Safeguarding Space for Medical Care and Humanitarian Action in UN Counterterrorism Activity 

Event Video: 

The implementing of United Nations counterterrorism (CT) measures can end up impeding principled humanitarian action and the provision of essential and life-saving medical care in armed conflict, and on October 17, IPI held a policy forum to discuss this dilemma and how to disentangle it.

Central to the conversation was a newly launched IPI report, Safeguarding Medical Care and Humanitarian Action in the UN Counterterrorism Framework by Alice Debarre, IPI’s Policy Analyst on Humanitarian Affairs. The report found that CT policy can have the sometimes unintended effect of restricting humanitarian access to areas controlled by non-state armed groups, criminalizing medical and humanitarian support to groups and individuals designated as “terrorist”, and leading to the harassment, arrest and prosecution of medical and humanitarian workers.

Jürg Lauber, the Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the United Nations, introduced the conversation by noting there was already a substantial body of evidence of these “negative effects” of CT on humanitarian work and that the need now was to assure that “the other side was being considered,” that CT policy preserved a place for impartial humanitarian action in  conflict settings.

Singling out one recommendation from the report, he said that UN Security Council resolutions “must be translated into national law in a way that doesn’t criminalize humanitarian actors and CT actors.” The report recommends that an “exemption” for humanitarian activities be included in all UN resolutions and policies that pertain to counterterrorism.

Ms. Debarre spelled out some of the “adverse effects” of the current situation. Humanitarian and medical workers can face criminal liability for providing medical care for people and organizations labeled as terrorists, activity may have to be modified or terminated to comply with CT measures, violating the principle of impartiality, and legal and reputational risks may cause workers to “self-regulate” beyond what is required.

Agnès Callamard, the Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, listed instances, both historical and current, in places like Rwanda, Myanmar, Syria, Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, and the Palestinian territories where the saving of lives in conflict situations had been criminalized and medical workers had been punished or killed as a result. “Whenever we criminalize,” she said, “we prevent life-saving, and states that do so are violating their obligations under international law to prohibit arbitrary end of life.”

She said she thought that CT had gone “way, way out of control” and that humanitarians needed to speak up. “We can’t shy away from talking, and mentioning this because thousands of people are dying, and lives could be saved if we took stronger due diligence action on the impact of CT,” she said.

Christopher Harland, Deputy Permanent Representative and Legal Adviser of the International Committee of the Red Cross Delegation to the UN, pointed to troublesome instances where doctors had been charged with crimes for providing medical care for members of armed rebel groups and where financing restrictions from donors curtailed the ability of humanitarian and medical workers to function with impartiality. In cases like these, he said, “It is the obligation of international organizations themselves to work with states and with UN bodies to come up with a balance.”

Edward J. Flynn, Senior Human Rights Officer, UN Security Council, Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate, said there was confusion in the CT regime about whether “terrorists are somehow exempted from humanitarian law. In practically all cases,” he said, “they are not.” The Security Council has said that counter-terrorism measures must comply with international humanitarian law, and there is room for the counter-terrorism bodies to enhance their attention to IHL, if they so choose.

Aurelien Buffler, Head of the Policy Advice and Planning Section of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) commended the IPI report for making the point that the CT and international humanitarian law (IHL) communities must enhance the communication between them. “That is key,” he said, “because where we manage to have a dialogue, it really works.”