US ‘terrorist’ designation of Yemen’s Houthis comes into effect

US Treasury Department releases limited exemptions to designation, but aid group says measure is ‘not a panacea’.

Workers prepare foodstuff for beneficiaries at a food distribution centre supported by the World Food Programme in Sanaa, Yemen on June 3, 2020 [File: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

A leading humanitarian aid group working in Yemen is once more raising alarm over the effects that the Trump administration’s “terrorist” designation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels will have on civilians in the war-torn country.

Just days before United States President Donald Trump was set to leave office, his administration announced plans to label the Houthis a “foreign terrorist organization” – effectively barring US citizens and entities from interacting financially with the group.

The designation came into effect on Tuesday, just as the US Treasury Department released details of limited licensing exemptions to the restrictions.

The department said licences would be available, among other things, to authorise “the official activities of the US government and certain international organizations, such as the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross”. It also said the export of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices would be exempt.

But the Houthis control large swathes of territory in Yemen – and Joel Charny, executive director of Norwegian Refugee Council USA, told Al Jazeera on Monday that the licensing system “is not a panacea”.

“The key is that material support is broadly defined,” Charny said. “There’s no licence … that provides cover for all types of support that might be provided to an organisation that controls territory the way the Ansar Allah movement [the Houthis] does in northern Yemen.”

Chilling effect

For months, international aid groups providing much-needed aid to civilians hard hit by a devastating conflict in Yemen have warned that their work could be disrupted by the US designation of the Houthis – and urged the Trump administration not to do it.

But US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on January 10 said the measure aimed “to hold Ansarallah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping”.

The war in Yemen began in late 2014 when the Houthis seized control of much of the country, including Sanaa, the capital.

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.

Newly recruited Houthi fighters take part in a gathering in Sanaa in 2017 [File: Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

Charny said the “terrorist” designation would hamper the work of humanitarians working in Houthi-controlled areas, as well as have a chilling effect on private companies bringing in critical supplies.

“This designation is going to put the fear of God in the private sector and food deliveries,” Charny told Al Jazeera, explaining that Yemen imports 90 percent of its food.

“So if you’re a shipowner in the Gulf or if you’re a shipowner that’s been working with the [World Food Programme] to carry food into Yemen, are you going to want to continue to do this under the threats that are posed by US sanctions?”

He also said it remained unclear whether banks would still be willing to transfer money to Yemen, or whether Yemenis abroad would be able to send money to their relatives inside the country, once the designation is enforced.

A United Nations spokesman also expressed ongoing concern on Tuesday about the consequences of the designation.

“Our concern from the beginning … is the impact on the commercial sector and that the vast majority of food and other basic supplies that come into Yemen comes in through the commercial sector,” said Stephane Dujarric, as reported by Reuters.

‘Day one’ priority for Biden?

Human rights and humanitarian groups, as well as US lawmakers, are also urging incoming US President Joe Biden, who will be inaugurated on Wednesday, to rescind the designation.

The United Nations’ humanitarian chief last week called for the US to reverse the decision, saying it could lead to “large-scale famine on a scale that we have not seen for nearly 40 years”.

Biden’s incoming national security adviser also recently slammed the move.

“Houthi commanders need to be held accountable, but designating the whole organization will only inflict more suffering on Yemeni people and impede diplomacy critical to end the war,” Jake Sullivan tweeted on January 16.

Biden’s nominee to be the next US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said during a Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday that the incoming administration “would propose to review” the designation “immediately” to ensure it is “not impeding the provision of humanitarian assistance”.

“At least on its surface, it [the designation] seems to achieve nothing particularly practical in advancing the efforts against the Houthis and to bring them back to the negotiating table, while making it even more difficult than it already is to provide humanitarian assistance to people who desperately need it,” Blinken said.

Charny said he hoped Biden would overturn the Houthi designation on his first day in office because the longer the designation remains in force, the harder it will be to overturn and stave off its devastating effects.

“We’re saying it’s a day-one task,” Charny said, “and believe me, the Biden administration has many of these.”

Source: Al Jazeera