NEW YORK - The head of the World Food Program appealed to the Trump Administration Thursday to reverse its decision designating a Yemeni rebel group as a terrorist entity, saying millions would slide into famine in the war-torn country as a result because food imports would shrink.
"We are struggling now without the designation; with the designation, it's going to be catastrophic," said WFP Chief David Beasley, an American who was nominated to his U.N. post by President Donald Trump. "It is literally going to be a death sentence to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of innocent people in Yemen."
Late Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that he plans to designate the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel group a "Foreign Terrorist Organization" (FTO) - a tool used to disrupt financial support to terrorist networks.
Pompeo said the designation, which takes effect on January 19, the last full day of the Trump administration, is intended to hold the Houthis accountable for cross-border attacks it has carried out, as well as "to advance efforts to achieve a peaceful, sovereign, and united Yemen that is both free from Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbors."
Yemen imports 90% of its food, nearly all via commercial channels. Suppliers, bankers, shippers and others who fear running afoul of U.S. regulations could stop doing business with Yemeni importers. The U.N. says aid agencies cannot replace the commercial import system -- which some 17 million Yemenis rely on for food stocks -- and if the imports dry up or prices skyrocket, millions will starve.
"This designation, it needs to be reassessed, it needs to be re-evaluated, and quite frankly, it needs to be reversed," Beasley told a virtual meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
U.N. Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock said the most urgent priority in Yemen right now is to avert a massive famine.
"Every decision the world makes right now must take this into account," Lowcock said.
WFP Chief Beasley said 16 million Yemenis are in food crisis now, including 50,000 who are already in famine-like conditions. Another five million are just one step behind them. He said his agency is struggling to keep up financially and will have to further cut rations.
He said of the 13 million people WFP is feeding, nine million have already had their rations halved due to funding shortfalls, and come Feb. 1, without more money, they will have to cut them again to 25%.
"What do you think is going to happen to that five million people that are in emergency classification now? They are going to slide into famine conditions," he warned.
Secretary Pompeo has promised humanitarian exemptions and licenses to reduce the impact on humanitarian activities, but the aid agencies say they are awaiting details of how this would work, with just days until the designation goes into effect.
"We do believe that this step is the right move forward to send the right signal if we want the political process to move forward," U.S. Deputy U.N. Ambassador Richard Mills told the council of the FTO, while reiterating the importance of humanitarian work going forward.
Security Council members expressed concern that the U.S. move would impact both humanitarian and political efforts, and several urged Washington to mitigate those consequences.
U.N. political envoy Martin Griffiths also said the designation could have a "chilling effect" on his efforts to bring the parties together.
"We all hope to have absolute clarity on far-reaching exemptions to be able to carry out our duties," he said.
The U.S. designation was done with the full support of Yemen's government, which has been fighting Houthi attempts to seize power for more than five years.
"We believe that if we do implement this designation, it would lead to the drying up of the sources of financing of the Houthis and would bring real pressure to bear on the group," Yemen's new foreign minister, Ahmed bin Mubarak, told the virtual meeting from the temporary capital of Aden.
He added that humanitarian concerns should be addressed and alleviated, but that all kinds of pressure must be exerted on the Houthis to push them towards peace.
Some analysts say the incoming Biden administration may not be able to easily undo the designation if it wants to.
"The decision will tie the incoming administration's hands as it will have to try to reverse the decision, which is not an easy thing to do, or to justify to Congress why it wants to deal with the Houthis despite the designation," Nabeel Khoury, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council thinktank said following the U.S. announcement. "Additionally, the decision feeds into the hands of the hardliners within the Houthi organization and makes it difficult for their leadership to engage in peace talks."
More than five years of war between the Saudi Arabian-backed government of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels has pushed the Middle East's poorest country to the brink.