Protecting children’s digital bodies through rights

The recent incident of a UNHCR official tweeting a photo of an Iraqi refugee girl holding a piece of paper with all her personal data, including family composition and location, is remarkable for two reasons. First, because of the stunning indifference and perhaps also ignorance displayed by a high-ranking UN communications official with respect to a child’s personal data. However, the more notable aspect of this incident has been the widespread condemnation of the tweet (since deleted) and its sender, and her explanation that it was “six years old”. While public criticism has focused on the power gap between humanitarians and refugees and the precarious situation of Iraqi refugees, this incident is noteworthy because it marks the descent of a new figure in international aid and global governance: that of children’s digital bodies.

Because children are dependent, what technology promises most of all is almost unlimited care and control: directly by parents but indirectly by marketing agencies and tech companies building consumer profiles. As explained by the Deborah Lupton, in the political economy of the global North (and, I would add, the global East), children are becoming the objects of a multitude of monitoring devices that generate detailed data about them. What are the possible negative ramifications in low resources contexts and fragile settings characterized by deep-seated oversight and accountability deficits?

The rise of experimental practices: Ed. Tech, babies and biometrics

There is a long history of problematic educational transplants in aid context, from dumping used text books to culturally or linguistically inappropriate material. The history of tech-dumping in disasters is much more recent, but also problematically involves large-scale testing of educational technology platforms. While practitioners complain about relevance, lack of participatory engagement and questionable operability in the emergency context, ethical aspects of educational technology (Ed. Tech), data extraction—and how the collection of data from children and youth constitute part of the merging of aid and surveillance capitalism—are little discussed.

Another recent trend concerns infant biometric identification to help boost vaccination rates. Hundreds of thousands of children die annually due to preventable diseases, many because of inconsistencies in the provision of vaccine programs. Biometric identification is thus intended to link children with their medical records and overcome the logistical challenges of paper-based systems. Trials are now ongoing or planned for India, Bangladesh and Tanzania. While there are still technical challenges in accurately capturing the biometric data of infants, new biometric techniques capture fingers, eyes, faces, ears and feet. In addition to vaccines, uses for child biometrics include combatting aid fraud, identifying missing children and combatting identity theft.

In aid, data is increasingly extracted from children through the miniaturization and personalization of ICT technology. Infant and child biometrics are often coupled with tracking devices in the form of wristbands, necklaces, earpieces, and other devices which the users carry for extended periods of time.

Across the board, technology initiatives directed at children are usually presented as progress narratives, with little concern for unintended consequences. In the economy of suffering, children and infants are always the most deserving individuals, and life-saving interventions are hard to argue against. Similarly, the urgency of saving children functions as a call to action that affords aid and private sector actors room to maneuver with respect to testing and experimentation. At the same time, the mix of gadget distribution and data harvesting inevitably become part of a global data economy, where patterns of structural inequality are reproduced and exacerbated.

Children’s digital bodies

Despite the massive technologization of aid targeting children, so far, no critical thinking has gone into considering the production of children’s digital bodies in aid. The use of digital technologies creates corresponding “digital bodies”—images, information, biometrics, and other data stored in digital space—that represent the physical bodies of populations affected by conflict and natural hazards, but over which these populations have little say or control. These “digital bodies” co-constitute our personalities, relationships, legal and social personas—and today they have immense bearing on our rights and privileges as individuals and citizens. What is really different about children’s digital bodies? What is the specific nature of risk and harm these bodies might incur?

In a non-aid context, critical data researchers and privacy advocates are only just beginning to direct attention to these practices, in particular to the array of specific harms they may encounter, including but not limited to the erosion of privacy.

Technology initiatives directed at children are usually presented as progress narratives, with little concern for unintended consequences.

The question of testing unfinished products on children is deeply contentious: the possibility that unsafe products may be trialed in fragile and low resource settings under different requirements than those posed by rich countries is highly problematic.  On the other hand, parachuting and transplanting digital devices from the global North and East to the global South without any understanding of local needs, context and adaption practices is—based on the history of technological imperialism—ineffective, disempowering, a misuse of resources and, at worst, could further destabilize fragile school systems.

Very often, in aid tech targeting children, the potential for digital risk and harm for children is ignored or made invisible. Risk is phrased as an issue of data security and malfunction and human manipulation of data. Children—especially in low-resource settings—have few opportunities to challenge the knowledge generated through algorithms. They also have scant techno-legal consciousness with respect to how their personal data is being exploited, commodified and used for decisions about their future access to resources, such as healthcare, education, insurance, welfare, employment, and so on. There is the obvious risk of armed actors and other malicious actors accessing and exploiting data; but there are also issues connected to wearables, tablets and phones being used as listening devices useful for surveilling the child’s relatives and careers. It is incumbent on aid actors to understand both the opportunities posed by new technologies, as well as the potential harms they may present—not only during the response, but long after the emergency ends.

Conclusion: time to turn to the CRC!

The mainstreaming of a combination of surveillance and data extraction from children now taking place in aid, ranging from education technology to infant biometrics means that critical discussions of the ethical and legal implications for children’s digital bodies are becoming a burning issue.

The do no harm principle is a key ethical guidance post across fields of development, humanitarianism and global health. The examples above illustrate the need for investment in ethics and evidence on the impact of development and application of new technologies in low resource and fragile settings.  Practitioners and academics need to be alert to how the framing of structural problems shifts to problematizations being amenable to technological innovation and intervention and the interests of technology stakeholders.  But is that enough?

