President Joe Biden’s Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken said in his Jan. 19 confirmation hearing that the new team would “immediately” review the Trump administration’s last-minute designation of Yemen’s Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization. He noted the dire consequences of the designation for providing desperately needed humanitarian assistance, while “at least on its surface, it seems to achieve nothing particularly practical in advancing the efforts against the Houthis and to bring them back to the negotiating table.”
In fact, examples elsewhere show that such a designation also could undermine political prospects for peace for years to come.
The United Nations and humanitarian groups warned of the possible consequences of this designation for a nation already enduring violence and extreme hunger as a result of a six-year war. The civil war escalated in 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened to support the internationally backed government against the Houthis, perceived to be an Iranian proxy. The conflict has displaced more than 4 million people and resulted in atrocities committed by all sides.
The Houthis now control areas that are home to about 70 percent of Yemen’s population, including the capital and major ports and airports, and aid agencies have to coordinate with them to get humanitarian assistance into those locations. Under the designation, this could be considered material support to terrorism, an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The result could lead to a famine “on a scale that we have not seen for nearly 40 years,” according to Mark Lowcock, the U.N. under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs.
Civil society representatives and U.N. diplomats had implored former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to reconsider the designation when news broke that the decision was in the offing. Aid providers focused much of their persuasion efforts on negotiating exceptions and licenses to avoid criminal penalties. The U.S. Treasury Department has since issued a number of general licenses to exempt certain transactions on behalf of the U.S. government and by U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations. While such licenses can somewhat mitigate the harm in terms of humanitarian access, it’s unclear how they might apply to commercial entities, which is a big worry as Yemen imports 90 percent of its food, mainly through commercial channels.
But terrorist designations not only criminalize humanitarian action and imperil principles of neutrality and impartiality on the part of aid providers, but also all but shut off the chances of political negotiations. And while donors and providers can tinker with exceptions to reduce – though not eliminate — the harm to assistance efforts, the listing of the Houthis also results in hindering any third-party actors trying to engage the listed group in the context of a peace process.
Concerns over Long-Term Peace Talks
Martin Griffiths, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, has expressed concern the listing may have “a chilling effect on his efforts to bring the parties together,” the U.N. said in a Jan. 14 press release. “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,” he said in the statement.
While Houthi representatives apparently participated in renewed talks about prisoner exchanges in Amman, Jordan, on Jan. 24, the terrorist listing creates a form of extreme vilification that would be hard to overcome for negotiations toward a permanent peace. My research on Colombia and other conflicts shows that while designating a group as a terrorist organization may be an effective way to deny them resources and de-legitimize an adversary, that vilification is incredibly hard to roll back when parties to the conflict decide they want to discuss peace.
International listings of armed groups as terrorists affects the overarching conflict narrative — the way the conflict is understood and framed. It crystallizes a judgment that one side in the conflict should be considered a “terrorist” and therefore isn’t worthy of recognition as a legitimate party.
It also becomes far easier to treat the listed armed group in a way that would otherwise be deemed unacceptable. That risks laying the ground for potential atrocities, especially as the designation often comes with significant military and intelligence resources as well as outside support for the non-designated side in the conflict.
In Colombia’s five-decade civil war, the U.S. decision to sweep the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) into the broader war on terror even before 9/11 by designating the group as a foreign terrorist organization in October 1997 greatly bolstered the Colombian government’s efforts to fight the rebels under President Álvaro Uribe, who held office between 2002 and 2010. There was thus little incentive for the government to shift away from a purely bellicose and militarized strategy.
A similar dynamic risks emerging in Yemen, unless the designation is quickly reversed – and some damage might already have been done in this regard. While the Trump administration claimed the designation would bring the parties to the table, the International Crisis Group already had argued that the Yemeni government “will see in the designation [as] validation of its maximalist demand that the Huthis, in effect, surrender.”
A “Linguistic Ceasefire”
Having stigmatized the armed group in such an extreme way, the listing constrains policy choices. No Yemeni government that seeks peace will be able to switch directly to de-vilifying its listed enemy. This has a deep effect on the timing and sequencing — and even the prospects entirely — of negotiations.
In Colombia, the terrorist listing of the FARC led to a vilification so extreme that it greatly complicated efforts by the government of Uribe’s successor in 2010, Juan Manuel Santos, to enter negotiations to end the fighting. The FARC were dehumanized, and any reference to their name or acronym all but disappeared from official discourse. They were transformed in the public eye into an amorphous terrorist threat. With the group cast as untrustworthy and irrational regardless of any underlying legitimate political agenda, the prospect of negotiation faded.
The government first had to put in place a “linguistic ceasefire,” as I call it, by dropping the terrorist label and recognizing the group’s political motivations and grievances, before being able to negotiate with them. Even then, the deep de-legitimization of the non-state armed group and the communities associated with it (often the poorest and most disenfranchised peasant farmers) has made the public perception nearly impossible to reverse.
The poisonous label, which remains in place even today, more than four years after Santos finally secured a peace agreement, has impeded the group’s ability to transform into a nonviolent political actor. This has to be understood in a context where being associated as a terrorist or terrorist sympathizer has been used as a justification for targeted assassinations by paramilitary groups. More than 230 FARC ex-combatants and more than 1,000 grassroots and human rights activists have been assassinated since the signature of the peace accord in 2016.
In conversations and interviews with high-level mediators and third-party actors for my research, I heard time and time again that the listing of armed groups as terrorists raises the entry cost of negotiations. In some cases, as in Spain’s Basque region, it made direct negotiations between the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) separatist group and the Spanish government impossible. In other contexts, as in the case of the conflict between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish government, the “linguistic ceasefire” took hold for a time but was then rolled back.
The Trump administration’s ramming through of this designation in its dying days in office as part of its hawkish policy towards Iran not only gutted humanitarian aid efforts, but also imperils the prospects for peace in a country that has already suffered enough.