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The decision to designate the Houthis (Ansar Allah) a foreign terrorist organization, and how it’s impacting the United Nations

The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control issued several general licenses aimed at mitigating the anticipated repercussions for humanitarian operations in and commercial traffic to Yemen. However, humanitarian actors in Yemen have repeatedly warned that these licenses are not enough to avert the negative humanitarian impact of the designations. 

Underlying uncertainty

Yemen depends on commercial imports to bring in nearly all its food and everything else. The licenses as currently formulated do not address the underlying uncertainty around commercial transactions in Yemen – including potential risks of criminal liability for many relevant stakeholders, such as banks and suppliers. 

This may create a “chilling effect” that would greatly reduce Yemen’s supply of food and other essential goods just as the risk of famine is intensifying. For years, aid agencies have been clear that they cannot compensate for major drops in commercial imports or replace the private sector.

Following the initial announcement of the US decision, UN officials and independent humanitarian organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and 19 international NGOs operating in Yemen to deliver humanitarian assistance, have called for a reversal of the designation.

In a briefing to the Security Council on 14 January, UN officials expressed deep concern about the adverse humanitarian impact the designations would have on the Yemeni people, especially at a time when the threat of famine is growing. 

UNOCHA/Mahmoud Fadel
An internally displaced child plays in an IDP site in Al-Dhale’e Governorate.

Designation ‘a death sentence’

“The designation is going to be a death sentence to hundreds and thousands if not millions”, said David Beasley, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), warning that millions will be suffering from severe hunger if the aid operation or the flow of commercial commodities are interrupted as a result of the designation. 

“Already, Yemenis are crowding into markets and shops to stockpile whatever they can afford”, said Mark Lowcock, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (OCHA), stressing that commercial actors were signalling that the risk is too high and indicating fear of getting caught up in US regulatory action that could put them out of business, or in jail.  

“I strongly associate myself with the views of David and Mark that the decision would contribute to the prospect of famine in Yemen and should be revoked based on humanitarian grounds at the earliest opportunity”, said Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen. 
After the decision came into effect on 19 January, UN officials and international humanitarian actors have continued to call for a reversal despite the issuance of several general licenses. 

‘Serious implications’

“It is already clear that even with licences and exemptions in place for humanitarian work, the designation will have serious implications, causing delays and uncertainty in our ability to deliver assistance, making it even more difficult to operate in Yemen, particularly in areas controlled by the Ansar Allah de facto authorities which are home to the majority of people in need”, said a joint statement by 19 international humanitarian operators in Yemen. 

“This is why today we make an unprecedented and united call for the Biden administration to immediately revoke the designation.”

UN officials have expressed similar concerns while distinguishing between any judgment on the substance and intention of the decision of the United States about the Houthis (Ansar Allah), and the concern for the millions of Yemenis who live under their control. On January 25, the United States issued an additional temporary general license in an attempt to further mitigate the humanitarian impact. 

The United States has said it was continuing to monitor the impact of the designations and that it had initiated a review. However, United Nations officials have continued to call for reversal on humanitarian grounds for fear that the imports’ flow into Yemen would be interrupted, noting Yemen’s dependence on imports to secure basic commodities such as food and medicine. 

“We have heard concerns that companies are still planning to cancel or suspend business, given that this move does not resolve underlying uncertainties. With millions of civilians at risk of starvation, Yemen cannot afford even a temporary disruption in commercial activity. We continue to call for the reversal of the designations on humanitarian grounds,” said Stephane Dujarric, the Spokesperson of the Secretary-General.

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