UN Humanitarian Chief Warns of Chilling Impact Created by Counterterror Measures in Syria

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Date: 
July 3, 2014

UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos criticized counterterrorism laws that create a chilling impact on humanitarian organizations working in places like Syria. In a July 1 BBC 4 radio segment, Amos argued that overboard restrictions in the name of countering terror are exacerbating the crisis. “Our humanitarian response has been slowed down in some areas and stopped altogether, and ultimately, people will die” said Amos.

Legislation in the UK and the U.S. make most forms of “material support” to terrorist organizations a serious crime. In Syria, where groups like ISIS have been designated as terrorists, this legal restriction can make accessing civilians very difficult. Marwa Kuwaider, Program Development Manager at Human Care Syria, said that the presence of ISIS and other groups means “working in certain areas is no-go” because her group will “avoid contact where possible.” Human Care Syria, like many other organizations, fears that their humanitarian funds could be diverted by terrorist groups, opening them up to prosecution. “We don’t want to take that risk,” said Kuwaider. 

Interviewer Tim Whewell, found that the “huge body of national and international counterterrorism legislation that was not written with charities in mind” lends itself to confusion. Some groups are uncertain how much engagement with a terrorist organization is permitted before it becomes a crime. According to Ingrid MacDonald, Director of Geneva & Humanitarian Policy at the Norwegian Refugee Council, “It’s not one piece of legislation. We have the US legislation we have the UK legislation, we have the Norwegian, the Swedish.” Organizations operating internationally must contend with these various legal regimes which often have different requirements and create confusion, administrative burdens and high costs to charities.

Remedying the problem will likely require a change to domestic law. Mike Parkinson, a policy advisor for Oxfam UK said that aid groups will have to work with governments to determine changes to the law. “We want to deliver aid to people who need it when they need it,” said Parkinson, but “There have been instances where we’ve been asked for payments and that has led to us reviewing whether that program can go ahead.”  Allowing some small and incidental payments, in cases where they are absolutely necessary to access civilians, may offer a relief valve.

Legislation pending in the U.S. House of Representatives would do just that. The Humanitarian Assistance Facilitation Act (HAFA) is a bi-partisan bill that permits “customary, necessary and incidental” transactions with designated groups. This means that only fees universally applied to all organizations, such as taxes or tolls, would be allowed. During the 2011 famine in Somalia, when the designated group Al-Shabaab controlled wide swaths of territory, this law could have helped many organization access starving civilians and saved lives.

While Amos did not think that allowing any kind of payments to terrorist organizations would be the right course, she did underscore the need for change. “We fully understand and appreciate that governments have a need and responsibility to fight terrorism,” she said, but “the law needs to have within it the means to enable humanitarian workers to do their job.” With nearly nine million civilians in-need caught in areas of Syria with active combatants, and the humanitarian situation in Somalia declining yet again, it is clear that these laws will continue to be at the forefront of humanitarian’s minds.