Humanitarians win exemption from parts of UK counterterrorism bill

A gavel. Photo by: rawpixel / CC0

LONDON — United Kingdom lawmakers exempted aid workers from a measure in a new counterterrorism bill Tuesday after intense campaigning from advocates who said it would limit their ability to provide support in conflict zones.

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill would make it a criminal offense for British nationals to enter or remain in designated countries and regions unless they can provide a “reasonable excuse” for being there.

UK counterterrorism bill could hinder humanitarian work, aid groups say

NGOs are calling on British lawmakers to urgently reform a proposed security law that they say will limit their ability to deliver aid in countries affected by conflict.

In a previous version of the bill, only people acting on behalf of the government were explicitly exempt, leading aid groups to worry that staff returning from conflict-affected areas could be exposed to investigation or prosecution if the “reasonable excuse” defense could only be invoked after an arrest.

The heads of some of the U.K.’s biggest aid organizations — including Christian Aid, Oxfam, and ActionAid UK — banded together to express their concern in November, when the bill was being reviewed by the House of Lords.

It was returned to the House of Commons with an amendment, tabled by Lord Rosser, which exempted NGOs, academics, and journalists, alongside government officials. The revised bill passed a Commons vote on Tuesday and will soon become law.

Rowan Popplewell, policy manager at Bond, which represents more than 400 U.K. aid organizations, described it as “an important win for the NGO and humanitarian sector” which would “no longer have to fear being charged with a criminal offense for simply trying to do their jobs.”

However, the group said it remained concerned that despite the “significant efforts” of the U.K. aid community, peacebuilding had not been explicitly identified as an exemption, expressing concern that specific activities such as bringing factions together for dialogue or engaging religious leaders might not be covered by the humanitarian exemption. Bond said it would continue pushing for an amendment to include peacebuilding after the bill becomes law.

About the author

  • Jessica abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams is Devex's Associate Editor for Europe. Based in London, she was previously an editor at Prospect magazine and has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, Bloomberg News, and Germany's taz.die tageszeitung with a focus on global women's rights and social affairs. She holds graduate degrees in journalism from City University London and in international relations from Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals.