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Source: The Road to the Horizon

On December 7th the Saïd Business School’s Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation hosted a seminar entitled “Protecting Civilians: Oxford and Oxfam working together on the ethics of war, weapons and humanitarian aid.” The seminar showcased two projects led by the Oxford Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC) that engage with outside actors to leverage humanitarian ethics in humanitarian crises and armed conflicts.

As part of the first project, faculty associated with ELAC are working with Oxfam and other aid organizations to use applied ethics to resolve the many moral dilemmas these agencies face while distributing humanitarian aid. The project is led by Dr. Hugo Slim, a leading scholar in humanitarian ethics with extensive experience in humanitarian action. For many years, Dr Slim has advised corporations and humanitarian organizations on applying ethics to protect civilians. He recently brought together several member of the Oxford faculty who specialize in humanitarian ethics and just war theory with twelve humanitarian agencies to try to understand the moral problems these agencies face and give them ethical frameworks that can be applied in the field.

The moral problems confronting humanitarian agencies exist on three levels.  First, there are the broad strategic questions about whether they are going to respond to a particular disaster; how much aid they are going to provide; and how to balance the multitude of crises competing for attention. Secondly, at the operational level there are a series of challenges related to the nature of the relationship between the organization and the host governments, many of whom are ethically suspect at best. There is also the trade-off between quality and quantity, and efforts needed to ensure the security of their staff. Finally, there are difficult decisions that individual aid workers must make during day-to-day operations that involve interacting with the local populations, such as determining which patients to prioritize during medical triage.

As Jane Cocking, the Humanitarian Director of Oxfam GB, illustrated in her remarks on humanitarian dilemmas in practice, the challenges that the humanitarian agencies grapple with on a daily basis reflect some of the most difficult issues in humanitarian ethics. For example, they struggle to balance paternalism and autonomy in their relationship with the host government. Agencies working to cooperate with weak local governments are constantly in danger of co-opting the responsibilities of the host government and, therein, either enabling despotic regimes or perpetuating incompetence in weak states. When the Sri Lankan government rounded up hundreds of thousands of people in 2009 and moved them to detention camps, Oxfam elected to provide only the most basic humanitarian services so as not to signal tacit support for any level of permanence.

Then there is a tension between competing ethical approaches. Should the agencies adopt deontological ethics and make decision based on a set of normative rules? Or ought they make utilitarian calculations about which actions will produce the greatest anticipated good? These ‘decisions about decisions’ rarely have definitive answers.

Despite the irresolvable nature of some of these dilemmas, according to Dr Cocking the distance of outside groups like ELAC and their ability to interpret and rationalize outcomes is an incredibly valuable asset to humanitarian agencies working in the trenches. By working together through a myriad of challenging scenarios, ELAC, Oxfam and their collaborators ultimately hope to create a handbook on humanitarian intervention that will outline common moral dilemmas and ethical standards for resolving them that can be applied by practitioners around the world.

While the first, aforementioned, project is focused on the best way to provide services and goods to endangered populations, the second project focuses on protecting civilians from harm. Created by Dr. Alexander Leveringhaus, who specializes in moral responsibility and robotic weapons, this initiative analyses how militaries can design ethically responsible combat systems using increasingly sophisticated and potentially autonomous technology. Most research on arms control concentrates on retroactively limiting the destructiveness and number of conventional weapons. However, Dr Leveringhaus is looking into the future to deal with new autonomous and semi-autonomous technologies that are still in various development phases. Rather than focusing on their destructiveness, he looks at how decision-making processes function to determine whether autonomous decisions can be made responsibly, whether they can conform to moral values, and if they will be at least as good as those made by human agents.

Armed drones are the most noticeable example of semi-autonomous weapons system on the modern battlefield. However, these unmanned vehicles do not operate independently; they are controlled remotely by trained pilots and they are capable of performing certain functions on autopilot, such as flying from point A to point B. The real concern lies with futuristic technologies that will rely on artificial intelligence and no longer require routine input from human decision-makers. Some degree of autonomy may be appropriate; the challenge will be determining what these autonomous functions are, the mechanisms for ensuring accountability and the proper level of human interaction.

Dr Levinghaus’s project goals are still very general. He aims to inform the public, liaise with other members of the academic community, work with civil society actors engaged in arms control and partner with governments to discuss the moral issues introduced by new technology and collaborate on design proposals. The last objective, I believe, has the potential to be the most fruitful.

On the whole, both of these projects represent laudable efforts to transplant humanitarian ethics from the inner chambers of the ivory tower to humanitarian crises and military armouries.  However, theoretical principles do not always translate well to practical disciplines. Aid workers and soldiers do not have the luxury of constructing hypotheticals; they are confronted by the harsh facts of reality, an environment in which the ethical course of action is not always clear or easily executed.

In the immediate future, ELAC’s partnership with Oxfam and other humanitarian agencies appears to offer the most promising outcomes. These agencies choose to accept ELAC’s advisory role because the ethical resources offered by ELAC enable them to make better decisions about how to help suffering populations. According to the code of conduct to which humanitarian organizations subscribe, respect for human dignity is the number one priority of humanitarian work. Human beings are precious and the primary goal of humanitarian agencies is to save human life and prevent suffering. Conversely, it is less obvious that militaries benefit from advice on developing morally responsible weapons systems. The military’s primary function is protecting the state, and sometimes this conflicts with the rights of civilians. It is unclear that militaries will voluntarily accept ELAC’s advice or that this is even practical within the context of the fractured defence acquisitions process.

While identifying a clear target within the military bureaucracy and demonstrating the value of moral theorizing will likely prove difficult for Dr Leverinhaus’s programme, ELAC’s clearly defined partnership with a dozen humanitarian agencies and the immediate relevance of ethical principles on decision-making provide a strong mechanism for application. Achieving this level of engagement with militaries remains a challenge, but although this author remains sceptical of the prospects for success, the effort is commendable.

Megan Braun is an Oxford MPhil student in International Relations

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