What is the ‘designated areas offence’?
Over the past months, Conciliation Resources has been working closely with other international NGOs and parliamentarians from all political parties to secure an amendment to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill. The Bill includes a provision which gives the Home Secretary the power to designate a country, or region of a country, and makes it an offence for UK nationals and residents to enter or remain in this area.
On return to the UK an individual could be investigated by the police. If they are charged with this offence and are unable to prove that they had a “reasonable excuse for entering, or remaining in, the designated area”, the individual could receive a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Amendments to the Bill
In early January 2019 an amendment to the Bill was passed at the final stage of voting in the House of Lords. The amendment excludes “aid of a humanitarian nature”, journalism and other purposes from the “designated areas offence”. The Bill then went to the House of Commons where it was passed for Royal Assent. However, despite significant lobbying from development and peacebuilding organisations, and strong arguments put forward in debates in both Houses, ‘peacebuilding’ was not included in the exemption and so is not currently on the face of the Bill.
During the parliamentary debates, the Government did state that peacebuilding would be covered as a “reasonable excuse” for travel, and that, if needed, peacebuilding could be added to the list of exemptions at a later date. The Government also committed to providing policy guidance on this question.
What does this mean in practice?
The designated area offence is intended to deter UK nationals and residents from travelling to conflict zones to join foreign terrorist groups, as well as to make it easier to apprehend them on return should they go. The concern has been that legitimate and vital activity, such as humanitarian action, peacebuilding and human rights monitoring, could also be impacted by the measure.
UK nationals or residents who travel to designated areas to carry out peacebuilding work could, on return to the UK, face investigation by the police and ultimately a jury who would decide whether their work is justified under the “reasonable excuse” defence. Given the low profile of much peacebuilding work, juries may not know what peacebuilding entails or understand its value.
More probably and importantly perhaps, the legal uncertainty could have a chilling effect on vital support to communities in and around designated areas and on the opportunities to nurture peace. Not only will peacebuilding organisations be nervous about putting their staff at risk of prosecution, but banks and other service providers will also be more reluctant to facilitate the work.
The kinds of activities potentially affected include support to mediation and dialogue activities that negotiate local ceasefires and broker peace talks, support to local community early warning and civilian protection efforts, and efforts to deal with the legacies of violence and promote social cohesion.
So, what happens next?
While the statements of support by the Government for peacebuilding and its status under the legislation are welcome, they need to be made explicit in accompanying policy guidance. Conciliation Resources will continue to work with Bond and other peacebuilding organisations to monitor the impact of the Bill when it comes into force, and to ensure that vital work with people affected by conflict and striving for peace is protected.