Biden's Yemen actions on right track but more is needed, experts say

People carry food aid they received from a local charity at a camp for internally displaced people on the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen. Photo by: Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has taken some important steps to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, but advocates told Congress on Thursday that it was not enough and called for additional action.

In the past month, the administration has stopped its support for the Saudi-led military coalition, including halting offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia and appointing an envoy to Yemen. On March 1, it announced $191 million in additional humanitarian funding.

Until the end of 2020, U.S. policy enabled the conflict to flourish, Abdulwasea Mohammed, Oxfam’s policy and advocacy adviser based in Yemen, said at a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing. Recent steps by the Biden administration are welcome, but it is “important the U.S. follow through on these commitments suspending any support that could fuel conflict,” he said.

Also on Thursday, the U.S. Agency for International Development notified Congress it would lift the suspension on humanitarian assistance in Houthi-controlled areas in northern Yemen. About $50 million was suspended last year due to concerns that aid groups there were unable to operate due to Houthi interference. 

“It is very important that the U.S. keeps involved and exerts pressure, uses leverage with all parties to conflict to implement a nationwide ceasefire.”

— Abdulwasea Mohammed, policy and advocacy adviser, Oxfam

The restored aid will include additional benchmarks and monitoring requirements, according to the Financial Times.

Hours earlier, before the notification was made public, Amanda Catanzano, the International Rescue Committee’s senior director of international programs policy and advocacy, had told the subcommittee that resuming aid was one of the most immediate actions the U.S. government could take to make a difference.

The biggest constraint in the humanitarian response, however, is not a lack of access but a severe lack of funding, she said, pointing to the recent Yemen aid pledging conference that fell far short of its goals. The U.S. needs to continue to step up its funding because that will push others to do so as well, Catanzano said.

The key to ending the suffering of the Yemeni people is first seeking a ceasefire, then working toward lasting peace, the trio of experts told members of Congress.

“The only way out is a political settlement. There is a lot the U.S. can do to bring us closer to that,” Catanzano said.

An end to the war would help Yemenis get their jobs and salaries back, she said, allowing the country to rebuild state services and a functioning economy.

Biden’s policy toward Yemen represents a stark shift from that of his predecessor. Another policy change the Biden administration made was to reverse former President Donald Trump’s designation of the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization. The January decision was met with concerns about its potentially damaging impact on humanitarian aid.

Rep. Tim Burchett, a Republican from Tennessee, questioned the Biden administration’s decision to remove the designation without seeking concessions in return. Radhya Almutawakel, co-founder and chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights, a Yemeni human rights organization, responded: “The designation did not make Houthis weaker, revoking it did not make them stronger.” And that would only have hurt Yemenis, she added.

She also cautioned lawmakers to “never try to search for the good guy or make one guy the bad guy.” 

“All parties are committing horrible violations,” she said. “They do this because they trust impunity more than anything else. They don’t think they will be held accountable.”

The U.S. needs to support and explore international criminal accountability measures for all who committed violations, something it has obstructed in the past, Almutawakel said. The U.S. should support efforts to refer Yemen to the International Criminal Court and “work with others to push a complete accountability strategy,” she said.

The U.S. should also push for a new U.N. Security Council resolution that enhances accountability and brings all parties to the table to negotiate peace, Almutawakel said. U.N. Resolution 2216, which was adopted in 2015 and detailed the conflict and parties involved, presents an outdated narrative of the war that shouldn’t be used as a framework for peace talks, she said.

“It is very important that the U.S. keeps involved and exerts pressure, uses leverage with all parties to conflict to implement a nationwide ceasefire,” Mohammed said.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.