United States’ Designation of Houthi Militia as Foreign Terrorist Organization Risks Expediting Large-Scale Famine in Yemen, Speakers Warn Security Council

The United States’ decision on 10 January to designate the Houthi militia as a foreign terrorist organization risks accelerating Yemen’s slide into large-scale famine, speakers warned today during a Security Council videoconference meeting that reviewed the situation in the Middle East nation, scene of what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Several delegates also called for an independent investigation into a guided missile attack on 30 December on Aden’s civilian airport which targeted Yemen’s newly formed Cabinet — a product of 2019 Riyadh Agreement between the legitimate Government and the Southern Transitional Council — as it arrived from Saudi Arabia to take up its responsibilities.

Martin Griffiths, the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, told the 15-member Council that the Aden attack — which left dozens of civilians dead or injured — cast a dark shadow over what should have been a moment of hope.  He noted that earlier today, a Government investigation concluded that Ansar Allah — as the Houthis are formally known — was behind the attack, while that group has denied any involvement.

He added that he is extremely concerned about the impact of the United States’ decision to designate Ansar Allah as a foreign terrorist organization, which is liable to have a chilling effect on his efforts to bring the parties together.  Hopefully, there will be absolute clarity on an expansive package of licences and exemptions to carry out Council-mandate duties.  He added that in any event, he remains committed to engage with all parties, including Ansar Allah, “designated or not”, to end the conflict.

“The path to peace in Yemen was never easy, and I believe that it is now a great deal more difficult than a month ago — but there is a way out,” he said.  While the two parties agreed in principle to a nationwide ceasefire, differences persist on such issues as civil service salaries and the reopening of Hodeida harbour for imports and Sana’a airport for international flights.  Going forward, the focus must remain on an inclusive political process that ends the conflict.  “It is the way the war ends, and thus for the parties, resuming the political process is more than an obligation — it is a duty,” he said.

Mark Lowcock, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that the most urgent priority in Yemen right now is to prevent a massive famine.  Sixteen million Yemenis are poised to go hungry this year, and about 50,000 already find themselves in the midst of a small famine, he said, adding:  “Every decision the world makes right now must take this into account.”  Noting that the United States’ decision to designate Allah Ansar as a foreign terrorist organization will take effect on 17 January, he summarized the reasons why humanitarian actors oppose such a development, including the fact that Yemen imports 90 per cent of its food — with nearly all that food entering through commercial channels that aid agencies cannot replace.

“Already, Yemenis are crowding into markets and shops to stockpile whatever they can afford,” with families terrified that no more food will enter the country, he said.  For years, commercial actors — such as suppliers, transport companies and banks — have moved mountains to sustain highly risk-averse supply chains, but now some are saying the risk is too high.  They also fear getting caught up in United States regulatory action that could put them out of business or in jail.  The United States says that it will introduce licences to allow some humanitarian aid and imports to continue, but those licences do not yet exist, nor will it solve the problem, given that humanitarian agencies do not import most of Yemen’s food.

He went on to report that humanitarian access problems in Government-held areas have gotten worse in recent months, with warehouse break-ins, the detention of aid workers, the seizure of relief items and attacks on humanitarian premises.  Funding remains a serious concern, he added, recalling that the $1.7 billion received in 2020 for the United Nations humanitarian response plan was only half of what was needed, due mostly to a reduction of contributions from Gulf countries.  The 2021 response to be unveiled in February will probably call once again for $3.4 billion, he said, urging donors to be generous in their pledges and to disperse funds quickly.  Returning to the United States’ designation of Allah Ansar, he said that he is not questioning the intent of the decision.  However, he emphasized that its likely humanitarian impact will be a “a large-scale famine on a scale that we have not seen for nearly 40 years”.  Licences and exemptions for aid agencies will not prevent that, but a reversal of the decision will, he stated.

David Beasley, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), said that without the designation, famine looms, with 11 million already in crisis and 5 million at an emergency level.  To stave off famine, at least $1.9 billion is needed for 2021, as only $386 million in confirmed contributions have been received and, for the next six months alone, $860 million is required.  The shortage means 9 million people now receive half-rations, and without required assistance, starting in February, only quarter-rations can be provided.  Painting a grim picture of the looming consequences, he said that:  “The designation is going to be a death sentence to hundreds and thousands if not millions.”  While Washington, D.C., provided $3.7 billion of support in 2020, this designation needs to be reassessed, revaluated and reversed, as it will force 80 per cent of the population — 24 million people — into severe hunger.

The current situation is a man-made problem and it can be solved, he said, adding that as more people face hunger due to COVID-19, WFP’s financial needs are doubling.  The Gulf States must cover the costs for resolving this problem in Yemen.  If not, the ripple effect will mean famine will spread to other countries.  This Council and leaders around the world must put pressure on actors in the conflict and ensure required funding needs for assistance are met.  “If we can’t solve this, shame on us; the people of Yemen depend on us,” he said, stressing that unless this designation is reversed, the turmoil will be coming soon, including rising risks for humanitarian workers.  “If 80 per cent of the people in your city did not have access to food and saw a WFP truck driving through their neighbourhood, what do you think will happen?” he asked, cautioning that aid workers will face grave dangers and risks.  “I pray this Council and leaders will step in and do what is right.”

In the ensuing discussion, Council members condemned the Aden attack and renewed calls for an immediate ceasefire, insisting that there can be no military solution to the conflict.  Many delegates questioned the United States’ decision to designate the Houthi as a terrorist group, but that country’s representative defended the move, which the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of Yemen — participating via video-teleconference from Aden — roundly supported.

Some speakers also kept a spotlight on getting a team of United Nations experts aboard the FSO Safer, an ageing offshore storage tanker effectively under Houthi control that — in the absence of immediate repairs — threatens to spill 1.1 billion barrels of oil into the Red Sea, triggering a major environmental catastrophe.

The representative of the United Kingdom said the recent Houthi attack casts a dark shadow over a group claiming to be committed to pursuing peace and mars such positive developments as the formation of a new Cabinet.  While welcoming the Cabinet’s return to Aden to restore services, she noted the lack of women in its membership.  Condemning Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom shared the United States’ concern about the group’s commitment to peace.  Noting the decision of Washington, D.C., to issue a foreign terrorist organization designation, she welcomed the United States’ commitment to work with the United Nations, non-governmental organizations and donors on implementation, adding that exemptions are critical to ensure humanitarian activity, commercial imports and the peace process continue unhindered.  Highlighting underfunded aid programmes, she said many people are already living in famine conditions.  The rapid economic decline is driving the crisis, compounded by severe humanitarian access constraints, particularly in the Houthi-controlled north, and aid workers must be able to reach those in need.  Swift action is needed now, before it is too late, on the economy, aid funding and access to avoid a catastrophe.  As such, she urged the new Government in Aden to swiftly build relationships with the United Nations and the wider aid community and urgently set out plans for salary disbursements, support currency stability and work with key donors on a financial plan for the Central Bank and a set of reform measures.

India’s representative, recalling his country’s centuries-old relationship with Yemen, said that the Council should press urgently for a sustainable and comprehensive political settlement.  In that regard, he reaffirmed India’s commitment to a Yemeni-led and Yemeni-owned political process and urged all Yemeni parties to work towards an inclusive negotiated agreement.  He also encouraged all parties to explore such confidence-building steps as prisoner exchanges and a halt to violence.  He went on to acknowledge the key role of a unified Gulf Cooperation Council in promoting peace, stability and prosperity in Yemen, following the recent rapprochement among its member States.

The Russian Federation’s delegate, rejecting the imposition of unilateral measures, said that at present, there are not many grounds for optimism in Yemen, given the frightening humanitarian situation and a dangerous escalation of the conflict.  The perpetrators of the Aden airport attack have not been identified, and experts in Yemen have put forward various theories, but accusations are being directed against one side, complicating the quest for peace.  He urged the United States to reconsider its decision to designate the Ansar Allah movement as a terrorist organization, which risks exacerbating the humanitarian situation and undermining United Nations efforts to launch negotiations.  Underscoring his country’s full support for the Special Envoy, and welcoming the new coalition Government in Yemen, he said that the Council should not take sides, but help to bring the parties together, with regional players making a constructive contribution.

The representative of the United States said his delegation remains committed to working with international partners and the Government of Yemen to bring peace, as there is no military solution to the conflict.  As the political process has produced limited results despite heroic efforts by the Special Envoy and partners, additional steps were needed.  As such, United States Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo announced in January the designation of Ansar Allah as a foreign terrorist organization due to its actions.  Recognizing concerns that the designation will affect the humanitarian situation, he said efforts are being made to reduce the impact, and Washington, D.C., is continuing a dialogue with non-governmental organizations and other actors alongside initiatives to ensure that official activities of such international organizations as the United Nations will continue.  The views of everyone in this Council and briefers will be considered, he said, noting that “we are listening.”  At the same time, the Governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia have linked Ansar Allah to the recent attack in Aden.  Meanwhile, Yemen faces the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, he said, calling on all parties to ensure aid workers can reach those in need.  Pointing out that the Houthis continue to obstruct aid, causing undue harm to citizens, he called on all parties to recognize Ansar Allah for the terrorist organization it is.

