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US mulls Houthi ‘terror’ label as groups say civilians to suffer

US President Donald Trump has maintained his support for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. [Mark Wilson-Bloomberg]

US lawmakers, international aid groups and rights advocates are warning the outgoing Trump administration against reported plans to label Yemen’s Houthi rebel group a “foreign terrorist organization,” saying it would worsen the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. world.

Citing unidentified US officials, Foreign Policy first said this week that the US State Department was considering the designation as part of President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and its allies.

The Washington Post also reported that the announcement is expected to be made in December.

“It’s a very scary prospect as the country teeters on the brink of famine,” said Hassan el-Tayyab, a Middle East policy lobbyist at the Committee of Friends of National Legislation (FCNL), a nonpartisan lobby group. of the United States, on the possible designation.

El-Tayyab told Al Jazeera that the designation would make it increasingly difficult for aid organizations to deliver much-needed aid to Yemenis living in northern areas controlled by the Houthis, a group aligned with Iran.

“They would risk receiving secondary sanctions and other penalties. It is going to make the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance almost impossible, ”el-Tayyab said.

When a group is labeled as a “terrorist” foreign organization by the US Department of State, US citizens and organizations under US jurisdiction are prohibited from providing “material support or resources” to that designated entity.

Any US financial institution must also maintain control of the funds and inform the US government if the designated group has an interest in that money, the State Department also says on its website.

A spokesperson for the US State Department told Al Jazeera in an email late on Friday that it “does not publicly discuss deliberations or possible deliberations on possible designation actions,” and did not provide further details on the possible Houthi designation. .

‘Catastrophic impacts’

Yemen’s war broke out in late 2014 when the Houthis seized large swaths of the country, including the capital Sanaa. The conflict escalated in March 2015 when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates formed a US-backed military coalition in an attempt to restore the Riyadh-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

What Saudi leaders thought would be a swift military intervention has turned into a protracted conflict that caused the spread of disease, destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and brought millions of people to the brink of starvation.

Both sides have been accused of war crimes during the fighting that has killed tens of thousands of people.

El-Tayyab said the reported appointment could also embolden Saudi Arabia and undermine international efforts to resolve the protracted conflict.

“It would have catastrophic impacts on the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis and hamper UN-led efforts to secure a ceasefire agreement and have a negotiated settlement,” he said.

Yemenis will suffer

In recent years, US lawmakers have tabled a series of motions in Congress in an attempt to end the Trump administration’s logistical and financial support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

But the Republican president has maintained his support for the Saudis, vetoing a motion last year that would have ended Washington’s involvement in the war.

Shireen al-Adeimi, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, told Al Jazeera that the possible designation of a US Houthi “terrorist organization” is one of two last-minute efforts by the Trump administration to strengthen forces led by Saudi Arabia and pressure the Houthis.

The other is a planned sale of $ 23.3 billion of weapons, including F-35 jets and drones, to the United Arab Emirates, which has raised concerns from US lawmakers who say they fear the weapons will be used in violations of the law. international.

Al-Adeimi said the Trump administration was quick to push these measures ahead of President-elect and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January, as the Democrat has signaled plans to end U.S. support for the Saudis in Yemen.

“We know, of course, that this war started under the Obama-Biden administration, but since then, the Democratic Party has come to understand, at least from an optical point of view, that this does not look good and that it must end.” said. .

Humanitarian work is essential

This week’s reports prompted a group of eight Democratic Party lawmakers to warn US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft to designate the Houthis as a group. ” terrorist “could worsen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

“We are under no illusions about the dangerous actions of the Houthis, but a blanket designation will dramatically increase the risks associated with the transfer of humanitarian funds to Yemen,” said lawmakers, led by Ted Deutch of Florida and Ro Khanna of California, in a open letter. .

Humanitarian groups have also raised concerns about the US designation creating another “almost insurmountable” obstacle to providing aid at a time when Yemen is at imminent risk of the worst famine in decades.

“In the absence of immediate action, millions of lives can be lost,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned on Friday.

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a statement Thursday that if the United States goes ahead with its plan, it must also issue licenses to humanitarian workers to retain access to Houthi-controlled areas where they provide civil support. .

The Houthis “are the de facto authorities of the northern governorates of Yemen,” Egeland said.

“We must be able to negotiate access to our aid and protection of civilians with all parties to all conflicts. Our humanitarian work must not be criminalized. When sanctions threaten to make our normal work illegal, they threaten the survival of the people who depend on it. “

That was echoed by al-Adeimi, who said that a Houthi designation would not make the group, which is already isolated, agree to Saudi demands, but would harm civilians already suffering.

“This is just one more action they are trying to carry out to exert pressure, but once again it will affect civilians,” he said. “But that does not appear to be a consideration for the Saudi-led or US-led coalition.”

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