One year since the Biden administration revoked the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, they are now considering reinstating this deadly policy.
When he revoked the designation on February 4 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken cited the impact the designation had on Yemeni communities that have struggled to cope with years of conflict, economic crisis, hunger and preventable disease. Since then, the crisis in Yemen has only deepened, but the Biden administration is nonetheless considering reversing itself in deference to powerful regional allies.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen how this plays out – and it’s deadly for Yemenis,” said Scott Paul, Oxfam America’s Senior Manager of Humanitarian Policy. “When these designations went into effect last year, we saw exporters of vital commodities like food, medicine, and fuel all rush for the exits. It was clear to all that Yemen was heading toward economic freefall. The most important difference between then and now is that today, the Biden administration knows in graphic detail what this will mean for Yemenis who are already facing violence, hunger, and preventable disease. They would knowingly be condemning Yemenis to even more desperate suffering and death.
Some proponents of the designation have suggested that humanitarian exemptions can limit the pain felt by Yemenis who are not affiliated with the Houthis. The Trump administration attempted to do this by issuing license through the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, but they failed – and the designation put in motion what was poised to be a devastating economic collapse. Exporters canceled contracts, banks prepared to scale back business, and humanitarian organizations began to plan for a dramatic escalation in need with even fewer resources. Only the Biden administration’s swift intervention prevented a calamity.
Yemen imports 90% of its food and over half its fuel, making it particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in import levels. Meanwhile, the small agriculture Yemen does have is suffering due to the fuel crisis and impacts of climate change. Even without the designation in place, the cost of fuel has nearly tripled recently – pushing the cost of transportation and the prices of other essential goods and services like food, water, and medicine out of reach. As one example, an estimated 80 percent of people in Sana’a rely on water delivered by truck, and these higher prices already risk a major public health crisis.
The designation will also impact the vital lifeline of remittances to Yemenis living in Houthi controlled areas which accounts for 70% of the country’s population. Over 500 thousand families - 11% of the population – rely on these resources to make ends meet. A designation would push the entire country’s economy from crisis into freefall.
Paul continued, “Yemenis want real accountability for the parties who have destroyed their country. They do not want to pay for these violations with the suffering of their children.
“Following two administrations that have put Yemeni lives at risk to satisfy Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, President Biden promised to prioritize ending the conflict and the suffering of Yemeni people. To push Yemen into deeper despair to placate its wealthier neighbors – again – would be an epic betrayal – not only to Yemenis, but to Americans who voted for a clean break from these cynical policies.”
The Houthis have committed horrendous atrocities, just like the Saudi-led coalition and other armed groups. But designating them as a terrorist group only compounds the suffering of Yemenis and is unlikely to alter their calculus. Their conduct is not at issue – the lethal impact of this response is.
Abdulwasea Mohammed, Oxfam in Yemen’s Policy, Advocacy and Media Manager, said, “As we are comforting our children among airstrikes and see our economic crisis spiral, its extremely disheartening to see the Biden administration consider a policy that would mean even further suffering and death for Yemenis. Many in Yemen were encouraged by the Biden’s policy shifts a year ago, so this reversal is particularly confounding. We know well the attacks the Houthis have carried out on civilians, but we should not be caught in the middle of the US’ counterproductive efforts to penalize them. We urge US leaders to not let Yemenis get caught up in regional dynamics, but to consider the people who will suffer from this decision.”
Rather than moving ahead with designation, Oxfam calls for the US to support new, independent accountability mechanisms and a renewed focus on a political settlement to the conflict.