The speaker for Mexico, echoing the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, condemned recent attacks in Aden and recognized recent gains, including the formation of a new cabinet.  However, women must fully participate in all aspects of life.  The imminent risk of famine must be swiftly addressed.  Conflict has also disrupted education, with targeted attacks against schools, he said, urging the Government to cooperate with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict to re-establish education services with the seriousness and priority the matter deserves.  Commending humanitarian aid efforts, he said a ceasefire is required to, among other things, meet needs and promote economic recovery.  The recent designation of one of the parties to the conflict as a terrorist organization will negatively affect aid agencies and their work, running counter to international law, he said, stressing that the space for humanitarian work must be safeguarded.  On environmental matters, he said access to the Safer oil tanker must be granted to avert a disaster.

Kenya’s representative urged all parties to remain focused on the signing of the Joint Declaration for nationwide ceasefire, which he described as a “necessary deliverable” in 2021.  He also urged every external actor, particularly those States with serious security concerns in the region, to row in the same direction in support of a Yemeni-led and Yemeni-owned peace process while also ensuring that terrorists cannot operate across borders.  He added that despite positive political developments, the humanitarian situation is sadly still deteriorating, and called for continued support to alleviate the suffering.

The speaker for China said that all parties in Yemen, with support from the international community, must act immediately to achieve a ceasefire and stop the violence as soon as possible.  All parties must heed the Secretary-General’s call for a humanitarian ceasefire and to create conditions for accelerating the United Nations-led peace process.  They should maintain dialogue, build mutual trust and support the Special Envoy’s efforts, while also respecting Yemen’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  China has taken note of a certain country’s decision regarding the Houthi group, he said, expressing serious concern about its possible political and humanitarian impact.  “There is no time to lose to save lives,” he added, urging donor countries to increase both financial and in-kind assistance.  He went on to say that peace in Yemen hinges on a good regional security environment, with Gulf countries playing a leading role.

Norway’s representative, noting that pockets of famine-like conditions have returned to Yemen for the first time in two years, said it is crucial for the parties to agree to direct consultations with an eye toward a nationwide ceasefire, humanitarian and economic measures and a resumption of political consultations.  Strongly condemning the recent attacks on Aden airport and the presidential palace, she went on to voice concern about the imminent designation by the United States of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization.  “We fear that such an action may exacerbate the already dire humanitarian situation, worsen the economy and impede the political process,” she said, warning against any measures that could negatively affect humanitarian activity and imports in Yemen.  She also expressed support for the full, equal and meaningful participation of women in Yemen’s political process; sounded alarm about continued violations of children’s rights; urged donors to make early and generous contributions to the country; and called on the parties to allow imports of food, fuel and other supplies.

The speaker for Ireland regretted that the Council’s first meeting of 2021 on Yemen is taking place in the shadow of the 30 December heinous and indiscriminate attack at Aden airport — an unacceptable act of violence against civilian targets, a direct attack on the new Yemeni Government and an affront to United Nations efforts to support an inclusive peace process.  Noting that Yasmin al-Awadhi, one of the few women in the new Government, was among those killed, she joined calls for an independent investigation into the attack.  While welcoming recent progress towards the implementation of the Riyadh agreement, including the formation of the new power-sharing Government, she expressed her disappointment over the absence of women in the new Cabinet.  As co-chair of this Council’s work on the women, peace and security agenda, alongside Mexico, her delegation will monitor this issue.  A second terrible shadow that stalks Yemen is famine, she said, voicing deep concern about the implications of the United States’ decision to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization.  Ireland is increasingly alarmed about the situation regarding the Safer oil tanker, calling it a “ticking time bomb” which threatens a catastrophic environmental impact on Yemen and the region.

Niger’s delegate said that every time there is a glimmer of hope in Yemen, it is quackingly frustrated, as demonstrated by the Aden attack.  He encouraged the new Government to restore security and stability as soon as possible throughout the country and invited regional actors and Council members with influence on the parties to work further towards rapprochement.  He welcomed Saudi Arabia’s mediation efforts which resulted in the unity Government, adding that every effort must be made to give negotiations a chance and to deescalate the situation.  Designating the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization could adversely impact the delivery of humanitarian aid in certain regions and hamper the political process.  He went on to urge donors — including those in the region — to demonstrate more generosity to the Yemeni people and honour their aid commitments.

Estonia’s representative described it as saddening and frustrating that, despite the worsening humanitarian situation and all the efforts for peace, the hostilities in Yemen continue and are causing more and more civilian casualties.  Condemning the attack on Aden airport as an instance of deliberate and indiscriminate targeting of civilian infrastructure — and therefore a clear violation of international humanitarian law — he went on to welcome the formation of the new Government of Yemen and express hope that it will contribute to a comprehensive political solution.  Turning to the humanitarian situation, he voiced concern about rising food insecurity in Yemen, calling for unhindered humanitarian access, stepped up assistance as well as efforts to ensure the import of fuel and commercial items.  He also joined other speakers in expressing concern about the possible impact of the United States’ designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, which may complicate aid delivery as well as United Nations efforts to negotiate a political solution.

