Ensuring that Sanctions Do Not Impede Humanitarian Action

Event Video: 

Sanctions can end up hindering humanitarian assistance and the provision of life-saving medical care in armed conflict, and forestalling that outcome was the subject of a January 28th policy forum at IPI, co-hosted with the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations.

The discussion centered on a new IPI report, Making Sanctions Smarter: Safeguarding Humanitarian Action, by former IPI Senior Policy Analyst Alice Debarre, which explored how sanctions regimes can negatively impact humanitarian aid, using case studies from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. The report also offered concrete recommendations for how to safeguard humanitarian action.

According to the report, among the unintended consequences of sanctions regimes are that:

  • Humanitarian organizations are put on sanctions lists;
  • Resources needed to apply for exemptions from sanctions regimes create a drain on the effective delivery of aid;
  • Banks sometimes restrict or refuse to provide service to humanitarian actors to reduce risk;
  • Importing basic goods like concrete are restricted;
  • New inhibiting restrictions are put into clauses in donor agreements; and
  • Humanitarian actors can be fined or prosecuted.

These obstacles can have a chilling effect, where humanitarian actors err on the side of caution and do less than legally required to avoid the possibility of violating sanctions.

“We need to ensure that sanctions are not an impediment to humanitarian action,” said Jürgen Schulz, Deputy Permanent Representative of Germany to the UN. “It is important to prevent and in any event minimize the potential negative effect on humanitarian action to make sure that impartial medical and humanitarian action is preserved, and that humanitarian and medical personnel are not prosecuted for activities conducted in accordance with International Humanitarian Law.”

To do so, Mr. Schulz said, exemptions for humanitarian action in sanctions regimes play “an important role” in guaranteeing that humanitarian action is safeguarded. “We need to use [exemptions] more often and more effectively than we do today,” he argued. “We believe only when sanctions and counterterrorism experts engage in meaningful dialogue with humanitarian actors [can] we achieve real, lasting solutions.”

Sue Eckert, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Energy, Economics, & Security Program, Center for a New American Security, noted that this was not a new issue, but that there was an increasing body of evidence on the scope of these challenges. Ms. Eckert commented on how de-risking by financial institutions undermines humanitarian aid, and cited a 2017 report that said two thirds of United States nonprofit organizations faced financial access problems.

Financial access “literally can mean life and death,” explained Ms. Eckert. “If the fuel runs out, they’re not able to get more fuel, the generator shuts down, a hospital doesn’t operate, people don’t get food.” Furthermore, she said, when financial institutions cut off support to nonprofits, these organizations often resort to using cash, which is “extremely risky” for individuals and organizations that must trace their funds. But, she added, with the threat of billions of dollars of fees for violations, it’s natural that financial institutions are going to look at these responsibilities warily.

Chris Harland, Deputy Permanent Observer of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to the UN in New York, recommended ways for sanctions measures to be revised as they come up for renewal at the Security Council. He suggested monitoring impact and considering exemptions for UN actors and partners. He also recommended reviewing the obligations of International Humanitarian Law in the sanctions process to make sure that “impartial humanitarian action must be possible even in situations where sanctions regimes are in place,” adding that, “Undertaking our protection activities, ensuring food delivery, clean water, and medicine to those in the greatest need must still be possible.” He noted the contradiction that while “certain sanctions measures outside counterterrorism frameworks are often designed to bring about a better humanitarian situation for individuals in each context, unfortunately, however, we have paradoxically seen sanctions systems which also negatively impact principled humanitarian action.”

Complying with sanctions regimes has meant going through “lengthy, costly, at times unclear administration processes,” according to Julien Piacibello, Humanitarian Affairs Officer, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). “We have an obligation to ensure that the grants and the aid go to the people who need it and do not serve any other purpose than responding to need,” he said.

Of the 60 nonprofits interviewed by ODI for a 2018 study on the impact of de-risking in Syria, Mr. Piacibello noted, “Only six of them said that they had not modified programming in order to prioritize less contentious areas and projects. So in practice this means that all the others have admitted to changing the priorities of their programming to limit the risk of diversion, but in a way that does not necessarily prioritize the most urgent, the most acute needs.”

Mr. Piacibello suggested that the UN Security Council provide clarity on how the sanctions regimes should apply to the humanitarian sector and humanitarian activities, including by having implementation guidelines so that states have clear guidelines. “State implementation is what will ultimately make a difference. You need to have Security Council action, but you need to have states following suit. States can adopt exceptions; they can also make sure that principled humanitarian action is not criminalized and that unintentional cases of aid diversion do not give way to crippling penalties. They may provide for the possibility of licenses, but also make the obtention of licenses accessible and swift, and work with other states to ensure the mutual recognition of specific licenses—that will go a long way, I think, in facilitating humanitarian action.”

Justifying humanitarian action requires a reasonable share of risk, Mr. Piacibello noted, but as Ms. Eckert stated, “These are people’s lives that we’re talking about—this has a real impact.”

In his closing remarks as moderator and presentor of the findings of the report on behalf of its author, Ms. Debarre, IPI Vice President Adam Lupel said there is ample evidence that there are incredible challenges that no single actor can grapple with on their own, making this a multi-stakeholder issue requiring dialogue and commitment. “There really is a shared interest in the effective implementation of sanctions regimes while at the same time enabling and facilitating and supporting humanitarian action, and I think that’s something that there is a real collective interest in and a view to improve in the future.”