Anti-terrorism laws expose humanitarian NGOs to paralysis

In an article in “Le Monde”, a group of ten NGO leaders denounced the hindrance of counter-terrorism to humanitarian action, while the needs of the populations affected by the violence have not diminished.

Humanitarian action, in which international NGOs are both key players and funders, is today hampered in many major crisis theatres. The United Nations Security Council’s procrastination, which has restricted the number of channels of access to Syria from neighbouring countries, is the most recent illustration of the politicization of aid, the mechanisms of which are cumulative. Taken together, recent political decisions are converging to undermine one of the cardinal principles of humanitarian aid, that of neutrality, which NGOs use to maintain their capacity to act on behalf of civilian populations caught up in the turmoil of violence.

The number of people forcibly displaced reflects the scale of conflicts worldwide: 67 million people were forced to flee their homes in 2018. Of these, 42 million fled their homes while remaining in their own countries; 25 million crossed borders to seek refuge in third countries. A very large proportion of these refugees settle permanently in states neighbouring those of their countries of origin. Syria, but also Afghanistan, Yemen, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Libya and Colombia, among other conflicts, reflect such realities. Everywhere in these countries there are belligerents made up of government armed forces and rebel groups, sometimes multiple and rivaling each other.

Reinforced suspicion

In order to be able to act and to have access to populations in need, humanitarians must be able to negotiate, where possible and necessary, with all parties involved in the conflict in order to deliver aid, but also to try to guarantee, as far as possible, the safety of the teams intervening.

Since the 2000s and the rise of structured international alliances to combat the violence perpetrated by radical movements, a number of measures have been taken by the
governments to prevent the emergence and deployment of terrorist groups. These measures are referred to as Coter, which is a contraction of the English word for counter terrorism. “We ask that international NGOs operating in conflict zones be exempted from the application of counter-terrorism laws”.

Thus, all funding granted to NGOs by donor states (which provide three quarters of the 24 billion euros of annual international aid devoted to humanitarian crises) must comply strictly with Coter’s logic. It is primarily the United States of America and the countries of the European Union that contribute a large proportion of government funding.

The NGOs receiving these government funds are therefore prohibited from all contact with some of the belligerents, identified by these same donor states as being on the list of groups designated as terrorists by the “international community”. This ban may also be imposed by the governments of countries facing civil war. Mirroring this, the inability to act may result from the non-recognition by combatant groups of the principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality which structure the positions of humanitarian actors. The extension of anti-terrorist laws to aid actors contributes to reinforcing the suspicion of rebel groups. It can serve as a fallacious argument for those who oppose the interventions of international NGOs to control access to civilian populations and maintain the closure of the country.

Logic of funders

This is why we, leaders of NGOs signatories to this text, consider that the application of these anti-terrorist laws to our organizations is unacceptable to donor countries because it is totally inappropriate to our mandate. The funding countries demand and closely monitor the application of security laws indiscriminately, even if it means threatening to interrupt financial support to an organisation that would derogate from such ukases. This is not a question of questioning the legitimacy of measures taken to curb terrorism, but of avoiding, in conjunction with our missions, any form of criminalisation of humanitarian acts. This logic of the funders is a major attack on our principle of neutrality. Our ability to establish contact and negotiate with all the belligerents is an imperative necessity for us.

Challenging this posture means breaking away from the founding spirit of international humanitarian law (IHL), of which Henry Dunant [1828-1910, founder of the Red Cross] was one of the contemporary inspirations; it means unashamedly displaying the subordination of humanitarian action to the political will of donor countries. It is to say loud and clear that “those who pay decide”. It means endangering our teams, and thus, and above all, in the long run, exposing us to paralysis in our ability to provide aid that is sometimes vital. For all these reasons, we ask that international NGOs operating in conflict zones be exempted from the application of anti-terrorist laws, in order to allow the optimum deployment of our actions.


Signatories : Vincent Basquin, President of Première urgence internationale; Philippe de Botton, President of Médecins du Monde; Philippe Jahshan, President of Coordination Sud; Rachid Lahlou, President of Secours islamique France; Philippe Lévêque, Director General of Care France; Christian Lombard, director and co-founder of Triangle génération humanitaire; Pierre Micheletti, president of Action Against Hunger; Manuel Patrouillard, CEO of Handicap International; Antoine Peigney, president of Solidarités International; Patrick Verbruggen, director and co-founder of Triangle génération humanitaire.