By Abba Gwale
The designation of Yemen’s Iranian-backed rebels as a terror organization sparked confusion in aid agencies and warnings from the United Nations that it could have a devastating humanitarian impact on a conflict-wracked nation facing the risk of famine.
The designation is to take effect on President Donald Trump’s last full day in office, Several aid groups pleaded for Biden to immediately reverse the designation, with Oxfam America’s Humanitarian Policy Lead Scott Paul saying: “Lives hang in the balance.”
The Iranian-supported Houthi rebels rule the capital and Yemen’s north where the majority of the population lives, forcing international aid groups to work with them. Agencies depend on the Houthis to deliver aid, and they pay salaries to Houthis to do so.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the U.N.’s humanitarian operation is huge and the U.S. action “is likely to have serious humanitarian and political repercussions.”
“Good intentions must not be eclipsed by significant unintended consequences,” they warned. “Yemen imports 90 percent of its food. In light of near-famine conditions … this designation will have a devastating effect on Yemen’s food supply and other critical imports unless the executive branch acts now to issue the necessary licenses, waivers and appropriate guidance prior to designation.”
Dujarric also said it is “imperative for the U.S. to swiftly grant the necessary licenses and exemptions,” expressing fear that the private sector will not want “to get in the crosshairs of any sort of unilateral sanctions” as it has done in past situations, “so they sort of self-censor and hold back.”
Most of Yemen’s 30 million people rely on international aid to survive. The U.N. says 13.5 million Yemenis already face acute food insecurity, a figure that could rise to 16 million by June.
Some aid agencies said they were considering pulling out foreign staff.
They warned that even if the U.S. grants humanitarian exceptions as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised Sunday, the move could snarl aid delivery, drive away banks, and further wreck an economy in which millions can’t afford to feed themselves.
Houthi officials were defiant over the U.S. designation.
“We are not fearful,” tweeted the head of the group’s Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. “America is the source of terrorism. It’s directly involved in killing and starving the Yemeni people.”
In Iran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the designation was “doomed to failure” and the U.S. would eventually have to enter negotiations with the Houthis.
The U.S. designation move is part of the Trump administration’s broader effort to isolate and cripple Iran. It also shows support to its close ally, Saudi Arabia, which leads the anti-Houthi coalition in the war. Saudi Arabia has advocated the terror designation, hoping it would pressure the rebels to reach a peace deal. Past rounds of peace talks and cease-fire agreements have faltered