The Children’s Rights Convention of 1989 represented a watershed moment in thinking children’s right to integrity, to be heard and to protection of their physical bodies. Article 3.1 demands that “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” Time has now come to articulate and integrate an understanding of children’s digital bodies in international aid within this normative framework.

 

This blog was initially posted at https://www.openglobalrights.org/protecting-childrens-digital-bodies-through-rights/

 

 

Safeguarding: good intentions, difficult process. On white feminism and abolitionism in humanitarianism.

In the wake of the scandal in Haiti revolving around sexual misconduct by Oxfam staff in the aftermath of the 2010 Earthquake, the aid sector is now engaging in ‘safeguarding’ exercises. While initially based on a UK legal definition that applied to vulnerable adults and children, safeguarding has acquired a broader meaning, which includes all actions by aid actors to protect staff from harm (abuse, sexual harassment and violence) and to ensure staff do not harm beneficiaries. However, despite good intentions, I suggest that the safeguarding response has some problematic qualities which need to be discussed. Here I will focus on two:

Formulating inclusive and informed safeguarding

First, as we move from arguments for the legitimacy of safeguarding initiatives, to a discussion of the legitimacy of how they are implemented, there has been vocal concern about the lack of inclusivity to this extent. Critics have noted that a “safeguarding industry was hatched, and experts magically appeared and promises of change were made’ with little attention to local and national contexts or participation.

These types of objections speak to the sector’s long-standing struggle with bottom-up accountability. The view that safeguarding is yet another Western-centric practice, and frustrated complaints about the absence of meaningful field participation and local consultations when formulating safeguarding approaches, need to be taken seriously and addressed carefully – with the cognisance that the underlying issues of discontent go much beyond safeguarding.

 

Photo credit: Cindy Shebley

Photo credit: Cindy Shebley

 

However, I think we need to be clear that technical and ‘programming’ conversations around safeguarding also expose difficult and normally ‘hidden’ contestations over privilegepower and race. Where long-standing struggles of women of colour in aid crash head-on into the whiteness of the Me Too movement, the whiteness of ‘humanitarian feminism’ and the whiteness of the sector more generally. Here I think the sector – including reform minded individuals – could be more honest about who is around the table and why, and display a greater willingness to engage: this type of conversation is and will be uncomfortable – but if we want to go anywhere with safeguarding, so be it.

Establishing clarity not de facto criminalisation

The second issue pertains to the inherent vagueness and malleability of the concept. While problems in the sector are frequently attributed to a ‘lack of clear definition’ of an emerging challenge, something else seems to be at play here.  At its core, the idea of safeguarding is to reinforce the humanitarian imperative to Do No Harm, by preventing ‘sexual abuse and exploitation’. Humanitarians have long been concerned about this and tried to do something about it. For decades, sexual exploitation has been considered the worst possible behaviour humanitarian workers can be guilty of, but it has perhaps not been quite so clear what constitutes exploitation and which relationships exploitation takes place in.

Previously too many behaviours and relationships were left out of the equation for behavioural mores in the sector – but are we on the road to leaving too many in today? Is safeguarding at risk of becoming some sort of moral trojan horse that implants new social and political struggles into the humanitarian space?

 

Photo credit: BBC.

Photo credit: BBC.

 

I am here particularly thinking about transactional sex. The interpretation of what safeguarding means is also shaped by changing cultural perceptions of transactional sex and prostitution, primarily in the Global North. While the Me Too campaign is of very recent date, it links up with a more longstanding trend in big donor countries, namely the de facto criminalisation of prostitution by criminalising the buyer. Whereas Codes of Conduct have been promoted as a key mechanism for governing the sexual behaviour of humanitarian workers, the act of buying sex is increasingly construed legally and ideologically as a criminal practice.

In my view, this is possibly the most difficult field of social practice covered by safeguarding, and where it is vital to think carefully so that one can navigate the fine line between justifiable moral censure and moralistic outrage. Is moralistic outrage necessarily a bad thing? The view appears to be emerging that paying for sex, anywhere and at any time, is incompatible with being a ‘good’ humanitarian worker and dependable employee; the distinction between paying for sex and exploiting someone for sex is being erased.

While buying sex in the 1980s, for example, appears to have been a fairly common practice in the aid world (broadly defined), much of the moral indignation previously linked to prostitution and aid was linked to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the fact that buying sex helped spread the epidemic at home and abroad. Today, in such donor countries as Canada, France, Iceland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden, buying sex is illegal and is punished with fines or prison sentences. At the same time, criminalisation remains extremely controversial, and the extent of this controversy is perhaps getting lost as the abolitionist approach travels to the humanitarian space.

 

Photo credit: David Holt.

Photo credit: David Holt. 

 

Global prostitution activism has long been an ideological battlefield, with a seemingly unbridgeable abyss between those who see prostitution as violence against women and those who want it regulated as work, regardless of gender.  What are the costs and trade-offs of transporting this battlefield into humanitarian practice? While I am not aware of any comprehensive effort to track the consequences of criminalisation for sex workers, new research indicates that vulnerable women in prostitution become more vulnerable through criminalisation in the Global North.

Thus, when trying to gauge an appropriate scope for the idea of safeguarding, I think it is necessary to reflect on the usefulness (and normative appropriateness) of maintaining a strong conceptual distinction between procuring sexual services from individuals receiving aid or falling under protection mandates, from sex workers who are not recipients of aid nor in a position of vulnerability in a specific humanitarian field setting.

