The United Nations humanitarian chief has urged the United States to reverse its decision to declare Yemen’s Houthi rebels a “terrorist” group, warning the designation will likely lead to “large-scale famine on a scale that we have not seen for nearly 40 years”.
Mark Lowcock made the appeal in a speech to the UN Security Council (UNSC) on Thursday.
On Sunday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the Iranian-backed Houthis a “foreign terrorist organisation” and said the designation will take effect on January 19, President Donald Trump’s last full day in office before Joe Biden is inaugurated as president.
Aid organisations and senior Republicans also warned the move could have a devastating humanitarian effect on the conflict-wracked nation facing the risk of famine.
Lowcock said data show that 16 million of Yemen’s 30 million people will go hungry this year.
“Already, about 50,000 people are essentially starving to death in what is essentially a small famine,” he said. “Another five million are just one step behind them.”
Stressing the “terrorist” designation has companies pulling back from dealing with Yemenis, Lowcock warned famine will not be prevented by the licenses the US has said it will introduce so some humanitarian aid and imports can continue to reach Yemen.
“What would prevent it? A reversal of the decision,” Lowcock said, adding that Yemen imports 90 percent of its food, nearly all purchased through commercial channels, so aid shipments cannot be enough to stave off hunger.
The US designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization could be the final straw that tips Yemen into not just a small famine, but a truly huge one.
— Mark Lowcock (@UNReliefChief) January 13, 2021
“Aid agencies give people vouchers or cash to buy commercially imported food in the market. Aid agencies cannot – they simply cannot – replace the commercial import system,” he said.
Yemen’s war broke out in late 2014 when the Houthis seized much of the country, including the capital, Sanaa.
The conflict escalated in March 2015 when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates assembled a US-backed military coalition in an attempt to restore the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
What Saudi leaders thought would be a quick military intervention has turned into a protracted conflict that caused the spread of disease, destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and pushed millions of people to the brink of starvation.
Both sides have been accused of war crimes during the fighting that has killed tens of thousands of people.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also raised concerns over the US designation, saying it feared the move would lead to a “chilling effect” on delivering vital aid to sick and starving civilians.
ICRC director of operations Dominik Stillhart said on Thursday the agency has urged states imposing such measures to consider “humanitarian carve-outs” to mitigate any negative effect on populations and on impartial aid.
The statement was issued on his return from the country after three ICRC staff were killed in an attack on Aden airport on December 30.