UK counter-terrorism laws 'harming aid efforts of Islamic charities'

Andrew Mitchell and Clare Short call for inquiry into complaints from humanitarian groups that have had bank accounts closed

Two former international development secretaries have called for an inquiry into the way in which UK counter-terrorism laws are hampering the humanitarian work of Islamic charities, including some of the few British charities capable of operating inside Syria.
One of the two former cabinet ministers, the Conservative Andrew Mitchell, has raised the issue with senior officials in Downing Street and questioned whether government aid is being diverted from Islamic charities. Nearly a fifth of government aid goes to charities.
Mitchell, who was international development secretary from 2010 to 2012, and Clare Short, a Labour party predecessor, are writing to the Commons international development select committee urging the all-party body to mount an inquiry into growing complaints by Islamic charities.
The charities, including Islamic Relief, one of the largest Muslim charities, which was praised by David Cameron during the 2010 election campaign, say their urgent humanitarian work is being disrupted either by banks nervous of falling foul of counter-terror legislation or by civil servants anxious that some of the funding may fall into the wrong hands.
Short, who was international development secretary from 1997 to 2003, said: “This is an issue that needs clarifying and sorting out. It has been around as a problem for some time, but it has been getting worse and worse. We have got this enormous capacity in the UK of these Muslim humanitarian charities, yet they are struggling with one hand behind their back. We need a proper scrutiny and examination bringing all this out. It is preventing efficiency.”
Mitchell said: “These are some of the few charities that can get into Syria and help the benighted people of that country, yet they are being held back due to misunderstandings and banking bureaucracy.”
Stephen Twigg, the committee chairman, said he would look at the request for an inquiry “very sympathetically”.
The government has set up an interdepartmental working party to look into the issue after complaints were made. Mitchell and Short visited southern Turkey to see some of the work being undertaken by the MuslimCharities Forum to get aid into Syria, returning full of praise for their work.
It is claimed that banks, many fearful of US legislation, are either closing the charities’ accounts or blocking money transfers due to the organisations being put on a risk register, often solely on the basis of newspaper reports. Others report their Paypal accounts being closed. Banks say they fear swingeing fines and reputational risk if they are seen to be facilitating terrorism.
Yet international law stipulates that, in a civil war such as the one raging in Syria, the consent of the faction or factions controlling territory is necessary for the delivery of aid. That requires interaction between charities and non-state groups controlling territory in which people require humanitarian relief. Factions often demand a fee or tax to allow right of passage, but this may fall foul of UK bribery legislation. There is also a prohibition against meeting members of proscribed organisations.
Until recently, the Home Office has refused to get involved, saying that the charities’ difficulties with the banks are a private sector issue, and not one for government. But Bond, the umbrella group for charities, is lobbying the government to do more to clarify the law for charities and banks, partly to set out what due diligence is required.
Islamic Relief, which is funded by the Department for International Development,had one of its accounts closed by HSBC without any prior warning. There are claims that many smaller Muslim charities have been blocked but want to avoid publicity, fearing that donors will be put off.
Omayma El Ella, the operations manager of the Muslim Charities Forum, an umbrella body for nine humanitarian charities, said: “No one is accountable for what is going on right now. Every time we speak to the government about this, they say it is a private sector issue and they cannot get involved. That is not good enough any more. We are told no one will be prosecuted for ‘benign engagement’, but what is ‘benign engagement’? That has not been clarified.”
A Chatham House discussion on the impact of humanitarian law on charities working in the Middle East said the issue had implications for UK foreign policy, since “the provision of humanitarian aid in areas such as the Middle East is seen as an important part of the UK’s contribution towards stabilising the region.
“In Syria, where large organisations have withdrawn, these have been replaced by new organisations that apparently lack experience in the delivery of aid in conflict zones and which are not as well resourced. The general climate of suspicion and risk aversion in charities has resulted in organisations failing to work together because they are not confident that they can openly share information.”


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