It is now widely recognised that buying sex in emergencies rests on deep power differences, is fundamentally unacceptable and as such threatens the legitimacy of the sector. While this recognition is long overdue, its emergence should be seen as progress. However, this does not imply that safeguarding practices should be used as a vehicle for criminalising buyers and abolishing prostitution going forward.

This post was originally published by ALNAP under the title ‘Safeguarding: good intentions, difficult process’. See https://www.alnap.org/blogs/safeguarding-good-intentions-difficult-process

Safeguarding women after disasters: some progress, but not enough

Hundreds of Mozambicans were killed and thousands made homelessrecently by Cyclones Idai and Kenneth. Almost immediately, there were reports of a sadly familiar story: women being forced to trade sex for food by local community leaders distributing aid.

Globally, international organisations appear to be grappling with the issue more seriously than before. Yet reports about sexual exploitation keep coming. How does the aid community strategise to protect women’s safety in disaster situations?

Over the past 15 years, I have done research on sexual exploitation of displaced women in Uganda and Colombia. I have also worked with a variety of humanitarian organisations on accountability and legalisation. Through this, I have identified the factors necessary to bring justice to the victims of predatory aid workers.

Sexual exploitation must be recognised as a real and widespread problem. There must be staff and management accountability. Transgressions must be sanctioned through disciplinary or penal measures. But there are also major dilemmas that need to be understood and tackled by governments, agencies and, most importantly, local communities.

Sexual exploitation in aid

The sexual exploitation of disaster and conflict victims is a global – and longstanding – phenomenon. Over the last 25 years, there have been radical changes in the standards of global public morality around the conduct of personnel working for international organisations and NGOs when vulnerable adults and children are involved.

Nevertheless, the willingness to see sexual exploitation as an inherent feature of the international community’s intervention to bring development, humanitarian aid or peace has been much slower to evolve.

It was only 24 years ago that UNHCR issued guidelines on sexual violence and refugees that expressly mentioned international refugee workers as being implicated in sexual violence against refugees.

The sexual abuse of vulnerable women and girls in several African countries by international aid workers was recently described as “endemic”. It was also noted that perpetrators easily moved around the sector undetected.

Several recent cases have been reported from Cote d’ivore, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

These have involved aid workers and peacekeepers, as well as local aid workers and government employees.

In my research on refugees, accusations concerning “sex for resettlement” registration surface regularly. I found these to be frequent while working on refugee resettlement in Kampala 15 years ago. Despite the UNHCR’s promise to reform, similar accusations keep resurfacing, most recently in Kenya. The time has come for the international community to seriously debate the power mechanisms embedded in the resettlement process that enable sexual exploitation to fester.

What will fix the problem?

The first step is to organise accountability.

Humanitarian accountability first emerged as a concern in the 1980s. It was institutionalised in the 1994 Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief . The 1996 Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda was a defining moment.

That report resulted in several sector-wide initiatives. Five years ago efforts were made to streamline these in the revised Core Humanitarian Standards.

Throughout this period, sexual exploitation has been considered the worst possible behaviour humanitarian workers can be guilty of. But it has not been clear what constitutes exploitation and in which relationships it takes place. The lack of a definition, the unwillingness to articulate and enforce robust norms for professional behaviour and the absence of effective complaint mechanisms and protections for whistle-blowers have contributed to a culture of impunity for predatory behaviour against aid recipients.

Early policy responses to sexual exploitation were concerned with reputational issues. But over the past 15 years the humanitarian sector has seen a flurry of institutional initiatives to grapple with this specific issue. The effort to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse is led by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee.

The aid sector is now engaging in “safeguarding exercises”. These emerged after the Oxfam scandal in Haiti. The organisation was seen as failing to act on sexual misconduct by staff in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, and then to have attempted a cover-up.

Safeguarding includes all actions by aid actors to protect staff from harm (abuse, sexual harassment and violence) and to ensure staff do not harm beneficiaries.

This broad definition represents both a welcome recognition of the scope of the problem and an opportunity for a comprehensive approach. But it also creates some new challenges. Three are particularly worth noting.

The challenges

Who gets a voice: There has been vocal concern about the lack of inclusiveness in how safeguarding is practised. Critics have noted that a safeguarding industry was hatched with little attention to local and national context or participation. There is a view that safeguarding is yet another Western-centric practice. I think this critique is true. But it also creates a dilemma: should global norms about sexual exploitation in international aid be up for local negotiation?

Regulation and criminalisation. In recent years, there have been calls to regulate foreign aid actors more robustly. This is understandable. Aid actors have operated with a great deal of license and even impunity under the humanitarian banner. But drawing up new laws also creates problems. This is particularly true in a context where African civil society generally is under pressure from new restrictive laws that curtail their activities.

Responding to the call to “do something”, the international community has embraced criminalisation and criminal prosecutions to promote and strengthen the fight against impunity. But opting for criminal law and the courtroom rests on a deeply simplistic framing of structural power imbalances in aid. Legal strategies are costly and slow. The focus on sexual violence in disasters and conflicts also risks crowding out concern for other aspects of women’s lives.

Localisation: Since 2016 there has been a significant focus on the localisation of aid. The Charter for Change focuses on contracting, resource allocation, transparency and communication. It highlights the importance of not undermining local capacity. The process is generally painfully slow and a shockingly small percentage of international aid funding is actually allocated to local actors.

