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Stop Pushing Yemen Deeper Into Famine

Three-year-old Yemeni girl seeking medical help for malnutrition, January 2019. (Voice of America/Screengrab).

The U.N. made another appeal to the Trump administration not to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization. The head of the World Food Program met with Pompeo to warn of the devastating effect that the designation would have on the population:

In recent weeks, officials from the United Nations and aid groups have issued increasingly urgent warnings about the potential designation, saying it could dramatically worsen already dire conditions in Yemen by reducing the amount of lifesaving aid and commercial imports moving into the country.

The people of Yemen are already facing famine. Some parts of Yemen are experiencing famine-like conditions right now. Tens of thousands will soon be in this condition, and that is before we take the effects of this possible designation into account:

The International Rescue Committee is extremely concerned by the findings of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) that classified parts of Yemen as experiencing ‘famine like conditions’, with over 47,000 people projected to fall into this category in the next 6 months. Food insecurity and hunger had increased by 60% since April of this year, and in October of this year, child malnutrition was recorded as the highest it has ever been in some areas.

Taking any action that would disrupt humanitarian aid or block economic activity in Houthi-controlled territory amounts to a death sentence for tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people. Designating the Houthis is exactly the wrong thing to be doing in Yemen right now, and it will cause enormous harm for no good reason. To do this now is to knowingly hasten and worsen the man-made famine that our government’s support for the war has helped to create.

Stephen Snyder also reports on the humanitarian disaster that would follow from a designation:

If the United States labels the Houthis as an FTO, many aid activities in Yemen will stop.

“Designation would make it generally illegal for anyone to transact with Ansar Allah armed group [the Houthis] or the government they control in Sana’a,” said Scott Paul, humanitarian policy lead for Oxfam America. “And depending on how it’s designated, it might also prohibit the provision of any form of support, anything as small as a slice of pizza at a training.”

As Paul has explained elsewhere, the reason why a Houthi designation would have much worse effects is that they control the parts of Yemen where the vast majority of the population lives. There would be no way for relief organizations or businesses to operate in that territory if the Houthis were designated as terrorists.

A decision to designate the Houthis would be in keeping with the Trump administration’s indefensible support for the indefensible war on Yemen, and like their support for the war this would achieve nothing except to cause the deaths of thousands more innocent Yemenis.

Paul Pillar observes that the designation itself would be unwarranted because the Houthis do not meet the criteria for being added to the list:

Designating the Houthis as an FTO would be another abuse of the list. The Houthis are a Yemeni movement that has been fighting a civil war ignited by what the Houthis and their supporters consider to have been short shrift that past Yemeni governments have given to tribal and regional interests in the part of northern Yemen the Houthis call home. The Houthis have shown no interest in doing international terrorism. Their only lethal activity across international boundaries has consisted of sending some rockets and drones into Saudi Arabia as retaliation for the far larger Saudi aerial assault that has been mostly responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.

The Houthis also are not threatening U.S. security.

A designation would be a purely destructive move that would prolong the war and deepen the country’s overlapping crises of famine and disease. It would be a final act of cruel collective punishment from an administration that has made a habit of trying to strangle countries to death through sanctions.

The U.S. needs to be rushing more aid to Yemen, not creating additional obstacles to its delivery. Our government ought to be assisting in the efforts to stave off the famine that is already happening. If the administration doesn’t make these efforts, they will have made the U.S. complicit in one of the worst modern famines. If they designate the Houthis, they will be responsible for causing the deaths of countless innocent people.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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