Dec. 3, 2021

On Nov. 30, the State Department announced that the removal of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) from the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) lists. As the State Department press release noted, “Following a 2016 Peace Accord with the Colombian government, the FARC formally dissolved and disarmed. It no longer exists as a unified organization that engages in terrorism or terrorist activity or has the capability or intent to do so.” This comes as welcome news for U.S.-based peacebuilding organizations, who have been prohibited from engaging with former FARC members in support of the peace process due to the designations.

At the same time, the State Department also announced new terrorism designations on former FARC factions that have yet to demobilize—labelling the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP) and Segunda Marquetalia, as well as the leaders of those organizations, as FTOs and SDGTs.

The removal of FARC from the FTO and SDGT lists is a long overdue recognition of the steps former FARC combatants have taken to reintegrate into civilian life, and is also welcome news for U.S. agencies and nonprofit organizations that have been unable to engage with former FARC combatants due to the designations.

As the Alliance for Peacebuilding explained in a briefing for the 116th Congress, the FTO designation on the FARC “effectively bars U.S. peacebuilding organizations from lending their considerable expertise to the process.” And according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, “U.S. sanctions on demobilised FARC have prevented many former combatants from managing bank accounts, getting U.S. humanitarian and development assistance, and even attending international meetings that could provide training in transparent and responsible politics.”

As Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst for International Crisis Group, explained in a Washington Post report on the delisting of FARC, the designations have prevented USAID from implementing programs to support former FARC combatants, “and had the adverse effect of contributing to stigmatization of ex-combatants.”

While the removal of FARC’s designations opens the door for U.S. organizations to finally support the reintegration of former FARC members into civilian and political life, the imposition of new designations on FARC-EP and Segunda Marquetalia similarly serves to prevent engagement by U.S. agencies and nonprofit organizations with those organizations, impeding the ability of peacebuilding programs in the U.S. to work with all parties to the conflict in support of the peace process.

Unfortunately, the challenges posed by terrorism designations have not been limited to Colombia. Terrorism designations have posed challenges for civil society operations in Yemen, where Ansar Allah was briefly designated as an FTO, in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are designated as an SDGT, and elsewhere.

The root of the problem is with the overly broad definition of “material support,” which terrorism designations prohibit. As President Jimmy Carter explained on behalf of the Carter Center in response to a 2010 Supreme Court ruling relating to the definition of material support, “the ‘material support law’ – which is aimed at putting an end to terrorism – actually threatens our work and the work of many other peacemaking organizations that must interact directly with groups that have engaged in violence.”

As the Treasury Department continues working to address the harmful impacts of sanctions and to implement the policy positions outlined in its review of U.S. sanctions policy, it can and should adopt a broader approach to the licensing of civil society activities in sanctioned contexts to enable not only humanitarian work, but also peacebuilding, human rights, development, and other critical activities. But broadening the activities covered is only part of the solution. Ultimately, the administration and Congress can both take steps, as outlined in our January 2021 transition memo, to protect civil society operations in sanctioned locations by creating a global general license that applies to all sanctions programs rather than licensing activities on a case by case basis, and by appropriately narrowing the definition of “material support.”