As 2020 drew to a close, aid workers in war-torn Yemen painted a stark future for the coming year: More than half of all Yemenis could go hungry in 2021, with some 5 million people one step closer to famine. The United Nations’ Humanitarian Response Plan from last year only received about half the funds it needed while needs continue to grow.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced plans to designate three leaders of the Iran-backed Houthi rebel group, also known as Ansarallah, as a foreign terrorist organization. The designations will take effect on Jan. 19, sanctioning the group and its leaders and barring any U.S. “material support or resources.” Pompeo said the move is meant to hold the rebel group accountable for attacking civilians, but some are concerned it will only deepen the country’s instability and humanitarian crisis.
Yemen’s civil war began in 2015 between Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government. Both sides face accusations of targeting civilians, including aid workers. A Dec. 30 attack blamed on the Houthis killed 27 people, including three aid workers, when a bomb struck an arrival terminal at the airport in Aden. The United States has provided intelligence, logistics, and arms support to the Saudi-led coalition to counter Iran’s influence. The unrest has killed more than 112,000 people and left about 22 million people in need of aid, sparking one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
The majority of Yemen’s civilian population lives in the rebel-controlled capital city of Sana’a and the northern region. Last week, residents in a northeast displacement camp protested deteriorating living conditions and the lack of food and other basic amenities. “The displaced people are now suffering and dying silently due to acute shortages of food, water, and medicines in their camps,” said Majid Ayyash, a local Yemeni observer from al-Jawf province.
Some worry that designating the rebel leadership as terrorists and levying sanctions will further cut off the population from food and other supplies. Pompeo said the Treasury Department would issue licenses allowing U.S. aid and humanitarian activities to continue, but some experts say that’s not enough. David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, called the U.S. decision “pure diplomatic vandalism.”
“Humanitarian exemptions have been used in the past and have always proved insufficient to overcome challenges to access and delivery,” he said. “The opposite is needed—effective pressure on all parties to the conflict to cease using civilians as hostages in their war games.”
The U.S. move could deter other suppliers from working in the region. Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy, a senior research fellow with the U.K.-based Overseas Development Institute, noted Yemen imports more than 80 percent of its food, mostly through private commercial dealings rather than humanitarian organizations. The terrorism designation could sever essential interactions with authorities in the rebel-controlled northern region, said Janti Soeripto, CEO of Save the Children: “Many fear that businesses, such as banks and shippers, will avoid working in Yemen for fear of violating U.S. law, resulting in widespread shortages of food, fuel and essential medicines.”
El Taraboulsi-McCarthy acknowledged the Houthis have repeatedly targeted civilians and redirected aid but said a multitiered response putting local actors at the helm of mediation efforts is necessary. She said a “genuine broker” could help end the proxy war that has drawn countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia into the conflict: “We need to rethink the whole notion of international engagement in Yemen.”