The story of a UK-based charity that was forced to relinquish £2mn worth of donations in the past year because its funds were barred by a bank is just one in a long litany of cases where humanitarian charities and by extension their beneficiaries have suffered as a result of counter-terrorism legislation.
As has been demonstrated by the timely release of a report from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the task of getting aid through to where it is needed most has become harder for humanitarian charities, rather than easier in complex conflicts such as the one in Syria. This is a welcome report that highlights the challenges charities face in conflict zones and calls for government action to cut through the fog of confusion created by anti-terrorism legislation.
This view was echoed by a cross parliamentary committee formed to review the draft Protection of Charities Bill which heard evidence from a wide range of organisations including the Muslim Charities Forum (MCF). We contributed written and oral evidence , to Parliament but also supported the ODI in its research on behalf our membership - ten leading Muslim international aid organisations based in the UK. It is encouraging for us in a climate in which the Muslim voice is sometimes ignored or disparaged that our contribution has clearly been listened to and our concerns have been addressed in both reports.
The ODI's report - 'UK Humanitarian Aid in the age of counter-terrorism: perceptions and reality'- examines the risk averse actions taken by banks towards UK charities working in conflict zones. It also investigates claims that Muslim charities are being disproportionately affected by counter-terrorism legislation, an issue that generated headlines by repeated allegations of links to extremism or terrorism. It also calls for increased professional standards and due diligence in the sector.
The report argues that the challenges charities face because of anti-terrorism measures could have a 'chilling effect' on UK non-governmental organisations' activities overseas at a time when these efforts are possibly more critical than ever before.
According to the report, Muslim charities are viewed with greater suspicion and have become an easy target for the media. Yet, in countries such as Somalia, Syria or Afghanistan, they are able to access areas that are not accessible to other secular or faith-based organisations.
Providing humanitarian aid in conflict zones can mean having to negotiate access to areas where proscribed groups operate. This poses a risk that can lead to prosecution under UK counter-terrorism laws.
One of MCF's member charities, Islamic Relief, has described the vagueness of anti-terrorism legislation as creating "a fog of uncertainty that makes it difficult for charities and their banks to distinguish what is required of them, so there is a real danger that people in conflict may be denied life-saving aid if charities are forced into a more cautious approach to delivering aid for fear of prosecution".
We hope the report will help us move forward in ensuring that the charity sector has the support and guidance from government it needs to thrive. It is important to discuss the additional powers that the Charity Commission as regulator might need to protect charities from abuse, but also to resist over-regulation that could undermine the life-saving work of aid agencies.
I hope that we can look forward to new government guidance on terrorism legislation in the near future as the report recommends, and that both Muslim and non-Muslim charities can work with the Charity Commission to ensure that its powers are used in a fair and balanced way.