On the need to balance counter-terrorism measures and humanitarian action

Published 14. Oct 2015
Over a thousand humanitarian leaders are gathering today in Geneva for the final global consultation ahead of next year’s World Humanitarian Summit. The Summit has set itself the ambitious goal of “reshaping the humanitarian system.” “Many of the issues raised thus far have been spot-on,” says Ingrid Macdonald, Director of Humanitarian Policy at NRC.

“We are right in debating how humanitarian work should be delivered by local organisations, how interventions can be more effective, and how human dignity needs to be at the centre of what we do.” adds Macdonald.

Yet, the ways in which counter-terrorism measures affect humanitarian action remain in the margins of the Summit’s debates. “The fight against terrorism has led to a plethora of measures that obstruct the vital work of humanitarian organisations, and ultimately affect people in need of aid and protection,” said Macdonald, “A renewed humanitarian system cannot ignore measures that, for example, impede the receipt of billions of dollars of remittances desperately needed by local people during crises, or impose burdensome requirements, keeping aid workers at their desks and away from serving vulnerable people in the field.”

Unsurprisingly, the parts of the world where there are the greatest number of acts of terrorism are also where we see the greatest humanitarian need. Paradoxically, counter-terrorism measures intended to make the world safer intensify the difficulties for humanitarians – in the same places where it is already very hard to operate. To save lives, it is critical to find a path whereby counter-terrorism measures and principled humanitarian work can co-exist.

The impact of counter-terrorism measures on humanitarian work is well documented and widely known thanks to the work of NRC, several other humanitarian organisations like the Muslim Charities Forum and Interaction, and many local activists. Over the past two years, together with our partners, NRC has strived to show how the work of humanitarian organisations is hindered by counterterrorism measures. Our evidence base comes from our own experience, and from world-renown institutions such as Harvard Law School and the Overseas Development Institute. 

A new report, “Suppressing Foreign Terrorist Fighters and Supporting Principled Humanitarian Action: A Provisional Framework for Analysing State Practice” from Harvard Law School adds to this body of evidence. Released just after the first anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 2178, the report looks at the implementation of this landmark resolution, which sets out an array of obligations to tackle the threat of foreign terrorist fighters. These include measures to prevent the financing of these groups, among other security-related measures. Importantly, the Resolution also calls for these counter-terrorism actions to be consistent with international humanitarian law.

“The report concludes that states have taken prompt security-related actions under Resolution 2178, but have not necessarily shown the same level of rigour in upholding the humanitarian principles that could be jeopardised by these actions,” adds Macdonald. “For example, the vast majority of states surveyed lack specific protection for humanitarians, such as exemption clauses. Exemptions are crucial for humanitarians to work in some of the most volatile, crisis-affected parts of the world.”

It is well documented that counter-terrorism measures affect smaller, local organisations more harshly. “The Summit wants to recognise how local organisations are often the first responders during crisis, empower their role in aid delivery and make the humanitarian sector more effective. Should it not be debating how counter-terrorism measures affect local organisations, or how the many requirements unduly strain already over-burdened organisations?” adds Macdonald.

“The solution is within our reach: balance and dialogue,” she adds, “There is no question that security concerns are valid, but we need to find ways to keep the world safe without putting at risk essential humanitarian work. Ultimately, if states show the same commitment to the humanitarian imperative that they show to the fight against terrorism, we will be half way there.”

As humanitarian organisations must understand the regulatory environment that affects their work, NRC has been developing a risk management toolkit for practitioners, designed to help respond to the donor requirements stemming from counter-terrorism measures. The toolkit will be launched in coming months.  

Additional information


For additional information on the ways in which counter-terrorism measure affect humanitarian action, see:

  • Burniske, Jessica and Lewis, Dustin, with Naz K. Modirzadeh. Suppressing Foreign Terrorist Fighters and Supporting Principled Humanitarian Action: A Provisional Framework for Analysing State Practice, (2015), Harvard Law School’s Program on International Law and Armed Conflict. 
    » Available online here

  • Mackintosh, Kate and Duplat, Patrick. Study of the Impact of Donor Counter-Terrorism Measures on Principled Humanitarian Action, (2013), Norwegian Refugee Council and Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Annex A.  
    » Available online here

  • Counterterrorism and Humanitarian Engagement Project. An Analysis of Contemporary Counterterrorism-related Clauses in Humanitarian Grant and Partnership Agreement Contracts, Research and Policy Paper, May 2014. 
    » Available online here

  • Pantuliano, Sara, Mackintosh, Kate and Elhawary, Samir. Counter-terrorism and Humanitarian Action: Tensions, Impact and Ways Forward, (2011), HPG Policy Brief 43.  
    » Available online here