17 February 2017

The UK government needs to adopt a clear, unified approach to reconciling its humanitarian and counterterrorism priorities.


Kate Jones

Director, Foreign Service Programme, Oxford University


An Iraqi refugee boy, who fled the city of Mosul because of fighting between government forces and ISIS, at the UN-run al-Hol refugee camp in Syria’s Hasakeh governorate on 5 December 2016. Photo: Delis Souleiman/Getty Images.
An Iraqi refugee boy at the UN-run al-Hol refugee camp in Syria’s Hasakeh governorate on 5 December 2016. Photo: Getty Images.



  • In delivering assistance to civilians in areas controlled by non-state armed groups (NSAGs), humanitarian actors sometimes have no choice but to make payments or provide incidental benefits to NSAGs.
  • Such payments or benefits may breach EU or UK sanctions regulations. Only one sanctions regime (Somalia) includes an exemption for humanitarian activity. Some sanctions regimes permit the licensing of humanitarian activity; however the UK licensing system is opaque and may not be effective. To facilitate humanitarian activity, the UK government should seek humanitarian exemptions in multilateral sanctions regimes, and should simplify and expedite its domestic licensing system.
  • In making payments or providing benefits to NSAGs, humanitarian actors may also be committing criminal offences under UK counterterrorism legislation. There have been no recent UK prosecutions of genuine humanitarian actors, and the government cites prosecutorial discretion in concluding that there is no need for further guidance or change of law. However, prosecutorial discretion is insufficient comfort for humanitarian actors anxious to avoid breaking the law, and the wide offences have a ‘chilling effect’. Moreover, Department for International Development (DFID) partnership agreements require that humanitarian actors act in strict compliance with the law.
  • Two parliamentary committees have recommended that the UK government explore the possibility of introducing exceptions to counterterrorism legislation for humanitarian activities. The government has dismissed these recommendations on the basis that legislative change would create a loophole open to exploitation. The recommendations should be explored further, taking account of overseas legislation and international instruments. The UK government could also consider clarifying how prosecutorial discretion will be exercised, and/or providing speedy guidance to humanitarian actors on notification of specific proposed activities, as the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) does in the US.
  • UK legislation and guidance is reducing the appetite of banks to hold funds or engage in transactions for humanitarian actors who deal with NSAGs, with significant impact on humanitarian actors’ ability to operate effectively. The government should consider assertive steps to tackle this challenge, and should encourage international dialogue.
  • Because the challenges concerning humanitarian assistance in areas controlled by NSAGs arise from conflicting UK government counterterrorism and humanitarian priorities, several government departments are responsible for relevant aspects of policy. In recognition of this, efforts are in progress to develop a whole-of-government approach. The government is also establishing a cross-sectoral working group with the NGO community and banking sector to improve mutual understanding.
  • These developments are welcome, but the UK government should consider further steps to ensure a clear, unified approach to reconciling its counterterrorism and humanitarian priorities. While maintaining the effectiveness of sanctions and counterterrorism legislation against true offenders, the government should ensure that impediments to the legitimate delivery of aid are minimized.