Just a day before President Biden’s inauguration, the U.S. officially designated Houthi rebels in Yemen as foreign terrorists. Classifying Houthi rebels as foreign terrorists will restrict trade and humanitarian support to Houthi rebels. Aid groups have expressed concern that the identification will disrupt much-needed aid from reaching Yemenis. These fears are heightened as the country continues to suffer from COVID-19, cholera, widespread famine, and yet another year of civil war. Many U.N. officials and aid agencies have called for the U.S. to revoke its classification as it could also complicate efforts to end Yemen’s ongoing civil war.
The war has roots in a series of protests during 2011, where Yemenis revolted against a corrupt government and poor living conditions. Then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh refused to give up power and had groups of loyalists support him in his refusal. This support soon deteriorated after Saleh’s security forces opened fire on protesters in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, killing at least 50 people. The violence prompted dozens of previously loyalist officials to resign from Saleh’s administration, and many influential military leaders deserted Saleh and aligned themselves with the oppositional movement. Nonetheless, Saleh still refused to relinquish power, resulting in heightened conflict between loyalist and oppositional groups.
To end the hostility, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) involved themselves in negotiation talks. The GCC is an intergovernmental council consisting of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. In mid-2011, Saudi Arabia led the GCC in removing Saleh from power and installing a new government. Saudi Arabia determined that Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi would serve as president of the newly arranged administration. Unfortunately, even after Hadi was inaugurated as president, Yemen remained ununified, and citizens continued to suffer from poor living conditions. According to Britannica, unemployment soared in 2012 while food and water shortages became prevalent. Houthi rebels protested after finding the conditions intolerable.
After years of unrest, the events of September 2014 tipped the country into chaos. The conception of this brutal civil war ensued when Yemeni security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing several people. Opposition groups retaliated, overrunning the capital and seizing government buildings. The Houthis refused to release the capital unless Hadi agreed to appoint a prime minister the rebels deemed appropriate.
To reclaim the area and reinstate Hadi as the Yemen leader, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes on recently declared Houthi land. According to Aljazeera, these airstrikes and other military operations were supported by several western countries, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and France. These airstrikes do not solely impact Houthi insurgents. Although Saudi Arabia says they only target the Houthis, they’ve bombed hospitals and schools, resulting in thousands of civilians’ deaths.
Unfortunately, the airstrikes and on-the-ground battles aren’t the only causes for civilian suffering. In 2015, Saudi Arabia created a sound, land, and air barrier around Yemen. This barrier made it near impossible for supplies to reach civilians. According to Aljazeera, Houthis are also to blame for blocking, destroying, or taking aid.
This fundamental lack of essential resources for civilians has gravely affected Yemenis. In 2016, the U.N. estimated that only one-fourth of Yemenis had access to safe drinking water and sanitation, the U.N. also noted sufficient food and medicine shortages. Since these 2016 U.N. estimations, the situation has only deteriorated. By the end of 2018, the U.N. estimated that nearly 16 million Yemenis were near starvation and in mid-2019, cholera cases were estimated to have infected more than 20,000 people each week. As expected, the spread of COVID-19 only aggravates these deplorable conditions, and the recent classification of the Houthis as a terrorist organization will disrupt lifesaving aid from reaching Yemenis.
Houthi actors’ classification as terrorists prohibits Americans from doing business or providing support or resources to the group. However, since Houthi actors control Yemen’s vast regions, including the capital, the determination will disrupt humanitarian aid to people living in Houthi controlled areas. According to a recent article from the Associated Press, the United States will allow the United Nations and the Red Cross to continue providing humanitarian aid legally to try and prevent this disruption. Additionally, the U.S. will exempt the export of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices from the designation’s prohibitions.
Despite the exemptions, humanitarian groups have expressed concern. Over 20 aid organizations working in Yemen, including Mercy Corps, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam, Save the Children, and the International Rescue Committee, authored a collective statement expressing this concern. “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 U.S. laws. As a result, many commercial sectors will likely deem the risk is too high to continue working in Yemen. The aid groups went on to explain that any “disruption to lifesaving aid operations and commercial imports of food, fuel, medicine, and other essential goods will put millions of lives at risk.”
Like many U.N. officials, the groups also claimed the designation would end peace talks meant to stop the war. For these reasons, groups call for the U.S. to revoke the Houthis’ identification as terrorists immediately.
After receiving this fervent criticism, the State Department initiated a review of the Trump administration’s decision. A recent CNN article noted that Secretary of State Anthony Blinken expressed his “deep concern about the designation that was made “especially as the classification “seems to achieve nothing particularly practical in advancing the efforts against the Houthis” or to bring the Houthis “back to the negotiating table.” Blinken acknowledged that the identification makes it “more difficult than it already is to provide humanitarian assistance to people who desperately need it.”
Secretary Blinken also spoke at length about the U.S.’s involvement in providing military support to Saudi Arabia. Blinken told lawmakers that the Biden administration intends to end its support for the campaign.
Although the U.S. has taken steps towards reviewing the designation, the U.S. government must delist the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization and withdraw military support from Saudi Arabia. In defining the group as a terrorist organization, Trump’s administration placed millions of lives in jeopardy and pushes the possibility of peace talks, and an end to the violence, even further into the future. It is the undeniable responsibility of President Biden and his administration to revoke the classification promptly. Further, President Biden must act quickly to create a course of action that will end the violence. This course of action must include the condemnation of violence in Yemen, increased pressure on parties involved in the war to join peace negotiations, and the withdrawal of military support to Saudi Arabia in the fight against the Houthis rebels.
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