A Dec. 13, 2012 panel of experts at Hunter College’s Human Rights Program discussed international humanitarian law, access to civilians in conflict zones and the challenges faced by aid organizations working in areas with terrorist groups. The panelists expressed concern that U.S. counterterrorism measures, such as the material support prohibition, make it nearly impossible for humanitarian groups and grantmakers to carry out their missions in some of the most intractable conflicts around the world.

Event transcript available

Denise Furnell, Senior Director of Global Safety and Security for the International Rescue Committee, said something as simple as renting houses and office space in a conflict zone could become problematic because it is impossible to know if landlords may have associations with terrorist groups.  The material support law makes it a crime to provide any good or service to a designated terrorist organization and there is no distinction between goods and services intended to further terrorist goals, and those which are not.

The law is particularly troubling when there is uncertainty over who is a member of a terrorist organization.  In December 2012, the Obama administration officially labeled some elements of the Free Syrian Army as terrorists, while others in the army are considered freedom fighters. Knowing who is “good and who is bad” is time consuming and burdensome for humanitarian workers, and prevents them from disbursing aid on need alone.

There is uncertainty in how the law is applied also, and who it is applied to. Shalini Nataraj, Director of Advocacy and Partnerships at the Global Fund for Women, commented that many of the guidelines for compliance with the law are vague and imprecise, and even when they are followed, they do not provide protection from prosecution. Nataraj also expressed concern that the laws are applied more harshly to charities than to corporations, and that the U.S. “has created a net in which it can target an organization if it chooses to.”

Alternative approaches were also presented during the panel. Naz Modirzadeh, a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Law School-Brookings Project on Law and Security, argued that international humanitarian law (IHL) should be followed when dealing with terrorist groups in conflict zones. Under IHL, “humanitarian organizations have a right of initiative [to approach] armed groups…because civilian lives depend on your ability to get aid through,” said Modirzadeh. The Charity & Security Network’s report, Safeguarding Humanitarianism in Armed Conflict, also offers several solutions to the current counterterrorism regime. The report outlines how IHL calls for a focus on humanitarian need rather than political considerations, and a preservation of the neutrality of humanitarian organizations operating in conflicts.