A new working paper from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly summarizes previously published recommendations to protect principled humanitarian action impacted by counterterrorism legislation.

The paper, Desk review of relevant literature on the impact of counter-terrorism legislation and measures on principled humanitarian assistance, published in February 2020, is a desk review of papers and articles published between 2011 and 2019 on the topic that examines the recommendations made by prominent scholars in those publications.

The recommendations span a broad range of critical aspects including humanitarian exemptions, counterterrorism (CT) related language, bank derisking, the impact of sanctions regimes on humanitarian access, and the impact of CT measures on civic space and human rights.

The report finds that humanitarian actors are forced to make decisions about where to work and who to serve based on their perceived compliance with counterterrorism measures, rather than on service needs alone. CT measures not only limit humanitarian action but they also hinder the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Thus, the IASC recognizes that humanitarian exemptions and exception clauses should be implemented in sanctions regimes, UN resolutions and policies, and domestic CT legislation. Furthermore, the UN Security Council (UNSC) and Member States should evaluate the adverse consequences sanctions regimes have on principled humanitarian action.

Data collection regarding the impact of CT measures on humanitarian action is scarce due to lack of coordination between UN counterterrorism structures and civil society organizations. The IASC recommends improved collaboration between multilateral organizations, governments, and civil society on issues related to CT in order to fully understand the effect CT measures have on the humanitarian space.

The IASC recognizes that definitions of “terrorism” and “material support” to terrorist groups are ambiguous, which can result in the criminalization of core activities of humanitarian organizations. The UNSC and Member States should avoid broadly worded CT prohibitions and better monitor and report on the impact of sanctions regimes and CT on humanitarian access.

The report also addresses financial access and derisking. States must also “play a more active role in addressing banking sector restrictions” on humanitarian programs, such as “engaging directly with the banking sector to explain the programmes they fund, and the requirements they include in funding agreements to reduce the risk of diversion or abuse,” it states. Derisking poses a serious obstacle for humanitarian assistance and this issue must be discussed globally, especially with FATF, and with more transparency. FATF should “mainstream compliance with international human rights law,” and treat the nonprofit sector equally with other interest groups by granting them formal consultative status, the report states.

Overall, a summary of key recommendations in the report includes:

  • Inclusion of safeguards for humanitarian action in international and national legislation;
  • Improved wording and language of UNSC Resolutions related to CT (especially suppression of financing of CT) or resolutions establishing/renewing sanctions regimes;
  • Increased systematic monitoring of and reporting on the impact of sanctions regimes/CT restrictions on humanitarian access and space;
  • Greater transparency and accountability of UN counterterrorism bodies on the implications of the international counterterrorism framework on human rights and principled humanitarian assistance.
  • Development of risk-sharing measures among donors, humanitarian organizations and financial institutions.

Read the full report.