Saturday

24th Oct 2020

Opinion

New Dutch terror bill must not target aid workers

  • Do we simply leave civilians to suffer if a terrorist group causing carnage in their community makes it illegal for aid workers to cross into a 'designated zone' to deliver help? (Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID)

A controversial counterterrorism bill could end up criminalising aid workers in the Netherlands if they enter conflict hotspots when assisting the world's most vulnerable people.

In an effort to ensure that foreign fighters can be prosecuted on their return to the Netherlands, a draft bill by the ministry of justice and security will make it an offence to be present in a 'terrorist area' without permission.

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The Netherlands already has legislation in place that makes it a crime to travel abroad to commit a terrorist offence.

In areas where designated terror groups operate, there are nearly always large communities of civilians wholly dependent on aid agencies to stay and deliver assistance and protection.

To criminalise presence could lead to criminalising aid workers, therefore it is imperative humanitarian exemptions are put in place.

In January, a similar and equally controversial bill was proposed in the United Kingdom, aimed at tackling foreign fighters travelling abroad. It allowed the home secretary to declare somewhere a ´designated area´ and make it an offence for UK nationals and residents to be there.

Consequently, humanitarian workers, journalists and academics could be investigated by the police and ultimately face 10 years in prison.

Fortunately, common sense prevailed, and UK parliamentarians passed an amendment to protect aid workers and journalists from facing criminal charges. A humanitarian exemption was also included in similar Australian legislation.

An amendment to the Dutch draft bill exempting humanitarian workers was proposed last month, but remarkably did not pass in parliament.

It is now before the Dutch senate, which must reconsider an exemption and offer our Dutch colleagues the same level of dispensation.

Copycat legislation

If not considered, humanitarian organisations across the globe fear ´copycat´ laws could be introduced in other European countries, especially those struggling to prosecute citizens suspected of terrorism.

This must not happen.

The Netherlands has a long history of humanitarian action, human rights and peace-building across conflict zones.

In 2018, it made more than €387m available for humanitarian aid, part of which was earmarked for strengthening local aid organisations and the humanitarian system.

My organisation, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), is among many employing hard-working and courageous Dutch and other European staff. This new bill has the potential to put their important contributions at risk.

As humanitarians, we are often the first to witness the devastating impact of terrorism acts on vulnerable communities. We fully recognise any government´s responsibility to protect its people from terror and prevent such acts from happening on their soil.

But we grow increasingly dismayed when we see our common humanitarian objectives undermined by ill-advised counter-terrorism legislation.

This proposed law blatantly contradicts the Dutch humanitarian aid policy, which pledges to enable access for humanitarian groups, and is "committed to strengthening the humanitarian response and humanitarian system."

In countries like Yemen and Syria and numerous other conflicts beyond the Middle East, we respond to the needs of residents whose lives have been torn apart by war.

Do we simply leave them to suffer if a listed terrorist group causing carnage in their community makes it illegal for us to cross into a 'designated zone' to deliver aid?

It is our responsibility to serve the needs of all conflict-affected people, and we have a duty of care to our staff who face great risks to provide assistance.

In 2018, at least 155 aid workers were killed in the course of their work.

Many more are subjected to attacks, detentions or kidnappings. We simply cannot expose our staff who do legitimate humanitarian work to the additional risk of arrest and prosecution upon their return from so-called ´no-go zones´.

By accepting an amendment to exempt humanitarian action from this legislation, members of the States General of the Netherlands would avoid a situation where one arm of the government is providing funds to humanitarian organisations operating in designated terrorist zones while another arm threatens our Dutch aid workers with criminal charges.

It is crucial that humanitarian workers can continue to reduce suffering, protect human dignity and ensure the most vulnerable do not suffer the consequences of unconsidered counterterrorism legislation.

The Netherlands has the opportunity to make it right not just for its citizens, but for thousands of terror victims across the world.

Author bio

Jan Egeland is secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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