US President Donald Trump’s move to designate Yemen’s Houthi movement as a foreign “terrorist” organisation could disrupt peace efforts and hamper the delivery of life-saving aid in a country where fears of famine are rising.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday that Congress would be notified of his intent to designate Yemen’s Houthi movement, in what would be among the final acts of the Trump administration before the inauguration of Joe Biden as president on January 20.
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Here are some of the possible implications:
Humanitarian crisis exasperated
Pompeo said the United States is planning to put in place measures to reduce the effects of the terrorist designation on certain humanitarian activity and imports, such as food and medicine, into Yemen.
The more than five-year war has left 80 percent of the population reliant on aid and millions on the verge of starvation.
With a funding shortage this year, the United Nations has warned that Yemen is facing what could be the world’s biggest famine in decades.
Aid agencies worry their work would now be criminalised. The Houthis are the de facto authority in the north and humanitarian organisations have to get permits to carry out aid programmes, as well as work with ministries and local financial systems.
The designation – with the increased burden on banks’ compliance mechanisms – could also affect Yemenis’ access to financial systems and remittances from abroad, as well as complicating imports and raising goods prices further.
Relief organisations have long warned that sanctions could prove catastrophic for efforts to help starving Yemeni civilians.
“This was already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, it was already a situation where millions of people are struggling to afford food, food rations have been halved for millions, our famine warnings have just resurfaced. So, this is really a life and death matter that we’re talking about,” said Riona Judge McCormack from the Norwegian Refugee Council in Yemen.
David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme, told Al Jazeera last month the ramifications of the US imposing such a designation would devastate the Yemeni people.
“Yemen is already a volatile fragile state. We are on the brink of famine right now. People are not getting enough food, we don’t have the access we need. I don’t know how we don’t face famine in a major way in the next four or five months,” said Beasley.
Peace efforts thwarted
The United Nations is trying to restart political talks to end the six-year war between the Houthis and the Saudi-Emirati-led military coalition, and the designation could create legal impediments to the Houthis, who control the capital, Sanaa, and most big urban centres.
The Houthis could break off back-channel talks with Saudi Arabia on a nationwide ceasefire, and the move may lead to an escalation in violence and push the Houthis closer to Iran, which posted an ambassador in Sanaa in October 2020.
US President-elect Joe Biden has indicated he wants a rapprochement with Iran, after the Trump administration severed ties and imposed a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.
Biden has stated he plans to return to the landmark nuclear deal with Iran and wants the war in Yemen ended. But the Houthi “terrorist” designation severely complicates any such moves.