Just 24 hours before Donald Trump leaves the White House, his government's decision to include Yemen's Huthi rebels on the list of terrorist organizations is scheduled to take effect on Tuesday. Warnings from the UN and the NGOs working in that country have failed to stop a measure that equates to "a death sentence for hundreds of thousands if not millions of innocent people." Even if the new president of the United States, Joe Biden, backs down, the damage may prove irreparable.
Humanitarian organizations fear that the distribution of food and medicine will be delayed or completely stopped in a country where 80% of its 28 million inhabitants depend on such aid to survive. According to US law, once the group is designated a terrorist, providing it with any kind of support will be illegal, but since the Huthi are the de facto authority in northwestern Yemen, where two-thirds of its population live and the Capital, Sana'a, contact is inevitable and NGO employees run the risk of being prosecuted for their work.
"We fear it will have a chilling effect on my efforts to bring the parties together," UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths told the Security Council on Thursday. "The decision will contribute to the risk of famine in Yemen and should be revoked for humanitarian reasons as soon as possible," he stressed.
The spokespersons of the most prominent NGOs have spoken in the same way. But while Biden is expected to withdraw the designation, it is not automatic and in the meantime relief efforts must stop.
“Closing a humanitarian operation is like turning off the light switch, (however) turning it back on is like wiring an entire house,” Scott Paul, Oxfam's head of humanitarian policy for the United States, graphically explained.
The Huthi seizure of power in late 2014 plunged Yemen into a civil war that was aggravated by the intervention of a Saudi-led coalition in favor of the internationally recognized government, starting in March of the following year. Both the Saudis and their allies and the Trump Administration view the Huthi as an instrument of Iran and their inclusion on the list of terrorist organizations is interpreted as an attempt to complicate Biden's plans to resume diplomacy with Tehran.
The conflict has unleashed the world's greatest humanitarian crisis in one of the poorest countries. Furthermore, international mediation efforts have clashed in recent months with the Huthi's conviction that they are winning the war and that only from a position of strength will they be able to maintain quotas of power.
New fighting between those rebels and government forces in the port city of Hodeida have left at least 150 dead on both sides in the week of January 11 to 17, according to a count by the agency France Presse with military and medical sources. This is the most significant violation of the truce negotiated by the UN in 2018. And Hodeida is just one of 47 active fronts.
The war has caused 233,000 deaths, of which 131,000 are attributed to a lack of food, health services and infrastructure, according to estimates by the UN Humanitarian Office last December. In addition, several million people have been displaced from their homes and at the beginning of this year 16 million were threatened by hunger.