The speaker for France urged all parties, including the Houthis, to halt violence and to engage in good faith in negotiations under the Special Envoy’s auspices.  Everything must be done to achieve a ceasefire and a negotiated solution to the conflict.  With famine increasingly becoming a reality for many Yemenis with each passing day, the parties must guarantee the provision of humanitarian assistance and respect their obligations under international humanitarian law.  He went on to express serious concern about the possible humanitarian impact of the recent United States’ decision and stress the urgent need to put a United Nations technical team on the Safer oil tanker to avoid an environmental disaster on the Red Sea.

Viet Nam’s representative joined the Special Envoy in welcoming the positive developments in the implementation of the Riyadh agreement, including the formation of the new Government.  Emphasizing the importance of the immediate cessation of hostilities and acceptance of the Joint Declaration towards a nationwide ceasefire, he noted that COVID-19, severe economic crisis, food insecurity and the imminent risk of famine are major challenges for the country.  He went on to call for an early international donor conference for Yemen, urging concerned parties to fully implement the Stockholm and Riyadh agreements together with United Nations mediation.  In this process, Hanoi supports Yemen’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, he said, stressing the importance of promoting and ensuring the meaningful participation of women in the political process.

The speaker for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said that while the threat of famine looms in Yemen, many people already live in famine-like conditions.  “We cannot wait for an official declaration, otherwise we would have unjustifiably missed our window of opportunity,” she stressed, calling on international partners to immediately provide support to Yemen’s economy and scale up their contributions to the country’s humanitarian response plan.  Meanwhile, all actors in Yemen — as well as those with influence over the situation — should encourage and facilitate the unhindered passage of humanitarian aid, in line with international law.  Emphasizing that a political solution is the only option, she condemned recent attacks and stressed that the perpetrators must be held accountable.  The parties have already proven their ability to work together to overcome differences, and such momentum should not be lost.  “The transient gains that one side may achieve as a result of hostilities, cannot compare to what can be achieved in a secure and stable Yemen,” she stressed.

The representative of Tunisia, Council President for January, spoke in his national capacity, condemning recent violence and commending such gains as the Riyadh Agreement’s implementation and the formation of a new Government.  Agreeing with calls for a ceasefire, he reiterated support for the Special Envoy’s efforts to end hostilities and resume talks to work towards a solution.  Women and young people must participate in the political process, which will reflect a comprehensive, inclusive vision for a peaceful future.  The humanitarian crisis remains a grave concern, including the risk of famine that threatens millions of lives.  Aid delivery must be ensured to reach those in need, he said, calling for an end to attacks targeting civilian infrastructure.  Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, medical assistance should be boosted.  Reiterating the need to expedite the inspection of the Safer tanker, he said the problem is a great concern for the region.

Ahmed Awad Ahmed Binmubarak, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of Yemen, recalled the 30 December terrorist attack against the newly formed Government, saying that perpetrators have been identified as the Houthi militia, supported by Iran, and must be held accountable.  Having given precedence to dialogue over war, the Government’s commitment has been met with violence from the Houthis, who are violating humanitarian laws and obstructing the implementation of signed agreements by laying landmines, destroying infrastructure, looting and blocking aid deliveries and attacking liberated areas to expand their area of control.  As such, Yemen supports the United States’ designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization.  Recognizing concerns raised about the designation’s impact on the humanitarian situation, he said the Government has the responsibility to ensure aid is provided and it is committed to work with aid agencies and other relevant actors in this regard.

Raising several concerns, he said more attention is needed to address large numbers of people who have been displaced due to Houthi violence.  If the United States’ designation is implemented, financing for the Houthis will dry up, and, in the meantime, relevant actors must pressure them to move towards peace.  As challenges of food security pre-date the 2014 coup d’état, he renewed a request to move from an emergency response plan towards development initiatives that foster economic growth.  Turning to the issue of the Safer oil tanker, he called on the Council to pressure Houthi militias to ensure access for assessment teams to prevent an imminent environmental catastrophe.  Looking forward, he said the new Government and Cabinet are providing hope for the people of Yemen.  Despite all the suffering, Aden has renewed its engagement with all initiatives to end the coup d’état and achieve sustainable peace.  Welcoming the Special Envoy’s recent visit to Aden and his continued efforts, he told Council members that the “eyes and ears of all Yemen’s people are directed towards you; they are wondering how many more lives will be lost before the perpetrators are named as terrorists.”

For information media. Not an official record.