Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock remarks at UN General Assembly Side Event on Counter-terrorism Frameworks and Sanctions Regimes: Safeguarding humanitarian space, 25 September 2019

from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Published on 25 Sep 2019

UN Headquarters, New York, 25 September 2019, 16:00-18:00

As delivered

I am pleased to be here. I am going to pick on a couple of points colleagues have made. I just want to remind the panellists that plagiarism which what I am about to indulge in is fact the highest form of flattery.

The first thing I do want to say is, I do think it is a step forward that we are not debating now whether there is a tension or impact between counter-terrorism and the humanitarian area of work. We are debating how and how much. I think that is a step forward.

Secondly, we are all against terrorism. Counter-terrorism measures and sanctions are of course legitimate and vital tools for Member States and legitimate military organizations. But we must ensure that these measures are designed and implemented in ways that comply with international humanitarian law and do not undermine humanitarian principles.

I am encouraged by the political level dialogue a number of Member States have taken up. I thought it is really great that we have this joint initiative of Switzerland, Germany and Mexico on safeguarding humanitarian space in counter-terrorism contexts. I think the initiative the French and German governments took on the “Call for Action to strengthen respect for international humanitarian law and principled humanitarian action,” were also very helpful.

I also want – this is a point I am plagiarising from Peter [Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross] to say that I do strongly agree about the need to joint up across communities and I was pleased that Ursula Mueller, my deputy was able to brief with the ICRC the Counter-Terrorism Committee recently.

I think the improvements made to the normative framework like the UN Security Council resolution 2462 are a helpful step forward. I do though want to say that I think it would be a good idea to move from ad hoc to standing arrangements for humanitarian exemptions. Like for example the Somalia sanctions regime. The EU has included a similar approach in its 2017 counter-terrorism directive, which could be a model to follow.

I do think it’s very important that we strengthen the legal assurances humanitarian and medical personnel get, that they won’t be punishable simply for providing life-saving assistance in areas held by listed entities. There are some good practices in this area. The EU directive is one. New Zealand’s Terrorist Suppression Act is another.

I think we need to look at how we handle the relative roles of the sanctions and counter-terrorism bodies. There are, I think, some gaps in mandates in this general area of policy. I know there’s been discussions on the possibility of CTED (Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate), Michele’s organization [Michele Coninsx, Executive Director, CTED] taking on some extra responsibilities. I would encourage Member States to recognize that this kind of work is resource-intensive and not just my own office, but other parts of the UN system, would help you more if we were better resourced. This isn’t particularly expensive, and so I think there is a high return. But that is a constraint. Likewise, UN sanctions panels of experts might help you more if they were a bit better resourced.

I think that humanitarian organizations need a bit more help in managing the legal risks incurred when they are operating in high-risk areas. For example, the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control recently published a Q&A in which it notes that incidental cases of aid diversion to Al-Shabaab will not be a focus for law enforcement. I think that’s a useful step forward. What I would say, though, is that, still in the minds as Jan [Egeland, Secretary General, Norwegian Refugee Council] was saying earlier, or some of their professional staff were talking about, it seems to leave a lot of risk on their side of the table. So I hope that everybody will be open to building a bit on those kinds of positive developments we’ve recently seen.

I think we all need to talk less inside our own bit of the system and more across all the relevant set of entities. Certainly, I do think that those of us who work in the humanitarian parts of the system need to be more externally facing in the future to try to do our bit to join up all those with an interest.

My penultimate point is that we need to be honest that there are no zero-risk activities to deal with the kind of the problems that we are all trying to confront. The only thing that is zero risk is not to do anything. And, of course, that’s not zero risk either, because the cost of inaction is often substantial. So we, and I’m really talking to States here, need to accept a reasonable degree of the risk. Certainly, lots of the organizations that I talk to in the humanitarian space think that States are moving too much from a State responsibility onto organizational responsibilities.

My last point, to pick up on what Jan [Egeland] said about a Help Desk, I would recommend to you the work of the International Peace Institute. They have done a lot of the best analytical work I have seen in this area, and maybe could start to provide the Help Desk concept that Jan was talking about. Thank you very much indeed.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:
To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.