A new High Level Review Compendium Report shows a changing attitude towards the effect of UN sanctions on counter-terrorism and humanitarian action. The report indicates a need to redefine and reinforce UN sanctions, as well as a greater concern for the protection of humanitarian work.

The High Level Review (HLR) is a member state-led process supported by academics and consultants specializing in the UN Security Council and sanctions. The process, inaugurated in 2014 and conducted over the course of a year, was sponsored by Australia, Finland, Germany, Greece and Sweden, and has involved consultations with a broad range of member states, UN agencies, sanctions committees, and other stakeholders. The HLR intends to “examine the way sanctions are integrated into the UN’s collective security framework, the relationship between UN sanctions and external institutions and instruments related to peace and security, and emerging challenges,” the report states.

The HLR Compendium Report contains 150 recommendations spanning a range of sanctions-related topics. Several of these are significant for those examining the impact of counterterrorism policies on humanitarian work:

  • On monitoring implementation of and compliance with UN sanctions – the HLR recommends that “expert groups… such as the Office of the Ombudsperson and UN human rights bodies, develop evidentiary and investigative standards” to examine the compliance, enforceability and direct effect of UN Sanctions on the ground. The HLR also suggests that sanction bodies operate with a concise, uniform, publicly available methodology. Interestingly, the report also states that “HLR consultations revealed strong views by some that additional steps are needed to improve the procedural rights of individuals and entities subject to sanctions.”

  • On exemptions to financial/travel sanctions – here, HLR recommends to the Security Council and member states that there be a standing exemption for humanitarian actors. Within the section on monitoring implementation and compliance, the report notes, “UN sanctions, comprehensive or targeted, have always included exemptions for humanitarian purposes.” This is significant in that it both refers to specific allowances given to listed individuals (i.e. organizations travelling for medical care, Recommendations 26-27) and also hints at the need for standing exemptions (Recommendation 25). Here, the HLR refers to Security Council Resolution 2182 and recommends using the humanitarian exemptions in the Somalia sanctions regime as a model.

  • Differences from and critiques of the FATF – the HLR goes beyond the FATF Best Practices Paper (BPP) by suggesting that the Secretary General provide a report on key sanctions trends, implementation issues, linkages between Security Council sanctions regimes and the other Council-mandated activities, including the intended and unintended impact of sanctions measures on human rights, due process, and on humanitarian work. While the FATF’s BPP refers to risk analysis when dealing with nonprofits, the HLR asserts that FATF recommendations created the threat of “over-compliance with financial sanctions” and notes its negative impact on humanitarian work.

  • On understanding the impact of sanctions on important humanitarian activities – The report acknowledges that experts “may lack understanding of the fundamental principles defining government humanitarian action, and may not always make a clear distinction between humanitarian actors and other actors, such as peacekeeping operations, special political missions, or human rights actors.”  Importantly, it recognizes the “chilling effect” that international and domestic sanctions have on humanitarian actors carrying out their work.

According to Naz Modirzadeh, Director of Harvard Law School’s Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, the HLR does not simply encourage dialogue. These references to the “chilling effect” of sanctions and the risk of financial overregulation on humanitarian action, as well as the recommendations to implement the Somalia resolutions as a model (Resolution 2182) for standing exemptions, are important, she says. “This report makes clear that the disposition of the HLR is not to increase the legitimacy of Security Council sanctions and to encourage compliance, but also to reflect upon the overall effect that these measures have on humanitarian work and to consider measures that could be introduced to redress such concerns.”

The HLR could mean a major step forward for the field of counterterrorism and humanitarian engagement, according to Modirzadeh. “The HLR Report recognizes the need to legitimize UN sanctions at the same time as declaring how these goals should not conflict with humanitarian efforts,” she says.

Read the full HLR here.