UK counterterrorism bill could hinder humanitarian work, aid groups say

Photo by: Chris Lawton on Unsplash

LONDON — NGOs are calling on British lawmakers to urgently reform a proposed security law that they say will limit their ability to deliver humanitarian aid in conflict countries and puts staff at risk of police investigation.

Time is running out to amend the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which is set for a hearing in Parliament’s second chamber — the House of Lords — on Monday, after which it is unlikely to be changed.

The bill makes it an offense for U.K. nationals and residents to enter or remain in certain countries and regions designated by the Home Office unless they can prove they have a “reasonable excuse” for doing so. It is intended to help stop terrorism and prevent British nationals from becoming radicalized, but humanitarian groups have warned it will have negative impacts on their work unless aid staff are exempted from the provision. In the current version of the bill, only people acting on behalf of the government are exempt.

The proposed law is part of a growing trend of government counterterrorism measures that aid experts say are hindering humanitarian work.

“Counterterrorism measures limit organizations’ ability to deliver humanitarian aid according to needs alone, and oblige them to avoid certain groups and areas [and] this bill is one example of how broad, vague legislation can criminalize our work,” James Munn, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Geneva and head of humanitarian policy, told Devex.

“Donor governments like the U.K. need to ensure that they are not giving aid with one hand, and preventing its delivery with the other,” he added.

Bond, the U.K. network of international development NGOs, has been lobbying peers in the House of Lords to amend the bill so that it does not apply to aid workers or journalists, but to no avail. Unless an amendment is tabled before Monday, the bill is likely to be passed into law in its current form.

The British government has agreed to exemptions for humanitarian work in previous counterterrorism legislation, such as the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act, according to Bond.

“We are concerned that the … bill would in effect make it a criminal offence for British aid workers to provide support to vulnerable people in war-torn countries. Unless urgently amended, the bill will fail to provide sufficient protection for people who already risk their lives to help others and could instead mean they face police interrogation and arrest on their return,” according to a statement issued by Bond and signed by nearly 20 CEOs from U.K. NGOs and academic institutions.

“Time is running out to ensure aid workers, academics, journalists and anyone else with legitimate reasons to travel to insecure countries, are not adversely affected by this bill,” they added.

Already, only a relatively small group of humanitarian actors feel able to operate in high-risk locations, NRC has said, and NGOs fear the new legislation could make it harder still to work in countries or areas under the control of designated terrorist groups, despite huge needs.

“Our efforts to provide protection to these vulnerable populations, basically to stay and deliver, becomes even more curtailed,” Munn said.

The legislation could also exacerbate the issue of bank de-risking — part of an effort to adhere to anti-money laundering and terror financing regulations — which is causing significant financial difficulties for some international nonprofits.

A spokesperson for the Home Office told Devex that the bill “already includes a ‘reasonable excuse’ defense, which will be available to individuals who travel to a designated area solely for a legitimate purpose.”

“To provide greater certainty, the government has tabled amendments to the bill for Lords Report stage on Monday to set out an indicative list of reasonable excuses, including ‘providing aid of a humanitarian nature,’” the spokesperson said.

However, civil society representatives say this does not constitute an exemption and would still leave aid workers open to interrogation upon return from the field.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.