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Yemen: Houthi Terrorism Designation Threatens Aid

US Action Risks Lives of Millions Already Facing Starvation

An aid worker gives a food ration to a woman in Sanaa, Yemen, July 19, 2020. © 2020 REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

(Washington) – The Trump administration’s potential designation of the Houthi armed group in Yemen as a “foreign terrorist organization” would threaten humanitarian aid on which millions of Yemenis rely for survival, Human Rights Watch said today. Over 20 million people in Yemen – nearly two-thirds of the population – require food assistance.

If the US government designates the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, then anyone in the United States or abroad suspected of providing support or resources to the armed group could be prosecuted under various federal laws, including those banning material support for terrorism. This could prevent numerous nonprofit groups and humanitarian aid organizations from operating in areas under Houthi control, where the bulk of the country’s population lives. The material support restrictions could also create serious obstacles for outside mediators involved in peace negotiations between the Houthis and other parties by making it a criminal offense to provide any property or service – including expert advice or assistance – to a designated organization.

“Many Yemenis are already on the brink of starvation, and US actions that would interfere with the work of aid organizations could have catastrophic consequences,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “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.”  

federal statute grants the US secretary of state broad authority to designate any foreign entity a “foreign terrorist organization” once the State Department determines that it engages in “terrorist activity,” has the “capacity and intent” to do so, and that such actions threaten US nationals or US national security. A related executive order permits the government to label individuals or groups that assist or are “associated” with terrorist organizations as “specially designated global terrorists” and to block their assets. The law provides few legal protections to those designated.

The US designation is being considered as part of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, media reported. In the administration’s waning days, the US has imposed additional sanctions on Iran or Iranian officials every week. Iran has supported the Houthi armed group, which has controlled the capital, Sanaa, and much of western Yemen since late 2014.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in November 2020 that “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.” Thousands of people in Yemen are already facing famine-like conditions amid significant funding shortfalls, according to a joint UN agencies’ report.

International aid groups have said that a US terrorism designation would “cause even greater suffering.” Members of the US Congress said that the designation would have “a disastrous impact on the ability of aid organizations to provide relief to millions of Yemenis who depend on their assistance for survival.”  

NBC News reported that the head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) John Barsa appealed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to make the designation after the agency carried out a detailed analysis of the possible negative impact. The head of the UN World Food Program, David Beasley, reportedly expressed “grave concerns” to Pompeo about the possible designation.

The Human Rights Watch September report, “Deadly Consequences,” documented that the parties to the conflict in Yemen, particularly the Houthis, have imposed a series of obstacles for local and international humanitarian groups to navigate, including logistic difficulties and outright obstruction of aid delivery. The “foreign terrorist organization” designation for the Houthis would exacerbate an already difficult situation for humanitarian groups. Houthi authorities and other warring parties should ensure the unimpeded passage of humanitarian assistance, including in the event of this designation, Human Rights Watch said.

Since March 2015, the US has supported the Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led coalition with weapons transfers and other assistance. Human Rights Watch has documented more than 90 apparently unlawful coalition airstrikes, which have hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques. Some of these attacks may amount to war crimes. According to the Yemen Data Project, which compiles estimates using open-source data, at least 18,400 civilians have been killed or injured since the beginning of the war. News reports revealed that US State Department officials have warned that US officials could face prosecution for war crimes over arms sales to Saudi Arabia and coalition partners.

“The US has stood by as Saudi and UAE forces have committed war crimes in Yemen, sometimes with US weapons,” Nasser said. “It adds insult to injury that the Trump administration – as a parting gift to its Gulf allies – would take such drastic action that is sure to harm even more civilians.”

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