An April 2013 study argues that the terrorist listing process in the U.S., European Union (EU) and United Kingdom (UK) limits the ability of peacebuilders to help mitigate and end violent conflicts around the world. Listing Terrorists: The Impact of Proscription on Third-Party Efforts to Engage Armed Groups in Peace Processes- A Practitioner’s Perspective, by Sophie Haspeslagh, former Head of Policy at Conciliation Resources, discusses how various terrorist listing programs around the world inhibit nongovernmental groups’ ability to convince terrorists to pursue peaceful engagement in the political process.

The problem is widespread. In 2011, 36 of the 37 active armed conflict around the world were being fought within states. Of those, 50 percent involved at least one party listed as a terrorist by the U.S., EU, UK or another Western nation. The legal ramifications for being listed vary depending on which government or intergovernmental agency is doing the listing, but in general, they include travel restrictions, freezing of assets and barring financial transactions. In most cases these laws make doing any business with a listed group or individual a crime, but in some cases the restrictions go beyond simply financial support. In the U.S. a Supreme Court decision held that providing “expert advice” or “assistance” to a terrorist group could also be criminalized.

Much of the work peacebuilding groups do could run afoul of the U.S. law under the current definition of “material support.” Haspeslagh identifies four primary roles of peacebuilding groups that could be impacted:

  • Understanding armed groups

  • Influencing how armed groups see themselves

  • Affecting armed groups’ strategic calculations

  • Training armed groups in conflict resolution or negotiation

Each role can contribute to help bring about peace. The “understanding” role can help provide the bedrock of later peace talks. Often, diplomats or UN officials rely on peacebuilding groups’ ability to get on-the-ground knowledge of the drivers of a conflict. The nongovernmental groups can also provide training to terrorist groups to help them pursue alternative methods of engagement in the political process. Their work focuses on two important preconditions of peaceprocesses that are particularly hard hit by the impact of proscription onthe work of nongovernmental groups: access in order to assess potential for peacebuilding, and building trust in their neutral status necessary to go forward.

The study notes that government officials are not overly worried about navigating grey areas of the law, as they feel protected by diplomatic immunity. In contrast, Haspeslagh notes that in many cases, peacebuilding groups have simply moved operations into less contentious areas. One example is the organization 3P Human Security, which was forced to end demobilization and re-integration programs for Taliban insurgents after its director became concerned about prosecution in the U.S. Another group, The Carter Center, stopped training Hamas leadership in conflict resolution after it grew concerned about the legal implications of doing so. President Carter has criticized the U.S. law, saying that, “the material support law—which is aimed at putting an end to terrorism—actually threatens our work and work of many other peacemaking organizations that must interact directly with groups that have engaged in violence.”

Haspeslagh concludes by saying:

“These consequences of proscription regimes appear to be making the achievement of successful peace processes that much harder. With civilians bearing the brunt of violent conflicts around the world, it is urgent for policy-makers to consider how the work of third-party actors can be protected and encouraged. This type of work is already dangerous and politically delicate. Third-party actors need to know they will not be prosecuted when the political wind changes.”