Associate Fellow, International Law Programme

The UN Security Council should be encouraged to systematically include humanitarian exemption clauses in sanctions regimes, as this is the best way of ensuring they are replicated in national law.

Internally displaced Pakistani children whose families fled a military operation against Taliban militants in the North Waziristan tribal agency queue for food near a camp for IDPs in Bannu, 6 September 2014. Photo: KARIM ULLAH/AFP/Getty Images.Internally displaced Pakistani children queue at a food distribution point near a camp for IDPs in Bannu, near the North Waziristan border, on 6 September 2014. Photo: Getty Images.


  • Humanitarian operations for civilians under the effective control of non-state armed groups (NSAGs) have in recent years faced an additional hurdle: sanctions and counterterrorism measures requiring states to ensure that funds and other assets do not directly or indirectly benefit groups designated under such instruments. Frequently, these same groups are the NSAG parties to armed conflict that exercise control over civilian populations.
  • The prohibitions on providing any support to designated groups are framed extremely broadly, and can potentially include relief supplies that are diverted to such groups or that otherwise benefit them; payments that humanitarian actors must make to such groups to be able to operate; and even the provision of medical assistance to wounded and sick members of the groups. Violations of these prohibitions are criminalized. Restrictions with similar effects are also frequently included in states’ funding agreements with humanitarian actors.
  • Banks must comply with the same sanctions and counterterrorism restrictions. To minimize the risk of liability, they have imposed restrictions on the services they offer to humanitarian actors operating in ‘high-risk’ countries. Overlooked until fairly recently, these restrictions, as well as increased costs for financial services, are having a significant impact on the capacity of humanitarian actors to carry out activities in certain contexts.
  • Sanctions and counterterrorism measures also raise questions of compatibility with three areas of international humanitarian law (IHL): the entitlement of impartial humanitarian actors to offer their services to parties to an armed conflict; the rules regulating humanitarian relief operations; and the rules protecting the wounded and sick and those providing medical assistance. The measures may also prevent humanitarian actors from operating in accordance with humanitarian principles.
  • The inclusion of exemption clauses for humanitarian action in sanctions regimes, and of exceptions in counterterrorism measures and relevant national laws are the most effective way of ensuring that humanitarian operations for civilians under the effective control of NSAGs do not violate international or national law. At present, only one conflict-related UN Security Council sanctions regime includes a humanitarian exemption.
  • The Security Council should be encouraged to include such clauses systematically, as this is the best way of ensuring they are replicated in national law. Exemptions to this effect should be introduced in all relevant national measures. In addition, care should be taken in the formulation of terrorism-related offences in domestic legislation, to ensure that it is only support intended to advance the terrorist purposes of the group that is criminalized, and not humanitarian activities expressly foreseen and, in the case of medical care, protected by IHL.