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Impact of counterterrorism measures and sanctions on principled humanitarian action

Counterterrorism measures and sanctions can have diverse impacts on principled humanitarian action, from reducing the efficiency of humanitarian responses to challenging the humanitarian principles. Discover what these measures are, how they interact with principled humanitarian action, and how to mitigate them. 


What are counterterrorism measures and sanctions regimes?

Sanctions and counterterrorism measures are foreign policy tools that are introduced by States and bodies at national, regional, and international levels. They are not intended to impact humanitarian action or actors but there can be unintended consequences for principled humanitarian responses. 

Sanctions are used as a diplomatic measure to change the behaviour of the individual or entity targeted often in response to threats to peace and international security or human rights violations. The type of sanction can vary but includes asset freezes, arms embargos, sectoral bans such as on fuel, or travel bans. They can be introduced internationally, such as through United Nations Security Council Resolutions, regional bodies such as by the European Union, or at a national level by individual Member States. Some sanctions are intended to counter terrorism, such as UN sanctions introduced in Res 1267 targeting groups associated with ‘terrorist’ activities, but not all sanctions are counterterrorism related. Non-counterterrorism sanctions include sanctions introduced by the United States against the Syria or by the European Union against Myanmar.  

You can find all the United Nations sanctions on the United Nations Sanctions App

You can find all the European Union sanctions on the EU Sanctions Map

You can search the United States sanctions on the Office of Foreign Asset Control Sanctions List search tool

Counterterrorism measures are foreign policy tools aimed at combatting terrorist activities including their financing. It is important to note that there is no internationally agreed definition of ‘terrorism’ but is referred to in UNSC Res 1566 as “criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular government or an international organisation”. Counterterrorism measures can be introduced internationally, such as through United Nations Security Council Resolutions, regional bodies such as by the European Union, or at a national level by individuals Member States. Some counterterrorism measures may be sanctions, such as UN sanctions introduced in Res 1267 targeting groups associated with ‘terrorist’ activities, but there are also measure to counterterrorism that are not sanctions related. These include States’s specific counterterrorism legislation, such as the UK Terrorism Act, criminal codes, and specific measures aimed at tackling the financing of ‘terrorism’. 

How do counterterrorism measures and sanctions impact principled humanitarian action?

Counterterrorism measures and sanctions regimes, collectively referred to as restrictive measures, can have a range of negative impacts on principled humanitarian action, from reducing the efficiency of humanitarian responses to challenging the humanitarian principles. Although counterterrorism and sanctions measures are different, they often have a similar and overlapping impact on humanitarian activities.  

A strong body of research over recent years has documented the ways in which restrictive measures can impact humanitarian assistance. Restrictive measures can make humanitarian operations less efficient by introducing additional compliance requirements, causing delays to programmes, and raise challenges in access to vital financial services. They can also impact the organisations’ ability to adhere to the humanitarian principles by limiting organisations’ humanitarians’ engagement with non-State armed groups or de facto authorities who control areas with people in need of assistance or be translated in donor approaches that attach restrictions to funding or programme design. 

What is bank derisking and how does it impact NGOs?

Humanitarian organisations can face difficulties in accessing financial services, including bank transfers, as a result of bank derisking. Bank derisking occurs when banks refuse to offer services, such as accounts or transfers, to organisations or locations perceived as high risk in order to minimise their own exposure to accusations of facilitating terrorist financing, which could result in fines or other repercussions. 

The delays and administrative burdens that non-governmental organisations face as a result of bank derisking can cause additional challenges to paying staff, contractors, and suppliers. This in turn can lead to delays in program implementation; difficulties in implementing cash programming; and an over-reliance on informal or unregulated cash transfers that can be higher risk such as carrying cash. Local non-governmental organisations can face even greater challenges, as they do not have the capacity to navigate regulatory issues or dedicate resources to compliance.

Read more on bank derisking here

How can principled humanitarian action be protected from the impact of these measures? 

Awareness has grown in recent years on the impact that counterterrorism measures and sanctions can have on principled humanitarian action which has resulted in increasing collaboration between non-governmental organisations and policy makers to implement protection measures. In December 2022, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2664 which introduced standing humanitarian exemption to United Nations asset freeze sanctions. This marked significant policy process and demonstrated widespread recognition that sanctions can impact principled humanitarian action and the need for measures to protect humanitarian space. 

Humanitarian exemptions refer to language in counterterrorism measures and sanctions regimes that exclude humanitarian organisations and their staff from the requirement to comply with elements of these measures that may obstruct their work. Such language can also be called humanitarian safeguards or humanitarian carveouts. The inclusion of well-worded humanitarian exemptions in restrictive measures is the best way to protect principled humanitarian action from the unintended impacts of counterterrorism and sanctions measures. 

On December 9, 2022, the United Nations Security Council adopted a standing humanitarian exemption for asset freezes in United Nation sanctions through Resolution 2664. The Resolution states that almost all United Nations sanctions that prevent funds or resources from being made available to certain groups or countries do not apply to transactions needed for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and activities to support people’s basic needs. 

This was the first ever standing exemption introduced at the United Nations Security Council and represents a landmark achievement and significant shift in international policy on sanctions. The humanitarian community advocated for such an exemption for almost a decade and it has the potential to have a substantial impact for the safe and efficient delivery of humanitarian assistance.  

As part of the Resolution, the Emergency Relief Coordinator is required to annually brief the United Nations’ Sanctions Committees on the implementation of the Resolution and on the delivery of humanitarian aid related to the exemption. The United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is supporting these briefings by collecting information from partners and the humanitarian community on the Resolution’s impact on facilitating humanitarian assistance. It is important for organisations covered by the exemption to support the Emergency Relief Coordinator with the collection of data and provide information to ensure that the reports provide Member States with credible evidence-based assessments of the impacts of the resolution.

Find the tools you need

This toolkit is designed to raise awareness of counterterrorism-related risks so that organisations can identify and mitigate these, and to make risk management approaches accessible to a broad range of staff who can use them in their day to day work. 

This toolkit is developed for use by a wide variety of staff in headquarters and field locations, ranging from those responsible for programme implementation or partnerships with donors, to those with operational, risk management or policy responsibilities.

Go to the Toolkit.

To mitigate the impact of counterterrorism measures and sanctions on humanitarian action, organisations must understand how these measures intersect with their operations. This monitoring framework is designed to help humanitarian workers track how sanctions and counterterrorism measures affect their activities and to enhance policy engagement. It will guide you in identifying which areas of your operations need consideration and help you quantify the impact on various aspects of the response. 

Using this methodology can support: 

  • Advocacy by enabling the faster and more efficient production of external reports, tailored to specific needs or situations (be it for internal purposes, awareness-raising, or joint engagement). 
  • Senior management in preparing for project cycles and making decisions based on identified risks and constraints. 
  • Specific departments such as HR, compliance, or logistics in analysing bottlenecks, handling incidents, and finding workaround solutions. 
  • Country teams in supporting programming, risk management, external engagement, and emergency coordination in light of new measures.

This framework can be incorporated into an organisation's existing tools and programme cycle. 

You can find the tool here