On Friday, the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, issued a warning that Yemen is currently in imminent danger of experiencing “the worst famine the world has seen for decades.” He further states that “..in the absence of immediate action, millions of lives may be lost.”
According to the United Nations, the war-torn country of Yemen is currently experiencing the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. As it stands, 80% of the population is in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. This humanitarian crisis has emerged as a grave consequence of a protracted five-year conflict between Yemeni government forces and the Houthi rebels, backed by Iran.
Saudi Arabia leads a military coalition that intervened in the conflict in Yemen in 2015, providing support to the Yemeni government. This coalition is backed by many Western forces, including the United States and the United Kingdom who provide both weapons and logistical support. This has given rise to widespread criticism, for prolonging the conflict and thereby directly contributing to the suffering of the Yemeni people experiencing extreme humanitarian circumstances.
Guterres’ warning was issued in the context of the announcement of the US government’s plan to blacklist the Houthi rebels and label them as terrorists. This comes as part of Washington’s tactic to exert “maximum pressure” against Iran. However, large concern has emerged over the implications that this move would carry for Yemen, a country that is in the midst of an extreme humanitarian crisis.
In his statement, the Secretary-General urged “..all those with influence to act urgently on these issues to stave off catastrophe, and I also request that everyone avoid taking any action that could make the already dire situation even worse.” He further highlighted the increased risk for famine has emerged due to a large decrease in funding for the UN-coordinated aid programme, the instability of the Yemeni currency, and the restrictions on the ability of aid organizations to operate posed by parties to the conflict.
Aid organizations have expressed concern surrounding the consequences that the US designating the Houthi rebels could have on the situation in Yemen. They have highlighted that it would drastically impact the ability of other countries to interact with the Houthis. However, this could carry dire implications as the Houthis act as the government across much of Yemen and control the capital of Sanaa. Adam Smith of the Treasury Department told the Washington Post: “It’s one thing to designate a foreign terrorist organization that does not control any territory. It’s quite another thing when that terrorist organization basically runs a country.”
For this reason, there have been echoes of the fear that it will be ordinary Yemenis who pay the price of this move, with the Houthis themselves unlikely to be significantly affected. There have been large concerns that it will become much more difficult for life-saving humanitarian assistance to enter Yemen- a possibility which would spell disaster for a population in dire need of aid. Further, the designation poses a real threat of further prolonging and exacerbating the conflict.
In this regard, Peter Salisbury, senior analyst for Yemen at the International Crisis Group, stated: “If this is rushed through, we might see trade and financial flows dry up across Yemen, the diplomatic process blew up and the Houthis deciding they need to repay the favour by increasing the tempo of attacks into Saudi Arabia while turning to Iran for more support.”
As opposed to taking actions that will inevitably only prolong and intensify the conflict in Yemen, such as blacklisting the Houthis, powerful states, such as the United States, should instead redirect their focus to supporting peace talks and the implementation of ceasefires. For as long as the conflict continues, the suffering of Yemeni civilians will only continue to increase as the dire humanitarian situation is further compounded. Serious efforts must be taken in order to bring an end to the conflict, as it is the only solution to the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.
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