Learnings must become practice as the Taliban return

There is greater awareness of the adverse impact of counterterrorism measures and sanctions on humanitarian action. It is time to apply lessons learned.

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The 9/11 attacks prompted the international community to adopt a wide range of counterterrorism measures. Debate continues over their compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights law, and their effectiveness.

What has become clear is that some of these measures have made it difficult for humanitarian assistance to be provided to the millions of people living in areas under the control of armed groups designated as terrorist, or where such groups have a significant presence.

These include Al-Qaeda in Yemen’s Arabian peninsula, ISIL affiliates in Syria, Al Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Hamas in Gaza, and various Al-Qaeda affiliates in the Sahel. The lessons painfully learned need to be applied to Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

Impeding humanitarian work

Traditionally, legal counterterrorism measures criminalized acts of violence but, in recent years, measures adopted by the UN Security Council, the European Union (EU), and some states unilaterally, have expanded to address broader forms of support for terrorist acts and to groups designated as terrorist.

Policymakers implementing sanctions – and considering their expansion – cannot ignore their potential adverse impact on humanitarian action

When these measures apply in situations of armed conflict – and in the absence of adequate safeguards – they can impede humanitarian organizations from operating as foreseen by IHL and in accordance with humanitarian principles, which require life-saving assistance to be provided in an impartial manner. Restrictions in sanctions imposed for policy objectives other than counterterrorism create similar tensions.

Prohibitions on making funds or other assets available directly or indirectly to persons or groups designated as terrorist can capture incidental payments made during humanitarian operations and relief consignments which are diverted and end up in the hands of these designated groups.

The most extreme restrictions cover the provision of medical assistance, in violation of the foundational principle of IHL that everyone who is wounded and sick – civilian or fighter – is entitled to medical care without discrimination, and those who provide it must not be punished.

Humanitarian organizations have been highlighting these problems for more than a decade. Recent developments give cause for cautious optimism that a turning point has been reached, as the bodies imposing counterterrorism measures and sanctions internationally and domestically have begun to demand compliance with international law and IHL.

In 2019 the UN Security Council unanimously issued a binding demand to member states to ensure all counterterrorism measures they adopt comply with obligations under international law, including IHL.

Recent renewals of UN country-specific sanctions have included similar demands with regards to measures taken by member states to give effect to them. Although this still falls short of an express exception for humanitarian action, it is a significant development, and a strong encouragement to include appropriate safeguards when implementing UN measures domestically.

Similar encouraging practice is discernible at EU level, and new domestic counterterrorism laws adopted by several states include safeguards for humanitarian action.

Applying lessons learned to Afghanistan

It is too soon to know what policies the Taliban will adopt, and the measures that the international community will take to promote compliance with IHL, human rights, and counterterrorism objectives. Nonetheless, policymakers implementing sanctions – and considering their expansion – cannot ignore their potential adverse impact on humanitarian action. They must bear in mind five key lessons.

The chilling effect of sanctions is far broader than the actual restrictions they impose. Commercial actors in particular limit their activities in areas they perceive as high risk

First, there must be clarity on current legal restrictions, starting from who is designated under sanctions and counterterrorism measures. The UN Security Council has never designated the Taliban per se. Instead, it has listed ‘individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with the Taliban’. At present this list includes 135 individuals and five entities, four of which are ‘hawalas’ – money changers – the other being the Haqqani Network, a Sunni Islamist group.

UN financial sanctions require states to freeze the assets of designated persons and groups and ensure no funds, financial assets, or economic resources are made available to them, either directly or indirectly.

EU and UK sanctions simply replicate the restrictions and designations imposed by the UN, but the US has designated the Taliban as a ‘specially designated global terrorist’ which makes the Global Terrorism Sanctions Regulations applicable. These prohibit US nationals from making any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services to, or for, the benefit of the Taliban.

Second, while listed individuals may play a role in the forthcoming Taliban administration, sanctions do not prohibit providing resources to a government department headed by a designated person.

There is a distinction between an individual and a department, and prohibitions in counterterrorism measures or sanctions on the provision of funds or other assets apply to the designated person, not to the department they may head.

Problems may arise if a designated person appropriates resources for personal benefit or to undermine policy objectives for which the sanctions were imposed. But this does not bring the department within the scope of the designation. Instead, the issue must be addressed from a prevention of diversion perspective.

Third, sanctions and counterterrorism measures must be designed so as to minimize their adverse impact on humanitarian action. One way of doing so is designating leadership figures rather than groups. The new US administration took this approach towards the Houthi in Yemen, with the designation of the group being revoked and new designations focusing on its leaders.

The chilling effect of sanctions is far broader than the actual restrictions they impose. Commercial actors in particular limit their activities in areas they perceive as high risk. In view of this, the effect of expanding existing designations to list the Taliban, now that it is in control of Afghanistan, would be to turn targeted sanctions into comprehensive ones.

In parallel, sanctions or counterterrorism measures should include express safeguards, which exclude funds, assets, and other support provided during humanitarian action from the restrictions – ideally in the form of exceptions or, if an option, general licences.

The adverse impact of the US Global Terrorism Sanctions has been limited until now, as only a small number of humanitarian actors subject to US measures operated in areas under Taliban control. This has now changed, and it is imperative the US issue a broad general licence to exclude assistance provided during humanitarian action from the sanctions.

Fourth, restrictions in funding agreements must not be more onerous than the underlying measures they aim to promote compliance with – in particular, they must not require screening or exclusion of final beneficiaries from the assistance they have been determined as requiring.

Finally, engagement with non-state armed groups for humanitarian purposes is essential for conducting operations effectively and safely, both for humanitarian organizations and the people they are trying to assist. Counterterrorism measures and sanctions do not prohibit such contact even when such groups or their members have been designated.

The past two decades have given states ample time to learn to avoid the adverse impact of sanctions and counterterrorism measures on humanitarian action. The people of Afghanistan deserve that these lessons now be applied.

Our research paper IHL and the humanitarian impact of counterterrorism measures and sanctions identifies the principal points of friction between these bodies of law, clarifies outstanding issues and misunderstandings, and offers practical recommendations for resolving tensions.