Anti-Terrorist Laws in the US Hinder Emergency Help in Africa

The American War on Terror forbids aid organizations contact with Islamic radicals, even in areas where there is famine.

The Horn of Africa is suffering from its largest famine in sixty years. Help is mainly needed in the part of Somalia that is controlled by the extremist Islamic organization Al-Shabaab. This organization did not allow help for a long time, but seems to be willing to do so now. However, its deficiency of a willingness to cooperate is not the only problem. Al-Shabaab, suspected of ties with Al-Qaida, is known as a terrorist organization, and that makes it impossible for aid organizations to cooperate with Al-Shabaab.

Since the terror attacks of 2001, the U.S. has developed legislation that gives security services more freedom, demands far-reaching financial and administrative responsibility for social action and penalizes direct or indirect help to organizations that are associated with terrorism. Various lists circulate to clarify who terrorists are and with whom aid organizations are not allowed to cooperate. For a spot on these lists, hard evidence is not necessary and non-accessible information from intelligence services suffices.

Such anti-terrorist legislation restricts aid organizations from effectively deploying emergency aid in many areas plagued by distress and conflict. Some organizations have ceased their activities, because they found the judicial risk too large to operate in areas where terrorists have influence. Non-American organizations are also affected by the legislation via their network.

Disasters often happen in conflict areas where a legitimate authority is missing, the separation between the lawful and unlawful is vague and groups are entwined by family ties and social-economic networks. The line between good and bad cannot be drawn clearly. Aid organizations exclude violence, but have to bridge the gap towards opponents in volatile situations. You surely do not build peace with friends alone. This American legislation makes it impossible for social agents to even have a coffee with opponents in an attempt to begin peace negotiations.

The untenability of the restrictions becomes visible in the humanitarian disaster currently taking place in Somalia. This became apparent last year during the flood in Pakistan. And when the Americans announced their intentions to start negotiations with the Taliban earlier this year, the Taliban had to be taken off the United Nations’ black list.

Aid organizations have urged American Secretary of State Clinton to allow exceptions to the legislation in the case of humanitarian catastrophes. An exception clause may be added to allow aid in such cases, but that will not solve the structural problem. Governments must acknowledge that aid organizations make an essential contribution to development, state-building and compliance with human rights.

With the imminent commemoration of the attacks of September 11 2001, not only do the security measures in the fight against terrorism need to be evaluated, it is also time for governments to consider the societal consequences of the measures against terrorism and allow social agents to speak up about the impact and consequences such measures have on their work. An effective approach for achieving safety does not exist only in strict, repressive measures, but also requires a careful balance of measures for prevention, safety, development and respect for human rights.

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