Washington, D.C. – The Charity & Security Network (C&SN), a coalition of more than 500 civil society representatives dedicated to protecting the rights of nonprofit organizations (NPOs) that help communities and address pressing human rights issues, urges President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken to ignore calls from those in Congress to designate the Houthis in Yemen as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). 

On Oct. 24, 2023, House member Andrew Clyde (R-GA) reintroduced legislation that would reinstate the designation enacted in the waning days of the Trump Administration. Rep. Clyde’s “Standing Against Houthi Aggression Act” was matched by a companion bill by the same name in the Senate, brought forward by Steve Daines (R-MT), on Nov. 1, 2023. Additionally, on Nov. 1, 2023, Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) led a letter to Secretary Blinken requesting the FTO redesignation of the Houthis; likewise, on Nov. 8, 2023, Congressmen Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) and Mike Waltz (R-FL) announced a letter they sent to Secretary Blinken containing the same request. 

In Feb. 2021, during the early days of the Biden administration, after calls from many humanitarian and peacebuilding groups, including C&SN, the administration wisely reversed the Houthi FTO designation imposed by Secretary Pompeo.

Then, as now, C&SN urges the president to resist such a step as it would be counterproductive to the goals of countering terrorism and building peace, while greatly exacerbating the humanitarian crisis that some 21.6 million Yemenis face each day.

This argument over the FTO designation has been ongoing for a number of years, since Saudi Arabia declared war against the Houthis in Yemen with strong U.S. support. An FTO designation is a political mechanism that typically is not well thought out in terms of its actual efficacy and damaging side effects. As Gregory Johnsen, a former UN official on the “panel of experts” monitoring sanctions regimes on Yemen, wrote in 2020,  “In Yemen, sanctions hurt the wrong people. The Houthi leadership is largely insulated from shortages in food and medicine. Yemeni civilians are not. Placing the Houthis on the terrorist list would effectively cut off humanitarian aid to the roughly 16 million people who live under Houthi control, many of whom depend on outside aid to survive.” This is still true, though the number of people who rely on aid to survive today is closer to 21.6 million.

Johnsen goes on to argue that the designation would do little to alter Houthi behavior and could strengthen their ties with Iran, while condemning millions to greater starvation and health risks. Moreover, it would undermine the fragile peace process being cultivated there. These same concerns remain today. 

What C&SN stated nearly two years ago is still true: The civilian population in Yemen, some 29 million people, has endured nearly eight years of civil war, natural disasters, and dire economic and resource conditions. The UN World Food Program has called the situation in Yemen a “countdown to catastrophe” with roughly 80 percent of the population dependent on aid for survival and aid funding cut back significantly.

Should the Houthis be designated an FTO, it would trigger a range of laws, regulations, and restrictions that would impede any hopes of inclusive peace talks and effectively shut down the humanitarian aid programs underway there. It is these programs, run by a variety of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), that are preventing – barely – such catastrophe. 

 Designating the Houthis would simply be political point-scoring for the Biden administration ahead of an election year, and will be seen as such. More importantly, Yemen cannot afford for its dire humanitarian situation to be exacerbated further – yet again – and the U.S. would be wise to avoid playing an even more pronounced role in doing so. As with most counter-terrorism designations, it is the people, not the powers that be, that will face the harshest consequences if this designation goes forward. President Biden and Secretary Blinken should stay the course with respect to keeping the Houthis off the FTO list.