Sun, Apr 30, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Anti-terrorism laws have a stifling effect on aid deliveries

While Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen are facing what officials have described as the biggest humanitarian emergency since the founding of the UN, organizations are hesitant to scale up aid in the face of Western laws and threats from local militants

By Jason Burke  /  The Guardian, MOGADISHU

Illustration: June Hsu

Strict British and US counterterrorism laws are discouraging humanitarian organizations from delivering vital emergency assistance to millions of people facing starvation and fatal diseases in drought-hit Somalia.

Senior humanitarian officials say the laws, which target any individual or organization found to have materially assisted a terrorist group, exert a “chilling effect” on vital assistance in areas of Somalia controlled by Islamic militants from al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate.

The worst drought in 40 years in the unstable east African nation threatens 6 million people with famine. Most of the worst hit — about 2 million people — live in areas run by al-Shabaab.

Humanitarian officials say it is almost impossible to guarantee that no aid will reach the extremists if they work there, and fear this means they will fall foul of the laws, exposing them to potential prosecution.

“US and UK terrorism financing laws are a significant discouragement to operating in al-Shabaab areas. At the very least, you could end up wasting a huge amount of time explaining yourself; at worst, if substantial amounts of aid were appropriated by al-Shabaab — as has happened to people in the past — you could end up in court with your organization shut down,” said the country director of one major international non-governmental organization (NGO) working in Somalia.

Moving any aid over land in Somalia involves paying “taxes” at road blocks run by different armed groups, including al-Shabaab.

UN experts estimated that at the height of its power in 2010 al-Shabaab imposed fees and taxes that totaled on average US$90,000 per aid agency every six months.

Also, any access to al-Shabaab controlled areas for NGOs would have to involve negotiations with local community and clan elders, some of whom are likely to be connected to the insurgents.

Justin Brady, a senior UN humanitarian official responsible for overseeing the distribution of hundreds of millions of US dollars of international assistance in Somalia, said the primary reason for NGOs avoiding areas run by al-Shabaab remained the security threat posed by the Islamic militants.

However, the US and UK laws were poorly understood and presented a disincentive, he said.

“Once you get past [the security issues], that becomes a consideration and you have to figure out how you can work there. It has a chilling effect. I’m sure in Washington or London it’s clear what [the laws] meant, but here it is much more difficult,” Brady said.

Senior UN officials in Somalia recently sought clarification from the US and the UK about potential prosecution.

Unofficial advice to NGOs, given via the UN, is that “a blind eye” is being turned to any humanitarian operations in al-Shabaab-controlled zones following legal changes to allow a “humanitarian exception” to the counterterrorist laws.

British officials last week said the NGOs’ anxiety is unfounded, and pointed out that no one has been prosecuted by the US or the UK under the legislation.

“The bottom line is that there is an emergency and the priority for everyone is getting aid to those who need it, wherever they are,” British Ambassador to Somalia David Concar said in an interview in Mogadishu last week.

“We know some organizations are successfully getting aid through to communities in dire need of help in al-Shabaab-controlled areas. [Counterterrorist] legislation is not intended to stop — and nor should it actually stop — any aid groups from working in such areas as long as they have the necessary controls in place and they’re not deliberately supporting terrorists,” he said.

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