More than 40 international organizations, including human rights, civil society and anti-war groups, have urged the US Congress to take action to ensure the Houthi movement in Yemen is not designated as a ‘foreign terrorist organization’ (FTO). The letter by the groups comes as the US administration of President Joe Biden is considering labeling the Houthis as a terrorist group, a long standing request by the United Arab Emirates and Israel, who intensified their lobbying efforts after the recent retaliatory attacks by the Houthis against Saudi Arabian and Emirati targets.
The Houthi attacks were carried out in response to deadly airstrikes by the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen, many of which targeted civilian areas resulting in massive civilian casualties and evoking anger among the Yemeni population. Yemen has been engulfed in a devastating war and civil conflict since late 2014 when the Houthis took over most of the country’s north, including capital Sanaa, and drove out the western-backed Yemeni government. A year later, Saudi-led coalition forces militarily intervened in Yemen to defeat the Houthis and restore the Yemeni government to power. The coalition forces have carried out thousands of deadly and indiscriminate airstrikes and other military operations causing a large number of civilian casualties. The estimated death toll in Yemen so far is around 400,000.
Signatories to the letter include groups like CODEPINK, Antiwar.com, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), Peace Action, Avaaz, US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR), Yemen Freedom Council and World BEYOND War, among others. Several US-based religious organizations and churches such as the Presbyterian Church, Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), The Episcopal Church, Water4LifeMinistry.org, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also signed the letter.
President Biden had recently said that the terrorist designation to the Houthis is still “under consideration” and the administration has held several meetings to discuss the matter. The previous US administration under president Donald Trump had imposed the terrorist tag on the Houthis, a decision which the current administration immediately reversed after coming to office.
The letter, addressed to the US congress, says, “While we agree that the Houthis share much blame, alongside the Saudi-led coalition, for horrific human rights violations in Yemen, an FTO designation does nothing to address these concerns. It would, however, prevent the delivery of commercial goods, remittances, and critical humanitarian assistance to millions of innocent people, greatly hurt the prospects for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, and further undermine U.S. national security interests in the region. Our coalition joins a chorus of growing opposition to the designation, including members of Congress and multiple humanitarian organizations operating on the ground in Yemen.”
The letter also warns that “rather than being a catalyst for peace, an FTO designation is a recipe for more conflict and famine, while unnecessarily further undermining U.S. diplomatic credibility. It is more likely that these designations will convince the Houthis that their goals cannot be achieved at the negotiating table.”
Former special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, also reiterated this point while speaking at the UN Security Council. He said that “by designating only one party to the conflict as a terrorist group, while actively providing military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition, the designation would also further entangle the United States as a partisan and party to the war.”
The letter reminds the US congress that the UN has also made similar appeals and urged the Biden administration to refrain from using the terrorist designation against the Houthis as it would adversely affect the humanitarian and diplomatic efforts by the international community to come to a negotiated resolution to the war and conflict. The move will further worsen the security situation in the country.
The designation is likely to severely disrupt the delivery of humanitarian goods such as food, medicines and fuel, especially to the Houthi-controlled areas. International aid groups and medical charities will not be able to maintain supply after commercial shipping companies, financial firms and insurance companies are banned from engaging in financial and commercial dealings with the Houthis.
The letter highlights that as per the international charity Oxfam, “when the Trump administration briefly designated the Houthis as an FTO, they 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.”
Over 24.1 million Yemenis, approximately 80% of the total population, are dependent on international aid for their survival. The UN estimates that 58% of Yemenis have been forced into extreme poverty.