Global Policy Forum

Counter-Terrorism Laws Taking Their Toll on Humanitarian Action

  As states increase their counterterrorism laws, NGOs working in Afghanistan,  Somalia and the Gaza Strip fear prosecution and loss of funding. These counter terrorism laws penalize any interaction with groups that have been labelled as terrorist organizations, and NGOs fear these “overzealous” laws will deter relief groups from providing relevant aid to areas run by terrorist organizations, undermining the independence and neutrality of many legitimate NGO operations. 

By Mark Tran

October 17, 2011

Counter-terrrorism laws that criminalise the transfer of resources to terrorist groups have had a chilling effect on humanitarian operations, particularly in Gaza and Somalia, a report said on Monday.

Islamic charities have been hit particularly hard, especially after the September 11 attacks in the US, but the impact has not been restricted to Muslim groups, according to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), an international development thinktank.

The ODI also found that the administrative burden imposed by counter-terrorism legislation has affected the timeliness and efficiency of humanitarian aid, and can even deter relief groups operating in high-risk areas. In the case of Somalia, where famine has been declared in six regions this year, ODI said funding had declined by half betwen 2008 and 2011, mainly as a result of a drop in American contributions following legislation in the US.

In Gaza, where Hamas has been designated a terrorist group by the US and the EU, a number of NGOs have been forced to limit or suspend their operations. The situation for NGOs has been complicated by a requirement from the interior ministry in Gaza for an NGO registration fee. It is unclear whether payment of the fee could be seen as providing "material support" to Hamas as it would benefit from this revenue.

Tensions between Hamas and humanitarian groups have been exacerbated, after Hamas said it wanted to verify the accounts of western-financed NGOs and to conduct financial and programme audits. USAid, the US international development agency, had said it would suspend funding to any NGO that allowed audits to take place.

In 2008, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, then the largest Islamic charity in the US, was found guilty of supporting Hamas through its contributions to West Bank zakat committees. The charity was dissolved and the directors received sentences of up to 65 years in prison in a case that is currently under appeal.

US legislation has had the most impact on humanitarian operations, particularly a sanctions regime overseen by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (Ofac), said the report. Violations of Ofac sanctions are subject to both civil and criminal penalties, with the latter increasing in 2007 to a maximum fine of $1m or up to 20 years in prison.

"While there has been only a small number of prosecutions of humanitarian actors for 'material support' offences," said the ODI, "the threat of criminal sanction will continue to undermine humanitarian operations, at least until there is a greater clarity on the interpretation and application of the laws to humanitarian operations".

In Somalia, where al-Shabaab militants are in control in famine-struck regions, Ofac has said that non-USAid partners can work without a licence and that "incidental benefits" to al-Shabaab are not its focus. But aid groups say the statement has created confusion as it is neither a firm guarantee that Ofac will not take action in the future, nor does it bar prosecution under US criminal law.

"Rigid and over-zealous application of counter-terrorism laws to humanitarian action in conflict not only limits its reach … but undermines the independence and neutrality of humanitarian organisations in general," said ODI, "and could become an additional factor in the unravelling of the legitimacy and acceptance of humanitarian response in many of the world's worst humanitarian crises."


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