At the same time, there is a persistent call for international actors to do, control and know more about what goes on locally to limit corruption, incompetence and abuse. This call comes partly from media in donor states addressing taxpayers, but also from watchdogs within the sector.

This is also the case for sexual exploitation. In its report, Human Rights Watch demands that “international partners, particularly the UN, should ensure greater oversight of the conduct of local officials during the distribution of humanitarian aid”. This will not come for free.

The question is how a balance can be found between control and localisation – and who gets to determine what this balance should be.

This post was originally published at https://theconversation.com/safeguarding-women-after-disasters-some-progress-but-not-enough-116619. For an extended critical commentary on the rapid rise of the Safeguarding concept in the aid sector, see https://jhumanitarianaction.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s41018-019-0051-1

Can we technologize the fight against sexual violence?

This post asks some critical questions about how the struggle against sexual violence in conflict links up with a major trend in humanitarian aid: namely, the turn towards technology and innovation as a strategy to improve the humanitarian sector and to more effectively address humanitarian issues.

What are the potential challenges that might arise with respect to the use of technology for combating sexual violence?  

While I urge cautious optimism with respect to the potential role and relevance of technology to deal with sexual violence as a major human rights issue, there are significant caveats. The use of technology should not be seen as an end in itself. Despite good intentions, technology does not always work as intended. Inadequate problem definitions mean that technological solutions may fail to respond to the real-life problems they have been deployed to deal with. One common reason for faulty problem definitions is that affected populations are often absent from innovation processes: they are not properly consulted or invited to participate in any meaningful way.  The international community must be alert to serious ethical and legal issues that might arise from technological innovations within the aid sector: technology can produce new digital harms, whether through introducing risks, (in)visibilizing the suffering of certain groups, or generating undesirable consequences.

 It has been noted that certain ‘buzzword’ issues in the aid sector – such as sexual violence in war, or innovation – go from being unrecognized, ignored or forgotten to become an industry that appropriates funding at the expense of attention and resources to other humanitarian needs and problems, including addressing root causes. For example, there has been concern that sexual violence ‘crowds out’ alternative framings with respect to women’s insecurity or that criminalization of sexual violence provides overly simplistic messages. 

 The technology optimism and sometimes utopianism permeating the aid sector is articulated in the routine proclamations of digital humanitarian goods as ‘game changers’ or ‘revolutions in humanitarian affairs’. The use of cell-phones, social media platforms, satellites, drones, 3D printers, digital cash and biometric technology has changed how things are done, the speed and cost of doing things, as well as where things can be done from and by whom.  The advantage of these technologies is that they generate massive amounts of data in a field traditionally afflicted by a lack of timely and accurate information. However, this is also where challenges arise: Digitization – the collection, conversion, storage, and sharing of data, and the use of digital technologies to collect and manage information about beneficiaries – increasingly shapes understandings of needs and responses to human suffering, such as sexual violence.

Critics have noted that technology and innovation are presented as the solutions to complex structural problems – and the framing of humanitarian problems accordingly shifts to problematizations being amenable to technological innovation and intervention. At the same time, the optics of being seen to engage in humanitarian activities has acquired its own commercial logic by creating a marketable moral economy of good intentions, which means that for-profit motifs play an increasingly important role in the identification, visiblization and mitigation of human suffering.

Each of these developments warrants careful critical scrutiny – the merger of the two agendas even more so.  

I suggest that in particular, the kind of gendered digital bodies that arises when the struggle against sexual violence is technologized needs attention: Discussions around gender and technology deployments in emergencies have often focused on the gendered (frequently used in this context as a synonym for ‘women’) nature of digital shadows and digital illiteracy. In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on digital risk and digital harms. Importantly, the use of digital technologies creates corresponding ‘digital bodies’ – images, information, biometrics, and other data stored in digital space – that represent the physical bodies of populations affected by conflict and natural hazards, but over which these populations have little say or control. Understanding this double risk – for the physical gendered body as well as the digital gendered body, and the interplay between the two – is crucial for properly gauging the role and relevance of technology in grappling with sexual violence. The point is not that digital and physical bodies are ‘the same’, but that compromising or neglecting the security of digital bodies may be as consequential in compromising the security and well-being of physical bodies.   

To that end, we must continuously reassess our critical questions and strategies. Here are some of the issues we should think about:

  • How does historical and political context shape technology use, and how can the urgency of ending sexual violence legitimate intrusive technological interventions? What are the (acceptable) trade-offs?
  • What does it mean that the struggle against sexual violence is being increasingly quantified and remotely controlled – and based on criminal law sanctions? Do these approaches alone and in combination address the power differences that make sexual violence possible?
  •  How do we produce knowledge about sexual violence? What is the relationship between gender and algorithmic justice? Can technology reshape the application of international legal protection as it applies to gender crimes – and rights? 
  • What happens when sexual violence is reframed from a structural injustice problem to an innovation challenge? What are the risks of technological experimentation?

For more, see  Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora (2019) Technologizing the Fight against Sexual Violence: A Critical Scoping, PRIO Paper. Oslo: PRIO.

The mass killing of women activists in Latin America: making political violence visible

An important part of academic feminist work continues to be to make the gendered aspects of theoretical concepts and tools of ‘mainstream’ academic thought visible. Often, gaps, silences and deliberate omissions become evident only through the lens of empirical research and analysis.

In 2017, Latin America was described by the UN as the world’s most violent continent for women. The assassinations of women activists and community leaders have continued across the region in 2018. While the killing of Marielle Franco, a favela community leader, and the unraveling of government-private enterprise collusion in the 2016 killing of Berta Cáceres, an environmental activist in Honduras, have been portrayed as political murders by international media, there is substantial academic work to do with respect to theorizing the gendered aspects of these types of killings.

