Over the last decade counterterrorism measures (CTMs) like the Patriot Act are having a direct and adverse impact on humanitarian action conducted by aid agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), a July 2013 study finds.  Commissioned by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the study, titled Study of the Impact of Donor Counter-Terrorism Measures on Principled Humanitarian Action, examines CTMs in the U.S., European Union and several other countries and determined that they unduly restrict aid programs, increase risks for aid workers, limit funding sources, and undermine partnerships with local NGOs.  International pressure on governments from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to adopt overly-restrictive regulations of NGOs to prevent terrorist financing also draws scrutiny in the study. The release announcement said, “The major conclusion is that the humanitarian community and donor States need to work more closely together to better reconcile counter-terrorism measures and humanitarian action.” In September NRC and OCHA will host an event in New York to initiate such discussions.

Recommendations to lessen the impact include integrating exceptions for humanitarian action in CTMs, excluding minor transactions and other arrangements necessary for humanitarian access, and promoting policies that allow for engagement with armed groups to help deliver aid to civilians caught in harm’s way.

“The concern about the negative impact of counterterrorism measures on humanitarian action is a pressing one because areas in which non-state armed groups designated as terrorist are often those where humanitarian needs are greatest,” the study’s introduction says.

Somalia and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) serve as the primary case studies in the study because they both involve massive humanitarian operations and have internationally sanctioned terrorist groups control sizable parts of the country or government.  In both places, the restrictions and compliance issues created by the CTMs added to the already daunting challenges facing aid groups trying to meet the needs of millions of vulnerable civilians in two of the world’s most complex humanitarian situations.

In Somalia, CTMs led to significant barriers for humanitarian action.  For instance, after al-Shabaab, an armed group that controlled much of the central and southern regions of the country was designated as a terrorist by the U.S. in February 2008, aid from the U.S. dropped by nearly 88 percent over concerns of some of that aid falling into their hands.  U.S. law prohibits even nominal diversion of aid to terrorists so many aid groups were forced to discontinue their services to the nearly two million Somalis trapped on territory al-Shabaab controlled to not run afoul of the law.  “One of the main factors that has contributed to the humanitarian crisis over the past few years , or at least shaped the international community’s response to it, has been the lack of humanitarian access,” the report notes. The grave consequences of these restrictions came to bear a few years later when famine was declared across much of southern Somalia.

Similar CTMs that restrict where and how aid can be distributed have led directly to a shift in priorities for aid groups working in the OPT.  After Hamas came to power in Gaza in 2007, “The parameters of humanitarian action have, for the most part, been shifted so that programs are designated firstly to avoid contact with or support to the designated group (Hamas), and only secondly to respond to humanitarian needs.”  This has contributed to a climate of distrust among many local NGOs who object to the burdensome vetting requirements called for by many donor countries in order to receive international support and this has “impacted the quality and appropriateness of programmes.”

The study is also critical of the FATF’s Recommendation 8 for nonprofits which describes the nonprofit sector as “particularly vulnerable to exploitation for terrorist purposes.”  The study cites statements from the World Bank and the former head of the UK Charity Commissions’ International Program who say these accusations against the sector are “not justified by empirical evidence.”  In fact, the FATF’s rules on nonprofits open the door for abuse by repressive regimes clamping down on free civil society all round the world by restricting funding, infringing of freedoms of assembly, and adding layers of administrative red-tape. “The humanitarian community has expressed its concern that FATF Recommendation 8, as implemented in certain countries, would negatively affect their financial health or obstruct day-to-day operations.”

In addition to illustrating the harm created by these CTMs, the study also provides in-depth information about the counterterrorism frameworks used by various countries and references a number of other reports that demonstrate the “potential incompatibility between neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action and counterterrorism objectives.”  This list includes CSN’s Safeguarding Humanitarianism report which analyses how U.S. counterterrorism laws and enforcement policies, particularly the broad prohibition on material support to terrorism, are inconsistent with humanitarian principles and obligations.