Stanford Law’s New Humanitarian Program Tackles Life-and-Death Policy Issues in Conflict Zones

The interdisciplinary initiative—which grew out of a chance conversation at an SLS event—develops research-based solutions aimed at minimizing suffering in war and other conflicts

When humanitarian workers are killed or injured in places under siege like Syria, Ukraine, or Afghanistan, the devastation of armed conflict is brought into particularly sharp focus. For the last two decades, Humanitarian Notification Systems (HNS) have allowed humanitarian workers and other civilians to transmit their location, by GPS, to alert warring parties of their presence. The hope is that the combatants use the information to avoid, for example, bombing a Doctors Without Borders medical facility. 

But these existing notification systems, usually operated by the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, are employed in an ad hoc fashion, set up on a one-off basis in response to a specific conflict. They are rife with challenges, including inaccurate data entries, lack of transparent guidance about who can participate in the notification systems, and weaknesses in maintaining records of notifications. These issues make effective coordination between humanitarians and the warring parties a challenge.

That’s where Stanford Law School’s (SLS) new Stanford Humanitarian Program comes in.

Photo of Bailey Ulbricht and Allen Weiner

The Stanford Humanitarian Program officially launched in late 2022, but its two SLS alumni-founders have been working quietly for two years with a team that is implementing a new approach to HNS. The soon-to-be-tested prototype—designed by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)—confronts the policy and technological challenges inherent in existing notification systems. For example, the new system employs blockchain technology to create an immutable record of the notifications, a feature that has been lacking in existing systems. 

Stanford Law School Senior Lecturer Allen Weiner, JD ’89, and the Humanitarian Program’s founding executive director Bailey Ulbricht, JD ’22, along with a small team of SLS student research assistants, are developing legal and policy guidance to support humanitarian organizations that might adopt the new HNS. Their guidance also could support the operation of existing systems. Ulbricht and Weiner are looking at tough questions such as who should be allowed to use the system, and what the available responses are under international law when a humanitarian team that has sent a notification is nevertheless attacked. They can’t solve the problem of deliberate attacks on aid workers—which have been increasing according to data from USAID—but it’s an issue that keeps them up at night and one that factors into their research. 

Meanwhile, Weiner and Ulbricht are ramping up the second of the program’s two technology-focused, inaugural projects: an ambitious study of how to employ law and policy to combat the harmful effects of misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech on civilians in places of conflict around the world. 

An SLS Meet-and-Greet Leads to a New Program

The spark for the Stanford Humanitarian Program was ignited by a chance conversation at an SLS event in 2019.  

“I went to an event during my 1L year for students to meet professors working in the international law arena and started talking to Allen, telling him about the work I had done in Syria before law school and how I was hoping to eventually do something in international humanitarian law with a real-world focus that could actually impact lives,” said Ulbricht, who worked in various capacities with Syrian refugees prior to law school, including as the founder of the non-profit Paper Airplanes that provides one-on-one language and coding lessons to refugees. “Allen right away said he also was thinking about international humanitarian law projects with practical relevance. I went to his office a few days later to talk more and that’s when we started honing the idea of working on the issue of healthcare facilities in Syria being attacked. It just grew from there.”

Weiner put it simply: “We wanted to do something that would make war … less bad.”

Prior to returning to teach at his law school alma mater in 2003, Weiner worked for the Office of the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State, advising diplomats and policy makers on international law questions and representing the United States before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the International Court of Justice, and the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal. Weiner serves as director of the Stanford Program in International and Comparative Law and director of the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation.

Ulbricht said the opportunity to co-lead the program immediately after finishing her Stanford Law degree was “a dream come true.” The program is unusual in several respects, she added.

“There are not a lot of academic centers focused on humanitarian crises, and particularly on conflict areas,” Ulbricht said. “There are centers doing some great work on international human rights, but those that work on humanitarian issues typically have more of a public health perspective. We’re trying to fill that gap, recognizing that there are unique challenges communities face in conflict settings and that, sadly, these settings are not going away anytime soon. Our current projects have this particular focus on the effects of technology in these environments, something that is pretty unusual. Also—and this is something I’m particularly passionate about—we’re designing and performing our work in collaboration with real-world partners to ensure a direct impact.  It’s one reason our work product might look a bit different from the typical research paper.”

One example is what they call the Guidebook, a guide for humanitarians to help them address some of the policy and legal challenges connected to HNS. The Guidebook addresses the often-complex policy questions such as: What options are available to humanitarians when their notified sites are struck? Which warring parties should receive humanitarian location data submitted by humanitarians through the notification system? Should non-state-armed groups be allowed to participate? The goal is to provide a guidance document useful for humanitarians as they navigate these complex decisions.

Confronting Inflammatory Speech on Social Media 

While the Stanford Humanitarian Program is harnessing technology as a force for good as part of its HNS initiative, it is at the same time analyzing the potentially destructive side of technology, namely the power of social media to spread inflammatory speech in conflict zones.

For this project, which is still in the early stages, Ulbricht and Weiner have partnered with the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) to study the sometimes-deadly effects of misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech on civilians in conflict settings. Using a series of case studies, the project will explore how inflammatory social media rhetoric can lead to violence against civilian populations–and what should be done to counter that violence. Ultimately, Ulbricht and Weiner plan to develop policy, legal, and operational recommendations that would support humanitarian organizations such as the ICRC and influence government and social media companies to better protect civilians.

Weiner cites the coordinated disinformation campaign against civilians and humanitarian organizations in opposition-held territory in Syria as an example of the issue they are confronting.

“A citizen photographer named Mahmoud Reslan, who snapped a photo that went viral of a child covered in blood after his house had been bombed, became the target of conspiracy theory and death threats, as did Bana al-Abed, a child who famously documented her experience living under siege in Aleppo on YouTube and Twitter,” Weiner said. “Disinformation campaigns aligned with the Assad regime also targeted the fact-finding mission of the Organization for the Prohibition on Chemical Weapons. These campaigns endanger civilians and humanitarian actors by accusing non-combatants of being aligned with terrorists, on the same side as the ‘enemy’ and therefore not entitled to civilian protection.”

Weiner said social media companies have content moderation policies designed to reduce or remove information that incites violence, “but what we are interested in is how the analysis should be different—and potentially more vigorous—in situations of armed conflict,” Weiner continued. “The hope is that our research will catalyze the social media companies to adjust their content moderation policies to take account of the special circumstances of armed conflict and reduce the presence of content on their platforms that causes these kinds of harms.” 

“The work of the program has this strong public interest bent, focused on improving people’s lives who are stuck in these terrible conflict situations,” Ulbricht said. “International conflicts have the curse of often being so big, with so many big players, that it can be difficult to really have tangible impacts. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

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