In November, GISF attended a two-part expert roundtable at Chatham House that discussed the challenges NGOs face when working with non-state armed groups, in particular given the impact of counter-terrorism legislation. Below is a brief summary of the key points raised and some of the implications counter-terrorism legislation has on the security risk management of NGOs.
The first day focused on the challenges peacebuilding and mediation support NGOs face, given that the UK Terrorism Act of 2000 deems it an offence if an individual “arranges, manages or assists in arranging or managing a meeting which he knows is— (a) to support a proscribed organisation, (b) to further the activities of a proscribed organisation, or (c) to be addressed by a person who belongs or professes to belong to a proscribed organisation” (Terrorism Act 2000).
This has raised many concerns given that the very nature of peacebuilding and mediation support activities requires these NGOs to initiate dialogue with non-state armed groups.
However, this equally raises concerns for other NGOs whose staff security relies on their ability to establish dialogue and acceptance among local populations and de facto authorities, even when these are proscribed terrorist groups. In countries such as Somalia and Syria, not to engage in this dialogue in certain areas is not an option.
An explanatory note to the Act permits ‘genuinely benign meetings’ and in response to unease voiced by the third sector, the UK government recently issued guidance, which states that ‘benign’ meetings are those at which the group’s terrorist activities are not promoted or encouraged, e.g. those meetings designed to engage these groups in a peace process.
Despite the clarification, the attendees of the roundtable voiced concern over the political and legal obstacles that remain. It was also noted that UK legislation was not the only legal framework NGOs must consider when operating in these areas, with national and other international legislation equally or even more restrictive in some cases.
For those NGOs whose approach to security includes acceptance dialogue, this legislation continues to cause great unease. Although it was highlighted at the meeting that to date no NGO has been convicted of an offence under this legislation, there was concern that political will might change in relation to this. NGOs were encouraged to continue speaking with government departments to raise concerns and seek more clarity.
The second day of the roundtable focused primarily on the ramifications of the UK’s regulatory framework on the activities of humanitarian actors operating in areas controlled by non-state armed groups. Terrorist financing concerns have caused a number of banks to impose restrictions and bureaucratic burdens on NGOs trying to access financial services in countries with high terrorism risk, e.g. Syria. This has resulted in NGOs sometimes not being able to transfer money to their operations in these contexts through standard means, resulting in additional costs and delays. In some cases, it has prevented NGOs from operating in certain places despite the fact that these areas often exhibit the highest levels of humanitarian need.
This situation is particularly concerning from a security perspective. NGOs that cannot use standard financial services are forced to find alternatives to transferring money to the field. This can sometimes increase the security risk to NGO staff, e.g. when this means carrying large sums of cash in suitcases across dangerous territory and borders.
Terrorism financing restrictions also have implications for NGOs in the unfortunate event one of their employees is kidnapped and ransom demanded by a proscribed terrorist group. Under UK legislation paying ransom to a terrorist group is illegal. Furthermore, given the uncertainty in relation to what type of dialogue is permissible under counter-terrorism legislation, NGOs are concerned about what it means for them to negotiate the release of the hostage under these circumstances.
The roundtable raised many questions and suggestions on ways forward. Researchers at Chatham House, RUSI and other organisations are currently endeavouring to analyse the impact that counter-terrorism legislation has on NGOs operating or trying to operate in high terrorism risk countries. GISF strongly encourages those engaging in these efforts and NGOs that are voicing their concerns to also consider and share the impact that these restrictions have had on the security of staff and operations. For groups such as GISF to raise issues with governments and other stakeholders on the impact of counter-terrorism legislation, there is a need for case studies. If you have examples that the sector can learn from please do share these with GISF – we will make sure your contributions are kept anonymous if you wish them to remain so.