In the second major policy shift on Yemen in as many days, the Biden administration on Friday said it would reverse the previous administration's designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, which critics had warned would exacerbate what the United Nations has deemed the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
"Reversing the designation is an important decision that will save lives and, combined with the appointment of a special envoy, offers hope that President Biden is committed to bringing the war to an end."
—Sen. Chris Murphy
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the designation when then-President Donald Trump had less than two weeks left in office. The Biden State Department confirmed the shift Friday, following a Thursday revelation that the president will end U.S. support for "offensive operations" in the Saudi-led war on Yemen.
Politico reports a State Department official, using another name for the Houthis, said in a statement that Secretary Antony Blinken "has been clear about undertaking an expeditious review of the designations of Ansarallah given the profound implications for the people of Yemen, home to the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe."
"After a comprehensive review, we can confirm that the secretary intends to revoke the Foreign Terrorist Organization and Specially Designated Global Terrorist designations of Ansarallah," the official added. "We have formally notified Congress of the secretary's intent to revoke these designations and will share more details in the coming days."
Oxfam America's humanitarian policy lead Scott Paul, who said last month that Trump and Pompeo's decision to label the Houthis a "Foreign Terrorist Organization" (FTO) was a "dangerous policy that will put innocent lives at risk," welcomed the decision to scrap the "purely counterproductive designation" in a statement Friday.
"As the Biden administration has made clear, it is the humanitarian consequences of the designation, not the conduct of the de facto authorities, that warrants this reversal," Paul said. "Unfortunately, even with the designations revoked, we're back to the previous and unacceptable status quo where millions of people still face extreme hunger, cholera, Covid-19, and daily violations by warring parties more interested in their own military advancement than the basic needs and rights of Yemenis."
"International and Yemeni humanitarian organizations are still not saving as many lives as they could because of a lack of funding and unacceptable interference by the parties. Aid has not, and cannot, meet the needs of Yemen's vulnerable people alone," he continued. "The only way to prevent greater suffering is through an inclusive, political settlement that enables an equitable economic recovery."
Paul emphasized that "for any progress in Yemen to be sustainable, women must be afforded their rightful place at any negotiating table," adding that "the international community needs to stop fueling the conflict, generously fund Yemen's humanitarian response, and prioritize peace."
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Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a longtime critic of U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led assault of Yemen, released a statement praising the Biden administration's reversal as "another signal of their commitment to end the war in Yemen."
"The designation did not impact the Houthis in any practical way," he noted, "but it stopped food and other critical aid from being delivered inside Yemen and would have prevented effective political negotiation. Reversing the designation is an important decision that will save lives and, combined with the appointment of a special envoy, offers hope that President Biden is committed to bringing the war to an end."
During his Thursday announcement about Saudi Arabia, Biden declared that "this war has to end" and named Timothy Lenderking as his special envoy to Yemen.
The Houthi reversal was also lauded at the global level. U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said that "we welcome the stated intention by the U.S. administration to revoke the designation as it will provide profound relief to millions of Yemenis who rely on humanitarian assistance and commercial imports to meet their basic survival needs."