Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, speaking with colleagues inside Syria. Photo: NRC

Do not criminalise aid work

Published 22. Jan 2019
The counterterrorism bill that is currently being discussed in the UK Parliament could make it illegal for British aid workers to assist civilians in many conflict zones.

Opinion piece by Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council Jan Egeland:  

Britain has a long history as a leader in humanitarian action across conflict zones, through generous funding and through the dedication of British aid workers risking their lives in some of the most dangerous humanitarian crises across the globe. Our organization, the Norwegian Refugee Council, is among many organizations employing hard-working and courageous British staff. The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill which the House of Commons will vote on this week has the potential to put this important contribution at risk.

In an effort to prevent travel to areas where designated terrorist groups are active, the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill will allow the Home Secretary to make it an offence for UK nationals and residents to enter or remain in ‘designated areas’. An individual charged with this offence could receive a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. It is not easy to see why this extreme measure is proposed. The UK already has in place legislation that makes it a crime for any British national to travel abroad to commit or prepare a terrorist offence. To criminalise presence in certain areas seems to reduce the burden of evidence for charging people for association with terrorist groups. 

We recognize the government’s important responsibility to protect British people from security threats.  During the course of our work, we witness firsthand the devastating impact of terrorism acts on communities and we acknowledge states’ rights and obligations to try to prevent such acts from happening on their soil. But, in its effort to fight terror this Bill could actually harm the victims. Most men, women and children victims of terror do not live in Western nations, but as civilians in the countries and areas where presence for British nationals could be persecuted. It will thus delay or prevent the delivery of aid to families displaced and hounded by terror as it criminalises our presence where we are most needed.

In the UK, as in too many other donor nations, we see how ill-advised counter-terrorism legislation has the unintended consequence of undermining key humanitarian governmental objectives. In this case the Bill clashes with the UK’s 2017 Humanitarian Reform Policy, which rightly pledges to provide aid in areas where humanitarian needs are greatest. The need for relief is often highest in areas where designated terrorist groups are actively engaged in conflict. In complex and risky contexts such as Yemen, Iraq and Syria, as well as in numerous conflicts beyond the Middle East, humanitarian organisations respond to the needs of people whose lives have been torn apart by war and who struggle to access basic necessities like food, water and shelter because of violence. Legislators must ensure that laws do not result in the additional suffering of victims of terrorism by preventing our staff from supporting them.

As well as our responsibility to the conflict-affected people we serve, we have a duty of care to our staff who already face considerable risks on a daily basis. Latest figures indicate that in 2017, 139 aid workers were killed in the course of their work. Many more are subjected to attacks, detention or kidnappings. We simply cannot expose our staff who do legitimate humanitarian work to the additional risk of arrest and prosecution upon their return from areas the UK may designate as “no-go-zones” – but where the most vulnerable civilians are in need of humanitarian relief. 

We are deeply concerned that this Bill reflects a global trend towards counterterrorism legislation that is increasingly broad and vague in its wording which is making it more difficult and more dangerous to deliver aid. This new UK legislation is similar to that already in effect in Australia and Denmark. However, both countries have allowed for more protections for aid workers than the Bill currently being proposed by the UK government.

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill will return to the House of Commons on Tuesday 22 January. The House of Lords has rightly proposed an amendment to the bill which would provide an exemption for humanitarian aid workers, alongside UN and UK government employees, removing the threat of prosecution from the shoulders of humanitarian organisations. We strongly urge MPs to support this amendment. Minister of State for Defence, Earl Howe, has recently said that the government has reflected on the amendment and now supports it. We welcome this development.

In accepting this amendment, Members of Parliament would avoid a situation where one arm of the UK government is providing funds so British aid workers can providing live-saving relief in conflict zones, while the other is threatening those same British citizens and residents with criminal charges when they work to deliver that aid. It is vital to allow humanitarian workers to continue our efforts to reduce suffering and protect human dignity and to ensure that the most vulnerable do not suffer the consequences of this counterproductive Bill.