The U.N.’s humanitarian chief warns that if Washington’s new terrorist designation of Houthi rebels in Yemen is not reversed, it could drastically impact aid imports and push the already desperate country into a large-scale famine.
“The most urgent priority in Yemen right now is to prevent a massive famine,” Mark Lowcock will tell a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Thursday, according to prepared remarks made available ahead of his briefing.
U.N. data anticipates 16 million people will go hungry in the war-torn country this year. Another 50,000 already live in famine-like conditions, while 5 million more are right behind them.
“Every decision the world makes right now must take this into account,” Lowcock will warn.
Late Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that he plans to designate the Iranian-backed rebel group a “Foreign Terrorist Organization,” or FTO, to hold it accountable for acts such as “cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping.”
Pompeo said the designation, which takes effect Jan. 19, the last full day of the Trump administration, is “intended to advance efforts to achieve a peaceful, sovereign, and united Yemen that is both free from Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbors.”
Yemen imports 90% of its food, nearly all via commercial channels. Suppliers, bankers, shippers and others who fear running afoul of U.S. regulations could cease doing business with Yemeni importers. The U.N. says aid agencies cannot replace the commercial import system.
Food prices, already inflated beyond most people’s means, could skyrocket even higher if the supply chain collapses. Yemenis have begun stockpiling whatever staples they can afford, fearful that imports will come to a halt.
Pompeo said in his statement Sunday that Washington is willing to implement measures to reduce the impact on “certain humanitarian activity and imports” and is ready to work with the U.N. and NGOs to address the implications.
But the U.N. and its partners are not the ones importing most of the food. They say they also have no confirmed details yet on how the licenses or exemptions would work and who or what would be eligible, with just days until the designation goes into effect.
While the U.N.’s Lowcock will not question the intent of the FTO designation, he will call for its reversal, warning that it could result in “a large-scale famine on a scale that we have not seen for nearly 40 years.”
Some analysts say the incoming Biden administration may not be able to easily undo the designation if it wants to.
“The decision will tie the incoming administration’s hands as it will have to try to reverse the decision, which is not an easy thing to do, or to justify to Congress why it wants to deal with the Houthis despite the designation,” Nabeel Khoury, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, said following the U.S. announcement.
“Additionally, the decision feeds into the hands of the hardliners within the Houthi organization and makes it difficult for their leadership to engage in peace talks,” he said.
More than five years of war between the Saudi Arabian-backed government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels has pushed the Middle East’s poorest country to the brink.