A Final Trump Administration Act Could Intensify the World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis

A US plan to designate Yemen's Houthi rebels as terrorists has been described as "diplomatic vandalism."
January 11, 2021, 5:42pm
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Eight-year old Jaqoob, who was suffering from severe acute malnutrition, pictured at a hospital in Yemen in late 2018. Photo: Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

A US plan to designate Houthi rebels in Yemen as a terrorist organisation in the dying days of the Trump administration amounts to “diplomatic vandalism,” aid groups have warned.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the decision late Sunday, despite dire warnings from humanitarian organisations and the United Nations, as well as bipartisan opposition in the US.

The move against the Iranian-backed Houthis is designed to contain Tehran’s influence in the region, but as a consequence it could be more difficult to deliver aid to war-torn Yemen, home of what is described as the world’s worst humanitarian crises and where millions of civilians rely on aid, as well as undermine a peace process.

David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee and a former UK Foreign Secretary, said the US plan to declare the Houthis as terrorists was "diplomatic vandalism”.

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"This policy, in the name of tying up the Houthis, will actually tie up the aid community and international diplomacy. The opposite is needed – effective pressure on all parties to the conflict to cease using civilians as hostages in their war games."

"IRC teams on the ground, in the North and South of the country, are battling against all odds to save lives. This designation makes their task all but impossible."

The conflict in Yemen pits a Saudi-led coalition – featuring the United Arab Emirates and supported by the US and other Western countries – against the Iranian-backed Houthis. More than 112,000 people have died since war began in 2014, millions have lost their homes, and starvation and preventable disease has put the nation of 28 million people on the verge of famine.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, a leading aid organisation working actively in Yemen, warned that the decision "will hamstring the ability of aid agencies to respond”.

"Getting food and medicine into Yemen – a country 80% dependent on imports – will become even more difficult. The US government must ensure that any sanctions do not block food, fuel and medicines from entering a country already in the middle of a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe,” said Mohamed Abdi, the Yemen country director of the NRC.

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"Without additional safeguards and broader exemptions for the commercial sector, Yemen's faltering economy will be dealt a further devastating blow."

Donald Trump’s term is ending in disgrace at home, but his administration is persisting with its "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran and its allies in the Middle East.

"The designations are also intended to advance efforts to achieve a peaceful, sovereign, and united Yemen that is both free from Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbours, Pompeo said. “Progress in addressing Yemen's instability can only be made when those responsible for obstructing peace are held accountable for their actions."

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, spokesperson for the Houthis, blamed the US for "killing and starving the Yemeni people," and said the Houthis would respond to any sanctions accordingly. 

"The failed US government is likely to add another failure to its legacy," said Saeed Khatibzadeh at the Iranian foreign ministry weekly press conference in Tehran on Monday. 

The Riyadh-based Yemeni government in exile welcomed the decision in a statement, calling for more “political and legal pressure” on the Houthis. "It was Iran's ideological, financial, military and technical support to the Houthis that led them to engage in reckless and reprehensible terrorist acts,” in a statement released on Monday.