The Impact Of The Counter-Terror Agenda On Humanitarian Action

The events of 9/11 dramatically shaped counter-terrorism legislation both in the US and across the globe. Post-9/11, the world became more harshly aware of the pressing dangers that terrorist activity posed. The US, alongside many other Western nations, has since become a prominent force in the development of both domestic and international counter-terror laws and practices.

In response to the 9/11 attacks, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed resolution 1373, detailing measures aimed to mitigate terrorist acts such as international judicial cooperation, bans on granting asylum to terrorists and the strengthening of border controls. The conditions of the USA PATRIOT act also caused a U.S. crack down on the potential for ‘material support’ given to listed terrorist organisations. Whilst on the surface these conditions and ‘precautions’ could be deemed sensible and necessary, there are in fact hidden side-effects and harmful aftershocks to such measures.

Humanitarian relief is just one of many sectors of peace, conflict and security affected by these changes. Given the stance of humanitarian organisations as independent, neutral and impartial, the increased bureaucracy and red-tape presented by the counter terror agenda often restricts them from doing their job and providing relief for those involved in conflict.

One population to have felt the effects of tighter, stricter counter-terrorism legislation has been Yemen. According to UN reports, Yemen has seen more than 17,000 civilian casualties, as well as experiencing an ongoing cholera epidemic and battling the approaching threat of famine. However, despite this suffering, the work of humanitarian organisations has been obstructed in countries such as this, due to the risk of operating in areas where terrorist organisations have been embedded and take advantage of the instability.

Christina Bennett, head of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute, states that governments from all over the world are complicit in the Yemeni people’s suffering. She notes that counter-terrorism laws “directly block the delivery of aid, including food aid, and prevent humanitarian organisations from doing their work”.

It is arguably near impossible for humanitarian organisations to completely guarantee that their work does not ‘benefit’ terrorist groups in any way. Counter-terror legislation therefore strictly limits any sort of negotiation with Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs), such as terrorist groups. However, this is problematic as much of humanitarian relief work relies upon the negotiation with NSAGs in order to gain access to vulnerable populations in territories controlled by listed terrorist organisations.

This plays into the key principles of impartiality and neutrality within humanitarian work, and brings into question the future of humanitarian organisations as apolitical and independent agencies, committed to the unbiased protection of human life. Special advisor to the ICRC Claudia McGoldrick states that “the perception of [humanitarian] work as neutral and independent is crucial to achieving dialogue with all parties to the conflict”. Often this includes the harsh reality that listed terrorist organisations are prominent actors within a conflict, with vested interests and conditionality of their own. The UN assistant secretary general for humanitarian affairs, Kyung-wha Kang, also notes that “the impact of counter-terrorism measures on humanitarian action has been the source of growing concern within the humanitarian community. A particular fear has been that people in areas controlled by non-state armed groups designated as terrorists may have no or diminished access to humanitarian assistance and protection.”

The increasingly bureaucratic nature of counter-terrorist legislation on a global scale has exposed humanitarian organisations to both the risk of potential persecution and reduction of funding. The need for self-censorship within the organisations themselves, in order to retain their reputation and ability to exist within risky conflict zones such as Yemen, has also become a risk. Indeed, the Overseas Development Institute state that “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 and could become an additional factor in the unraveling of the legitimacy and acceptance of humanitarian response in many of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.”

Counter-terrorist legislation can therefore often act as a deterrent for aid actors operating in high risk areas, limiting the abilities of humanitarian relief organisation to work effectively. This ultimately penalises the civilians in countries such as Yemen who are in desperate need of aid, before it affects any other actor involved in the conflict

When considering these factors, the origins of counter-terrorism legislation and whose security is serves should not be forgotten. The security agenda of the west, especially post-9/11, contributes greatly to the Eurocentric notion of security which infiltrates and governs international policy making globally. The practicalities of humanitarian access to sensitive and risky conflict situations must indeed be examined to allow humanitarian organisations to do their work in an effective manner; however there must also be an ideological review of international security, and how the actions of the international community view and value all lives. We must be aware of these biases in international security, and not forgo the security of civilians within conflict zones such as Yemen.

Although it is important for humanitarian organisations to maintain neutrality from politics, given the nature of conflict and the need to protect vulnerable lives this can sometimes be difficult. Nevertheless, the lives of civilians who have been caught up in conflict through circumstance or location should always be valued above the bureaucracy of counter-terrorism legislation. Security concerns of governments can often be seen as valid, due to the intensity and risk associated with conflict situations and particularly terror, but this should never diminish the importance of protecting civilian lives.

Humanitarian organisations must therefore be exempt from counter-terror legislation. Governments must be more precise in their framing of counter-terror offences in order to present a more bureaucratically hospitable environment for the organisations to operate in. Given their commitment to civilian relief in inhospitable environments, humanitarian organisations should not be concerned with a risk-assessment in terms of prosecution according to western-led counter-terror legislation. Not only does this risk assessment restrict their capabilities as actors in conflict situations, but it can often stop humanitarian action altogether. We must work together as a global community to prioritize the protection of civilians in conflict situations, and this comes with providing ease for humanitarian organisations to operate.