Today the U.S. government designated Ansar Allah – the de facto state authorities controlling land which is home to 80% of the population in Yemen – as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity.  Ansar Allah also controls the capital of Sana’a, and Yemen’s largest port Hodeidah, which handles 70% of the country’s commercial and humanitarian imports. By designating the group as a terrorist organisation, the U.S. is creating complex and possibly insurmountable legal, bureaucratic and operational challenges for humanitarian actors like the International Rescue Committee in Yemen, which is facing the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. We fear that the designation will make effective and efficient delivery of humanitarian aid all but impossible. The International Rescue Committee knows all too well from our voices on the ground the deplorable tactics used by all sides, in the conduct of this war, which have led to countless deaths and untold suffering. But this designation will not reduce these transgressions. If anything it will do the opposite.

This decision to designate is a callous political move that will harm rather than help the urgently needed diplomatic process. At the same time, as leading humanitarian organisations on the ground, including IRC, have warned for months, it will trigger greater suffering for the Yemeni people and further cripple the world's largest humanitarian response. 

This designation comes at a time of unprecedented crisis in Yemen. The IRC had already ranked Yemen as the top crisis in the world at risk of deterioration in 2021. Conditions for Yemeni civilians continue to decline across every measure. Conflict is escalating, leading to hundreds of thousands of new displacements and skyrocketing needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has hastened Yemen’s economic collapse, with the prices of food and household essentials far beyond the reach of most Yemenis. The UN Humanitarian Response Plan was severely underfunded at just 50% in 2020. Large donors have withheld humanitarian pledges and funding, including the U.S. which has partially suspended funding for life-saving assistance in the areas controlled by Ansar Allah since March 2020. As a result, the number of Yemenis reached with humanitarian food assistance each month has fallen from 13 million to under 9 million. The UN has warned Yemen is at risk of the worst famine the world has seen in decades. More than half the country’s population are not able to meet their basic food needs with thousands of Yemenis already experiencing famine-like conditions and the number likely to rise to 47,000 people this year according to the UN. 

While the designation will impact Ansar Allah-controlled areas of northern Yemen the hardest, the effects will be felt across the entire country - delaying or even halting not only the import of food, medicine, and other humanitarian goods, but commercial goods as well. Yemen imports 90% of its food items and a designation is likely to slow or even stop imports in a time where thousands are at risk of famine. The U.S. government’s action today is likely to tip the scale towards economic meltdown, famine, and death. Further, the decision to designate, with just 9 days remaining in the Trump Administration and while the Senate is out of session, amounts to a national security decision of great strategic and humanitarian consequence without the benefit of Congressional scrutiny, when bipartisan Senators have already expressed their opposition to this designation. 

David Miliband, President and CEO at IRC, said,

“This is pure diplomatic vandalism. After four years of a failed war strategy that has created the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe, the last thing the Yemeni people need is further interruption of aid and economic flows. This policy, in the name of tying up the Houthis, will actually tie up the aid community and international diplomacy. The opposite is needed – effective pressure on all parties to the conflict to cease using civilians as hostages in their war games. The UN recently announced that Yemen faces famine. The further immiseration of Yemenis, which will be the product of this policy, is a disgrace to the name of the U.S., and will have the perverse result of strengthening precisely the forces it claims to oppose. IRC teams on the ground, in the North and South of the country, are battling against all odds to save lives.  This designation makes their task all but impossible. Our concerns are not theoretical or hyperbolic, recent history - especially in Somalia - has shown us that cost of terrorism designations in the middle of complex conflicts and humanitarian crises can be measured in innocent lives lost.”

Given the nature of these designations, the pathway to humanitarian exemptions is opaque at best and all those operating on the ground need clarity on what is intended. And, regardless of any license or exemption, the negative effects on Yemen’s economy will escalate humanitarian needs that our organisations will be unable to sufficiently meet. Humanitarian exemptions have been used in the past and have always proved insufficient to overcome challenges to access and delivery. 

As such, the IRC is calling on the U.S. government to reverse course immediately on this designation as the only way to save lives and avoid more suffering and death. Failing that, President-Elect Biden and his team have made clear that they recognize that Yemen is a festering political and humanitarian crisis requiring urgent attention. To that end, a reversal of the policy announced today, and the war strategy, should be an immediate priority on taking office.  The IRC has been working in Yemen since 2012 and rapidly scaled our programming in 2015 to address greater humanitarian needs caused by the conflict. While the ongoing conflict creates challenges for our operations, the IRC has maintained access to affected populations and continues to provide life-saving services, including treatment for malnutrition, healthcare, water and sanitation, cash assistance as well as case management services and education programming.