Report from UK-based ODI: Humanitarian Action Harmed by Anti-Terror Laws

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November 1, 2011

Counter-terrorism measures (CTMs) implemented during the last decade are having a chilling effect on humanitarian efforts, says an October 2011 report from the UK based Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Counter-terrorism and humanitarian action: Tensions, impact and ways forward finds many CTMs upset the timeliness and efficiency of humanitarian aid, create administrative red-tape that endangers the lives of aid workers, and fosters an atmosphere of fear and confusion that prevent relief groups from operating in global hot spots. “Rigid and over-zealous application of counter-terrorism laws to humanitarian action in conflict not only limits its reach…but undermines the independence and neutrality of humanitarian organizations,” the report said.

While preventing resources from benefitting terrorist organizations is an important objective, the report finds the measures many governments are taking to achieve this “have led some [U.S. humanitarian] organizations to scale down their presence” in areas where a designated terrorist group operates leaving millions of people in need without basic necessities. U.S. law prohibits any contact with a listed terrorist group, regardless of intent, making distribution of food to civilians living in regions controlled by such groups nearly impossible. The report finds “U.S. legislation has had the most impact on humanitarian operations,” in particular the sanctions regime implemented by the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the material support statute. “While there has been only a small number of prosecutions of humanitarian actors for ‘material support’ offences,” said the report, “the threat of criminal sanction will continue to undermine humanitarian operations, at least until there is a greater clarity on the interpretation and application of the laws to humanitarian operations.”
In places like Somalia, where armed conflict and famine have left millions of people in need of life saving support, the report found U.S. CTMs were responsible for a 50 percent drop in humanitarian funding between 2008 and 2011. For the aid groups that remain in Somalia, many report “the pre-vetting checks and other risk management procedures” required by OFAC regulations significantly delay their response time and “increase the risk to aid workers,” by making them appear to aligned with one side in the conflict. 
The intrusive vetting of partners and beneficiaries is not exclusive to Somalia. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) wants to implement similar vetting procedures, called the Partner Vetting System (PVS), for all of its grantees. PVS has been widely criticized by the U.S. NGO sector because it is costly, ineffective and undermines the relations between humanitarian organizations and local communities.  “USAID partner vetting requirements envisage collecting and reporting personal information about partner and contractor staff to the US government – a requirement that is invariably seen as invasive and accusatory by locals,” the report says. These measures undermine the neutrality of humanitarian organizations because U.S. funded organizations that comply with these vetting requirements “are seen by partners on the ground as endorsing the political view of the government.”
To reverse these trends, the report says a dialogue is needed between NGOs, UN agencies, humanitarian donors and governments in order to ensure that counter-terrorism objectives do not undermine humanitarian commitments. This requires greater clarity from the U.S. government on the scope and applicability of counter-terrorism laws and measures.