The COVID-19 tracking apps ecosystem unraveled: critical issues for global health- and the rule of law

This blog addresses technofixes and global health: This spring, populations worldwide have been asked to sign up to experimental and often intrusive apps to help ‘do their part’ in the struggle against Covid-19. In the wake of the demise of many Covid-19 tracking apps, critical questions must be asked about data governance, data capitalism, the rule of law and human rights in the making of these apps. Furthermore, attention must be given to gendered outcomes and costs – and how the law should reckon with them. So far, a critical feminist legal perspective has been mostly missing in the discussion of tracking apps. Taken as a mapping exercise that identifies a set of generalized issues, this blog can hopefully contribute to further such debate. 
In March and April 2020, an ecosystem of tracing apps suddenly emerged, presenting digital solutions as indispensable for winning the battle against Covid-19.  A few months later, the techno-optimism has subsided drastically, ranging from a perception that apps are problematic surveillance tools (RussiaBahrain and Kuwait) or ineffective (SingaporeFrance and Iceland) to the more spectacular fiascos, such as the now-withdrawn apps used in the UK  and Norway.
On April 16th, after about a month of R & D, the Norwegian government launched the Smittestopp app.  Prime Minister Erna Solberg stated that using the app was a civic duty and 11 days later, 1.5 million adults in Norway, of a population of 5,4 million, had downloaded it. After a barrage of criticism, the app was shelved June 15th. The app had gone from being essential for ‘getting our freedom back’ to being a ‘valuable’ tool for tracking population movements to be labelled by Amnesty International as  one of the world’s most dangerous for privacy. Using the rise and fall of the Norwegian Smittestopp app as an example, this blog points to explanations for why the Covid-19 app ecosystem is unravelling and implications for global health.
How was the rapid emergence of this ‘techno-fix’ ecosystem possible? 
Domestic conditions are important: The general panic and state-of-emergency-mindset of early March 2020 allowed for intrusive government action and combined with a high domestic trust in government and a national predilection for technofixes. However, there would have been no ecosystem unless international elite networks and powerful domestic stakeholders had worked together to make the tracing apps a transnational project.  In the Norwegian case, there is a direct link between the influential Science paper by Ferretti et al. (2020) and the work by lead author Professor Christopher Fraser at Oxford to the Smittestopp app. Fraser suggested the idea of an app to the Director of the Research Council of Norway, who recommended the app to the Director of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. Simula, a government research lab with limited experience of producing apps, handling sensitive data management and researching epidemiology then drafted itself to develop and manage Smittestopp.
 The reasons for its demise are not alchemy
The official reasons for the death of Smittestopp concern privacy and data protection. The government and Simula also blame a sharp decline in the infection rate, making the realization of the app impossible. With technofixes, the problem is often that we speak of solutions in need of problems (and markets). This was not the case with Smittestopp, which never became the solution for anything. This was not an instance of a ‘bad fit’. Moreover, there is nothing particular about COVID-19 that ‘failed’ the app.
The reasons for failure are conventional, common and well-understood in global health. The making of Smittestopp was hasty and characterized by a lack of transparency and a concerted effort to avoid a tender process.  The technology never worked – combining GPS and Bluetooth, the app was criticized for power consumption and inadequate security. The elicitation of popular participation happened partly based on false, or at least, unclear premises. The government and Simula insisted that downloading the app was a civic duty and that refusing to do so was selfish. The intention to engage in mass data collection on population movements, which in practice turned out to be the main function of the app was not clearly communicated to the population. While Norway may be an unexpected candidate for these kinds of problems, none of this is unprecedented with respect to global health tech.
 What are the lessons for global health data governance?
Hypes around technofixes – and tracking apps in particular – are a familiar spectacle in global health.  So are their failures. However, the thorough politicization of Covid-19 responses makes the Covid-19 apps different.  On an unprecedented global scale, governments have been trading on trust and fear to make their populations download unfinished and experimental products.  As they are knocked over, one by one, the data hoarding legacy of these apps remains a reality despite their failure to ‘save lives’.
Yet, as COVID-19 will be with us for a long time, and will be followed by other pandemics, the global health quest for workable digital solutions must continue. This work becomes harder when trust has been abused.  The Global Health Community must be more critical to digital tracking and take data protection and privacy issues more seriously.
Finally, when domestic initiatives, for reasons relating to incompetence, poor planning, and bad luck failed, Big tech and the Google/Apple collaboration were left standing as the safe, responsible, and morally righteous alternative. This is a highly paradoxical outcome in a context where surveillance capitalism, including in global health, is deeply contested.
Originally posted

Children in Lockdown: Children’s Rights, Covid-19 and the Case of Norway

“The lost generation of the Covid-19 pandemic is not those at risk over 65, but our children and youth, particularly at present here in Larvik municipality. We communicate with children subjected to violence by siblings, threats, mothers who cry all day, children with mentally ill parents, parents with drug and substance abuse problems, parents in violent conflict with each other, parents under enormous psychological strain due to lay-offs and financial problems and children with parents subjecting them to physical and mental violence, neglect and sexual abuse…why should we be in a care home nursing old people when the children are screaming for our help?” (letter from 19 school health nurses to Larvik Municipality April 13, 2020, the authors translation)

Medically (while more scientific studies are necessary), COVID-19 largely seems to have little impact on children. However, children have been deeply affected by the lockdowns implemented to protect everyone else’s vulnerability. There is one issue which has so far received scant attention in the Covid-19 English-language constitutional law analysis, namely that of the ramifications of domestic lockdowns for children’s constitutional protections (but here). Using Norway as a case study, we identify a set of issues and propose how a critique could have been articulated.

The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), article 3, lays down that ‘in all actions concerning children […] the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration’. States are accordingly obliged to ensure the children’s necessary protection as well as to control the institutions responsible for the execution.

While relatively few countries have explicit constitutional protection guarantees for children, the almost universal ratification of the CRC has influenced states to transform some of their obligations into constitutional recognition and protection of children’s rights on a domestic level.

CRC is a binding part of Norwegian law and its influence is reflected in the 2014 amendments of the Norwegian Constitution of 1814. According to Article 104, Children have the right to respect for their human dignity and the right to be heard. Their best interest is deemed a ‘fundamental’ consideration. Moreover, children shall have the right to receive basic education and a guarantee by the government to safeguard their individual abilities and needs (Article 109).

However, even where there are specific constitutional protections for children, such as in Norway, we are concerned that the academic community and civil society have made insufficient efforts at addressing issues through a constitutional lens. This amounts to a doubly missed opportunity, in terms of taking children’s rights seriously and in terms of getting concerns about the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns on children taken seriously.

Norway: A Covid-19 ‘success story’

So far, Norway is a COVID-19 ‘success story.’ It closed schools, businesses and international travel in mid-March, and significantly restricted freedom of movement within the country. Despite being ‘unprepared’ for a (predicted) pandemic, the health sector has coped. By the first week of April – amidst concerns about the skewed impact on immigrant populations – the outbreak was declared to be ‘under control.’ The subsequent impact has been comparatively mild. By July 1st there were 8,887 confirmed cases, 251 deaths and a total of 338,860 individuals tested. While this forceful response had immediate and severe implications for the Norwegian economy, the impact is widely expected to be partly mediated through use of the country’s sovereign wealth fund.

In the domestic Norwegian context, legal scholars have asked questions about the rule of law and human rights for example with respect to the right to health information and minorities or tracing apps and data protection. But so far, there has been no discussion of the rule of law and children.

As almost everywhere else, children were required to acquiesce to a radical reorganization not only of their home situation, social life and daily routines, but also to their education, safety and security and access to healthcare in order to protect the adult population. From the start of the lockdown on March 12, there were concerns about the heavy burden carried by children, ranging from near-abandonment by local health services and schools to being left alone with abusive or drugged adults with no recourse to assistance or escape. As feared, the effects on vulnerable children and adolescents were disproportionate and serious. A government report from April 20 found that major actors had overreacted in focusing on infection prevention to the detriment of services for vulnerable children and adolescents.

Five reports from National coordination group for services to youth and children during Covid-19 forcefully criticize unwarranted use of home office, re-assignment for child protection staff and a drastic reduction of child welfare services. However, in these reports, there is no systematic reflection on risk, vulnerability and impact assessments with respect to children’s human rights and no mention of children’s constitutional rights at all. The Norwegian Children’s ombudsperson has been highly engaged, but with limited emphasis on constitutional rights. We must do better.

1. Right to health

The children’s right to health is enshrined in the Norwegian constitution as well as in Art 24 of the CRC. States are obliged to work for the full realization of this right and to ensure the provision of necessary medical assistance and health care to all children especially the development of primary health care.

The central Norwegian governmental infrastructure for children’s health and social services is based on municipalities’ legislation, such as the Act on Health and Social Care, the Education Act and the Act on Child Welfare Services. In case a child needs more specialized health or social services, state run facilities are responsible for fulfilling the child’s rights.

The lockdown entailed a reduction of capacity to carry out or even a halt of health care services for children because of health personnel being reassigned to other tasks in municipalities. Children in need of and with the right to treatment for their mental health problems had to wait longer for receive necessary health care. Health care services for children with the need and right to compound services ceased. According to Norwegian law, municipalities are obliged to provide certain health care services to its citizens, regardless of age. Being a statutory obligation, municipalities have no discretionary power to postpone or cease those type of services, and no exemption was adopted by the government during the lockdown. Ceasing or reducing these services with no references to or consideration of children’s rights led to an absence of necessity and proportionality test, which might lead to unnecessary continuation of the violation of children’s right to health.

Moreover, migrant children’s vulnerability due to lack of measures by the authorities to lessen the impact of inequality became conspicuously visible when migrant communities where overrepresented as carriers of the COVID-19 virus in Norway in the beginning of April 2020. Children’s right to health must not be undermined as a result of discrimination.A vital part to realize children’s right to health without discrimination is the child’s access to appropriate information on health issues, closely related to children’s right to participation. Yet, at the start of the outbreak, the information provided by the government was insufficiently available, targeted and timely, in sum also jeopardizing the right to health of migrant children.

2. Right to education

Article 109 of the Norwegian Constitution states children’s right to education, reinforced by reference to international human rights documents with similar wording. The main features of state obligation in international and national law is to make primary education compulsory for children and available free to all. While this does not necessarily seem to be required considering the wording of international law and Norwegian national law, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states explicitly that primary education is a school system for the basic education of children outside the family. To educate children in available and accessible schools that provide acceptable quality and adaptableform and substance of education is an effective tool to ensure that the right to education is realized in a non-discriminatory way.

The lockdown of primary and secondary schools in mid-March resulted in an unprecedented national home schooling experiment – against the advice of public health experts – with teachers educating their pupils with the assistance of digital solutions and parents. While this appears to have worked for the majority of children, not all childrenexperienced available, interested and capable school owners, teachers and parents, when assistance was needed. To access education became dependent on adequate connectivity, data equipment, and digital competence. Nationally, the quality and amount of teacher-pupil interaction appear to have varied to an astonishing degree. Children with special needs and children living in socio-economically marginalized households faced additional barriers – including invisibilisation in government recommendations on education – and became disproportionately vulnerable to the priorities of local governments.

3. Right to safety and security

Children have the right to personal integrity according to Article 104 of the Norwegian Constitution. CRC Article 6 requires states to work in a comprehensive manner so that children are enabled to grow up in a healthy and protected manner, free from fear and want. CRC Article 19 emphasizes that State Parties must implement proper laws as well as administrative, social and educational measures to protect children from all forms of violence, both physical and mental, including in the private realm of the family, and in care homes and other institutions. According to the CRC Committee, the primary prevention of all forms of violence through public health, education, social services and other approaches is of paramount importance. A general lockdown of these services is therefore alarming with respect to the protection of children against violence.

On a national level, several professions were defined as critical to society, enabling parents working in these professions to still send their children to childcare and school. The fact, that professionals working in child welfare services were not initially included in this definition exemplifies the lack of awareness for children’s rights and state obligations.

The child welfare system reports fewer requests for help from children and youth living with violence and abuse. Children with minority and immigrant background again seem to have been disproportionately affectedThe child welfare services experienced that parents started to refuse assistance because of their concerns for infection. More than half of the meetings with and follow-ups of families were cancelled particularly by families that previously had notbeen positive to interact with the Child welfare services before the outbreak.

Concluding observations

Empirically, the issue is the disproportionate impact on children and the burden they have been required to carry. Politically this concerns the legitimacy of tradeoffs between the safety, health and well-being of the majority population of non-children and the ‘minority population’ of children, and how far Norway can go in prioritizing the former. Legally, the problem is the failure to calibrate interventions and frame impact through the prism of constitutional law guarantees — and by that opening up for considerations of necessity and proportionality.

In the event of a second lockdown this fall, starting from its constitutional obligations, the government should:

  • Mandate risk, vulnerability and impact assessments using CRC and the Constitution as points of departure. This means framing problem definitions and interventions with due concern for, but also awareness of children’s human rights and constitutional protections.
  • Make economic investments in child sensitive testing and contact tracing strategies.
  • Include jurists with children’s rights competence in all expert groups to mainstream children’s rights perspectives in all assessments of government interventions, policies and ‘Covid-19 law’.
  • Include assessments of short, medium- and long-term consequences of interventions for children. In a life-course perspective a child’s experiences has large impact on its adult life. In an ethical and moral perspective, children being heavily dependent on society, their well-being must be prioritized in the struggle against Covid-19.


Academics and Homeschooling: Initial Notes During COVID-19

I never thought I would have to think seriously about homeschooling. To me as an academic, feminist and parent with kids in the public-school system in Norway, that has always seemed very fringe and also enormously demanding. In any event, here we are, universities and schools in Norway are closed, and I am eating humble pie. I am in awe of anyone who can do this well! On top of that, household chores double when everyone is home and in addition two parents are supposed to work for 15 hours a day. While many academics work across many time zones and the absence of teaching and travelling might actually free up a bit of time, this is challenging.

My partner and I have devised a well-meaning and comprehensive scheme to organize #1, 2 and 3, who are all primary-school age. So far, some things have worked and others not. I have quickly and deservedly been demoted from Headmaster to assistant TA (explained below). We (parents) are ambivalent about the merits of popular participation in deciding the daily schedule. I thought I would be a tad more progressive in that department. Conversations have been had with self about keeping own voice down. Kids miss their friends. Kids are amazing.

It is hard for everyone not to get anxious. Having humanitarian emergencies as my field of research, I am well aware that this is not one right here and right now. At the same time, this is uncharted territory. We don’t know how long this is going to last, and how our families will be impacted. What we do know is that this will go on for a couple of weeks, at least. Knowing that other countries are going to close schools in the coming days, here are my notes so far:

  1. In the morning: Stick to normal routines but have better breakfasts. Last week, we learnt that we as adults should get dressed, fix our hair and not work from our untidied beds. Kids also need to do the same. This involves arriving at a clean desk in the morning.
  2. Go for a walk! Even if it’s raining! While the overall enthusiasm for having to go for a walk at 7:30 AM might be low, they need to get some air and move about. So do you.
  3. Most schools will swiftly come up with digital routines. It’s important that daily life is tailored to these routines but also that you help out with ringing the bell. Literally (this is where I got demoted – after forgetting to formally close their English session because I was selfishly engrossed in writing a blog post). Provide proper breaks. Preferable outside. Remember snacks.
  4. You will and should play Lego. The kids play a lot at school. To help them spend that mental energy, engage. Quaint stuff from your childhood might merit revisiting: I have now parented for a decade-plus without ever playing with marbles. Intermittently, I have looked at the dusty bag with a guilty conscience. I used to be a marbles hoarder in primary school. Opportunity beckons.
  5. Responsibilize everyone for cleaning up their mess, from tidying beds to cleaning up their plates, and if they are older, vacuuming and taking out the trash and so forth. This is going to be hard. But if there is more to do, everyone needs to do more. Consider drawing from the capitalist toolbox and offer (more) incentives. Some four-year-olds will be better at folding towels than you – believe me.
  6. They – the kids – need to get physically exhausted. Set aside 90 minutes every afternoon to do something outside.
  7. Although I knew this, it turns out that screen time right before bed is still not a good idea. Audiobooks are a great combination with arts and crafts. I am now working towards Easter decorations (cute bunny, eggs, chickens, hens, the Easter bunny MONSTER, Easter bunny monster paper macheé pinata, funny trolldeig chicken), Easter being the new Halloween or Christmas.
  8. Have the kids call (older) relatives every day.
  9. Divide the workday with your partner and stick to that division. Ideally, the person on the first shift gets up earlier. Co-schedule your Zoom and Skype sessions. BUT: accept that nobody is going to work a full day. Settle for a couple of effective hours each and be grateful to each other for making it happen.
  10. Finally: be nice to yourself! In the academic department, make ridiculous lists of tasks that are VERY low-hanging fruit. I have cleaned most of my desk. With soap. I have also finally chucked out a bunch of articles I hoarded at the Harvard Law School copying center in the basement of HLS in 2004, articles I was going to read once I had finished my PhD work (2008). I am thinking the chucking represents some kind of positive act of self-awareness yet to be defined. I have made another list of outstanding peer reviews I will do next week (promise!).

Also, seriousness in the self-care department cannot be emphasized enough: Wiggle your toes. (Try. You might be surprised to discover you no longer can. Fix that.) Attempt yoga! I know that a lot of people adore Adriane – I like Erin Sampson for her no-nonsense style. However, now some amazing Norway-based yoga teachers are offering online courses. Oslo-based Lindsay Eisinger, AKA @yogaforquarantine on Instagram, is streaming live classes on weekdays, and the iYoga studio has started releasing classes in Norwegian.

All of this advice is given with the caveat that I am living in Norway, a country which has the preexisting infrastructure to make a COVID-19 lock-down feasible for most of its citizens, including economic support to parents. Additionally, I write from a two-parent household, and with extraordinary support from my employers at PRIO and the University of Oslo.

Still, I hope some of what I write here can be helpful to parents in Norway and beyond.

Stay well.

This blog was initially posted at


Governing global health emergencies: the role of criminalization

The point of departure for this blog is the apparent frequency of criminalization strategies in early government responses to the Corona virus. While much attention has been given to the securitization of global health responses – also in the case of Corona – less systematic focus has been given to the partial criminalization of infectious diseases as a strategy of global health governance.

As the scope of the Corona outbreak is broadening, the number of countries deploying criminalization measures is also rapidly increasing. China has introduced harsh regulations to deal with the Corona virus, including ‘medical-related crimes’ involving harassment and violence against medical personnel, refusal to submit to quarantine and obstructing dead body management. Singapore and Hong Kong have criminalized the breach of travel restrictions and misleading authorities or spreading false rumours.   Taiwan plans sentencing the violation of quarantines. Iran will flog or jail people who spread false rumours. A Russian prankster is facing jail-time for Corona ‘hooliganism’. In the US, prospective quarantine violators from the infamous cruise ship Diamond Princess were facing fines or jail time. Beyond governments’ need to be seen doing something in the face of public panic across the Global East and the Global North, how should we think about this propensity to reach for penal measures?

How we explain disease and whom we blame are highly symptomatic of who we are and how we organize our relations with others, in particular the practices and life forms of marginalized elements of society. This will also likely be the legacy of Corona. Moreover, current global health responses to infectious diseases remain bound up with both colonial-era and historical command-and control trajectories of response and needs to be understood in context.

In this blog, I map out three categories of criminalization.  My assumption is that the Corona response will likely involve all three in some form or other. I take the broad conceptualizations of criminalization in circulation in legal, policy and media discourse as the starting point: this includes criminal law sanctions  and administrative and disciplinary sanctions as well as popular perceptions of the uses of penal power and social ‘criminalization-talk’.  The idea is that criminalization can be understood as a strategic tool with multiple constitutive uses in the global health field.

In the following, I outline three different things that criminalization ‘does’ in the global health field, which may serve as a resource for thinking about how criminalization will shape approaches to the Corona virus.

First, I am interested in the direct and indirect criminalization of health care delivery through the criminalization of individuals infected with or suspected of being infected with specific infectious diseases. The problem with this approach is that it risks aggravating humanitarian suffering because it is either premised on criminalizing the practices and attributes of groups that are already in a marginal position, or that with infection, patients immediately become  socially or economically ‘marginalized’ which allows for criminal interventions. This category of criminalization covers transmission, exposure, interaction with ‘vulnerable groups’ (such as children), failure to disclose or simply physical movement. It relies significantly on the mobilization of othering and of metaphors of fear.  The global health response may also be undermined through the de facto criminalization of individuals by way of the use of compulsory health powers such as surveillance, contact tracing, compulsory examination and treatment, regulation of public meeting places, quarantines and forced isolation of individuals.

These regimes might be so repressive as to have severe humanitarian impact on the populations concerned. Human suffering here does not emanate from the inability to offer health care but from the human rights violations arising from how fear and stigma fuel criminalization of ‘vulnerable/deviant/threat groups (such as drug users, those with precarious migration status, sex workers and the LGBTI population) and how criminalization in turn produces further deviance and marginalization.  A characteristic of early phases of epidemics is that certain groups are singled out as risky and characterized as dangerous, allowing for repressive public health interventions.

At the same time, fear of harassment, arrest and detention may deter people from using health services.  A ‘deviant’ social status combined with health status may lead to discrimination and ill-treatment by health care providers. Criminalization is linked to high levels of harassment and violence, reported by lesbian, gay, transgender people and sex workers around the world (see here and here). Notably, in the context of HIV/AIDS, criminalization, and quarantine and individual responsibility for disclosure have been considered as key tools to halt or limit transmission, despite innovations in treatment that radically transform the nature and lethality of HIV/AIDS. Globally, prosecutions for non‐disclosure, exposure or transmission of HIV frequently relate to sexual activity, biting, or spitting. At least 68 countries have laws that specifically criminalize HIV non‐disclosure, exposure, or transmission. Thirty‐three countries are known to have applied other criminal law provisions in similar cases.

For the fast-moving but relatively low-mortality Corona-virus, these lessons indicate that a marginalized social status can contribute to exacerbating transmission and constitute a barrier to adequate health care, potentially increasing mortality.

Second, criminalization and repressive public health measures and discriminatory barriers are also a complicating factor during emergencies caused by other factors. As seen in the context of Ebola, general violence as well as violence against health care workers undermines efforts to end outbreaks. Humanitarian emergencies confront public health systems with often overwhelming challenges. In the midst of this, criminalization of individuals who are infected or perceived as risky or dangerous further compromises the ability to address preexisting epidemics and hamper transmission, thus exacerbating the impact of the overall impact of the crisis.

Third, in situations when the disease itself is the emergency, criminalization and the attendant practice of quarantines directly hampers efforts. Historically, quarantines have been used for a wide range of diseases including venereal disease, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, leprosy and cholera. Quarantines are co-constructed through the longstanding tradition of framing infectious disease through criminalization, whereby stigma, medicalization and incarceration have worked together to produce colonial bodies construed as racial and sexual threats to national security (see here and here). Quarantine was a widely employed tool against Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia.  As noted  by commentators, according to the logic underlying quarantines ‘subjects marked as abnormal, diseased, criminal, or illicit should be isolated for their own betterment and for the collective good’. While resistance becomes a proof of deviance and of the necessity of segregation, in the case of Ebola, quarantines may compel fearful communities to hide  suspected cases. In the contemporary context, with an international human rights framework on health suggesting that rights-based approaches to disease prevention and mitigation should be foregrounded,  problematic tradeoffs between criminalization-oriented public health measures and fundamental rights and liberties are likely to proliferate, as illustrated by the US government’s budding ‘war on Corona’.

This blog has provided an initial map of how criminalization may shape the Corona response. In sum, when criminalization is pegged directly onto suffering human bodies, criminalization hinders global health interventions in three ways. Criminalization might be so repressive that it has severe health-related impacts on the populations concerned. Criminalization also undermines and exacerbates challenges already faced by the public health infrastructure during an emergency. Finally, the repercussions of criminalization are most impactful in situations when the disease itself is the humanitarian crisis and where criminalization directly hampers efforts to contain and mitigate epidemics.

This blog was initially published by International Health Policies


Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Kjersti Lohne

How can education help to realize the multiple goals and visions of transitional justice, and how can transnational justice be adapted to new educational objectives?

During November 2019, scholars from the University of Pristina and the University of Oslo met at the Faculty of Law in Pristina to discuss the role of universities in educating for peace. Taking this dialogue between two very different experiences of mass violence – Kosovo with war and oppression, and Norway with a terror attack as its point of departure – this blog discusses what it means to teach transitional justice in a new decade, and the merits of applying transitional justice perspectives to new domestic contexts that are not used to think of themselves as ‘transitional’.

Transitional justice has primarily been a toolkit for post-conflict justice such as the Kosovo context. As noted by Human Rights Watch 20 years on, civilians paid a hefty price: In 1998 and 1999 between 90% of the Kosovar population of 2 million was displaced by Serbian forces and around 13 000 people were killed. An estimated 1653 remain missing. Sexual violence and torture were widespread. Only few individuals have been tried and convicted for their role in the atrocities. Trauma and the effects of political violence and impunity continue to shape Kosovar society today.

22 July 2011, the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik detonated a car bomb in the Oslo government district, which killed eight people, injured about 200 and led to significant material destruction. Breivik then travelled to the Labour Party’s Youth Organization (AUF) summer camp at Utøya Island, where dressed up as a police officer, he massacred 69 individuals, including 50 children. Thousands of survivors, relatives, rescuers and bystanders remain deeply affected. Since 2011, numerous terrorists have claimed 22 July as a source of inspiration (herehere or here).

Kosovo and Norway cannot be directly compared: The type of crime, scale of violence and suffering is vastly different, and so is the state’s ability to respond. Moreover, while Breivik was Norwegian, the war in Kosovo was between different entities, which affects how respective communities deal with the legacy of violence in its aftermath. However, a dialogue between the two contexts is both timely and appropriate. The experience of Norway after the 22 July 2011 terror attack, and that of other countries recovering from similar mass casualty terror attacks, suggests that transitional justice might have a place in the aftermath of violent political extremism in otherwise established democracies. The political nature of this type of violence engenders difficult questions as to who is an insider and outsider in a given domestic context, and narratives of belonging, responsibility and harm shift over time.

Kosovar and Norwegian educators both grapple with a contemporary context where the production of knowledge and truth claims – as well as the legitimacy and authority of higher education itself – are contested. At a fundamental level, this concerns how we live together, respect each other’s humanity and work towards consensus on versions of the past and of the future.

Integrating transitional justice and education

Transitional justice is many things to many people. The most widely applied definition is the one offered by the UN, seeing transitional justice as a first and foremost a process, and referring to ‘the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempt to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation’. Observant scholars have taken issue with how transitional justice processes are incrementally framed in legal discourse. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), for example, refer to transitional justice as ‘judicial and non-judicial mechanisms, including prosecution initiatives, reparations, truth-seeking, institutional reform, or a combination thereof’, and assert that ‘Whatever combination is chosen must be in conformity with international legal standards and obligations’.

At the same time, influential actors such as the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) stress that transitional justice is about ‘putting victims and their dignity first’ and asking ‘the most difficult questions imaginable about law and politics’. They see such difficult yet necessary questioning as signaling ‘the way forward for a renewed commitment to make sure ordinary citizens are safe in their own countries – safe from the abuses of their own authorities and effectively protected from violations by others’. The Humanitarian Law Center understands transitional justice to be about ‘dealing with the past to build the future.’ In a similar vein, and as stated by one of the Kosovar workshop participants, transitional justice is about helping ‘to reveal the truth and what has happened’.

Within this diversity of transitional justice objectives, the role of education is gaining increasing traction – both as a question of developing didactics for teaching transitional justice, and of conceptualizing education as a key sector alongside other societal institutions and sectors subject to transitional justice processes. However, this is a relative new development, and much work still needs to be done. As Elizabeth A. Cole and the ICTJ have pointed out, ‘The field has moved from discursively recognizing the importance of education (though placing it beyond the ambit of transitional justice practice temporally and philosophically) to trying to find models for active engagement with it’. 

The case of Kosovo

As a nation, Kosovo remains in a precarious position as it grapples with its past, present and future. With respect to terror attacks, the challenge for otherwise established democracies in Europe also take on temporal and continuous elements: each new attack shapes possible futures by way of creating cultures of fear, but also by legitimating the exclusion of ‘deserving’ victims or individuals deemed ‘complicit’ merely by way of their membership in ethnic, social or religious groups. How do we educate students about restoration, accountability and justice when we are always suspended somewhere between the last terror attack – and the next?

Asking our hosts this question, the answer is that we must hold onto the idea that transitional justice, regardless of the violent context, must come from below.

First, we must accept that this will be messy, unfinished and not always successful – also in an educational context. An important but often overlooked part of what it means to do transitional justice from below is the productive role of mistakes – and the importance of discussing them. As suggested by participants to the conference, mistakes do happen – there are perhaps even necessary pathways to learning. Yet, mistakes – or lack of professionalization – can hamper or completely undermine the transitional justice effort too. Participants noted that the most obvious examples concern recovery and identification of dead bodies or the restoration and protection of cultural heritage. As explained by a practitioner working with survivors of sexual violence, there are specific instances where the overarching principle is to ‘do no harm’ and where no mistakes are permitted: ‘we can’t make mistakes – that would compromise the women’.  To retain a conscious relationship with the role of mistakes and professionalization alike was thus a recurring topic in Kosovo.

However, these statements also point to the possible tensions between the emphasis on transitional justice being locally embedded and professionalized at the same time – which again lead to broader questions about the role of the state. From the Kosovar perspective, learning to carry out the tasks of transitional justice in parallel with doing nation-building takes time – in part because externally funded institutions come and go. From the perspective of established democracies that are increasingly characterized by post-welfare, neoliberal governance, questions about local ownership and professionalization are as pertinent.

A final concern was the challenging role of education in a time of contested knowledge production. In post-conflict settings, there are often contestations over history. Today, technology too exacerbates tensions over truth claims and historic narratives in Kosovo and Norway alike. Among participants, including students, there was concern of ‘history repeating itself’, with visible signs of tensions and ‘othering’ across the European continent. Participants reflected on why this is happening again, and what can be done about it. Some participants suggested that human rights offered a language – a normative baseline – for continuing dialogue in spite of conflicting ‘truths’ and world views – even in the classrooms. Holding on to human rights as a normative bulwark in education may strengthen its foundation also beyond the classroom. This speaks to a fundamental tenet of teaching transitional justice, namely the importance of continuing, recognizing that ‘not to stop’ is an objective in and of itself.


The post-violence contexts of Kosovo and Norway are very different. What can we do with these types of exchanges? We suggest that if imagined and articulated correctly, the juxtaposition between violent conflict and violent extremism opens a space for critical discussions about citizenship, belonging and the imagination of the nation-state as inclusive, accountable—and just.  After all, education is of significant structural and societal importance as a site of justice and injustice alike, and as such, carries potential as both a key form and site of reparation and transitionPablo Freire has noted that by focusing on participants’ life experiences, such an approach may affirm participants’ dignity and recognize that all in the room are teachers and learners alike. While the pedagogy of teaching transitional justice in a violent extremism context is made complicated by the lack of a clear ending – and the impossibility of guaranteeing non-repetition – learning from practitioners and thinking with the perspectives of transitional justice offers a road forward.

This blog was initially posted at

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Kjersti Lohne are co-organizers of an initiative called LAW22JULY – where LAW stands for learning, accountability, witnessing – based at the Faculty of Law at the University of Oslo in Norway. The flagship project is LAW22JULY: RIPPLES (Rights, Institutions, Procedures, Participation, Litigation:Embedding Security) starting in 2020. 

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



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

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 For an extended critical commentary on the rapid rise of the Safeguarding concept in the aid sector, see

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