarian Security

A news report on the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan described how drones were used to increase staff security: “…there were a number of concerns over possible security situations which might put aid workers at risk. The drones helped essentially maintain watch over ongoing aid operations, which improved visibility into possible security situations.” It is clear that organisations are using technologies initially developed for military use for their own humanitarian purposes.

However, the very concept of ‘humanitarian drones’ plays an important role in expanding the market for UAVs with government customers. By identifying new ‘humanitarian’ programme and security uses, negative news coverage of the civilian consequences of the use of drones can be drowned-out.  Aid agencies are being asked to strike a fine balance here. Supporting the development of technologies which perpetuate the length of a conflict and increase military force projection contravenes any humanitarian mandate. However, using available technologies to ensure the safety and security of aid workers on the ground is a welcome advance and can only help beneficiaries.  The debate will continue.


Background reading

Paradoxes of Presence: Risk management and aid culture in challenging environments, March 2013, http://www.odi.org.uk/publications/7514-risk-humanitarian-remote-management

Reaching Critical Will, last accessed 28th February 2014, http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Resources/Factsheets/killer robots.pdf

Human Rights Implications of the Usage of Drones and Unmanned Robots in Warfare, 3rd May 2013, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/etudes/join/2013/410220/EXPO-DROI_ET(2013)410220_EN.pdf

International Review of the Red Cross: New technologies and warfare, Summer 2012, http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/international-review/review-886-new-technologies-warfare/review-886-all.pdf

Killer Robots:Warfare’s Friend or Foe?, 9th September 2013, http://blogs.newschool.edu/news/2013/09/killer-robots-warfares/

War: The Next Generation: The future of war and its impact on children, October 2013, http://www.warchild.org.uk/sites/default/files/War-Child-War-The-Next-Generation.pdf

Conference on Security Investment Decisions – Assessment of Drones for search and rescue at sea in Europe, 24th June 2013, http://securitydecisions.org/about-dessi/publications/


LARs and the Humanitarian Space

Report on lethal autonomous robotics and the protection of life by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, 9th April 2013, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session23/A-HRC-23-47_en.pdf

Technological Innovation and Increased Humanitarian Security

In the Philippines, drones provide humanitarian relief, Devex, 16 December 2013, https://www.devex.com/en/news/in-the-philippines-drones-provide-humanitarian/82512

The promise and perils of disaster drones. Humanitarian Exchange Magazine,  Issue 58 July 2013, http://www.odihpn.org/humanitarian-exchange-magazine/issue-58/the-promise-and-perils-of-disaster-drones


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