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Counter-terrorism laws can hurt humanitarian action

A family of refugees in an IDP camp near Mogadishu airport (March 2013)
A family of refugees in an IDP camp near Mogadishu airport (March 2013) (Ahmad Mahmoud/IRIN)

The growing body of counter-terrorism legislation is having a direct impact on humanitarian action, restricting funding, stalling project implementation, and resulting in an increased climate of self-censorship by aid workers, according to a new, independent study.

Commissioned by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) on behalf of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the report - released last week in Geneva - assessed the consequences of counter-terrorism policies epitomized by the Patriot Act introduced in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the USA in 2001.

“The impact of counter-terrorism measures on humanitarian action has been the source of growing concern within the humanitarian community. A particular fear has been that people in areas controlled by non-state armed groups designated as terrorists may have no or diminished access to humanitarian assistance and protection,” said Kyung-wha Kang, assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

The report, Study of the Impact of Donor Counter-Terrorism Measures on Principled Humanitarian Action, was undertaken by a group of independent researchers, and focused on two cases studies: Somalia and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). The USA, the European Union and Australia among others have laws in place designed to prevent international support to groups deemed terrorist organizations.


“We did find negative impacts on humanitarian activities, as restriction of funding, blocking of projects and self-censorship by IOs [international organizations] and NGOs. After 2008, for example, when the United States listed Al Shabab [the Somali militant group] as a terrorist group, we saw an 88 percent decrease in aid to Somalia, between 2008 and 2010. In OPT, beneficiaries can be excluded from humanitarian aid especially in Gaza, under Hamas control [also proscribed by the US],” said Kate Mackintosh, co-author of the study with Patrick Duplat.

The report pointed out that the wariness of aid agencies over falling foul of counter-terrorism legislation had a significant impact on humanitarian programming.

“The research uncovered a high level of self-limitation and self-censorship. This was particularly acute in organizations which perceived their reputation to be highly vulnerable, most notably faith-based Islamic NGOs. The risk of criminal prosecution, as well as of significant reputational damage, appears to be leading in some cases to over-compliance,” the report noted.

Aid agencies also sought to ensure that counter-terrorism obligations are passed on to local implementing partners. “This is both a requirement of some donors in the primary funding agreements but also due to UN agencies’ and international NGOs’ own counter-terrorism requirements dictated by their headquarters. In the case of the OPT, at least four UN agencies have included standard donor-determined counter-terrorism clauses in their subsidiary funding agreements. This has caused tensions with local implementing partners,” the study said.

On the ground

These measures are having a direct impact on how aid and aid workers are perceived.

“In Somalia, the implementation of sanctions and counter-terrorism measures against Al Shabab is considered by many humanitarians to have contributed to an already polarized environment in which humanitarian actors are not perceived as neutral, impartial or independent. While hard to either demonstrate or measure, this structural impact is significant because it has consequences that will stretch into the future and across different contexts,” the report said.

The impact in Gaza for example is that “the parameters of humanitarian action have, for the most part, been shifted so that programmes are designated firstly to avoid contact with or support to the designated group (Hamas), and only secondly to respond to humanitarian needs.”

"Certain donor counter-terrorism measures have presented humanitarian actors with a serious dilemma. If we abide by our principles, we may break the law and face criminal prosecution."

As a consequence, the role of local NGOs in humanitarian action in Gaza is diminishing. “Some local NGOs have refused grants from donors due to counter-terrorism clauses, impacting the ability of donors or UN agencies and international NGOs to find qualified partners.”

Beneficiaries at risk

Beneficiaries are directly affected by the constraints. In Gaza, one NGO could not carry out a food distribution to 2,000 families because its donor did not authorize it to share its beneficiary list with the Ministry of Social Affairs.

“This was considered to be too close an engagement with the Hamas administration. Another organization could not progress with a planned school psychosocial project because the headmaster was perceived to be too senior a figure in the Hamas administration to cooperate with,” wrote Makintosh and Duplat.


Duplat highlighted that some exceptions have been made by donors in extreme crisis. “They have changed or flexibilized rules and application requirements for aid, for example in the famine and drought in Somalia in 2011. The bad point is that you are not supposed to wait for an extreme crisis to happen to get flexible,” he said.

Among the recommendations of the study are that: counter-terrorism policies should include exceptions for humanitarian action; they should not undermine local humanitarian actors; they should exclude ancillary transactions and other arrangements necessary for humanitarian access; and donor states should avoid promulgating on-the-ground policies that inhibit engagement and negotiation with armed groups.

“Certain donor counter-terrorism measures have presented humanitarian actors with a serious dilemma. If we abide by our principles, we may break the law and face criminal prosecution. Adherence to some counter-terrorism laws and measures may require us to act in a manner inconsistent with these principles,” noted the study foreword.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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