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US Designation of Houthis as 'Terrorists' Is Wrong and Hurts the Most Vulnerable

Ending America's endless wars should mean not only withdrawing troops but also putting an end to the misuse of terrorist designations and the accompanying destructive economic sanctions.

A Yemeni boy rides a bike on rubble of houses destroyed in a recent airstrike carried out by warplanes of the Saudi-led coalition, on May 23, 2019 in Sana'a, Yemen. (Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

A Yemeni boy rides a bike on rubble of houses destroyed in a recent airstrike carried out by warplanes of the Saudi-led coalition, on May 23, 2019 in Sana'a, Yemen. (Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

On January 10, then US Secretary of State Pompeo announced that the Trump administration was designating Ansar Allah, the de facto Houthi-led government in North Yemen, as a terrorist entity, “to hold [it] accountable for its terrorist acts.” As most commentators pointed out, this designation would dramatically worsen the already dire humanitarian situation in Yemen, making it extremely difficult to provide much-needed aid to the country and undermine the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the war.

It also further exposes the US as a belligerent actor that has knowingly harmed the people of Yemen for the past six years.

As damaging, but rarely noted, is the unprincipled politicisation of America’s “terrorism” designation and its selective use as a tool of warfare against political opponents. It undermines any credibility that the US might retain in a facts-based, even-handed designation of terrorist actors around the world. It also further exposes the US as a belligerent actor that has knowingly harmed the people of Yemen for the past six years.

There is no doubt that since the start of the Saudi-UAE-led war on Yemen in March 2015, all parties to the conflict – and there are now many – have carried out heinous attacks on civilians in violations of the laws of war. The facts of Ansar Allah’s abuses are well documented, including indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, obstruction of food and medical aid, and the use of child soldiers.

Even more catastrophic, in terms of scale, severity and frequency, have been war crimes by the Saudi-Emirati-led coalition. These have included deliberate and indiscriminate attacks that have terrorised Yemeni civilians, including repeated attacks on children, resulting in over 112,000 casualties.

As of 2016, coalition airstrikes were responsible for two-thirds of the civilian deaths. The coalition has carried out widespread and systematic attacks on Yemeni hospitals, medical clinics, schools, universities, factories, weddings, funerals, and residential areas using US-supplied bombs.

The coalition’s harm to Yemen has been dramatically compounded by its unprecedented land, air, and sea blockade on the country, making it extremely difficult, if not often impossible, to import food, medicine and fuel into the country and contributing to record-breaking starvation, malnutrition, and disease. The recklessness and cruelty of Saudi and Emirati conduct in this war have led to countless denunciations by the United Nations and governments around the world, notwithstanding endless bullying, threats and bribery from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

The US’s participation in this war – as a party to the conflict, providing intelligence, targeting support, and refuelling, in addition to billions of dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and its contribution to the needless devastation in Yemen – has faced serious domestic challenges and even worries about war crimes liability.

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In 2018, over two dozen Obama administration officials signed a letter urging an end to US involvement in the Yemen war – an unprecedented public mea culpa for green-lighting and then supporting the war effort. The US Congress also weighed in, passing a number of resolutions demanding an end to the US role in this war and to ongoing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which were saved by former President Donald Trump’s vetoes.

It remains to be seen if President Joe Biden – whose staff is filled with many of the signatories of the Yemen letter, including Antony Blinken, Wendy Sherman, and Jake Sullivan – will keep his own promise to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia and US participation in the Yemen war.

Frustrated by their inability to defeat Ansar Allah, despite billions spent on bombarding Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have persistently lobbied the US Department of State to designate the group as “terrorist”, in order to trigger severe sanctions on the country. Like the economic sanctions and terrorist designations applied to Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba and entities within them, the State Department’s designation of Ansar Allah has nothing to do with an impartial assessment of the facts on the ground or merits of such a policy.

Instead, it has been deployed as an economic tool of warfare against international nemeses in the hopes that they will say uncle to US demands and give up power. Every one of these targeted governments remains in power, while the sanctions against them have only harmed ordinary people who have little to no say in what their governments do or do not do.

To argue against the terrorist designation of Ansar Allah purely on humanitarian grounds or for their negative impact on future peace negotiations, as some progressive groups have done, is overly narrow and avoids addressing a different but equally nefarious consequence. When the US chooses to designate as “terrorist” one side of an armed conflict, in this case, Ansar Allah, while not only ignoring but supporting the even more egregious terrorist attacks of the other, our government undermines any credibility the designation may have and diminishes its own international standing.

The Ansar Allah terrorism designation and related sanctions deserve condemnation not only because of the harm and suffering they will cause the Yemeni people, but because they manipulate and distort the original purpose and intent of such labelling. To argue only about the extent of the suffering these designations cause is a distraction that opens a tangential debate about whether or not the suffering is as bad as claimed, or who is actually to blame for the consequent suffering – the sanctions or the government.

Arguments against any terrorism designation should centre on Washington’s extensive misuse of sanctions and terrorism designations as an undeclared tool of warfare. Failure to confront the policies and laws that allow the US to sanction, starve, and harm peoples around the world – as it is doing in 39 countries around the world – leaves us endlessly arguing the particular merits of sanctions in one place, then another, then another.

President Biden has a responsibility to dramatically reform legislation that empowers one administration after another to deploy economic harm to peoples around the world. Ending America’s endless wars should mean not only withdrawing troops but also putting an end to the misuse of terrorist designations and the accompanying destructive economic sanctions.

Sarah Leah Whitson

Sarah Leah Whitson is the Executive Director of Democracy for the Arab World Now and formerly Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division.

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