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Aid groups warn Houthi 'terror' designation could push Yemen closer to famine

Such a move would have 'far-reaching impacts on Yemen's already dire humanitarian situation,' aid agencies say
Displaced Yemenis receive humanitarian aid provided by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the northwestern province of Hajjah on 1 August 2021
Displaced Yemenis receive humanitarian aid provided by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the northwestern province of Hajjah on 1 August 2021 (AFP)

Aid agencies have expressed concern over the possible US designation of Yemen's Houthi movement as a "terrorist group," warning it could severely hamper humanitarian efforts in the country where an estimated 22 million people require assistance.

On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden said the re-designation of the Iran-aligned group was "under consideration" following Houthi drone and missile attacks on Abu Dhabi earlier this week.

Erin Hutchinson, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) country director for Yemen, sounded the alarm over Biden's remarks, telling Middle East Eye that any possible re-designation of the armed group could endanger millions already struggling "to survive a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe".

"We said repeatedly in the past that designating Ansar Allah a terrorist organisation would have far-reaching impacts on Yemen's already dire humanitarian situation, and we think the same today,"  Hutchinson said, using another name for the Houthis.

"The designation would come with sanctions that would harm NRC's ability to provide lifesaving aid to people in dire circumstances.

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"The US government must ensure that any sanctions do not block food, fuel, medicines, and other essential goods and services from entering the country and reaching people in need just trying to survive a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe."

Early last year, the Biden administration reversed a last-minute Trump administration decision which put the Houthis on a US list of "foreign terrorist groups".

However, over the past week, the United Arab Emirates, a close US ally and a member of the Saudi-led coalition, called on Washington to reimpose the designation after the rebels claimed responsibility for attacks on Abu Dhabi airport and an oil facility which killed three people.

Relief organisations greeted the possible re-designation with dismay, with Scott Paul, Oxfam America's humanitarian policy manager, telling MEE that it would severely impact the ability of aid agencies to respond on the ground.

"As we said a year ago, this designation absolutely cannot happen because of the humanitarian implications it would have," Paul said.

Humanitarian groups have already been struggling in Yemen as the international community has for years failed to meet funding benchmarks laid out as necessary for saving lives.

Last month, the World Food Programme said it was "forced" to cut aid to Yemen due to a lack of funds, and warned there would be a surge in hunger in the coming months.

"Every time we reduce the amount of food, we know that more people who are already hungry and food insecure will join the ranks of the millions who are starving," WFP regional director Corinne Fleischer said. "But desperate times call for desperate measures."

'Collective punishment'

More than seven years of war have devastated the lives of tens of millions of Yemenis, with experts estimating that up to one million may have been affected by Covid-19. The death toll from the coronavirus in Yemen remains unknown.

The conflict erupted in 2014 when the Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, prompting a Saudi-led intervention the following year to prop up the internationally recognised government.

Alarmed by the rise of a group they saw as an Iranian proxy, the coalition has carried out more than 20,000 air attacks across the country, with one-third striking non-military sites, including schools and hospitals, according to the Yemen Data Project.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have repeatedly accused Iran of arming their Houthi rivals, a charge both Tehran and the rebels deny.

'Designating the Houthis will have unbelievably serious implications for civilians'

- Afrah Nasser, Human Rights Watch

In the past week, the conflict, which has been at an impasse for years, has seen an uptick in violence with the Saudi-led coalition carrying out several deadly air strikes on the capital and other urban areas.

On Friday alone, one strike knocked out a telecommunications centre, leaving most of the country without internet, and another killed or injured at least 100 people in the northwest.

The internet blackout has left many aid organisations struggling to obtain information from their colleagues on the ground about the air strikes in Saada, which targeted a detention centre.

"All of this is happening, and then the US is considering designating the Houthis. It's like a collective punishment for civilians. Designating the Houthis will have unbelievably serious implications for civilians," Afrah Nasser, a Yemen researcher for Human Rights Watch, told MEE.

"The humanitarian suffering in Yemen is clear, but they don't care. I mean we talk about respect for international humanitarian law, respect for international human rights, but they don't care about this. None of the states involved in this conflict, and even the Houthis, care."