Counterterrorism & sanctions regimes and their impact on humanitarian action

January 2022

Hilde Sagon – ICRC Brussels

Lucie Laplante – IFRC

In recent years, in response to terrorist actions and to other threats to international peace and security, international organisations and States have developed increasingly robust counterterrorism measures and sanctions regimes. Their multiplication and breadth have had adverse effects on principled humanitarian action, on a number of occasions impeding the operations of humanitarian actors, including Movement components and their partners.

Counterterrorism measures and sanctions regimes affect humanitarian action in different ways. For example, they may directly impact the ability of humanitarian organizations to import or export items essential to humanitarian activities. They may also create a chilling effect for governments and donors, who are increasingly reluctant to fund humanitarian activities in contexts affected by counterterrorism measures or specific sanctions regimes (e.g. Afghanistan). Additionally, many private actors falling within their scope of application (banks, suppliers, insurers, transporters etc.) often “de-risk” and “over-comply”, meaning that they adopt a strict and conservative interpretation of the rules – which are often difficult to understand or translate to practice – to protect themselves against any potential breach. All these practices lead to a situation where any risk associated with operating in fragile or conflict environments is transferred onto humanitarian actors.

Solutions that align with the requirements of international humanitarian law, that respond to operational realities, and that would allow for a shared risk management between governments, donors and humanitarian organizations urgently need to be found. Different protective measures can be adopted by international organizations and States that would mitigate the impact of counterterrorism measures and sanctions on principled humanitarian action. The most effective mitigation measure remains “humanitarian exemptions” (also referred to as “humanitarian exceptions” or “general licenses” in certain countries), which exclude humanitarian activities carried out by impartial humanitarian organizations from the scope of counterterrorism measures and sanctions regimes.

Recently, the more proactive approach taken by the humanitarian community regarding the negative impact of counterterrorism measures and sanctions regimes on humanitarian activities – and the need to remedy it – has started to yield results at international, regional and domestic levels. More and more stakeholders are taking into account the impact on humanitarian action of the counterterrorism measures and sanctions regimes they design and/or implement. For example, protective language has been added in UN Security Council Resolutions (e.g. UNSC Res 2462 (28 March 2019), UNSC Res 2582 (29 June 2021) and UNSC Res 2615 (22 December 2021)). At the national level, we have seen an increasing use of “general licences” – which lead to the same outcome as “humanitarian exemptions” – by the United States in key humanitarian contexts. In regard to counterterrorism measures, at the regional level there is the “humanitarian exemption” in the EU Directive on Combating Terrorism of March 2017, while at the national level, “humanitarian exemptions” were inserted in national counterterrorism legislation of countries such as Chad, the Philippines, Australia, Switzerland and the UK.

Within these efforts, components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement have often taken the lead or have joined the advocacy efforts of others within the wider humanitarian community. The first starting point that the Movement adopts when engaging in such advocacy, taking into account the Fundamental Principles of the Movement (see for instance Resolution 4 of the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent  of 1995, especially operative paragraphs 4.F and G), remains that it does not take a position on the legitimacy or the necessity for States to adopt counterterrorism measures or sanctions regimes; as these are political measures, the Movement’s independence, impartiality and neutrality need to be maintained.

At times, advocacy efforts have involved common efforts by different Movement components. However, challenges remain for the overall better coordination of cooperation efforts, ranging from sharing information, to having a common understanding of core concepts and terminology of counterterrorism and sanctions, to understanding better how such measures affect different Movement components and how best to gather examples of such impact effectively. Improved cooperation and coordinated efforts can give us a stronger voice when bringing our messages to decision-makers and other relevant stakeholders.

There is a long way to go before ensuring that counterterrorism measures and sanctions regimes do not adversely impact principled humanitarian action, including of the Movement. Governments and donors need to shoulder their responsibility to ensure that humanitarian action can reach those in need. As a humanitarian actor, we have a responsibility to speak up for those most in need.

Overall objective and expected outcomes of the workshop

As the components of the Movement are all affected by counterterrorism measures and sanctions regimes, which may jeopardize their capacities to respond to people in need in countries where they operate, the workshop aims to:

– Introduce the topic of counterterrorism measures and sanctions and ensure a basic common understanding of the challenges faced by Movement components;

– Highlight cooperation initiatives between Movement components that address issues such as having a common approach to gathering examples of impact of counterterrorism measures and sanctions on our principled humanitarian action, and having a common understanding and glossary of the most relevant counterterrorism and sanctions concepts and terminology;

– Take stock of specific and successful experiences of engagement with authorities to insert protective language (especially “humanitarian exemptions”) in counterterrorism measures and sanctions in order to share best practices and learn from each other;

– Consider the appropriateness (and potentially define the contours) of a Movement statement on counterterrorism measures and sanctions regimes to be prepared for the session of the Council of Delegates in 2023. Such a statement could encourage a more coordinated Movement approach to the topic by defining a common understanding and identifying appropriate ways forward.

Key Questions to be considered in the workshop session

1. Have your humanitarian activities been directly impacted by counterterrorism measures and/or sanctions regimes? To what extent? What kind of measures have been most problematic? What has been your response to these issues? Have you engaged your government on issues related to counterterrorism and sanctions?

2. What steps need to be taken to address the impact of counterterrorism measures and sanctions regimes? Are there any good practices you can share? What are the most effective mitigating measures to consider? How do you view and approach counterterrorism and sanctions requirements included by donors in funding agreements? Is there any requirement that you would reject on the basis of the Movement’s Fundamental Principles?

3. What should the Movement approach be to deal with the potential adverse impacts on humanitarian action of counterterrorism and sanctions regimes? Would you favour a more coordinated approach? What could be its contours and the role assigned to each component of the Movement?

Expected participation for the workshop

In order to have a lively session at this workshop, and to increase common understanding of the impact of counterterrorism measures and sanctions as much as possible within the Movement, participants in this session will ideally come from different backgrounds to ensure that operational, fundraising, financial, diplomatic and legal perspectives can be shared. Ideally participants will also coordinate internally within their National Society to be able to share these different perspectives.

Supporting documents for this workshop:

Resolution 4 of the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent  of 1995, specifically operative paragraphs 4.F and G.  

Chapter 5, “Terrorism, Counterterrorism measures, and IHL” of the 2019 International Humanitarian Law and the Challenges of Contemporary Armed Conflict report, submitted by the ICRC to the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent

Statements of interest on Afghanistan

International Committee of the Red Cross calls for humanitarian carve-out in UN Security Council 1988 Afghanistan sanctions regime | ICRC

Robert Mardini: Wellbeing of Afghan people should lie above politics | ICRC

External sources (which do not necessarily reflect Red Cross and Red Crescent views and positions)

Emanuela-Chiara Gillard, IHL and the humanitarian impact of counterterrorism measures and sanctions: Unintended ill effects of well-intended measures, Chatham House, September 2021 (

Norwegian Refugee Council Toolkit for principled humanitarian action:

Katie King, Naz Modirzadeh, Dustin Lewis, Understanding Humanitarian Exemptions: UN Security Council Sanctions and Principled Humanitarian Action, April 2016:

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the Standing Commission of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, in its function as Trustee of the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (the Conference), cannot be held responsible or liable in any manner for any user-generated content or posts on this Database. In the event that the Website team considers any post or content to be incompatible with the Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and/or with the objectives of the Conference, it reserves the right to remove such content.