US allows transactions with Houthis as ‘terrorist’ label reviewed

Aid groups warn the Trump administration’s designation of Yemeni rebels could trigger famine in the war-torn country.

A man pushes a wheel cart with food aid he received at a camp for people recently displaced by fighting in Yemen's northern province of al-Jawf [File: Ali Owidha/Reuters]

The United States has temporarily stayed a ban on transactions involving Yemen’s Houthi movement as it reviews a decision by former President Donald Trump’s administration to designate the Iran-aligned group as a “foreign terrorist organisation”.

The announcement on Monday permits all transactions involving the Houthis, who are involved in a years-long conflict in Yemen against a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, until February 26.

It comes a day after 22 aid organisations working in the war-torn country called on the US to lift the “terrorist” designation about concerns it would exacerbate a continuing humanitarian crisis and risk plunging the country into widespread famine.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the Houthi designation on January 19, a day before President Joe Biden took office.

The measure froze any US-related assets of the Houthis, banned Americans from doing business with them and made it a crime to provide support or resources to the movement.

The Biden administration has promised to review the designation, however, amid widespread criticism from aid groups and US lawmakers, including the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who said it “endangers the lives of the Yemeni people”.

Despite limited US licensing exemptions allowing certain humanitarian activities to continue in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, the United Nations and aid organisations have warned the designation could trigger a large-scale famine by choking the commercial sector.

“The licences and associated guidance do not provide sufficient guarantees to international banks, shipping companies and suppliers that still face the risk of falling foul of US laws,” the aid groups said in their letter on Sunday.

“As a result, many in the commercial sector will likely feel the risk is too high to continue working in Yemen.”

The groups, which include Mercy Corps, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee, also said the designation would lead to “delays and uncertainty” in their ability to deliver aid and make it “even more difficult to operate in Yemen”.

Brian O’Toole, a former US Treasury Department official during President Barack Obama’s administration, said the month-long pause announced Monday “essentially wipes out the entire effect of the designation”.

It also gives the Biden administration “a chance to make the decision on its own rather than getting stuck with Mike Pompeo’s decision”, O’Toole told the Reuters news agency.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Yemenis marched in the capital, Sanaa, on Monday, heeding a call by the Houthi movement to condemn the US for the terrorist designation and for its support for the Saudi-led military coalition.

Northern Yemen is largely held by the Houthis, who seized Sanaa in late 2014 and deposed the country’s Saudi-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

That prompted Saudi Arabia and the UAE to form a military coalition, with backing from the US and other Western nations, to attempt to restore Hadi to power.

Biden has promised to end Washington’s support for the Saudi-led coalition, a promise that US Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken reiterated last week during a US Senate confirmation hearing.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies