A convoy of trucks in a Syrian town.
Syria/Region: News

Sanctions, Counter-terrorism, and Humanitarian Action in Syria

7 September 2021

Sanctions and counterterrorism measures can have an impact on humanitarian action. A Fact Sheet Series of the Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Centre helps humanitarian actors navigate the issue of sanctions in relation to the conflict in Syria.

Sanctions are a wide range of legal measures that aim to influence the behaviour of states, individuals, and groups without involving the use of armed force. They are often adopted as a response to violations of international law to induce compliance.

Sanctions can, however, also affect humanitarian action. The Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Fact Sheet Series provides an overview of how sanctions and counterterrorism measures work, what impact they can have on humanitarian actors, and what restrictions are applicable to the conflict in Syria.

The complexity and variety of restrictions can easily create confusion and lead to misinterpretations and misconceptions of how sanctions work. The Fact Sheet Series helps humanitarian actors to navigate the issue and understand what the obligations of NGOs are.

Sanctions can affect humanitarian action

Sanctions are not only binding on States but also applicable to NGOs: they need to comply with sanctions adopted by an NGOs’ state of registration. Staff of NGOs must comply with the sanctions adopted by their state of nationality. Additionally, funding agreements by governments frequently require compliance with the sanctions adopted by that State.

As a consequence, sanctions can impact humanitarian action: restrictions on imports of dual-use items sometimes include items or materials that humanitarian actors need for their operations; certain payments may fall within the prohibition on financial sanctions; companies whose services humanitarian actors may require for their operations — e.g., telecommunications providers — may be designated and subject to sanctions; or sanctions may impose restrictions in trade in certain commodities, like the prohibition on purchase of petroleum products as part of the sanctions imposed by the EU in the conflict in Syria. Broader sanctions, such as those imposed by the US, may preclude many forms of support to specific governments.

Reduce tensions between sanctions humanitarian action

Sanctions should be crafted so as to have maximum impact on those whose behaviour they aim to influence, and to reduce adverse humanitarian effects or unintended consequences for persons not targeted. As a safeguard, humanitarian action can be excluded from the scope of sanctions – either in general terms or by specifying certain humanitarian actors. Moreover, licenses can be issued to carry out certain activities that would otherwise be prohibited.

Counterterrorism measures and humanitarian action

Counterterrorism measures include sanctions with the particular objective of fighting terrorist activities. Problems arise because these prohibitions have been interpreted extremely broadly. There is a real risk that transactions and activities carried out by humanitarian actors may fall within the scope of the restrictions, for example when NGOs have to make incidental payments to designated groups as part of their humanitarian operations; when humanitarian relief consignments are diverted and end up in the hands of the designated groups; or when traveling to certain designated areas is prohibited.

Another measure that can impact humanitarian action is the criminalisation of certain activities, such as providing financial assistance or other forms of support to designated groups.

Importantly, sanctions do not prohibit contact. Financial sanctions prohibit making funds or other assets available directly or indirectly to designated persons and groups, but do not preclude contact. Such a prohibition would conflict with international humanitarian law which expressly foresees the possibility for humanitarian actors to offer their services to both sides in non-international armed conflicts — states and organised armed groups. This implicitly recognises the possibility of liaising with such groups, even if they are designated under counterterrorism measures.

Sanctions and counterterrorism measures in Syria

In relation to the conflict in Syria, the international community has adopted various sanctions and counterterrorism and restrictive measures. These include sanctions by the UN; a prohibition on travel to certain regions adopted by countries like Denmark and Australia; restrictions in funding agreements; and sanctions by the US that are broader in scope than the UN sanctions.

In addition, the US has adopted the ‘Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act’ (hereinafter the Ceasar Act) which aims to dissuade participation in the reconstruction efforts undertaken by the Syrian government. Humanitarian actors operating in Syria have been alarmed by the possibility that, under the Caesar Act, non-US individuals and entities that provide certain types of support to the Government of Syria can be designated.