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Top U.N. official to call on U.S. to reverse terrorist designation for Houthis, warning of mass famine

Top U.N. official to call on U.S. to reverse terrorist designation for Houthis, warning of mass famine
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A top United Nations official is calling on the U.S. to reverse the decision to label Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis as a terrorist organization, warning the step will cause a mass famine in a country already suffering tragedy of unfathomable proportions. 

Mark Lowcock, the head of the U.N. agency responsible for delivering urgent humanitarian assistance in crisis, is expected in remarks to be delivered Thursday to the U.N. Security Council to lay out the dire consequences and a stunning rebuke of the U.S. moving forward on the Houthi terrorist designation.

In remarks obtained by The Hill, Lowcock unequivocally calls for a reversal of the decision and that desperately needed humanitarian assistance and food delivery to the north of the country would effectively stop, despite U.S. assurances they would not be affected. 

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“First, what is the likely humanitarian impact? The answer is a large-scale famine on a scale that we have not seen for nearly forty years,” read Lowcock’s remarks. 

“Second, would licences and exemptions for aid agencies prevent that? The answer is no. Third, well, what would prevent it? A reversal of the decision.”

Yemen is locked in a nearly six-year civil war between the Houthi-separatists in the north against the internationally recognized and Saudi-backed government in the south.

The war, taking place in the world’s most impoverished country, has killed tens of thousands of civilians, and created a humanitarian disaster further harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Tens of thousands are on the brink of starvation and tens of millions more are food insecure. 

Lowcock is the undersecretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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He is one of the most senior U.N. officials to call for the reversal of the decision, and echoes similar outrage from Europe and Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. who reacted to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoSunday shows - Biden foreign policy in focus Pompeo defends Trump on Russia in Chris Wallace interview Pompeo: Decline of free speech on college campuses keeps me up at night MORE’s announcement of the decision late Sunday night.

The Trump administration had sought for months to designate the Houthis a terrorist organization, as part of their maximum pressure campaign against Iran and to support Saudi Arabia.

The last-minute roll out narrowly fulfilled the seven-day window to notify Congress before the inauguration of President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden prepares to confront Putin Ukrainian president thanks G-7 nations for statement of support Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting MORE. The designation is expected to take effect Jan. 19.  

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate, cognizant of the Houthis role in atrocities in Yemen, spoke out against the move for the grave risk posed to Yemeni civilians and failing to mitigate the humanitarian crisis the designation is predicted to cause. 

Pompeo, in his announcement of the decision, said that the U.S. was “planning to put in place measures” to allow for certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen. 

Lowcock, in his prepared remarks, said those plans are futile and nonexistent, with the infrastructure surrounding food delivery into the country abandoning Yemen for fear of running afoul of U.S. sanctions.     

“Some suppliers, banks, shippers and insurers are ringing up their Yemeni partners and saying they now plan to walk away from Yemen altogether,” read Lowcock’s remarks. “They say the risks are too high. They fear being accidentally or otherwise caught up in US regulatory action which would put them out of business or into jail.”

Lowcock further criticized the U.S. for not having the safeguards already in place to ensure continued delivery of the needed assistance. 

Lowcock’s call for reversal follows criticism of the decision from U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, his spokesperson saying on Tuesday that the U.N. is “extremely concerned” about how the terrorist designation will impact the humanitarian situation in Yemen. 

A spokesperson for Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, issued a statement on Wednesday criticizing the move as harming diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict in Yemen and raising concern about further worsening the humanitarian crisis on the brink of famine.