Jessica Burniske and Dustin A. Lewis, with Naz K. Modirzadeh, “Suppressing Foreign Terrorist Fighters and Supporting Principled Humanitarian Action: A Provisional Framework for Analyzing State Practice,” Research Briefing, Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, October 2015.

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In 2014, reports suggested that a surge of foreign jihadists were participating in armed conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. The United Nations Security Council responded by imposing in Resolution 2178 (2014) an array of obligations on member states to counter the threat posed by “foreign terrorist fighters” (FTFs). In the intervening year, those states have taken a range of actions—though at various speeds and with varying levels of commitment—to implement the FTF obligations imposed by the Council.

Meanwhile, many states continue to fund and otherwise throw their support behind life-saving humanitarian relief for civilians in armed conflicts around the world—including conflicts involving terrorists. Yet, in recent years, members of the humanitarian community have been increasingly aware of the real, perceived, and potential impacts of counterterrorism laws on humanitarian action. Part of their interest stems from the fact that certain counterterrorism laws may, intentionally or unintentionally, adversely affect principled humanitarian action, especially in regions where terrorist groups control territory (and thus access to civilians, too). The effects of these laws may be widespread—ranging from heightened due diligence requirements on humanitarian organizations to restrictions on travel, from greater government scrutiny of national and regional staff of humanitarian organizations to decreased access to financial services and funding. The Counterterrorism and Humanitarian Engagement Project, of the HLS Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, has been deeply involved in researching and analyzing these issues.

Against that backdrop, this briefing report has two aims: first, to provide a primer on the most salient issues at the intersection of counterterrorism measures and humanitarian aid and assistance, with a focus on the ascendant FTF framing. And second, to put forward, for critical feedback and assessment, a provisional methodology for evaluating the following question: is it feasible to subject two key contemporary wartime concerns—the fight against FTFs and supporting humanitarian aid and assistance for civilians in terrorist-controlled territories—to meaningful empirical analysis?

Building on our analysis, we also undertake research-informed engagement—including briefings and workshops—with senior government decision-makers, United Nations counterterrorism officials, and key humanitarian actors.


This Briefing has been produced, in part, with the financial assistance of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (NFMA). The views expressed herein should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of the NMFA. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) facilitated this financial assistance through the NFMA. HLS PILAC/the CHE Project also receives generous support from the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). The views expressed herein should also not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinions of the Swiss FDFA nor NRC. The CHE Project is grateful for the support of the NMFA, NRC, and the Swiss FDFA. The research undertaken by the authors was completely independent. The views and opinions reflected in this report are those solely of the authors. And the authors alone are responsible for any errors.

[Project write-up last updated: October 2015]

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