The Task Force on Humanitarian Access, co-chaired by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Todd Young (R-IN), released Denial, Delay, Diversion: Tackling Access Challenges in an Evolving Humanitarian Landscape on Sept. 18. The Task Force, launched by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in March 2019, sponsored its first Washington Humanitarian Forum the next day. The report provides essential background on the legal foundations supporting humanitarian access, analyses the “steep escalation in the deliberate, willful obstruction” of it and makes recommendations for all stakeholders. In a letter introducing the report, Booker and Young state that, “Our hope is that this initiative will raise the profile of these critical issues as serve as both a warning to those who would deny humanitarian access and as a call to action of U.S. policymakers, the United Nations and aid agencies.”

In explaining the legal foundation and protections for humanitarian access in the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law (IHL), the report notes that in conflict areas states must provide for the needs the civilian population, and cannot arbitrarily withhold consent for humanitarian organizations to provide such services if the state cannot meet the need on its own. In fact, “all necessary measures to facilitate such assistance should be provided.” Further legal protection is found in international human rights law (IHRL), based on nine treaties, where “the rights to basic food and health, are considered rights that cannot be compromised, even during times of emergency.”

The principles of humanitarian action require that that assistance be “neutral, impartial, independent and of a humanitarian nature.” The report emphasizes that neutrality and independence are “vital to ensuring safety an access in complex and contested operational environments.” It then states that, “growing regulatory requirements, including vetting of partners and beneficiaries and compliance with legal restrictions on action associated with counterterrorism regulations” make it increasingly challenging for aid organizations to adhere to humanitarian principles particularly with state donor funding.

The section “The Many Faces of Access Denial” provides in-depth explanation and case studies incluces the following barriers:

  • Bureaucratic constraints in the field – which “greatly complicate the ability of people in need to reach basic assistance or aid workers to deliver goods and services.”  In addition, “humanitarian actors face political and legal risks if they are compelled to engage for administrative and regulatory purposes with states or groups who are sanctioned or listed as terrorist groups by the United Nations and donor governments.”
  • Legal and policy constraints of sanctions regimes – have the “side effect of imposing restrictive policies on humanitarian action” because they “criminalize actions fundamental to humanitarian assistance.” The report goes on to say, “This tension is particularly acute in the United States.”
  • Risk averse banks – are “reluctant to provide financial services to humanitarian organizations working in sensitive areas.”  This forces humanitarian actors to use riskier methods of transferring funds.
  • Jumping the regulatory hurdles – imposed by both donor countries and states where programs need to be implemented, create an “obstacle course” for humanitarian organizations and can make them less compliant with humanitarian principles. In particular, the “licensing model, while designed to be helpful, has proven to be time consuming, costly and confusing. Navigating the licensing proves often outlives the emergency need for the license.”
  • Insecurity as an access constraint: security protection and infrastructure – The report notes the increasing rate of attacks on aid workers.
  • Unprecedented need, growing shortfalls – As conflicts become more protracted the need for humanitarian assistance has increased faster than resources, even though the “international community is spending more money on humanitarian assistance the ever before…”


The report calls for greater U.S. leadership in addressing the humanitarian access problem. Specific recommendations fall into four categories:

  1. Elevate humanitarian interest and make access a foreign policy priority;
  2. Strike a new risk balance;
  3. Increase accountability and harness the power of data;
  4. Bolster training and technology.

Of particular interest, the recommendations state:

“Congress should immediately clarify its intent with respect to material support for terror provisions and establish a humanitarian exemption for activities that are consistent with Congressionally authorized and appropriated humanitarian activity and that could be exercised by the executive branch on a case-by-case basis.”