Classifying Houthis as terrorists will worsen famine in Yemen, Trump is warned | Yemen
The Trump administration is facing mounting calls to abandon threats to sanction Houthi rebels in northern Yemen to avoid an imminent danger of extreme famine in the country, where almost two-thirds of the population are in need of food aid.
US state department officials are considering designating the Houthis as a terrorist group before the 20 January inauguration of Joe Biden, a move that would complicate the delivery of essential aid in large parts of the country, senior UN officials and NGOs have said.
The widely predicted move would be alongside a raft of flagged sanctions against Iran and its interests over the final five weeks of Trump’s rule, in which squeezing Tehran and its allies looms as a central plank of Washington’s foreign policy.
The Labour party in the UK added its voice to the concerns on Sunday, saying the expected move against the Houthis, whom Iran supports in Yemen, would result in aid being unable to reach much of the country’s north. The shadow minister for international development, Anna McMorrin, said this would deprive millions of people who had no choice but to remain under Houthi control of much-needed assistance.
In a letter to the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, imploring the UK not to follow the US’s lead, McMorrin wrote: “We are concerned that a blanket definition for the Houthis would create a near insurmountable hurdle to the delivery of essential humanitarian relief, with those providing material relief or economic support to agencies and multilateral programmes at risk of legal or financial sanctions.
“Humanitarian organisations would also be denied practical contact with much of the Houthis’ administrative infrastructure and would be barred from using local civilian contractors to deliver programmes.”
Human Rights Watch has also warned of the consequences of US designation. “Many Yemenis are already on the brink of starvation, and US actions that would interfere with the work of aid organisations could have catastrophic consequences,” said the organisation’s Yemen researcher, Afrah Nasser, in a report released on Friday. “Any designation of the Houthis should at a minimum provide clear and immediate exemptions for humanitarian aid, but millions of lives should not have to depend on that.”
Yemen, one of the region’s most impoverished states, has been in turmoil over most of the past decade. Instability worsened when the Houthis overthrew the Yemeni government in early 2015. That was followed by a military intervention led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which has further destabilised the country and led to soaring humanitarian needs. Despite temporary lulls in fighting, calls for a permanent ceasefire have not been met.
The United Nations’ secretary general, António Guterres, said last month: “Yemen is now in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades. In the absence of immediate action, millions of lives may be lost.”
Calls to support humanitarian efforts have repeatedly met funding difficulties. Humanitarian needs have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has ravaged much of the country. However, a dysfunctional bureaucracy has made understanding the scale of the spread of disease almost impossible.
Iran has provided support to Houthi rebels throughout the conflict with Saudi Arabia, which has led to mass displacement and disease and at least 12,000 civilian casualties. Riyadh insists Tehran’s level of backing is far higher than it acknowledges and amounts to a strategic threat against its eastern border. Ballistic missiles fired from Yemen have sporadically hit Saudi cities throughout the war, which has also been marked by repeated Saudi airstrikes inside the country.
McMorrin and Human Rights Watch both say attempts to secure a negotiated ceasefire would be much more complicated if the US moves ahead with a designation of the Houthis.
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has told regional allies that he is determined to tighten pressure on Iran’s allies elsewhere in the region in the waning days of the administration, with proxies in Iraq and the powerful Lebanese militia and political bloc also in Washington’s crosshairs.
A senior regional source said designating the Houthis and escalating pressure on Tehran over the next five weeks had been agreed between Washington and Riyadh during Pompeo’s most recent visit to the Middle East.
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