NGO beneficiaries could be the next casualties of the war on terror, writes Martin
Do you transfer money to partners or offices abroad? Then imagine this: from now on, you must check the names of all your employees and the senior staff of all your partners against the Government‟s terrorist watch lists. These lists are often inaccurate, they provide false positives for common names, and once on it, an individual or organisation can neither find out why, nor lodge an appeal. But still, you have to use them.
Do you receive any kind of Government funding? How about this: starting today, you have to register the name, address, date and place of birth, Social Security and passport numbers, sex, and personal contact details of every one of your employees with the Government, so that they can be screened by security services. Your funding may be stopped because an employee has failed this screening, but the Government will not tell you who has failed or why.
Sound far-fetched? NGOs in the US are currently arguing against proposals from the US Government‟s Agency for International Development (USAID), which, they say, will create a significant administrative burden, jeopardize development work, and present a significant violation of individuals‟ rights to privacy.
Meanwhile in the UK, the Charity Commission is about to start developing guidance in this area, and the European Commission will hold an expert meetingin March regarding its own Code of Conduct for NGOs.
The development community should recognise the real risk that legitimate charities may find themselves the unwitting tools for money laundering, or channels of funding towards organisations with hidden terrorist activities. But such instances are very rare, despite the impression sometimes created by governments.
Big brother is watching
In 2005 the US Treasury published a set of Guidelines “designed to assist charities that attempt in good faith to protect themselves from terrorist abuse.” The Guidelines set out a large number of pieces of information on partner organisations and their employees that US NGOs should gather, checks that should be performed on employees and partner organisations, and other steps that should be taken to minimise the risk of terrorist abuse. Interaction, BOND‟s US equivalent, assembled a working group to comment on the Guidelines. It raised three broad concerns:
1. That the extent of the procedures would jeopardise NGOs‟ relationships with
partners and beneficiaries in politically sensitive areas by making them appear too
aligned with US government policy on terrorism.
2. That the information-gathering and reporting requirements were excessive and
“exceed due diligence practices”.
3. That the Guidelines, while voluntary, would gradually become de facto obligatory as
they were adopted by different parts of the US Government.
Interaction‟s submission concluded that the Guidelines “suggest onerous and potentially harmful procedures to charities… without providing any protection from terrorist abuse that
is not already present under the laws and practices that are currently followed by those organisations for which the Guidelines were drafted”.
The US Treasury made some revisions to the document in response to comments from Interaction and others, but on Interaction‟s key complaints it disagreed. The document
Little surprise then, that in 2007, USAID announced a new Partner Vetting Procedure, under which all its grantees would have to register the name, address, date and place of birth, Social Security and passport numbers, sex, and personal contact details of every employee, to be passed on to security services for screening. The procedure generated uproar among the NGO sector, as Interaction explains here: This system will negatively impact lifesaving health and humanitarian programs, environmental programs, and the kinds of civil society development programs that are changing peoples‟ lives for the better....The proposed vetting system would divert administrative and financial resources from programs that save lives and help the world‟s poor, compromise the security of NGO staff working in the field, and violate the privacy rights U.S. humanitarian workers.
A number of BOND members that receive funding from USAID wrote to the agency, making the “respectful request” that it drop the system, which they believe violates European Union data protection laws.
Could it happen here?
The UK Government‟s Review of Safeguards to Protect the Charitable Sector from Terrorist Abuse, published for consultation in 2007, called for the Charity Commission to establish guidance along the lines of that published by the US Treasury. The Charity Commission is currently consulting on a draft Counter- Terrorism strategy, through which it aims to “identify, disrupt and prevent terrorist and other serious abuse of the charitable
Should UK NGOs be concerned? Yes, for a number of reasons. First, although the impact of a proven incident of terrorist abuse of a charity is likely to be significant for the whole sector, the actual instance of terrorist abuse is very small. Regulation needs to be proportionate. It is also important that neither charities nor the Charity Commission are seen to lose their independence in the intensely politicized context of the War on Terrorism.
Second, there is a danger of regulatory creep if the Charity Commission feels obliged to set out guidelines that go beyond merely setting out charities‟ due diligence obligations –
that is, how to operationalise their legal obligations – into the realm of voluntary good
practice. Just as US agencies appear to have been proven right that the US Treasury‟s voluntary guidelines have taken on a de facto obligatory nature, so UK NGOs should be concerned about any Charity Commission guidance that „gold-plates‟ our existing legal
Third, there is a real danger for those operating close to the boundaries. The Charity Commission‟s Counter-Terrorism strategy states that “connections with proscribed
organisations” is a “zero tolerance” issue; yet, as BOND‟s submission to a previous consultation makes clear: for charities operating in certain parts of the world, occasional and rare contacts may occur with actors on the ground that are or become defined as proscribed organisations; indeed, they may be necessary to gather and share information
from and to a community affected by conflict, and to ensure the feasibility and safety of projects and programmes.
For example, in parts of Sri Lanka contact with such actors, who control large amounts of territory, is unavoidable for aid agencies, and in Palestine the elected government is a proscribed organisation.
The Charity Commission is not the US Treasury, however; it is an independent regulator with a specialist expertise in the charity sector. Its draft Counter-Terrorism strategy states that:It would be profoundly undesirable if an unintended consequence of a counterterrorist strategy were to make it impossible for legitimate overseas aid charities to be involved in providing aid, or make it impossible for any charity to provide aid in particular parts of the world.
It further commits the Commission to “work[ing] hard to ensure one of the consequences of taking greater steps to prevent the risk of abuse is not to stop legitimate charities, operating within the law, from undertaking valuable work.”
What can we do?
BOND has established a project group to work on this issue. The group has been lobbying the UK Government and Charity Commission as the broad parameters of the
Commission‟s Counter-Terrorism strategy are established.
But we‟re now into the real core of the debate: we must work with the Commission as it formulates binding guidance, to make sure that it is appropriate and proportionate; and we must take our own responsibility seriously, examine our internal checks and balances, and develop an idea of what good practice looks like.
Martin Hearson was Sector Advocacy Officer at BOND, and continues to work on key issues affecting the sector.
For more information:
To find out more or join the project group working on this issue, contact the BOND Advocacy Team.
Tel: 020 7520 0257