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US designation of the Houthis as a Terrorist Organisation

19 January 2021

On 10 January 2021, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement of intent to designate Ansarallah (the Houthis) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization under section 219 of the US Immigration and Nationality Act. The group, along with three of its leaders, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al Hakim, will also be designated by the US as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. These unilateral measures, scheduled to be implemented today, are expected to produce devastating humanitarian consequences for Yemen, a country which has been deemed by the UN Secretary General at ‘imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades.’.


In this context, it must be recalled that certain human rights are of such a fundamental nature that all states have a legal interest in their protection; that is, they are obligations erga omnes. While identifying the human rights which have reached this threshold is not always clear, at a minimum large scale violations caused by targeted sanctions breaching the rights to life; health; freedom from hunger; and an adequate standard of living (including food, clothing, housing and medical care), would violate such erga omnes obligations. Similarly, impeding the provision of humanitarian aid to civilians in need as a means to exert political and economic pressure on a ruling party may violate the obligation to respect social rights at the extraterritorial or international level.


The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has made specific reference to sanctions and the need for their compliance with the Covenant in its General Comment No. 8, noting in particular that attention should be focused on the impact of sanctions on vulnerable groups. It reiterated that human rights protection must be incorporated into the design and monitoring of all sanctions regimes. In relation to food, the Committee also stated in its General Comment No. 12 that “States Parties should refrain at all times from food embargoes or similar measures which endanger conditions for food production and access to food in other countries. Food should never be used as an instrument of political or economic pressure.”

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