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British Muslim charities and terrorism legislation, perceptions and reality

British Muslim charities and terrorism legislation, perceptions and reality

Categories: Latest News

Tuesday March 10 2015

The voluntary sector publications, Third Sector, and Civil Society Media draw attention to the publication of the report by the Humanitarian Policy Group of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Although the paper, UK Humanitarian Aid in the Age of Counter-Terrorism: Perceptions and Reality, claims there is a “genuine risk” that British international non-government organisations (INGOs) could be abused for extremist or terrorist purposes, it emphasises that “the risk has been overstated by some interested parties”.

The report affirms that many of the problems experienced by international humanitarian organisations in high-risk contexts include limited access to funding; an increasing burden of administration reducing their efficiency and timeliness of aid; the negative impact upon relations with local communities and local partner organisations caused by donor- imposed beneficiary and partner vetting requirements; and reduced transparency and accountability caused by lack of clarity on the implications of counter terrorism measures.

In addition, the report highlights two interlinked consequences of UK counter-terrorism measures: firstly, the difficulties British INGOs are facing in accessing financial services and, secondly, threats to the public reputation of British INGOs and the implications of this on their operations.

In terms of the former, the report notes financial obstacles faced by INGOs working in contexts where proscribed armed groups are operating, such as Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan and Gaza, or in countries subject to international sanctions, such as Myanmar. The report observes in the worst cases, donations transferred to British INGOs and payments made by them have been delayed, blocked or returned; accounts have been frozen or closed, and requests to open new accounts have been declined. Credit card companies, online donation websites and internet payment service companies have all imposed similar restrictions.

In respect of the latter, examples cited in the report include Islamic Relief Worldwide and the Ummah Welfare Trust both of which have experienced these problems. The ODI’s 2012 survey of Muslim Charities Forum members found that three out of eight organisations experienced difficulties in opening a bank account; half said that their most serious challenge was transferring funds; and those affected indicated that most problems related to their aid operations in Somalia, Sudan, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Iraq.

Furthermore, the report notes that in the last three years alone, a number of international banks such as HSBC, UBS and NatWest have closed accounts or blocked or delayed funds to or transfers from accounts held by UK based charities and INGOs, generally without a detailed explanation.

With regards to the reputation of British INGOs, the ODI report notes that the Charity Commission carried out full statutory inquiries in 2013–14 into five British INGOs operating in or raising funds for Syria. These five charities, all of which are Muslim, were Al Fatiha Global, Children in Deen, Aid Convoy, Syria Aid and Human Aid. Moreover, a report by Claystone asserted that ‘38% of all disclosed statutory investigations initiated after 1 January 2013 and still ongoing in the period between 1 January 2014 and 23 April 2014’ involved Muslim charities and that the Commission ‘labelled 55 charities with the issue code “extremism and radicalisation” without their knowledge in the period 5 December 2012 to 8 May 2014’.

The ODI report pays due regard to the concern raised by British INGOs on the exaggeration of the prevalence of abuse of charities by individuals or organisations engaging in or supporting extremist or terrorism related activities, in particular by governmental actors and the media in the UK. This is affirmed by the Joint Committee on the Draft Protection of Charities Bill, which acknowledged that abuse is rare in the charity sector and that there is “insufficient evidence available to make an accurate assessment of the incidence or significance of such abuse.”

The Joint Committee found that only 2% of total number of investigations carried out by the Charity Commission between 2007 and 2014 related to terrorism. The rarity of abuse of charities for terrorist purposed was further supported by Bond, a membership body for organisations working in international development. In its written evidence to the Joint Committee, it stated that counter-terrorism genuinely affected only a “negligible proportion” of charities.

Both third sector publications note the report’s recommendation for the Charity Commission to “consider speaking out in the media more actively in cases where it has found no evidence to substantiate such claims or in defence of charities that have been subject to abuse by others, and positively affirm the life-saving work they are carrying out.” Indeed, the false basis of allegations had caused considerable damage to charities carrying out international aid with the ODI observing the particular vulnerability of British Muslim INGOs to unfounded or sweeping allegations of links to extremism and terrorism made in the media.

The report argues “INGOs have no recourse to challenge the allegations or remove articles from public view”. It gives the example of a claim by the Quilliam Foundation that “when you take out the major charities like the British Red Cross and the Red Crescent, more than half of the “aid” that goes out to Syria ends up with militant groups” which was found to be baseless. The report further acknowledges other media allegations levelled against INGOs such as Interpal, Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid have not been supported by evidence indicating breach of UK charity law.

The problems caused by unclear guidance on counterterrorism measures is pertinent in the report’s observation of several cases in which British INGOs have suspended humanitarian operations in areas of Syria that had come under the control of Islamic State or other proscribed groups largely as a result of the risk of exposure to prosecution in the UK or elsewhere. In particular, British INGOs reported their concern that aspects of UK counter-terrorism legislation are too vague and open to wide interpretation such as engaging with proscribed individuals or groups and the diversion or theft of funds or assets belonging to an INGO by a proscribed individual or group.

The report also sheds light on concerns expressed by British INGO about the independence of the Charity Commission. The Commission has several affiliations that make it prone to be claims of bias against Muslim charities. Both the appointment of William Shawcross, formerly a Trustee of the Henry Jackson Society, and the appointment of Peter Clarke, former Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and former head of the Counter Terrorism Command, to the Commission’s Board in 2014, has led to a shift in the focus of the Commission’s work. Rather than providing both regulatory and support services to charities, the Commission has ramped up its policing of charities as part of the Government’s counter terrorism efforts at the expense of supporting charities to improve their due diligence standards and compliance with broader obligations.

The issues brought to the fore in ODI’s report ought to inform the drafting of new legislation on regulating the charity sector. The Government has already proposed expanding the Charity Commission’s powers with the introduction of the ‘Protection of Charities Bill’. Among new powers to be assigned to the Commission are the authority to “direct a charity to be wound-up following an investigation and where that would be more appropriate than attempting to restore the charity to health”’ and to disqualify individuals it considers unfit to serve as trustees. The Government has also promised to boost the Commission’s funding to £8 million to allow it to tackle the “menace of extremism”.

The ODI’s report puts into perspective claims made by the Commission Chair, William Shawcross, that “Islamist extremism” is the “deadliest threat” facing the charity sector. The report’s evidence based analysis is a welcome contrast to the sometimes libellous manner in which British Muslim charities have been falsely accused of wrongdoing by sections of the media.


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