Counter-terror activities undermining aid work, say former ministers

14 Mar 16

The way the UK’s counter-terrorism policies hamper the work of aid organisations in Syria in particular is “foolish and unfair”, two former international development secretaries have said.

Speaking in an evidence session to the UK’s International Development Select Committee, Andrew Mitchell and Clare Short said Britain’s counter-terrorism measures are making delivering aid in dangerous scenarios even more difficult, for local and Islamic NGOs especially.

Short, a Labour politician who served as international development secretary from 1997-2003 in Tony Blair’s government, said such NGOs are “really high quality organisations that we ought to treasure” and the extra burden counter-terror policies impose represents “something that’s gone deeply wrong and is very foolish and unfair”.

Many British Muslim international NGOs have asserted that they are disproportionately affected, and even discriminated against, due to the UK’s counter-terrorism measures.

Short agreed with this assessment, telling the committee that any organisation associated with Islam is automatically viewed with more suspicion.

She highlighted the case of one of the UK’s largest Muslim charities, Islamic Relief, which was commended by David Cameron during his 2010 election campaign.

Islamic Relief found that the UK’s Department for International Development, which had previously funded the charity, began to distance itself from the organisation after HSBC closed its accounts without warning.

The bank was reacting to claims made first by Israel and later by the United Arab Emirates that the organisation was using its donations to fund the Palestinian group Hamas, which Israel and others see as a terrorist organisation.

The charity later hired auditors to vet its accounts and successfully cleared its name, and contact between DFID and Islamic Relief has now reopened. However, Short stressed that the fact allegations are often acted upon with no investigation is “outrageous”.

Banks have often been accused of withdrawing their services to Islamic charities or charities working in dangerous situations such as in Syria, unwilling to take the risk of falling foul of anti-terror laws.

Short said this often gives accusations the appearance of credibility, tarnishing a charity’s reputation – an effect exacerbated when the UK government fails to act.

Short and Mitchell said the lack of access to financial services and the ability to transfer funds makes the work of the charities then extremely difficult.

Mitchell, who was Conservative international development secretary from 2010-12, highlighted that as well as restrictions on financing, counter-terrorism policies add an extra burden for NGOs in conflict zones, which now work in constant fear of being inadvertently associated with terrorism.

This is particularly true for organisations working in areas that are the hardest to access, where their support is most needed.

As well as investigating all accusations, they advocated for a greater role for the UK’s Charity Commission in supporting organisations, especially young or smaller charities, to bolster their systems.

Both Mitchell and Short noted that both Australia and New Zealand have exemptions for humanitarian actors within their counter-terrorism legislation, and called on the committee to look into how similar policies might work in the UK.

They added that the UK Treasury should work to push back against banks that withdraw their services inappropriately.

Short and Mitchell prompted the committee to open its inquiry into the impact of Britain’s counter-terrorism policies with a joint-letter sent earlier this year following a growing number of complaints from Islamic charities.

The two former Cabinet ministers also criticised the seemingly increasing lack of respect for international humanitarian law and the removal of general budget support from the UK’s aid strategy. They urged the committee to ensure proper scrutiny of the UK’s overseas aid money as it is spread around more government departments.

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