Independent review of IRC activities in Afghanistan, Somalia, and northwest Syria

Phillips, J.
Publication language
Date published
01 Sep 2021
Programme/project reviews
Organisational, Protection, human rights & security
Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria

Counter terrorism (CT) laws and regulations challenge core humanitarian principles. Their effect on impartiality deserves special attention, as impartiality is a defining feature of humanitarian action: activities that are not impartial might not be considered ‘humanitarian’ at all. CT measures impact impartiality if they prevent people from receiving assistance commensurate with need. This may happen when agencies avoid working in areas controlled by designated terrorist groups (DTGs), reduce their levels of service, modify the services they provide, or restrict their engagement with DTGs in ways that diminish their acceptance and access. 

This report shows how CT restrictions affected IRC’s approach to impartial humanitarian action through case studies of recent practice (2018-2020) in three countries with significant CT restrictions: Somalia, Afghanistan, and non-state controlled areas of north-west Syria (NWS). These were chosen because they face similar CT legal environments, but IRC has different operational presence and programmatic responses in each. In NWS, nearly all of IRC’s work was conducted in areas directly controlled or very strongly influenced by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). In Afghanistan, about 60% of activities were in locations contested or fully controlled by Taliban. In contrast, no IRC programming in Somalia was in areas under fully Al-Shabab control. What explains these differences, and what can be learned from different approaches?

This review provides a mix of expected and unexpected results. It validates prior literature with concrete examples of how CT measures have constrained or challenged the humanitarian principle of impartiality. But it does not show that CT measures prohibit principled aid in all circumstances. IRC has found ways to successfully work within the dense web of counter terrorism measures in two of three contexts studied, delivering aid to some of the countries’ neediest populations in areas under the direct control of DTGs in both Afghanistan and NWS. It also shows that other features play a large, and in some cases larger, role in determining impartiality. Some of these are external factors, but others are internal factors that IRC has power to address.