Humanitarians warn against adding al-Shabab to UN sanctions list

Members of Somalia's al-Shabab militant group during a demonstration to announce their integration with al-Qaida, in Elasha, Somalia on February 13, 2012. Photo by: REUTERS/Feisal Omar

NAIROBI — Humanitarian groups and diplomats are warning the United Nations against adding al-Shabab to the same sanctions list as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, saying it could cripple the delivery of aid in Somalia.

In recent months, Somalia’s neighbor Kenya has been advocating for the U.N. to list the group as a terrorist organization under Security Council Resolution 1267. It comes in the wake of an upsurge in attacks claimed by the group, including an attack in January on a hotel in Nairobi that killed 21 people, including aid and development workers.

In response to a July 13 attack in the Somali port city of Kismayo, Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Monica Juma tweeted that it was “another reminder to the international community of the imperative to list the Al Shabaab, like all other terrorist groups, under the UNSC resolution 1267.”

However, such a move means humanitarian groups operating in Somalia would no longer benefit from an exemption that keeps their work in compliance with existing sanctions. 

“There would be a chilling effect in the humanitarian response,” said Mark Yarnell, senior advocate and U.N. liaison for Refugees International. “Aid organizations would be concerned that if they carry out programs as they are doing now, without the humanitarian exemption, their work could essentially be criminalized.”

Last week, a group of former U.S. diplomats, national security officials, and humanitarian leaders wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green urging them to reject the proposal. The 20 signatories included former USAID Administrator J. Brian Atwood and former U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Mark Bellamy.

Their letter states that if the proposal is approved, it could “exacerbate the dire humanitarian situation and put hundreds of thousands if not millions of people at grave risk.” It is estimated that about 2.2 million people in Somalia are in crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity through September.  

Somalia is already listed under a separate U.N. Security Council sanctions regime, which includes an arms embargo, travel ban, assets freeze, and charcoal ban — sales of which have been used to finance al-Shabab. But there is a humanitarian exemption in areas such as the arms embargo, which allows humanitarians in Somalia to use protective gear, and on the payment of funds to al-Shabab.

The U.S. led the effort to establish this exemption, but the U.N. process for approving such humanitarian exemptions has been criticized as inadequate and opaque. The current sanctions regime that Somalia is subject to is focused on armed conflict, whereas resolution 1267 is focused on counterterrorism, according to a U.N. source familiar with the sanctions regimes.

“There are certain places where al-Shabab sets up roadblocks and there is the need to pay taxes, and there are incidentals and diversions of aid,” Yarnell said. “If anything like that happens [under 1267], humanitarian groups could be violating these sanctions. The risk is that fewer aid organizations will feel comfortable operating in this environment, which is already extremely complex,” involving “substantial” due diligence efforts.

However, some U.N. member states link al-Shabab’s ability to persist in its attacks despite ongoing military efforts to the group’s “institutionalized and secure revenue base,” which includes such forced levies from humanitarian agencies operating in Somalia, according to a U.N. report.

The resolution 1267 sanctions would specifically list al-Shabab, rather than Somalia, which would increase the chance of other individuals and organizations being listed for sanctions too. This could happen, for example, if a humanitarian organization paid taxes to al-Shabab at checkpoints in order to access certain parts of the country, according to the U.N. source. Currently, it is very difficult to list individuals or entities under the Somalia sanctions regime.

The U.N. source added that listing al-Shabab under resolution 1267 would not have much of an impact because most of al-Shabaab’s financing is domestic and money is transferred through mobile phones, rather than bank accounts.

“It is unnecessary. Preventing aid from getting to al-Shabab is an extremely important endeavor. Groups operating in Somalia have set up pretty sophisticated risk management systems,” Yarnell said.

The decision could also exacerbate the challenges caused by “de-risking,” when banks limit the services they provide to organizations operating in environments that are considered high risk for terrorism or money laundering, which can be a key problem for humanitarian groups.

The U.S., among other members of the U.N. Security Council, have placed a temporary hold on the proposal for the U.N. to list al-Shabab under the 1267 sanctions — a technique used by member states that want more time to consider a proposal. This hold is expected to expire at the end of the month. After this point, one of the 15 Security Council members would need to formally block the measure to prevent it from passing, Yarnell said.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.