Associate Fellow, International Law Programme

This paper sets out a series of steps for systematically gathering information on the adverse impact of sanctions on humanitarian action and bringing it to the attention of Security Council members as well as the broader UN membership.

The Muna camp in Maiduguri, Nigeria, for people displaced due to raiding by the Boko Haram Islamist extremist group. Photo: Kyodo News/Contributor/Getty Images.The Muna camp in Maiduguri, Nigeria, for people displaced due to raiding by the Boko Haram Islamist extremist group. Photo: Getty Images.
  • Civilians in need frequently find themselves in the effective control of non-state armed groups (NSAGs) that are designated under sanctions and counterterrorism measures, including in contexts identified as at risk of famine. The prohibitions in these instruments on providing funds or other assets directly or indirectly to such groups are framed extremely broadly, and can potentially include incidental payments that humanitarian actions may need to make in order to operate or relief supplies that are diverted to such groups or that otherwise benefit them.
  • The inclusion of exemption clauses for humanitarian action in sanctions regimes is the most effective way of ensuring that humanitarian operations do not violate such prohibitions. At present, however, only one conflict-related UN Security Council sanctions regime includes such an exemption. Enhancing awareness of the problem is key. A series of steps is suggested in this paper for systematically gathering information on the adverse impact of sanctions on humanitarian action and bringing it to the attention of Security Council members as well as the broader UN membership.
  • Similarly, the inclusion of exceptions for humanitarian action would be the most effective solution with regard to prohibitions on providing material support in counterterrorism measures. It is unlikely that international instruments such as the 1999 International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, or UN Security Council Resolution 1373 will be amended in this way. Progress is more likely to occur at the national level.
  • Recently, some autonomous EU sanctions and counterterrorism measures have been adjusted to exclude humanitarian action from the scope of the prohibitions. The EU’s approach to this issue has received less attention than that of the Security Council but warrants further research, and constructive engagement between member states, the EU and humanitarian actors should continue.
  • Banks must comply with the same prohibitions. To minimize the risk of liability, many have significantly limited the services they offer to humanitarian actors operating in contexts perceived as ‘high risk’. The impact of these restrictions is so significant that some humanitarian actors have noted that banks are effectively dictating where they can operate. For the restrictions to be reduced, humanitarian organizations should invest the time to build their relationships with their banks to assist them to develop specialist knowledge of the humanitarian sector, its business model and its approach to risk mitigation.
  • States must also play a far more active role in relation to banking sector restrictions at the national and international level. In their capacity as donors, they could engage directly with the banking sector to explain the programmes they fund, and the requirements they include in funding agreements to reduce the risk of diversion or abuse. States with an interest in humanitarian action and with influence in the financial world should initiate a discussion among peers to consider creative cooperative solutions, such as approved ‘safe channels’, recognized by a number of states, for transmitting funds.