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U.S. Designates Houthis as Terrorists, Complicating Yemen Relief Efforts

The designation is part of a flurry of activity by the State Department in the Trump administration’s final days.

By Colm Quinn, the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a briefing at the State Department on February 5, 2020 in Washington, DC.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a briefing at the State Department on February 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The United States designates Yemen’s Houthis as terrorists, a South Korean delegation is in Tehran for talks on a seized tanker, and Kyrgyzstan elects a new president.

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Pompeo Designates Houthis as Foreign Terror Group

The U.S. Department of State designated Yemen’s Houthis as a terrorist organization on Sunday, potentially complicating efforts by an incoming Biden administration to bring an end to a war that has become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

The move is part of a flurry of activity from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the close of the Trump administration: On Saturday, Pompeo lifted restrictions on U.S. diplomats’ contacts with Taiwanese officials, and plans to name Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism soon, according to the Associated Press.

The potential Houthi designation, now official, was first reported by Foreign Policy on Nov. 16.

In a statement, Pompeo cited the need to hold the Houthis accountable for “terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping.”

Because the Houthis don’t appear to have foreign bank accounts, a terrorist designation will do little to affect the group’s operations. The designation is likely to complicate and at best delay humanitarian relief efforts, however, with charities and international groups wary of facing prosecution for working in Houthi-controlled territory.

Pompeo’s statement attempted to head off humanitarian concerns surrounding the designation, adding that the U.S. Treasury Department is “prepared” to issue licenses for “certain humanitarian activities conducted by non-governmental organizations in Yemen” and “certain transactions and activities.”

“Prepare for the worst.” Scott Paul, Oxfam America’s humanitarian policy lead, is skeptical that the State Department has done its homework. “No responsible humanitarian agency or private business can afford to rely on these assurances. We’ll need to prepare for the worst,” Paul wrote on Twitter.

Speedbump for Biden. Writing in November, John Allen and Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institution cautioned against the move, calling it a needless roadblock to diplomacy. “Branding the Houthis as terrorists would be an attempt to block the Biden administration and the world from speaking with them. The reality is that the Houthis control most of northern Yemen, it is better to deal directly with them than to live in denial.”

The World This Week

On Monday, Jan. 11, French President Emmanuel Macron hosts the One Planet Summit with heads of state and business leaders to discuss preserving biodiversity.

French officials are to introduce tougher customs controls from today on goods coming into France from the United Kingdom, according to the Financial Times.

On Tuesday, Jan. 12, additional U.S. tariffs on $7.5 billion worth of goods from the European Union, take effect today after the United States won the right to impose the charges after winning a case at the World Trade Organization in October over EU subsidies given to Airbus.

On Wednesday, Jan. 13, the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote to impeach U.S. President Donald Trump, one week after the Capitol building was stormed by a pro-Trump mob.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft pays a three-day visit to Taiwan, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the country.

COVID-19 vaccinations begin in India.

On Thursday, Jan. 14, Uganda holds presidential and parliamentary elections. President Yoweri Museveni seeks a sixth term in office as he goes up against opposition candidate Bobi Wine.

Friday, Jan. 15, is the deadline for U.S. troop reductions in in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Approximately 700 U.S. troops in Somalia are slated to be withdrawn by this date, while only 2,500 troops each will remain in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party holds a virtual annual congress. The agenda includes a vote on the de facto successor to Angela Merkel after current CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer chose not lead the party in elections due this fall.

What We’re Following Today

Iran and South Korea meet on tanker dispute. South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun is in Tehran today along with a diplomatic delegation to negotiate the release of a tanker seized by Iranian forces on Jan. 4. Iranian authorities maintain the tanker was forced into port over pollution fears, although it is widely seen as a ploy to pressure Seoul to release $7 billion in frozen Iranian funds held in South Korean banks. According to Iranian news media, representatives from Seoul’s Central Bank will meet with Iran’s Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati today to discuss the funds.

Nazarbayev’s party wins big. Nur Otan, the party of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, won a crushing victory in Kazakhstan’s parliamentary elections on Sunday. Exit polls show the ruling Nur Otan won roughly 72 percent of the vote in an election without any meaningful opposition. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which observed the election will present conclusions from their observation mission at a press conference today.

Japarov on top in Kyrgyzstan. Voters in Kyrgyzstan overwhelmingly backed acting Prime Minister Sadyr Japarov in its presidential election, giving him more than 80 percent of the total vote. The margin means there will be no runoff.

Voters also approved a measure via referendum that would strengthen the presidency and weaken parliament, making Kyrgyzstan’s system more akin to the one seen in Turkey.  Japarov has promised to maintain his country’s relationship with Russia, as well as double health spending.

Dam talks blocked. Three-way talks between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam are once again facing a stalemate as each side presents their version of why discussions have broken down.

Sudan’s irrigation minister Yasir Abbas voiced his frustration in a statement. “We cannot continue this vicious cycle of circular talks indefinitely,” he said. However, Egypt and Ethiopia blame the impasse on Sudan’s flip-flopping on a demand to include African Union experts in the talks.

Keep an Eye On

China COVID-19 cases increase. China has reported its biggest one-day increase in coronavirus cases since July, as infections in Hebei province drive up numbers. The figures are still minuscule by Western standards: 103 new cases were reported in total. Nevertheless, Hebei’s capital Shijiazhuang has been placed on lockdown and residents are banned from leaving as authorities move to contain the virus.

Lukashenko pledges new constitution. Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko has promised a new constitution for the country as he seeks to quell months of protests against his rule. In an interview with Russian television, Lukashenko said he expected a draft constitution would be finished by the end of 2021, and would then be put to a referendum. Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has dismissed Lukashenko’s announcement as a ploy to prolong his rule and called for a new election to be held this year.

China-India tensions. China has called for the quick return of a missing soldier it says is currently in Indian custody. According to military-affiliated China Military Online, the soldier went missing on the China-India border and Chinese authorities have been in contact with their Indian counterparts for the soldier’s release. The Indian Army confirmed in a statement that the soldier was apprehended in Indian territory and are investigating the incident. Both sides are still in talks designed to avoid a repeat of a border clash in June that killed at least 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese forces. 

Odds and Ends

Municipal authorities in Seoul have been forced to remove guidelines for pregnant women from a government-run website after their publication provoked an outcry for giving sexist advice, including the recommendation to “buy a hairband so that you don’t look disheveled after having the baby.”

The city government’s pregnancy and childbirth information center had advised pregnant women to “Hang the clothes you wore before you were pregnant in a place where they are easy to see as that will motivate you to keep your weight under control and go back to the same weight you were before you gave birth,” the Guardian reports.

It also recommended that women prepare and store a number of meals before their due date, so that husbands “who are unaccustomed to cooking,” would not experience any hardship.

The city government blamed the controversy on a copy and paste issue, saying it had taken the information from a now defunct health ministry site.

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn