Humanitarian UAV Guidelines on Conflict Sensitivity
All interventions in conflict zones become part of the conflict dynamics and can result in very serious unintended consequences, including the loss of life. Extraordinary caution should be used in deploying UAVs in conflict zones. These guidelines refer to the possible use of UAVs for humanitarian purposes in conflict zones. In other words, they do not refer to the use of UAVs for conflict prevention or peacekeeping (unless these intersect with humanitarian activities). [In general, as with other humanitarian UAV deployments, UAV missions in conflict zones should follow the ICRC Data Protection standards, the UN Guidelines on Confidentiality and Handling of Sensitive Information and the UNHCR Data Protection Policy.
In conflict zones, different bodies of law apply, such as International Humanitarian Law or International Human Rights Law. However, not all armed actors party to the conflict can be counted on to abide by these bodies of law. What follows are the specific principles by which UAV missions should also abide in conflict zones:
- Ensure that the sole purpose of all UAV missions is to strengthen humanitarian action, including protect the population and relieve suffering.
- Determine whether UAVs (armed and unarmed) are already being used by some of the parties to the conflict. If they are, this may make it difficult to distinguish between your UAVs and those used by the parties to the conflict. Your use of UAVs may thus create fear and also raise suspicions.
- Never accept tasks from armed actors party to the tensions or conflict, including the collection or sharing of information with them. Never carry payloads for them. Due diligence must be taken when interacting with any group in a conflict setting, including government authorities.
- Engaging local communities in person in conflict zones may place them at greater risk. Remote engagement should be considered when appropriate and safe.
- Ensure that UAV mission staff have adequate insurance and require staff to take necessary training in basic security in the field. Ideally, the UAV operator should also have experience working with or along side security forces.
- Ensure that a humanitarian actor has negotiated access with armed actors party to the conflict for your UAV mission.
- Ensure that all data transmissions and storage in or to conflict zones are secure and encrypted.
- Put in place protocols to manage UAVs captured by armed actors party to the conflict, including adequate markings and coloring, a disable function, destruction of the memory card and simultaneous remote recording of data.
- Ensure adequate action and communications to address local perceptions around the use of UAVs. Perceptions may include: Perceived as hostile by one or more of the parties to a conflict (regardless of your actual neutrality or impartiality); Fear or hostility from local populations traumatized by conflict; and Negative association with military operations (including counter-terrorism or peacekeeping operations). All of these perceptions could jeopardize or contaminate the humanitarian purpose.
- Conduct a risk assessment on whether local conflict affected populations can be targeted as a result of UAV flights (data collection or cargo), and put in place appropriate mitigating actions (including deciding not to fly UAVs).
- Consider the (positive and negative) effect on conflict dynamics of using local UAV operators (e.g. negative: leaked or manipulated data, alternative uses, coercion of operators; positive: greater trust, local buy-in, sustainability).
- Consider the safety of the UAV team especially if located within the conflict area and dynamics. Be aware that they could be targeted or coerced. Seek the security advice of relevant international actors (e.g. DPKO units and / or UNDSS).
- Consider that domestic and international militaries operating in the conflict zone may be willing to share UAV data and capabilities, and consider on a case by case basis whether utilizing these military assets is in or can be perceived to be in contradiction with the humanitarian aim of your mission.