Washington D.C.- When the Biden administration stripped Yemen’s Houthi rebels of the “terrorist” group label last February, it cited the potentially “devastating” effects the designation would have on Yemeni civilians’ access to lifesaving humanitarian aid.
But less than a year later, President Joe Biden said the group’s re-naming was “under review,” a move advocates and rights groups say is not only disappointing but dangerous.
“It is extremely disappointing that the Biden administration is considering this position when they know full well the humanitarian impact it would have,” Scott Paul, senior humanitarian policy officer at Oxfam America, told Al Jazeera.
“A year ago, the administration heeded our warnings – and nothing has changed since then to improve the outlook for what those designations would mean.”
The United Arab Emirates openly called on the United States to put the Houthis back on its blacklist after the rebels launched missile and drone attacks on Abu Dhabi on January 17, killing three people.
Days later, at a Jan. 19 press conference to mark the first anniversary of his presidency, Biden said reinstating the designation was “under consideration,” but added “it will be very difficult” to end the conflict in Yemen.
The Emirates Embassy in Washington, DC hosted Biden’s pledge.
But for activists calling for an end to the years-long war in Yemen, the US president’s remark is a betrayal of his campaign promise to work to end the conflict – and break with the policies of his predecessor Donald Trump, who provided wholehearted support. to the Saudi-led coalition.
This US-backed coalition, which included the United Arab Emirates, intervened in Yemen in 2015 to push back the Houthis, who had taken control of most of the country, including the capital Sanaa, and to restore the government supported by the Gulf of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu. Mansour Hadi.
The war has brought Yemen to the brink of famine, triggering what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
” Designation [of the Houthis] would starve millions of Yemenis and it [Biden] knows,” said Iman Saleh, general coordinator of the Yemen Liberation Movement, an anti-war advocacy group in the United States. “A designation wouldn’t make him any different from Trump.”
Saleh, who went on a hunger strike near the White House last year to demand an end to aid from the Saudi-led coalition and the lifting of the sea and air blockade on Yemen, said also criticized the US administration’s stance of blaming only the Houthis. to prolong the war. “It’s time for Biden to stop these games and deliver on his campaign promise: to end the war in Yemen,” she told Al Jazeera.
Amid Democratic Party lawmakers’ fury over Trump’s close ties to Riyadh, nearly all of the party’s presidential candidates, including Biden, pledged during the 2020 election campaign to end US support for the led coalition. by Saudi Arabia.
Last February, just weeks into his presidency, Biden announced the end of US aid to Saudi Arabia’s “offensive operations” in Yemen, as well as “relevant arms sales.”
But he reaffirmed his commitment to the security of the kingdom and last year the Biden administration greenlighted a $650 million sale of air-to-air missiles to Riyadh, as well as a contract to $500 million in helicopter maintenance, prompting rebuke from some rights activists.
On Thursday, Brett McGurk, White House National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, appeared to blame the ongoing violence in Yemen on the Houthis.
“There have been a number of ceasefire initiatives on the table; the Houthis refused to engage,” McGurk said during a virtual address at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank in Washington, DC.
Last year, the Houthis rejected a US-backed Saudi proposal for a ceasefire, insisting lifting the blockade, including reopening Sanaa airport, is a condition prior to the end of the war.
Hassan El-Tayyab, legislative director for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation advocacy group, said the US administration’s stance ignores “the devastating effects of the Saudi blockade” on the country. Yemen.
El-Tayyab also warned that the Houthis’ redesignation would make it harder to end the conflict.
“While the Houthis share much of the blame, alongside the Saudi-led coalition for human rights abuses in Yemen, a foreign terrorist designation would do nothing to address these concerns,” he told Al Jazeera. “However, this would prevent the delivery of essential humanitarian aid to millions of innocent people and would significantly damage the prospects for a negotiated settlement.”
“Will Cost Lives”
The Houthis are the de facto authorities in much of northern Yemen, where they control local governance and basic state functions. Aid groups said blacklisting the rebels would increase the risk of them facing US sanctions if they provided much-needed assistance and essentials to aid-dependent Yemenis living in the region. .
“After years of conflict, many Yemenis are already living on the brink and they cannot afford to pay even higher prices, for food, fuel, medicine and other necessities,” said Paul, d ‘Oxfam America, to Al Jazeera in an email. “Imports would be disrupted and the flow of aid would decrease. The decision to list the Houthis will absolutely cost lives in Yemen. »
Yet the UAE and foreign policy hawks in Washington continue to push for a designation.
“Close cooperation between the United Arab Emirates and the United States has helped repel a new round of Houthi terrorist attacks this morning in the United Arab Emirates,” Emirati Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba said on Monday. via his embassy’s Twitter account. “The next step is to cut off financial and arms flows from their backers. The United States should act now to put the Houthis back on the terrorist list.”
Ambassador Al Otaiba: “The close cooperation between the United Arab Emirates and the United States has helped to repel a new series of Houthi terrorist attacks this morning in the United Arab Emirates.
The next step is to cut off the financial and arms flows from their backers. The United States should act now to put the Houthis back on the terrorist list. »
— Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in the United States (@UAEEmbassyUS) January 24, 2022
Several Republican US senators also this week introduced a bill to redesignate the Houthis, with Ted Cruz accusing Biden of placating Iran, which the Saudi-led coalition accuses of being behind the Houthis – a charge denied. by Yemeni rebels and Tehran.
“US policy in Yemen currently boils down to nothing more than documenting Houthi violence, which has escalated since Mr. Biden took office,” wrote officials at the hawkish think tank Foundation for Peace. Defense of Democracies in the Wall Street Journal on January 25.
“Furthermore, the administration’s actions have undermined the basis of the US terrorism sanctions regime. Ansarallah [the Houthi group] is the classic definition of a terrorist group. If it can have its sanctions lifted without changing its behavior, why can’t other terrorist organizations do the same? »
While Congress can pass legislation to compel the president to blacklist a foreign organization as a “terrorist” group, the issue — like most foreign policy issues — is largely within the purview of the executive branch. The top aides to the US President – namely the Secretary of State – have the legal power to designate groups as “terrorists” and to revoke that designation.
Labeling a group as an FTO must meet three standards, according to the State Department – the organization must be foreign; he must engage in “terrorist” activity as defined by US law, and he must pose a threat to Americans or the national security of the United States.
Such designations have a profound effect on an organization’s finances and international relations, making it illegal for U.S. citizens to provide “material support or resources” to the blacklisted group, including financial assistance and “advice. or expert assistance”.
A blacklist also makes the targeted group’s assets susceptible to seizure by the US government while exposing its members and affiliates to US Treasury Department sanctions.
On Monday, State Department spokesman Ned Price acknowledged the risks that the blacklisting of the Houthis poses to the humanitarian situation in Yemen.
Still, El-Tayyab said with commercial shippers already reluctant to deal with Yemen, Biden’s statement that he was considering redesignating the Houthis could have adverse humanitarian consequences — even if it doesn’t materialize. “To say that you are considering [it] really jeopardizes a lot of this essential humanitarian aid work,” he said.