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Girls collect water from a well in Hajjah province, north Yemen on December 11, 2020.

Girls collect water from a well in Hajjah province, north Yemen on December 11, 2020. (Photo: Mohammed Al-Wafi/Xinhua via Getty)

Aid Groups Warn Biden Not to Revive Trump's Terror Designation for Houthis in Yemen

"There is no set of carve-outs or humanitarian exemptions that would counteract the designation's chilling effects," 20 international organizations told Biden in a letter.

Kenny Stancil

Twenty international aid groups on Tuesday urged U.S. President Joe Biden to refrain from restoring the Trump administration's terrorist designation for the Houthis—warning that reinstating the label would have devastating impacts on civilians already struggling to survive amid a worsening humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.

Biden was praised last year by peace and anti-hunger advocates for rejecting former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's eleventh-hour designation of Ansar Allah—as the Houthi movement is officially called—as a "Foreign Terrorist Organization" (FTO) and a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" (SDGT).

However, the White House is now "considering reversing that reversal and redesignating the Houthis as a terrorist group at the request of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates," The Intercept reported Tuesday. "The Houthi rebels who have controlled Yemen's capital since 2014 recently launched a rare attack on the UAE for its participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen."

Oxfam, Refugees International, and 18 other humanitarian organizations operating in Yemen wrote in a public letter to Biden that "we remain united in our strong opposition to a decision that would have catastrophic consequences for Yemeni civilians."

The groups continued:

The considerations that drove your administration to lift the previous designation have not changed since last year—and living conditions for Yemenis have only worsened. A re-designation would further devastate the economy by hitting the private sector, specifically importers and businesses that provide a majority of Yemen's basic commodities like food, fuel, and medicine. The country is experiencing alarming levels of food insecurity right now, with the worst-affected Yemenis at risk of famine. 

Given that Ansar Allah maintains control over one-third of Yemen's territory and an estimated 70% of the population, the effects of a new designation would be widespread and immediate. It could also diminish the flow of humanitarian assistance at a time when organizations like ours are already struggling to keep pace with immense and growing needs. In addition, we have been worried about the conduct of hostilities in Yemen and believe a re-designation could embolden the sense of impunity that has characterized the behavior of parties to the conflict to date.

Almost one year ago to the day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that "the revocations are intended to ensure that relevant U.S. policies do not impede assistance to those already suffering what has been called the world's worst humanitarian crisis."

Mercy Corps chief executive officer Tjada D'Oyen McKenna said Tuesday in a statement that "Yemen continues to be one of the most difficult operating environments in the world for humanitarian organizations."

"A terrorist designation," said D'Oyen McKenna, "would not only further curtail the ability of organizations like Mercy Corps to provide lifesaving assistance to the most vulnerable communities in Yemen, but also obliterate the critical commercial sector that Yemenis rely on for access to basic goods."

According to the groups behind the letter, "There is no set of carve-outs or humanitarian exemptions that would counteract the designation's chilling effects on the importation of key commodities, remittances, and other financial services. NGOs cannot replace the private sector."

"At the beginning of this administration, you promised an approach to the conflict in Yemen centered on the needs of Yemenis," they wrote to Biden. "We implore you to keep faith with this approach and refrain from revisiting this designation which will be felt far more by Yemeni civilians than by Ansar Allah."

The Intercept reported that Biden first raised the possibility of redesignating the Houthis as a terrorist group at a press conference on January 19.

"We are taking a close look internally within the U.S. government to determine what would best serve our national security interests; what would best serve our desire to be a partner to Saudi Arabia, to the UAE, to other countries that are threatened by these Houthi attacks," said the president.

The news outlet added that "Biden may also face pressure from members of Congress pushing for the terror designation. House Armed Services Committee Members Reps. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) are planning to send a letter to Biden pressing him on the matter."

During its nearly seven-year-long bombing campaign, the U.S.-supported Saudi-led coalition has conducted more than 24,000 air raids—injuring more than 10,200 Yemeni civilians and killing almost 9,000, according to the Yemen Data Project. An escalation of airstrikes last month resulted in a particularly deadly month in Yemen.

Despite the Saudi-led coalition's lethal campaign, which has drawn accusations of war crimes, the Houthis remain in control of Sana'a—Yemen's capital and largest city—and much of the northern part of the country.

However, on Tuesday afternoon—just over a year after Biden promised to end U.S. support for "offensive operations" in the war on Yemen—the Saudi-led coalition reportedly bombed Sana'a.

Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) announced Monday that if Biden doesn't change course, they plan to introduce a new war powers resolution to "end unconstitutional U.S. participation" in the conflict.


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