Girls collect water from a well in Hajjah province, north Yemen

Girls collect water from a well in Hajjah province, north Yemen on December 11, 2020. As a result of the U.S. State Department's decision, Oxfam noted, "humanitarian aid, goods, and personnel will be blocked from entering northern Yemen, where 70% of the population lives."

(Photo: Mohammed Al-Wafi/Xinhua via Getty)

Pompeo's Move on Houthis Raises Famine Fears in Yemen

Oxfam called the designation "a counter-productive and dangerous policy that will put innocent lives at risk."

Advocates for a more just U.S. foreign policy on Monday denounced Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's decision to designate Yemen's Houthis as a terrorist group, a move that progressives say will disrupt the ability of humanitarian agencies to provide life-saving aid in an effort to alleviate widespread civilian suffering generated by the U.S.-backed Saudi regime's assault on the country.

In a statement released Monday, Oxfam criticized Pompeo's decision to label the Houthis a "Foreign Terrorist Organization" (FTO), calling it a "counter-productive and dangerous policy that will put innocent lives at risk."

"This designation will not help to resolve the conflict or provide justice for the violations and abuses committed during the war," Oxfam continued. "It will only compound the crisis for millions of Yemenis fighting for their survival."

Win Without War policy director Kate Kizer on Monday condemned the Trump administration for "levying baseless terrorism designations on the Houthis in Yemen," describing the move as "nothing more than a cynical, last-ditch attempt to prevent the Biden administration from reversing Trump's disastrous Yemen and Iran policies."

"This decision is a devastating blow to the prospects of peace, and a reckless instigation of further suffering in what is already the world's largest humanitarian crisis," Kizer added.

A number of analysts warned in the final two months of 2020 that a terrorist designation for the Houthis, which Pompeo was considering at the time, would "make an already difficult situation worse," in the words of Brookings Institution president John Allen and senior fellow Bruce Riedel.

"There's no quick or easy way to end Yemen's civil war," wrote Crisis Group president Robert Malley and analyst Peter Salisbury in a late November op-ed in The Washington Post. "There are, however, ways to prolong it, one of those being the Trump administration's apparent decision to designate the Houthi movement as terrorists."

And yet, after what Post reporter John Hudson called a "major internal battle regarding [its] humanitarian impact in Yemen," Pompeo decided this past weekend to move ahead with declaring the Houthis a terrorist group, the newspaper reported Sunday night.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus claimed that Pompeo's move "will further isolate terrorists in Yemen while the United States takes available steps to facilitate continued humanitarian aid." But Oxfam countered that "given the far-reaching nature of terrorism designations, the humanitarian response and economy in Yemen will be drastically impacted."

Although the State Department announced that the U.S. is preparing "to work with relevant officials at the United Nations, with international and non-governmental organizations, and other international donors to address" the devastating humanitarian implications of the FTO designation, the Post reported that Pompeo is proceeding before having finalized the licenses and guidance that would permit the continued delivery of aid.

"If true, it is difficult to imagine a more irresponsible decision," said Refugees International vice president Hardin Lang, one of many critics who are sounding the alarm that the Trump administration's actions are likely to undermine the flow of aid and intensify suffering.

The mere threat of a designating the Houthis as terrorists caused food imports in the country to drop by 25% in November, according to U.N. Under-Secretary Mark Lowcock.

The State Department's decision is "terrible news for Yemen," Annelle Sheline, a Middle East research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said on Sunday night. "The Saudi-led blockade has already resulted in mass starvations," Sheline said. "Eighty percent of the population live under Houthi control. The designation will prevent aid organizations from delivering desperately needed food."

Characterizing Houthis as terrorists will exacerbate "an already shocking level of hunger in Yemen," Human Rights Watch researcher Afrah Nasser explained on Monday. As a result of the Trump administration's latest actions, Nasser added, the U.S. "risk[s] complicity in hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths."

According to Lang, "the litmus test for U.S. policy on Yemen is simple: does it help end the conflict, or keep alive the millions of suffering Yemenis? The designation fails on both counts."

Oxfam pointed out that there are "many options available for identifying and punishing terrorists," but the route pursued by the Trump administration "is by far the most severe--and the most deadly for Yemeni families. It will block U.S. humanitarian aid, goods, and personnel from entering northern Yemen, where 70% of the population lives, and substantially reduce them throughout the rest of the country."

"The consequences will be felt acutely across a country also hit hard by extreme hunger, cholera and Covid-19, as banks, businesses, and humanitarian donors become unwilling or unable to take on the risk of operating in Yemen," Oxfam noted. "Every day these designations remain in place will compound the suffering of Yemen's most vulnerable families."

Foreign policy analysts and humanitarian groups urged President-elect Joe Biden to immediately reverse the Trump administration's designation of the Houthis as terrorists. "In this instance," said Oxfam, "acting 'on day one' cannot be only a figure of speech, as lives hang in the balance."

Sheline noted that "people are going to die as a result of this, even if Biden lifts the designation as soon as he comes to office."

Drawing attention to the timing of Pompeo's move, Suzanne Maloney, vice president and director of foreign policy at Brookings, said Monday that "Trump's foreign policy will end as it began: with wanton cruelty and disastrous fallout for the Middle East and U.S. interests there."

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