(Editor’s note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the ongoing 7th Review of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.)

The United Nations warns that acute hunger is set to soar in over 20 countries this year. Thirty-four million children, women, and men around the globe are already a step away from famine. Progress on reducing under-five child mortality is under threat for the first time in decades. A deadly combination of conflict, climate shocks, and COVID-19 is driving this unprecedented crisis. Humanitarian actors are ready to respond to save lives.

What stands in the way? Lack of political will, insufficient funding, and constraints on humanitarian access to the people in need. This final roadblock includes restrictions that were created by counterterrorism measures.

The current review of the U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS), first adopted in 2006, by the General Assembly provides an opportunity to improve the protection of impartial humanitarian action that could save lives in the year ahead.

Groups designated as terrorist by the U.N., or labeled as such at national or regional levels, operate in many countries suffering from acute hunger. Counterterrorism measures are increasingly restricting humanitarian action, negatively impacting aid delivery, and posing security and legal risks to humanitarian actors and their operations, particularly local humanitarian actors.

Ill-defined or overly broad definitions of “terrorism,” “terrorist group,” and “material support and resources,” restrict and can even criminalize impartial humanitarian action with restrictive donor clauses, increasing operating costs, and leading to bank de-risking, where financial institutions deny the provision of services to humanitarian organizations working in areas where these groups operate. The inevitable result is “a chilling effect,” disincentivizing or preventing humanitarian actors from reaching populations in need and often fueling, rather than ending, cycles of violence.

The famine in Somalia in 2010-12 tragically embodied the growing tension between the requirements of global and national counterterrorism policies and humanitarian principles translated to practice. Restrictions imposed by counterterrorism legislation in the United States and the United Kingdom hindered the ability of many humanitarian actors to respond in regions of Somalia controlled by the militia al-Shabaab, penalizing vulnerable people living in those areas. An estimated 250,000 people died, making it the worst famine in the 21st century, so far.

The negative impact of counterterrorism policies on humanitarian action is increasingly understood and accepted by the international community. There have also been some positive developments in recent years, such as the adoption at national or regional levels of new legislation recognizing this impact and taking steps to minimize it, such as in the Chad and the European Union counterterrorism directive, and national level multi-stakeholder dialogues between government, humanitarian actors, and the private sector.

However, the overall picture is still a negative one given the lack of political will and limited steps taken by States to safeguard impartial humanitarian action – as the June 2020 report by the Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) and the Committee pursuant to resolution 1267 shows. As a result, the tension between the obligations of States under international humanitarian law (IHL) to facilitate humanitarian action and counterterrorism regulations continues to grow, as highlighted by the U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism in a recent report.

Adopting strong language in the updated GCTS would signal a profound commitment of the General Assembly to safeguard the space for impartial humanitarian action while countering terrorism and provides an opportunity to define clear steps to member States on how to do so.

Operative Paragraph (OP) 79 of the current version of the GCTS already:

urges States to ensure (…) that counterterrorism legislation and measures do not impede humanitarian and medical activities or engagement with all relevant actors as foreseen by international humanitarian law.

At a bare minimum the GCTS review should preserve OP79, as its language is among the strongest agreed to at the U.N. level to protect humanitarian space. Attacks to this paragraph by a permanent U.N. Security Council member were concerning, but the broad support for keeping the language was encouraging. But more is needed. OP79 could be strengthened by explicitly stating that medical activities compatible with medical ethics should not be criminalized, as per States’ obligations under IHL and as reflected in U.N. Security Council resolution 2286 (2016).

Similarly, incorporating some of the positive language adopted by the Security Council in resolutions 2462 (2019) and 2082 (2019) would be helpful. A new operative paragraph could be added reminding States that all counterterrorism measures should comply with their obligations under international law. The GCTS review should also urge States, regional organizations, and U.N. agencies to ensure that effective safeguards are adopted to avoid adverse consequences, clearly stipulating the need to take action to protect humanitarian action. This additional paragraph should in no way be traded off for OP79.

States should consider going a step further and specify what some of those safeguards to protect humanitarian action could be. The review could request States not to criminalize impartial humanitarian action, not only medical activities. In their capacity as donors, the strategy could also encourage States to renounce requirements that are directly contrary to humanitarian principles, such as beneficiary vetting clauses, and to move from a zero-risk tolerance policy, currently prevalent among most donors, to a risk-sharing approach, acknowledging the inevitable residual risk of operating in complex environments.

The GCTS review should also urge States, U.N. entities, and regional organizations to carry out systematic humanitarian impact assessments of counterterrorism measures before, during, and after their implementation, shifting away the current burden of proof, which is almost entirely on the humanitarian community.

Finally, strong language safeguarding humanitarian action in the GCTS review would increase pressure on the Security Council to advance toward the adoption of a standing humanitarian exemption.

The 2011 famine in Somalia compelled the Security Council to adopt in its Somalia sanctions regime the most robust and effective humanitarian exemption currently in place at the U.N. level. The world cannot wait for the unprecedented looming specter of famine on a global scale to materialize before taking action. States need to ensure the GCTS review includes strong language safeguarding impartial humanitarian action while countering terrorism, so that this crucial barrier to saving lives can be removed.

Image: Somali refugees who recently crossed the border from Somalia into southern Ethiopia cluster between two food tents as they wait to be called to collect food aid at the Kobe refugee camp on July 19, 2011. Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images