On February 11, 2020, the Georgetown University Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) welcomed Hugo Slim, the head of policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who gave a lecture titled “Humanitarian Action in the 2020s,” focusing on the normative, ethical, and operational changes that will likely take place in the practices of military and humanitarian action in the next ten years. Following the event, GJIA sat down with Hugo Slim to discuss the changing landscape of humanitarian action.
GJIA: In a 2013 interview with the ICRC, you mentioned the possibility for humanitarian agencies to use modern technology, such as drones, to make better assessments or deliver equipment more safely. How do you envision this technological change will alter the humanitarian action landscape?
HS: If new technology, such as digital and robotic technology, is going to be leveraged for military advantage, it can also definitely be leveraged for humanitarian advantage. I think we are seeing it in various applications already. For instance, drones can be used in assessments of different kinds, particularly when we have an area contaminated by unexploded fragments, bombs, tripwires, and other booby-traps. ICRC has a weapons decontamination team, and advance aerial and land drone technology assessment will be a safer way to look at an area before they physically enter it. We are even expecting, given there are already people who have moved urgent blood supplies with drones, that we will soon be moving other larger things with drones too. Roads and logistics in many areas are very problematic, so drones may make great “leap-frog” logistics to get above the roads.
Do you expect any potential cost of this change, such as less local trust due to the lack of human contact in aid delivery? Do you then believe that there are more benefits than potential costs to using these technologies in humanitarian action?
There is a major criticism of humanitarian action in the last ten years that we have become more remote from people, and that security has made us live in bunkers, leading to the “bunkerization” of humanitarian aid, the fortified headquarters, and team houses, etc. I think this is regrettable because the story of technology is not as simple as a loss of contact. Technology can often increase our contact with people we have never met and never will meet. For instance, ICRC now regularly uses social media and mobile telephony to communicate with people about what they need and to tell them when services are available or repaired. We also use digital technology to find missing people, and taking and disseminating photographs of people looking for their families is incredibly helpful. This is still human contact, so to say that any contact happening digitally is not as human as physical contact is not quite true. I know from keeping in touch with my own children that I love WhatsApp and the intimacy it brings, which makes me feel close to them even when I am hundreds of miles away. So, the remote technology issue is not binary. There is “digital proximity.” But the ICRC still always tries to get direct access to people and so be physically close to them too. We will never just use one method—we will always use a combination of proximity approaches.
As cyber warfare becomes a more prevalent and devastating method of military attack, what can or should be done at the national and international levels?
It is very clear to us, in the ICRC, that in the context of armed conflict, any cyberattack can and should respect the International Humanitarian Law (IHL). You should not be trying to wipe out the electricity of an entire city because that is disproportionate and indiscriminate. These kinds of aggressive acts through computers are able to abide by humanitarian law. As weapons and methods of warfare, they can and they must respect the Geneva Conventions. Operatives cannot say “because we are doing cyber, we do not need to respect the Geneva Conventions.” In fact, you can respect them even better sometimes, because cyberattacks may bring more precision.
I think one big challenge we will have with cyber is anonymity; we will need rules about attribution, which clarify that “this was an attack by me.” This is an area where we may well need new policies and legal norms. Otherwise, if cyber warfare is always anonymous, commanders’ responsibilities can evaporate.
In regard to international norms, how will the understanding of intersectionality assist and shape the discourse on humanitarian action? How will it shape the relationship between aid givers and recipients and shape the narrative of transforming recipients as subjects, not objects of aid?
We, as humanitarian organizations, must be impartial. We must never discriminate against people because they come from different groups, religions, race, etc. We are always blind to those political distinctions and we work on the basis of need alone. However, once we start working with people’s needs, we realize that people from different groups have different needs. Intersectionality helps us understand these specific needs of certain people: for instance, whether men of a particular age and ethnic identity are at more risk of attack and detention than others.
Some would argue against humanitarian intervention based on some previous interventions which failed to improve or, in certain cases, worsened the situation. How can changes in the 2020s better address the issue of evaluating the effectiveness of humanitarian aid and intervention?
One of the best ways to improve is to learn from previous experiences. We have thirty or forty years of a very sophisticated, well-documented history of humanitarian action. We have a big academic community that is studying, analyzing, and thinking about what works and what does not. It is the obligation of agencies and the profession as a whole to learn from these experiences and to develop expertise based on previous failures and successes. We have to be a learning profession. If we are not, then we are negligent. For example, take something like cash transfers to people—a relatively new innovation that can be made physically or digitally. We have been working with cash for twenty years and have learnt a lot. For instance, there is an umbrella group called the Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP) which identifies good and bad practices across the humanitarian sector. We become more expert by learning and discovering new mistakes we are making.
This question is also politically important, in that you must always consider the way your aid is being played or instrumentalized politically by all sides. These are judgments about whether the way you are bringing food or cash into an environment is helping people or compromising them with armed forces and armed groups.
As humanitarian aid agencies grow in their power and significance with online platforms as well as with collaboration with actors in both private and public sectors, what kind of influence, if any, will this have on both their perceived and actual motives?
The challenge here is always around the perception of our neutrality and impartiality. We all have to work with different partners, and often it is good if we can work with governments because they are usually the biggest providers in health, education, water, and electricity, and they have humanitarian responsibility under IHL. It is also good if we can work with local companies because they are often best placed to build, repair, and transport things. We have to be very alert about how people see our partners politically and therefore how they see us close to those partners. The ICRC invests a lot in analyzing, networking and communicating our neutrality with all parts of society to explain what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we are impartial. There are always difficult compromises to make and you have to explain them to people.
As you return to your role as a senior research fellow at Oxford, what insights and experiences from working in academia, the humanitarian sector, and international business will you be taking with you?
One of the fascinating things about working with the ICRC is the level of detail and analysis we make on the nature of contemporary warfare. We have teams working with armed groups, armed forces, weapons, etc. I want to write a book in the coming year about the modern battlefield which is no longer a “field” but a series of battle spaces from outer space, cyberspace, climate space, urban space, social space to geopolitical space. I want to describe all these different battle spaces as the realm of war today, and then I want to look in detail at the humanitarian response as well. My experience at an organization that is so close to armed conflict has been very helpful to understand this better.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
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Hugo Slim (@HSlim_Oxford) is the Head of Policy and Humanitarian Diplomacy at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva, Switzerland. He was previously a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC) at the University of Oxford with a research focus on the ethics of war and humanitarian aid. After five years at the ICRC, he will soon be returning to his Oxford role. His most recent books are Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster (2015 Hurst/OUP) and Killing Civilians: Method, Madness and Morality in War (2007 Hurst/OUP).