Leahy to DOJ: Protect Humanitarian and Peacebuilding Activities

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Date: 
October 3, 2011

On Sept. 21, 2011, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) urged the Department of Justice to “remove the uncertainty” surrounding the material support statute that restricts U.S. groups from conducting peacebuilding activities and responding to emergencies like the famine in southern Somalia. In a statement made before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, he said the scope of the law had become too broad over the past decade and imposes “unintended constraints on legitimate humanitarian assistance efforts.” Leahy asked the Attorney General to create effective procedures for U.S. peace and aid groups seeking licenses and exemptions. Other speakers at the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing titled, Countering Terrorist Financing, discussed the ongoing efforts of the anti-terror financing regime.

“This past summer, as U.S.-based humanitarian relief agencies tried to respond to the famine in Somalia, many expressed genuine fear that those agencies would run afoul of the law if some of their aid was diverted, without their knowledge, to al-Shabab, an al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia. A great deal of energy was expended seeking a solution as the famine put lives in grave danger,” Leahy said. “We need greater clarity in the law so that, in the future, Government officials and reputable humanitarian relief agencies need not delay the delivery of desperately needed aid while they scramble for a license,” he added.
 
The material support law’s restrictions on peacebuilding activities also drew Leahy’s criticism. "[N]on-governmental organizations engaged in unofficial diplomacy and peace building…often engage in informal negotiations that serve United States interests, and pave the way for formal settlements of conflicts,” he said. “The Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (HLP) left many individuals and organizations uncertain as to the scope of permitted activity under the law because their activities might be construed as providing expert advice and assistance to terrorist groups…. I believe the Attorney General should issue prosecutorial guidelines that remove the uncertainty over the scope of the material support law and establish a process by which actors may seek exemptions," Leahy said.
 
Leahy’s statement comes almost two months after he sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder about the material support law inhibiting U.S. aid groups from reaching the millions at-risk for starvation in southern Somalia.  “The humanitarian needs of the world and the security of the United States are both served by enabling non-governmental actors to fulfill their missions. We must not impede the efforts of individuals and organizations that have no intent to provide material support for terrorism, and whose activities serve the goals of the United States.” On Aug. 3 the DOJ responded to Leahy with a letter saying, in part, “we will continue our dialogue with key NGOs about how they provide humanitarian assistance inside Somalia and how we can assist them.”
 
Also speaking at the hearing, Daniel Glaser, Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing at the Treasury Department, described their efforts combating terrorist financing. “In the ten years since the tragic attacks of September 11, 2011, the U.S. government has made great strides in developing a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach to combating terrorist financing drawing on all tools of national power.”   He added, “I can confidently say that the U.S. is no longer fertile ground for terrorist fundraising.”

Lisa Monaco, Assistant Attorney General of the National Security Division, described how the DOJ has argued in support of aspects of the counter-terror regime, including the designation process. In her written testimony, she also said that the DOJ is “currently litigating cases involving Al-Haramain Foundation and Kindhearts,” two charities that had their Constitutional rights violated by Treasury. 

Additionally, the House Financial Services subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing titled, Combating Terrorism Post 9/11, in New York on Sept. 6. In his written testimony, Glaser said that turbulence across the Middle East and northern Africa is creating challenges for global efforts to combat terrorist financing. He also said, “charities provide essential services, comfort, and hope to those in need around the world.”