Speaking to a standing room only crowd at the National Press Club on March 20, 2009, a panel of NGO leadersexplained how ill-advised counterterrorism measures (CTMs) diminish the critical work of humanitarian groups and exacerbate the root causes of terror- poverty, injustice and being excluded from the political process. The panel guests shared an in-depth look at how these issues are experienced by NGOs on the ground.

—Click here for a complete transcript (including questions and answers) of the entire event—

—Click on the speaker’s names to listen to their presentations—

The panel was moderated by Douglas Rutzen, the President and CEO of the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, and featured NGO leaders from the U.S., Colombia and Palestinian territories. Alistair Millar, the Vice-President of the Fourth Freedom Forum began by outlining the October 2008 Friend Not Foe report published by the Fourth Freedom Forum and Kroc Institute at Notre Dame. Highlighting what the report calls “the good, the bad and the ugly” CTMs, Miller explained how their implementation by various governments threaten human rights and create a perilous landscape that charities must navigate when trying to provide aid and operate in a legal and safe manner.

Miller’s remarks were followed by the two international guest speakers, Olga Amparo Sánchez and Rana Nashashibi. Amparo Sánchez, Director of Casa de La Mujer in Bogotá, Colombia, a leading advocacy group on behalf of women in Colombia, explained how the convergence of the CTMs and the US sponsored drug war in the country has led to government mismanagement, unchecked paramilitary violence, and a culture of “fear” for civil society organizations. After the event Amparo Sánchez was returning to Colombia to explore potential openings in negotiations between the government and FARC rebel forces. This type of conflict resolution activity is illegal for her American NGO colleagues, since the Patriot Act defines it as “material support” of terrorism.

Nashashibi, the Director, Palestinian Counseling Center and Lecturer at Bir Zeit University, criticized CTMs which she believes leads to violence toward the Palestinians. She explained how the political situation in the region complicates the impact of certain CTMs. For example, Nashashibi said the fact that many Palestinian civil society groups are borne out of political parties which have been labeled as terrorist groups creates barriers to neutral aid delivery.

In response to CTMs in the United States, Rob Buchanan of the Council on Foundations explained why U.S. NGOs have called for withdrawal of the Treasury Department’s Anti-Terrorist Financing Guidelines (Guidelines). Buchanan, the Council’s Managing Director of International Programs said the Guidelines are short-sighted and divert the resources of charities from reducing hardships of those in need toward a seemingly endless request of paperwork and unnecessary oversight by the government. He also criticized the Treasury Department for mistakenly believing legitimate charities are “vulnerable to abuse” by terrorists. Offering a closer examination of Treasury’s own behavior, Buchanan said that out of the approximate 1.8 million charitable groups in the United States, “Treasury has moved against 7 of them, to shut them down” and only one was convicted on anti-terrorism charges.

Evan Elliott, the Advocacy Coordinator at InterAction, outlined USAID’s proposed Partner Vetting System [link to issue brief]plan to require grantees to collect and submit highly detailed personal information on people in partner organizations to be checked against U.S. intelligence databases. The proposal has been criticized by numerous advocacy and charitable organizations as unnecessary, poorly designed and even dangerous to relief workers. Elliott stated that the “partner vetting system is a poorly designed CTM because it doesn’t “contribute to security” and “does not protect the work of those striving to protect human rights or defend development.” He also emphasized the lack of “due process” available under PVS to groups forced to turn over information to USAID. He concluded that PVS, which is slated to go in effect in early April 2009, needs to be discarded because “it won’t work and will undermine US development and human programs.”

The event and guests were sponsored by the Charity and Security Network and Cordaid, a Dutch aid and development organization.