In their influential edited volume Violent Democracies in Latin America (2010) Arias and Goldstein argue that the ‘evolutionist’ democracy theory’s understanding of disorder as a failure of institutions fails to grasp Latin American politics in the context of proliferating violence. They offer the concept ‘violent pluralism’ as a prism for interrogating and understanding the co-existence of structural and personal, political and social violence and democracy in contemporary Latin America. Violent pluralism is defined as ‘states, social elites, and subalterns employing violence in the quest to establish or contest regimes of citizenship, justice, rights, and a democratic social order’. However, as a theory on violent democracies, the theory of violent pluralism is silent on the gendered realities of this violence as it plays out in Latin America. Considering the success of this concept, it is important that the concept has the capacity to help make visible how much of the political violence in the region takes the shape of violence against women involved in grassroots mobilization.

In this blog post, building on collaborative research with internally displaced (IDP) women’s organizations in Colombia between 2010–2014 but also reflecting wider developments in the region, I unpack this concept as a three-pronged relationship between political organizing and gendered violence. I suggest the need to conceptualize how gendered violence works as an obstacle to organizing; how political organizing is a response to gendered violence; and finally, how political organizing is a cause of further gender-based violence.

As a consequence of massive internal displacement from the late 1990s, and supported by the Colombian Constitutional Court’s progressive decisions, the Colombian feminist and peace movement (broadly conceived) and a significant international humanitarian response, a large number of IDP women’s organizations emerged from around 2004. Over the course of a 4-year research project, a joint Los Andes-PRIO research team led by myself and Julieta Lemaitre (S.J.D HLS 2007) examined how mobilization helped these organizations gain access to their constitutionally mandated rights as citizens of Colombia – first as IDP organizations, and later within the transitional justice frame. Very quickly, however, the project became focused on how these organizations navigated a highly precarious security context.

Gendered violence as an obstacle to organizing

Drawing on the findings of this project, I suggest that gendered violence can be an obstacle to organizing in a social field consisting of non-violent women’s organizations that overwhelmingly deploy peaceful tactics and strategies. By emphasising violent civil society actors, the violent pluralism framework risks erasing not only the efforts of non-violent actors, but also their vulnerability and the impact of violence. Gendered violence can deter or end mobilization because women are not able to take advantage of political opportunities or harness necessary resources. Fear of violence or actual violence can undermine the collective action frame.

In the deeply unequal Colombian context, physical and symbolic violence work together as a deterrent to women’s activism. Physical violence and state repression can undermine and destroy ongoing activism, for example, by very literal ‘leadership-decapitation’. The rising lethal violence against activists across Colombian civil society combine with a political economy of symbolic violence arising from the way messages, icons, or signs transmit messages of domination of or aggression against women. The impact of these threats depends on their nature, context and whether they are addressed to individuals or collective entities.

Political organizing as a response to gendered violence

Second, I call for a conceptualization of political organizing as a response to gendered violence. The many forms of political organizing undertaken by IDP women should be scrutinized in order to better understand how collective feminist political subjectivities are construed through gendered violence as a mobilizing factor. Such scrutiny can shed light on this form of violence-mediated political consciousness as a contribution to democracy

Here, I want to highlight the role of consciousness raising and credible documentation of threats. For grassroots organizations, a key element is the harnessing of a feminist consciousness among rank and file members. Many of the organizations we mapped came into being because IDP organizations commonly excluded women from leadership roles and were rife with discrimination and sexual harassment, providing an initial barrier to IDP women’s political activism. When activists harness and visibilize insecurity, threats and violence through multiple forms of documentation and registration, they do so in order to gain local, national and international credibility, but also as a mode of co-constituting a shared consciousness about the cause for and nature of their activism, and its place in the broader struggle for social justice.

Political organizing as a cause of further gender-based violence

Third, I argue that political organizing is a cause of further gender-based violence, but the connection between organizing and violence remains contested: political violence is often reframed as private and/or interpersonal. Being outspoken or even being organized can create risk. An important observation is that violence persists despite assuming a low profile or the activist’s own systematic efforts to obtain government protection – and suspicion of the government’s motives or the adequacy of protection mechanisms remains rife. Moreover, acts of violence against women grassroots activists also seem to set in motion specific sets of contestations between civil society and the state over the recognition of gendered violence as political – the recognition that the violence comes in response to the organizing, and that the violence itself is a deliberate, political act – and not as an act of ‘private’, domestic violence or as a result of criminal activities, typically drug or gang related.

There can and should be many theories on the gender of violent pluralism. My specific ambition in this blog post has been to point to an analytical path whereby the systematic violence against women activists in Latin America can be incorporated into discussions about violent pluralism. Opening up this analytical pathway will also contribute to making violent pluralism a more sophisticated theoretical concept.

 

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (Doctor of Juridical Sciences, S.J.D Harvard Law School 2008) is a Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies at PRIO, and a professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Oslo. Her current work focuses on displacement, gender and the technologization of humanitarian space. This post is based on the article Gendering violent pluralism: women’s political organising in Latin America” published in the special issue “Gendering (in)security” in  Third World Thematics: A TWQ Journal in 2018. A previous version of this blog was posted  here at the LAPJ blog

 

Dead male bodies: a challenge for feminist legal thought

The scholarship on law, conflict and suffering has for the past two decades been dominated by a moral and analytical concern with “women and children” and sexual violence. However, when we look up and do the body count out in the physical and political world – in the city and along the borderlands – those bodies by a large majority belong to a specific subset of males. Battle deaths, torture, unlawful imprisonment, disappearances and extrajudicial killings overwhelmingly affect young poor men of non-Caucasian ethnicity.

