U.N. aid chief to urge U.S. to reverse plan to blacklist Yemen's Houthis

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock will on Thursday urge Washington to reverse a plan to designate Yemen’s Houthis a foreign terrorist organization, warning the move would push the country into a “famine on a scale that we have not seen for nearly 40 years.”

FILE PHOTO: U. N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (OCHA) Mark Lowcock, addresses the United Nations Security Council at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S, April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

In prepared remarks for a briefing of the U.N. Security Council, seen by Reuters, Lowcock will tell the 15-member body that a U.S. plan to issue licenses and exemptions to allow aid agencies to continue working will not prevent a famine in Yemen, which relies almost solely on imports.

“What would prevent it? A reversal of the (U.S.) decision,” Lowcock will say. “Aid agencies cannot – they simply cannot - replace the commercial import system.”

“The data show that 16 million people will go hungry this year. Already, about 50,000 people are essentially starving to death in what is essentially a small famine. Another 5 million are just one step behind them,” Lowcock will say.

While the United Nations and aid groups help about a third of Yemen’s 28 million people, Lowcock will stress commercial imports are key to ensuring millions more have access to food.

“Yemen imports 90% of its food. Nearly all that food is brought in through commercial channels. Aid agencies give people vouchers or cash to buy commercially imported food in the market,” Lowcock will say.

The United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 80% of the people in need of aid.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the move against the Iran-aligned Houthis on Sunday. It will come into effect on Jan. 19, the last full day in office of President Donald Trump’s administration.

“Already, Yemenis are crowding into to markets and shops to stockpile whatever they can afford. Families are terrified that no more food or other supplies will make it into the country,” Lowcock will say.

“The Yemeni companies who bring in most of the food are using words like ‘disaster’, ‘havoc’, and ‘unimaginable’ when they describe to us what they fear is coming,” he will say.

President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20. The designation could be revoked by Biden’s Secretary of State.

The designation freezes any U.S.-related assets of the Houthis, bans Americans from doing business with them and makes it a crime to provide support or resources to the movement.

“Some suppliers, banks, shippers and insurers are ringing up their Yemeni partners and saying they now plan to walk away from Yemen altogether,” Lowcock will say. “They say the risks are too high. They fear being accidentally or otherwise caught up in U.S. regulatory action.”

Pompeo said the U.S. Treasury would provide licenses for some humanitarian activities and for some transactions related to critical commodities such as food and medicine.

“Aid agencies have no confirmed details on how they will work or what activities will be eligible. The details apparently won’t be ready until the day that the designation takes force,” Lowcock will say, adding that the measures “will not solve the problem.”

“It is not humanitarian agencies who are importing most of the food,” he will say.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Leslie Adler and Sam Holmes