These dead male bodies constitute a challenge for feminist legal thought. In this blog post, I raise the following question: How can/should we critically reflect differently on this type of gendered suffering in war and conflict situations? I argue that a greater scholarly acknowledgement of the scale and nature of this gendered form of social suffering is ethically important for feminist legal scholars.  Thinking about male suffering does not undermine the feminist project of critically exploring the world women live in, or of identifying injustice against women; neither is it in competition with or at the expense of attention to how women suffer in war. Rather, a consideration of male suffering and dead male bodies provides another/an important critical angle on the social, cultural and political structures that produce and sanction suffering through indifference, the deliberate infliction of harm or, increasingly, through data-driven driven human sorting exercises.

Using data-driven practices of human sorting as a point of departure, I consider the role of technology in co-constituting male suffering and reflect on what this means for law and the recognition of men as ‘targetable’ or ‘protectable’. To illustrate my argument, I point to examples of targeting practices in drone strikes and data-driven screening practices in refugee protection.

The broad contemporary turn to Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) in humanitarian and conflict settings is informed by sweeping progress narratives regarding technology’s ability to effect social change. ICTs are now a standard part of humanitarian aid, being employed for evidence collection, risk assessments, protection work, and aid distribution by NGOs, international organisations, governments, and the private sector. This includes smartphones, satellites, surveillance drones, biometric technology, and social media and data aggregation platforms. These ‘humanitarian technologies’ perform remote sensing analysis and crowd mapping; individual identification through cell phone tracking, finger prints, iris scans, or facial recognition; vulnerability, needs, and risk assessments; and serve as conduits for aid delivery in the form of cash-based interventions. In the context of conflict, many of the problems codified as ‘human rights violations’, ‘humanitarian crises’, or ‘security threats’ are currently portrayed as amenable to technological solutions. The blending of humanitarian and military objectives and practices is well illustrated by the figure of the weaponized ‘humanitarian drone’.

I argue that such data-driven processes – coding, registration, data gathering, and everyday program execution and maintenance – create male harm and male vulnerability by effectively removing large numbers of undesirable male bodies both from face-to-face encounters with decision makers (military, humanitarian, or otherwise) and from the protection guarantees of international law.

An already well-known instance of data-mediated masculinity concerns how the politics of drone targeting is co-constituted through a conceptualization of civilians that excludes men in targeted communities, but also through the legacy of colonial airpower. Drone targeting builds on but also reinforces the exclusion of men from the conceptualization of who is to be protected, by way of rendering men as legitimate targets because of their gender. We see this in so-called signature strikes, which allow for killing people without exact identification: they target people who fit into the category ‘military-aged males’, who live in regions where terrorists operate, and ‘whose behavior is assessed to be similar enough to those of terrorists to mark them for death’.

However, ‘dead male bodies’ are not produced only through targeting. A less familiar example concerns bureaucratic refugee screening processes. Male refugees are already regularly excluded from full access to durable solutions because of their gender. For example, in 2015, the Canadian government announced that it would only accept unaccompanied men who identified themselves as non-heterosexual for third-country resettlement.  I propose that the adoption of ICT to achieve better results-based management and a higher degree of effectiveness exacerbates this trend towards male exclusion. Data-driven refugee protection mechanisms – in practice representing a significant shift from a legal to a socio-technical protection regime – build on a composite of social, technical, and political problem representations of gendered vulnerability that renders male vulnerability invisible. At the same time, these mechanisms are portrayed by UNHCR, states and tech companies as providing “perfect data” – in stark contrast to the inadequate and overburdened legal and quasi-legal processes of the international refugee regime.

My argument concerns how vulnerability assessments in particular comprise a crucial factor in the digital exclusion of male refugees. According to prevailing understandings of vulnerability among actors in the humanitarian field, women and children are assumed to be ‘the most vulnerable’. These perceptions of gender and vulnerability not only impact directly on program priorities but also shape screening efforts and data generation that in turn legitimize these priorities. This leads to a mutually reinforced notion of women as vulnerable and of men’s specific gendered problems as invisible and irrelevant to vulnerability considerations—and of both as uncontestable. Algorithmic ‘black box decisions’ are hard to unpack, usually impossible to appeal and render aid beneficiaries with little opportunity for understanding how decisions concerning their digital and physical personae were made.

Data-mediated masculinity is produced by large-scale and systematic processes of obscuring, forging, or foregrounding connections between male bodies, between male bodies and cultural signifiers (law in particular), and between male bodies and temporal and geographical space. Targeting of potential ‘extremists’ and screening of refugees are only two examples of such processes. I suggest that these examples illustrate a shifting composite of attention and dis-attention to male vulnerability and intersectionality residing at the heart of the gendered and racialised logic of screening and targeting. This logic produces distinctions between ‘protectable’ and ‘undesirable’ civilian bodies, where data-mediated masculinity emerges as a key attribute of this undesirability. More attention must be given to how binary gender relations as embedded in law and policy documents are inscribed into the algorithms used for targeting and screening. Determinations of vulnerability and risk are typically presented as objective and neutral but are deeply subjective and political.

In particular, close attention must be paid to how the demarcation of legal, political, and cultural boundaries allow different identities and groups to be defined and made visible as subjects of protection, and the ways in which masculinities are being ‘othered’ by way of marking them as ‘problematically different’. There is a rich literature interrogating the construction of non-white men as security threats. At present, of particular relevance is the promulgation of attributes of masculine anti-sociality, irrationality, violence, savagery, and hypersexuality associated with ‘a misogynistic Arab culture and archaic Muslim religiosity’: refugee and asylum policies are premised on othering masculinities by marking them as ‘problematically different’. Within this frame, Muslim men and asylum seekers become latent threats to Muslim women (there), Western women (here), and vehicles for violent extremism that should be eliminated (there) or detained (here).

As feminist legal scholars, it is our task to interrogate how these assumptions are constructed, how they exist and matter, and how they are coded into data-driven decision-making systems.

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (Doctor of Juridical Sciences, S.J.D Harvard Law School 2008) is a professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Oslo and a Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies at PRIO.

This blog post is based on the article Technology, Dead Male Bodies, and Feminist Recognition: Gendering ICT Harm Theory  (here) from the Aid in Crisis project. The article is  part of a Special Issue for the Australian Feminist Law Journal on Gender, War and Technology: Peace and Armed Conflict in the 21st Century  co-edited by Emily Jones, Yoriko Otomo and Sara Kendall.

 

Building a Sociology of Law for the Humanitarian Field

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Kjersti Lohne

Legal sociology has paid significant attention to human rights, but in contrast to legal anthropology, little focus has been given to humanitarianism. In this contribution, we ask, what does a legal sociological research agenda for the humanitarian field look like?

Humanitarianism is many things to many people. As described by Miriam Ticktin, humanitarianism is ‘an ethos, a cluster of sentiments, a set of laws, a moral imperative to intervene, and a form of government’; it is ‘one way to do good or to improve aspects of the human condition by focusing on suffering and saving lives in times of crisis or emergency; for instance, humanitarians provide temporary shelter, food, and medical care during wartime or immediately after disasters’. The actors involved include affected populations, civil society, host governments, the private sector, international organizations, humanitarian practitioners, the international humanitarian sector and donors.

As academics, it is our task to re-conceptualize this humanitarianism in terms of power, legitimacy and regimes of control and surveillance – both from an internal perspective concerned with humanitarian accountability in the global emergency zone, and from an external perspective that conceptualizes humanitarianism as a form of governance and social fact in global society.

An important aspect here is that as the humanitarian sector continues to expand, the field is legalizing. Beyond international humanitarian law, humanitarian action is increasingly compelled and constrained by a plethora of soft law and legal discourses, and what was once a largely unregulated field of practice is now emerging as a transnational humanitarian space where authority, governance, legitimacy and power is progressively invoked through law.

Historically, humanitarian action has been linked to the normative framework of international humanitarian law (IHL), while emerging as a largely unregulated field of practice. The study of IHL has overwhelmingly been the terrain of doctrinal legal scholars, while the apparent lack of other law has meant that, until recently, legal sociologists have paid little attention to the humanitarian sector. There has also been little sociological concern regarding the consequences of not asking questions about the role of law in the humanitarian project.

As scholars specifically focused on the legal aspects of humanitarian space and the evolving law of humanitarian action, we are interested in normative constructions and contestations regarding conceptualizations of aid, agency, crisis, responsibility and rights within and across different social fields of regulation and governance.  We argue that legal sociology is of central analytical value to this prism, as it focuses on the study of rules, standards, norms; the evolving role of the legal profession and the legalization of conflict resolution in humanitarian governance. Legal sociology can also offer important perspectives on the relative lack of regulation of the humanitarian space, and on the normative orderings that occupy this space in competition with, as a substitution for, or in parallel to legal norms.

In the following, we explore a set of key questions concerning the relationship between humanitarian governance and law:

  • What is the relationship between humanitarian norms and law, and the normative and legal hierarchy of competing humanitarian values?
  • What are the implications of enfranchising non-state actors to partially ‘see like a state’ in humanitarian contexts?
  • What type of authority – and legal authority – do humanitarians have, and how is this authority produced and constrained through rules, norms and standards; including soft regulation, contractual practices and financial policies?
  • What does this authority allow humanitarians to do, and to the extent that humanitarian actors are held accountable, how does this happen?

The relationship between norms and rules

We are interested in the frictions and blind spots that arise in the relationships between humanitarian imperatives (‘do no harm’, ‘aid according to need’), principles (neutrality, impartiality, universality, humanity), and legal frameworks aimed at regulating specific aspects of humanitarian logistics and protection activities. Examples of relationships that need critical unpacking include the relationship between needs-based and rights-based humanitarianism; and the relationship between humanitarian norms, soft law, and due process considerations in refugee resettlement.

There is a similar need for critical inquiry with respect to the relationship and legal hierarchy between humanitarian norms and rules, and neighboring human insecurity fields such as development, human rights, mass atrocity response and international criminal justice.  Specifically, more attention should be given to the substantive aspects of these relationships, and to the implications of mission creeps. For example, ICTs and data are useful prisms for exploring emergent splits between human rights and humanitarians as crisis responding communities. This includes how this split shapes and is shaped by each group’s use of data and the impact the use has on crisis affected individuals and communities. It also includes increasingly divergent perceptions of what responsible approaches to data collection, maintenance, storage and sharing of data look like.

Seeing like a state

Humanitarian organizations are not states. Yet, they are transnational, have thousands of staff, operate and litigate in multiple jurisdictions and are actively involved in sponsoring and pushing for soft law developments. How do we analyze the tensions between the construction of an emergency zone which enfranchises non-state actors to govern; and the structure of human rights law, which requires that individuals have access to accountability mechanisms, including the means for obtaining binding legal redress through state institutions?

For example, legalistic versions of rights-based approaches (RBA) to humanitarian action are premised on the notion that rights holders are entitled to hold the duty bearer accountable. Yet, according to international law and the view of international humanitarian organizations, this right is directed principally at the state and its agents. Humanitarian organizations suggest that they must consider ‘rights-holders with legal entitlements’ but do not see themselves as accountable for the fulfillment of those rights. Organizations sometimes operate with competing definitions of RBA, where humanitarian organizations seek to strengthen the capacities of the rights holders to make claims and of duty bearers to satisfy those claims, but are not themselves directly accountable to persons of concern. What are the implications of enfranchising non-state actors to partially behave and ‘see like a state’?

Questions of authority

Next, we are interested in what type of authority – and legal authority – humanitarians have, and how this authority is produced and constrained through rules, norms and standards; including soft regulation, contractual practices and financial policies.

The broader context for the regularization of humanitarian governance is the accelerating reach of international law into the realm of international administrative governance. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the lack of accountability and transparency raised serious questions about the procedural legitimacy of international organizations. Serious concerns were raised about the emergence of undemocratic liberalism as a consequence of global bureaucratization. The answer to this anxiety about bureaucracy was to bring in more of it: It was thought that rationalization and the emphasis of proper and correct procedures would ensure procedural legitimacy. Hence, the bureaucratization and regularization of humanitarian action takes place mostly through the proliferation of soft norms resulting from multilateral legal agreements, international adjudication, and the increased law-making capacity of international organizations. Legal sociology may here contribute to develop a critical perspective on this aspect of humanitarian governance, for instance by mapping out the role of legal actors and legal authority in humanitarian organizations and transnational coalition networks in humanitarian governance.

To exemplify, socio-legal and anthropological interest in soft law have mostly focused on international instruments for human rights protection, which has resulted in an unfortunate scholarly tendency to reify soft law as inherently progressive. Yet the power operating in the crafting of soft law and the logic of softness may create inequality between groups or result in oppression. Constituted on ideas of emergency and urgency, humanitarian space is a site with extreme power differences between actors, to the extent that aid affected communities are rarely represented around the table when new soft law instruments are drafted.

We should bear this in mind as we engage critically with the emergent law of humanitarian action. The informality of soft law may jeopardize formalized accountability mechanisms, or weaken the obligations of organizations, humanitarians, private sector actors or states in the humanitarian field. Even when crisis-affected communities participate, the notion of pluralistic participation may conceal that soft law production is actually limited to powerful actors; and contribute to misrepresent how the humanitarian sector is structured both on and according to principles of systemic inequality. Legal sociology could here provide a close study on how best practices and community norms are articulated and codified as soft law.

Accountability 

Finally, we ask what this authority allows humanitarians to do, and to the extent that humanitarian actors are held accountable, how this happens. Here we want to briefly outline two emergent developments.

While scholars have often approached this topic by examining the role and responsibilities of international organizations, the 2015 Steve Dennis versus the Norwegian Refugee Council case from the Oslo District court, and its aftermath provides an interesting case study for gauging the evolving juridification of humanitarian organizations’ duty of care for their staff, and the broader implications of a shift towards court-ordered humanitarian practice. Activities and processes that were before considered ‘good practice’ within a human resources frame are increasingly juridified. This shift also reshapes modes of organizing work and workers. In the aftermath of the Steve Dennis case, organizations have struggled to define what constitutes acceptable levels of insurance for a multinational staff. The distributive effects on peoples everyday professional lives, including how such effects may vary according to nationality, race or religion, merit specific attention.

Finally, questions must be asked about the role of global and national publics in holding states and humanitarian actors accountable for how they contribute to end/engender human suffering. In the human rights field, social movements and legal mobilization are central for holding states accountable. However, while contemporary humanitarianism began as a series of social movements – including the anti-slavery movements, missionary engagements and the internationalization of Red Cross societies – present-day humanitarians appear to have a deeply ambivalent attitude to enlist bystanders, i.e the general public, beyond fundraising and social media support. On the other hand, with the present difficulties facing humanitarians with respect to access to humanitarian space and the declining respect for international humanitarian law, ideas about public engagement may be shifting.

Conclusion

While humanitarianism has global and avowedly benevolent ambitions for ordering and eradicating crisis, manifested through a global system of organizations operating within, in parallel with, above and across the domestic state system, and legitimated by moral universals (neutrality, humanity etc.), it is also a field epitomizing global divisions and inequalities. At the same time, humanitarianism – as a transnational practice field and a cluster of cosmopolitan sentiments – is expanding. As part of this, the field is legalizing. Having outlined a few established practices and emergent developments of the mutually constitutive relationship between law and humanitarianism, we argue that legal sociology is well situated to track this development.

This post originally appeared at  the Sociological Review August 18th 2017. The post builds on research output from the PRIO-project ‘Aid in Crisis? Rights-Based Approaches and Humanitarian Outcomes’, funded by the Research Council of Norway under the AIDEFFECT programme.

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik is Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies, PRIO & Professor of Sociology of Law in the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo.

Kjersti Lohne is Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo.