Yemen: Political and Humanitarian Situation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the political and humanitarian situation in Yemen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today for this important debate, Mrs Moon.
I am delighted to speak on this issue today and to have been granted this debate so early in the new Parliament, particularly given the pressing nature of the humanitarian crisis in recent weeks, not least as regards cholera, as we will all have seen on our television screens.
As many Members will be aware, this is, sadly, one of many debates that we have secured on Yemen in the past year, including in the last Parliament. I must start by expressing my deep sadness, regret and, quite frankly, abject frustration that we have seen so little progress, so much further decline into misery and chaos, and such a failure to grasp the nettle by the international community, the UK Government—I am sorry to say—and the parties to this conflict, who must ultimately bear full responsibility for the shocking scenes that we have seen in recent weeks of emaciated bodies wracked by the preventable, treatable disease of cholera, along with the further needless civilian deaths from bombing, blockades and siege tactics.
This House is already significantly occupied by Brexit, and vast parts of our diplomatic and civil service apparatus have been turned to its machinations, but I fear that it will only exacerbate our apparent lack of focus on Yemen and so many other humanitarian crises around the world.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate so early in the new Parliament? It is true that the Foreign Office may be concerned with Brexit, but at the United Nations we hold the pen as far as Yemen is concerned and it is not preoccupied by Brexit. What we need is a UN resolution adopted as quickly as possible—immediately, in fact—to deal with the crisis that he is talking about and has raised so many times in the House.
I thank my right hon. Friend for those comments and agree with him. Indeed, I welcome the steps that the UK has taken in securing a recent presidential statement on Yemen, but frankly at this stage words are now simply not good enough. I fear that the lack of progress we have seen is not only morally lacking, but fundamentally not in Britain’s national or security interests. We know all too well the consequences of leaving vast ungoverned spaces, from Libya to the deserts of Helmand, to descend into poverty, misery and death, and those who would exploit such spaces.
May I very strongly endorse what the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) said? The Minister, who has great experience of these issues, is here from the Foreign Office. If Britain is able to take action at the United Nations, not only will that hopefully avert the catastrophe of a famine in this day and age, but it will get the Saudi Arabian kingdom off a terrible hook. It is not going to win this war; it will be humiliated in the longer term. For a cessation of violence, led by the British at the United Nations, to take place now would be advantageous on many different levels.
I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. He speaks with great eloquence and passion on an issue that I know he has spent much time engaging on personally, both in government and subsequently.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. To add to the points that have already been made, does he agree that one thing the UK Government and others could do is urge all sides to allow unimpeded humanitarian access, which would clearly assist with the situation?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, that message has been made clear to me in my conversations with organisations such as Oxfam, Save the Children, Médecins sans Frontières and many others in recent weeks and the past few days.
Unfortunately the crisis in the country is now even worse than we could have imagined a few months ago, with the disastrous failure in governance and the decimation of the Yemeni economy. The United Nations has estimated that it is only a matter of months before Yemen faces total and utter collapse. The sheer scale of the devastation is astounding. At least 18.8 million people, almost two thirds of the population, are in need of some kind of humanitarian aid or protection. Close to one third of the population are in acute need of assistance—that is 10.3 million people. Some 7 million people do not know where their next meal will come from or are at risk of famine. One child under five in Yemen dies every 10 minutes. Cholera has now spread to every part of the country, with more than 200,000 suspected cases and 1,300 deaths, according to Oxfam and other agencies.
The United Nations’ humanitarian chief, Sir Stephen O’Brien—a former Member of this House, known to many of us—described the situation in Yemen as a “man-made catastrophe”. I wholeheartedly agree with that, but I would go further. I am sorry to say that on the one hand the UK has delivered lifesaving aid through the Department for International Development, which I and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) rightly praised in the last Parliament for its work in Yemen on the humanitarian crisis, but on the other hand the UK is responsible for a clear failure in our foreign policy and the moral approach we have taken to our arms export policy. No humanitarian response can adequately meet the increasing needs that the ongoing conflict is causing, and there needs to be an immediate cessation of hostilities by all sides.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. On the issue of responsibility, yes of course the UK, the European Union and other countries in the UN should be pushing for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Yemen as soon as possible. But does he agree that the Americans have a lead role as far as the World Food Programme is concerned, in particular in addressing the famine in Yemen, and that this is not the time for the American Administration to be cutting the budget of the World Food Programme?
I wholeheartedly agree with those comments. I am deeply worried by the comments made by President Trump about wider US aid policy, and the way in which the US appears to be increasingly engaged actively in the conflict, with recent attacks that have led to civilian deaths.
We need to look at the causes of the humanitarian situation. More than half the health facilities that were open pre-conflict have either closed or are now only partially functioning, leaving 40 million people without basic healthcare. A similar number are also facing a daily struggle to access clean water and adequate sanitation facilities, both of which continue to pose significant risks to public health and are contributing to the cholera outbreak. The naval blockade that has been imposed by the Saudi-led coalition is having an impact on food and humanitarian supplies reaching those who need them. Save the Children told me just this week of three ships containing its supplies that were turned around, delays in secondary screening and 17,000 medical items that had to be re-routed.
I pay tribute to the work my hon. Friend has done on Yemen in this Parliament, and in others before it, along with many right hon. and hon. Members across the House. He mentioned the port situation. There must be a solution to try to get Hodeidah port open again, so that these lifesaving medical supplies are not turned away or taken to other ports where they are unnecessary or unused.
My hon. Friend rightly mentions Hodeidah. The fear is that a future battle over that port might lead to a full-blown famine, as nearly all Yemen’s food is imported through it. There is also the crucial issue of wages. According to UNICEF and the World Health Organisation wages have not been paid to health and public services staff for nine to 10 months in many areas, meaning a complete collapse in waste collections and water and sanitation facilities, let alone health facilities. That, of course, leads directly to the crisis we see with cholera, which has now surpassed 200,000 cases with the number growing by 5,000 a day. Cholera is a disease that is entirely preventable and easily treatable with the proper resources. It is a symptom of a totally failing state and of the parlous situation that Yemen finds itself in. It is also due in part to the direct bombing of water supplies in the country and the hits on those who aim to help. Shockingly, Oxfam has told me that its own water and sanitation warehouse facilities were hit by bombing, and the Houthis have precipitated a further humanitarian crisis in Taiz by siege and blockade tactics that have left some people, it has been alleged this week, with only leaves to eat.
UNHCR field teams have observed a huge spike in humanitarian needs, with displaced people now living on the streets and many of them seeking shelter on the pavement. Some of the most vulnerable people, including women and children, are turning to approaches such as begging and child labour, which is now rampant across Yemen. The situation on the humanitarian front is utterly disastrous and we all need to step up as an international community to play our part.
As I have said in the past, I accept the serious concerns that have been raised about the wider regional nature of the conflict, and indeed the wider power plays that are going on out there, and I will make it absolutely clear that I have no agenda against Saudi Arabia or a legitimate defence industry in this country that adheres to the rule of law. However, I have great concerns about UK policy continuing in this area. We have heard about the atrocities committed by the Houthis and I will be absolutely clear that I utterly condemn them. We have heard stories about child soldiers, the blockading of humanitarian access, siege tactics, the use of landmines and other indiscriminate weapons, and appalling and indiscriminate artillery attacks that kill civilians. However, we are not selling arms to the Houthis and we are selling arms to the Saudi-led coalition, and the UN estimates that more than 60% of civilian casualties are the result of attacks by the Saudi-led coalition.
First of all, I congratulate my hon. Friend on a speech that I pretty much agree with; it is welcome that he has brought this debate to Westminster Hall. However, does he understand or recognise that part of the problem that the UN has recognised is the amount of arms that are entering Yemen, and that one reason for the blockade—the UN supports it to a degree, but does not support attempts to stop aid getting in—is to stop the arms getting in to the Houthis? That is one reason for the blockade, as the Houthis control 90% of the population and are getting these arms from places such as Oman and Iran. Of course the blockade has an adverse effect, but does he understand and respect that the issue is that there are too many arms in Yemen right now, and they are not just coming from Saudi Arabia?
There are too many arms in Yemen; I completely agree with that. Indeed, as I have said, all parties to the conflict must bear full responsibility for what is going on. However, we are selling arms to one side in that conflict, which is Saudi Arabia, and we have heard many times in this House of the allegations of Saudi Arabia’s violations of international humanitarian law during its operations in Yemen. Hundreds of attacks have been documented and raised on many occasions in this Chamber and in the main Chamber. The Saudi-led coalition has failed to provide answers about those attacks and the investigations into them. Indeed, we have had hardly any reports of investigations by the Joint Incident Assessment Team and certainly not reports of an independent investigation.
As a result, I and many others have repeatedly called in this House for a suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, pending a full independent investigation. That call was repeated in the joint report by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and the International Development Committee in the last Parliament, and I am delighted to have had strong support from my right hon. Friends the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Foreign Secretary, the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), on this matter.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on the hard work that he has put in on this issue in particular. Does he agree that it is very important in this Parliament that we set up the Committees on Arms Export Controls as soon as possible, and that we do not have the delay in setting them up that we had in the last Parliament, when it took about six months and a lot of pressure from some of my hon. Friends around the table to get those Committees set up? It would be very regrettable if those Committees did not reconvene.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I wholeheartedly agree with her comments, and I hope that all aspiring Chairs to the relevant Committees would perhaps make a public commitment that they are willing to set up the Committees on Arms Export Controls as soon as possible, as part of their internal election manifestos.
As you will be aware, Mrs Moon, UK arms exports are bound by the obligations within the arms trade treaty, the EU common position on arms exports and the consolidated EU and UK arms licensing criteria; I make particular reference to criterion 2(c) of the EU common position. All of them refer to the recipient country’s respect for international law and require that export licences are not granted where there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.
Mrs Moon, you will also be aware of the judgment that is expected any day now in the judicial review into whether Ministers have properly adhered to criterion 2(c) of the EU common position. I am conscious that these matters are potentially sub judice, but it is clear that some Ministers recognise that they have been treading on very thin ice with regard to UK compliance with the law in this matter. I draw the House’s attention to a partially redacted letter that was recently released due to the proceedings. It was sent by the Secretary of State for International Trade to the Foreign Secretary on 2 February 2017. It states:
“I am concerned that the issue of export licensing to Saudi Arabia continues to be finely balanced...To this end I ask that you commission a further detailed assessment of Criterion 2c and send me updated advice...In the event that your assessment of the Criterion 2c threshold remains the same, I ask that you seek advice from”
senior Government lawyers, whose names have been redacted,
“before making your recommendation.”
I will be frank—this looks like an exercise in covering one’s own actions by the International Trade Secretary, who could ultimately bear responsibility for the authorisation of licences.
Licences have continued to be authorised in huge quantities. New statistics show that new licences under category M4 from October to December 2016 to Saudi Arabia totalled a staggering £1.2 billion. So, can the Minister tell us categorically today whether the assessment requested by the International Trade Secretary was produced, and whether all Ministers have continued to be satisfied at all times that we are adhering to the law? Have any permanent civil service officials issued accounting officer advice or any other warnings to Ministers at any point in the last 12 months on this specific issue? And can he tell us what contingency plans have been prepared in the event of an unfavourable outcome for the Government in the judicial review?
In spite of the grave humanitarian situation in Yemen and our obligations under these treaties, the UK have supplied arms worth a total of £3.4 billion to the Saudi Arabian military during this conflict. Moreover, British companies, contractors and citizens are at the heart of what is happening. I draw the House’s attention to a recent advert that shows just how deeply we are involved in this conflict. BAE Systems recently advertised for “Weapons Load Technicians” at a salary of £38,119, located in Dhahran in Saudi Arabia, with a job purpose
“to accomplish safe reliable loading of munitions to Tornado aircraft”.
The arms trade treaty, which I was proud to work on, forbids the authorisation of the supply of arms where there is an overriding risk of a violation of international humanitarian law. We have signed up to such commitments, so we need to adhere to them. They are the basis on which a legitimate, responsible defence industry in this country is based, but I have deep concerns that we have not been adhering to them in this case. Indeed, that is the view of others globally. The European Parliament and individual EU member states are also taking steps against arms exports. For example, in March the Dutch Parliament voted to deny arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
This conflict in Yemen has profound consequences for the entire balance of power in the middle east. Despite its superior firepower, the Saudi-led coalition has not been able to achieve much progress in recent months and the military situation can at best be described as a hot stalemate. The coalition has air superiority but it does not have the ground troops to drive the Houthi-Saleh side out of the territory that it holds, and some observers are rightly worried that Yemen might become, or is already, a destination for Daesh fighters or others associated with Daesh who have been expelled from other locations around the middle east.
I will draw people’s attention to another worrying development. Reprieve has been working closely with colleagues on the ground to document the impact of recent US military action in Yemen, which has taken an approach under President Trump that is distinctly different from the one taken under President Obama, both in the approval of and the legal guidance around strike targets, and there have been unprecedented assaults on villages full of civilians. Of course, the UK plays a role in providing extensive operational and intelligence assistance for US strikes, including the location of UK military personnel in US air bases in places such as Nevada. Recent US drone strikes have killed and wounded civilians in Yemen, and they have been followed up by Navy Seal operations into a number of locations, including Yakla and Al-Juba, which have resulted in the deaths of significant numbers of civilians.
I can understand it when operations are being conducted against legitimate and tightly defined targets, including those potentially linked to al-Qaeda, Daesh and others, but I cannot understand how these operations, which seem to have had widely loosened rules of engagement, can be conducted in a place that is already enduring significant civilian casualties and significant disruption.
I will just quote a grandfather from the village of Yakla, where the first US military operation in Yemen took place in January. He said:
“In the…morning, after the operation ended, I went to the scene and saw the volume of destruction. I saw…dead bodies everywhere. While I was searching among the bodies, I found my daughter Fateem lying dead in the street with her child in her arms. She was covered with blood. I did not imagine this could happen. I cannot forget those painful moments…The child was slightly injured in the hand by a bullet that hit and left his mother’s body. Such a scene no one could imagine nor comprehend—this level of criminality and killing.”
The war in Yemen has destroyed the institutions that keep society running, such as utilities, banks, food systems, hospitals and, most importantly, water and sanitation supplies. We are failing the people of Yemen more than ever. Time and time again, research has shown that it is not only violence and bombings that are the killer of civilians in conflict, but the illness, hunger and poverty that come after that. Yemen is a case in point. The deliberate targeting of humanitarian assistance, warehousing facilities and humanitarian operatives, and the blockades are all violations of international humanitarian law and are, in my view, tantamount to war crimes.
Those of us who have influence over the parties to the conflict have a particular responsibility to act now, both at the international level—we have heard about the discussions at the UN—and, in particular, in our relationship with the Saudi Arabians. We have mentioned the situation in Hodeidah. Whatever happens in terms of any military conflict there, we cannot allow a blockade that results in a famine in the country. The international community is not doing enough to provide resources. I hope the Minister will tell us of the efforts he is making to get other countries to pay their fair share to the appeals, which are significantly underfunded. Only a third are funded overall, and only a third in the water and sanitation cluster are funded.
Although I welcome the UK Government’s efforts to secure the presidential statement, which we mentioned, it was quite frankly extraordinary to read the read-out of the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson’s call this week with Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, which made absolutely no mention of Yemen. I find that particularly extraordinary, given that he led the coalition activities in his previous role, which I described earlier, and given the horrific worsening of the situation in recent weeks. Does the Minister have an explanation for that, or is Yemen simply not important enough for the Prime Minister to mention? Or is it, as I have been told in private on a number of occasions over recent weeks, that the Government are admitting their failure to influence Saudi Arabia on this issue?
Despite all the claims of a special relationship, the facts are stark: no further reports issued by the Joint Incident Assessment Team on any of the hundreds of allegations; continued civilian deaths due to the bombings; a growing humanitarian catastrophe; and a worrying escalation of US direct involvement, resulting in the deaths of civilians, possibly with UK involvement. What is the vision? What is the plan? Where is the coherence across Government policy? Or is this all just too difficult?
I have been notified of only two other speakers. I therefore call Keith Vaz, who is the next speaker. If others expect or would like to be called, bear in mind that I intend to call the spokesman for the Scottish National party at 5.10 pm, so we need speeches to be short and punchy.
I hope to follow your instructions, Mrs Moon. It is easy to do so on this tragic subject, because my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) has spoken so eloquently and passionately about an issue that affects the people of Yemen—the tragedy that is occurring in the middle east, which we in this House seem so powerless to deal with. The fact that 20 Members are here today signifies that this House is concerned about Yemen. It is close to our hearts, and we need to ensure there is a political solution to end the humanitarian crisis that has gripped that country.
I commend the Minister on his new appointment. He was a Minister in the Department for International Development, but he is now leading on Yemen, as far as the Foreign Office is concerned. He has responded to many Adjournment debates on this subject, which I, as chair of the all-party group on Yemen, and other Members of this House have initiated. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for the work she does as the secretary of the all-party group.
As this is the first debate on this subject since we have returned, I should pay tribute to Flick Drummond, a fellow officer who worked so hard and, like me and the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), was born in Yemen. I also pay tribute to a trio of Members of the Scottish National party, who were not born in Yemen but took up this issue strongly: Angus Robertson, Alex Salmond and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh. We will miss their voice, but the good point is that we have Members here who will speak on behalf of Yemen today and in the months ahead.
I have only one point to make, which is to ask the Minister to ring up our permanent representative at the United Nations and to speak to the Foreign Secretary to ensure that we get a resolution before the UN at the next Security Council meeting so that we get a solution now. Unless we have that resolution, signed up to by all the countries of the middle east, Yemen will be broken into pieces. It is already fragile. It is already a catastrophe. One child dies every minute and 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict. We only have to hear the voice of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) to know that. He managed to get into Yemen to meet people there, including former President Saleh. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to catch your eye, Mrs Moon. The fact is that the situation will continue unless the United Nations acts. It will only act if Britain decides it is to act.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and I always listen carefully when he speaks about Yemen. He has been a powerful voice on this issue. Does he agree that if the Government are not persuaded by the serious humanitarian case we have heard today and Yemen becomes a failed state, that will have serious effects across the whole middle east and north Africa—we have serious material interests in those places—and will affect this country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is not just about Yemen today; it is about the effect on the rest of the middle east and the threat of terrorism in our country. Yemen is a training ground for the people who wish to come and do damage to us. I urge the Minister to act. I am sorry that I will not be able to stay until the end of the debate—there is another meeting that I have to chair—but I urge him to come up with a rapid solution to this agonisingly difficult problem.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), for securing this debate and giving such a comprehensive outline of the situation in Yemen. I also pay tribute to Flick Drummond and other colleagues in the APPG who worked so hard in the past two years to keep the issue on the agenda.
While we have not been in this place over the past wee while because of the general election, the situation in Yemen has deteriorated significantly. It is often called the forgotten conflict, but I have been watching the situation as closely as I can, and I am increasingly disturbed by the escalation in violence combined with the famine and the terrible cholera outbreak that is causing so much damage. My understanding, having spoken to many of the aid agencies involved, is that they cannot quite declare a famine; they do not have enough people on the ground to declare that it has happened. There is a technical definition for famine that they cannot meet, because they cannot get access. In all probability, the situation is actually much worse than we are able to ascertain from people on the ground. It is not so much that people are starving; it is that people are actively being starved by the conflict in the area and because no one can get in to administer the food and relief that are required.
The hon. Lady is right to zero in on the humanitarian situation and to pay tribute to those that are on the ground, such as Oxfam. I had the pleasure and privilege to see it doing quite remarkable work earlier this year. Does she share my concern about the situation we have with the port at Hodeidah where the cranes have been disabled? The Americans have supplied new cranes, but they cannot be erected. One part of the coalition we support is destroying the cranes and stopping access to this vital port at Hodeidah, while another part of the British Government is trying to get food, medicines and urgent supplies into that very port. Does she not think that is one of the key issues that needs to be resolved? I hope the Minister will have some suggestions on how progress could be made.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I pay tribute to him for going to Yemen with Oxfam, as well as to Oxfam for its work on the ground.
After first mentioning that more than 2 million children under the age of 5 are acutely malnourished, including half a million who are at the most extreme level of that critical danger, I was going to come on to the situation with the cranes and the ports. The World Food Programme has, I understand, been refused access for the four new mobile cranes that it had provided to aid the situation. Could the Minister provide any further updates on the situation with the cranes? If food and medical supplies cannot get in, we are unlikely to see any alleviation of the problem.
It is not just about access to Hodeidah port. There is no access to Sana’a Airport, and the route through Aden is at capacity; people cannot get anything more through there. The aid that is getting through Aden is then subject to an overland journey, which is, as hon. Members can imagine, very difficult and extremely dangerous in a conflict situation for the aid agencies involved. They are having to take aid overland. Had access been possible, that aid could quite easily have gone through Hodeidah port.
On 2 July, the World Health Organisation managed to get a shipment in through Hodeidah, which included 20 ambulances, 100 cholera kits, hospital equipment and 128,000 bags of intravenous fluids. It sounds like big numbers, and it was a 403 tonne shipment that they managed to get in—but there are 200,000 cases of cholera. That is not even enough bags of intravenous fluids for every person that has cholera. It is a drop in the ocean in terms of the need in that region; there is a need to get aid in quickly and to prevent any further delays. We must make all the efforts we can to make sure that aid gets to the people that need it and gets there now. The people in Yemen cannot wait any longer.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) mentioned the issue of arms sales. It is absolutely clear that aid agencies that are working so hard on the ground are being impeded in their work by the bombs falling from the sky above them and the danger that they face every single day. They cannot provide the services that they would like to, because they are constantly under attack.
My hon. Friend is making a poignant speech. Would she agree that UK Government policy appears to be undermining itself, selling arms on the one hand and trying to provide aid through the Department for International Development on the other?
I agree that it is a huge waste of money to be providing aid and to also be endorsing the bombs that are being sold in such huge volumes and at such huge financial value. That has to stop. We cannot continue to ask aid agencies to put their staff at risk every single day. It is not just international aid agencies such as Oxfam, Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council or Islamic Relief, but the locally based aid agencies as well. They are at significantly greater risk, because they are right there on the ground facing severe dangers every single day. I implore the Minister to act to try to provide the support and ceasefire that we need to allow aid agencies to do their work and to prevent any more children dying from preventable causes. It is a situation that we can fix.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate in this debate, Mrs Moon. I join the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for a powerful speech setting out the pace and scale of the challenge of the humanitarian and the political crisis in Yemen today. He and I served together on the International Development Committee in the previous Parliament and he has been an important voice on these issues, as have my two friends from the all-party parliamentary group, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss).
There is a paradox at the heart of UK policy, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth highlighted. When the International Development Committee looked at the issue in the previous Parliament, our starting point was the scale of the humanitarian crisis, but taking evidence on that took us inescapably to the United Kingdom’s role, including the issue of arms sales.
I very much endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) said about the importance of re-establishing the Committees on Arms Export Controls as early as possible. Certainly, if I am re-elected as Chair of the International Development Committee, I will support that, and I hope that Chairs from other relevant Committees from all parties will feel able to do so, because our ability as a country to say that we have the most robust system of arms control in the world is undermined if we as parliamentarians fail to establish the bodies to ensure that accountability.
The voices of the Yemeni diaspora in this country are an important part of this debate. I have been pleased to work with the Yemeni community in Liverpool and I am delighted to see the new Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), in the Chamber. The Liverpool Friends of Yemen have sought to highlight the crisis. On Saturday at Liverpool University, a group of young people from the Yemeni community in Liverpool produced a film called “Aden Narratives”, in which they interviewed British service personnel who had served in Yemen in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a great example of community cohesion and the breaking down of barriers, both of ethnicity and of age.
I want to make two comments relevant to the debate. First, I very much support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East said about the urgent need for a political solution—not only urgent but overriding. We want to see that solution. The United Kingdom has a crucial role to play at the United Nations in bringing about a ceasefire and a political solution.
Peace is the top priority, but with peace must come justice and accountability. That is why I want to finish on the crucial issue of an independent, United Nations-led inquiry into violations of international humanitarian law by all sides in the conflict, whether by the Saudi-led coalition, the Houthis or others in the country.
In particular, I want to ask the Minister about the implementation of last September’s resolution of the UN Human Rights Council that mandated additional human rights experts to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Yemen to investigate violations of international law. What progress has been made? The council resolution did not go as far as I would like—I would like to see a fully independent UN inquiry—but will the Minister update us on progress, and on the Government’s view of when we may be able to move British policy to the support of a fully independent investigation? There have been appalling allegations of violations of international humanitarian law by both the Houthi-Saleh forces and the Saudi-led forces. Accountability is vital.
Does my hon. Friend share my frustration that, over many months, he, I, many other Members and indeed Ministers have expressed our concerns directly to the Saudi Government—with Ministers who have come here to speak to us and with the ambassador—but we are still to see reports on the allegations, even from JIAT?
I absolutely share that sense of frustration described by my hon. Friend. I am hopeful that we will hear of some progress from the Minister. I am keen to sit down now in case the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) wishes to catch your eye, Mrs Moon—but he does not.
I call Toby Perkins.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing the debate and on his campaign—
I remind Members that I will call the Scottish National party Front-Bench spokesperson at 5.10 pm.
I was on target a few seconds ago.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth has done good work on this. I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) said about how we need a humanitarian and political solution to such an urgent humanitarian crisis. We also need to recognise that there will be no military solution—the Saudis themselves acknowledge that there is unlikely to be a military victory and that it will be about terms on which the peace discussions take place.
Any breaches of international humanitarian law are unforgivable. I entirely agree with the need to have an independent UN-led inquiry into them. However, I am conscious that all the discussion in this debate has been about the Saudi side. I understand what my hon. Friend said about the fact that we are supplying only one side, but we should remember that the whole conflict started because the Iran-backed Houthis came in and took over from the internationally recognised Government. If we take a one-sided approach to this, I am concerned about the message we will be sending.
The International Trade Committee supported the UN Security Council resolution to support the intervention by the Saudis in the first place. Of course the Saudis should act in line with international humanitarian law and of course people should be held to account if they have breached that, but if all our focus is on one side we will be heading towards dangerous territory.
I am also keen to hear what the Minister has to say about how we can get a political solution to back up the immediate humanitarian solution that is required that actually puts pressure on the Houthis to recognise that they were the initial perpetrators and holds other people to account.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this debate. He has shown himself to be a voice of authority on this matter over the past few years, so I commend him not just for securing the debate but for all the work that he has done and will continue to do.
What we have heard about this afternoon is nothing short of the weaponisation of food and medicine. Our role in that surely should shame us all. I have heard nothing to disagree with on what people would like to see from the UK Government to help to ease the humanitarian situation. I am not sure whether I can call the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) the Chair of the International Development Committee, or whether I should call him the former or prospective Chair, but I echo his comments. He said that he would like to see an independent United Nations inquiry. We can of course support that.
I come back to our role in this matter—and, more fundamentally, our role with Saudi Arabia, which I make no apologies for focusing on. It seems to me that we weave quite a tangled web. I cannot understand why the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), when he was Justice Secretary last year, was able to withdraw from a contract with the Saudi Arabian Government over prisons co-operation because of human rights concerns, yet we cannot take real action on our role in the Saudi command structure. What exactly are UK operatives doing in that command structure? A joint Select Committee published a report demanding to know exactly that, but all the Government have done is tell us what they are not doing. That strikes me as something particularly dark that needs to be addressed.
I question the need for such involvement with Saudi Arabia. I understand that we need some form of relationship, and that our relationship is important in terms of the intelligence it gives us—that is sometimes overblown, but it is important none the less—but the optics of a Prime Minister rushing off to Saudi Arabia post-Brexit to secure a trade deal leave rather a bad taste in the mouth. The Government seriously need to revisit their entire relationship as far as arms sales and wider trade deals are concerned.
That relationship cuts to the heart of our entire involvement in the Arab world and middle east politics. It sullies and sours our reputation and our ability to get things done. It is quite obvious that America wishes to step back from its responsibilities around the world as far as humanitarian aid is concerned. That provides us with an opportunity—one that we would perhaps not wish to have—to get in there and lead from the front, but the Government seem awfully shy to do so.
This conflict clearly will not end any time soon, and this issue will dog the Government during this Parliament, however long that may last. As long as the debate is led by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth and other right hon. and hon. Members who have tenaciously worked away at this issue for many years, the Government will not get off the hook.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). He has been a powerful advocate for immediate action in this terrible and appalling conflict, which reduces many of us to tears when we hear its shocking details. Because time is limited I shall not be able to go through some of the brilliant contributions that we have heard this afternoon, but I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend’s disappointment in the lack of action by the Government. He is, of course, angry with the parties themselves, who have perpetrated and continue the appalling conflict.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) made an important intervention about how vital and urgently needed the UN resolution is, and said that Britain’s role on the Security Council could enable us to secure it. I hope that the Minister will address that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) mentioned the Committees on Arms Export Controls, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) among others. It is vital that the Committees, which are essential and on which I have served in the past, should be reconvened as soon as possible. It is essential to keep a close eye and a rein on the weapons that are being exported, and on those to whom they are being exported legitimately.
Yemen is the site of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations. It is the “forgotten war”, according to Amnesty International. We have heard about the massive cholera outbreak of recent weeks, in which 250,000 people have already been affected. That should shame us all. Forty-five per cent. of the population are under 15 years old, and 21 million people in the country, or approximately 80% of the population, are in need of assistance. That is more than in any other country, according to the United Nations. We have the power to do something about that, and are failing to do it, which should shame us all.
I want to consider our involvement in the conflict. According to Oxfam and the House of Commons Library, since 2015 the UK Government have approved arms export licences worth £3.3 billion. Yet at the same time we have pledged just £139 million in humanitarian aid from the 2017-18 Budget. We could do much more, and could do considerably less about supplying those arms. The Labour party strongly believes that Britain must immediately halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia and focus on negotiating a ceasefire. A Labour party press release from April stated:
“As it stands, the British-Saudi relationship is damaging to the people of Saudi Arabia, Britain and the wider Middle East, and helping to export insecurity to the rest of the World”.
Yemen, as we have heard from a number of speakers, is dependent for almost all its food, fuel and medical supplies on the port of Hodeidah; 80% of all imports to the country arrive via that major port, in a densely populated area controlled by the Houthis. The Saudi-supported army of the official Yemeni Government continues to threaten to take the port by force, and other hon. Members have mentioned that that could have an even more serious consequence in relation to the breakdown of society and the humanitarian disaster currently encapsulating the country.
I will conclude by quoting the concluding remarks of a paper of 11 December 2015 by Professor Philippe Sands, QC, Professor Andrew Clapham and Blínne ni Ghrálaigh—great minds in international law—for Amnesty International, Oxfam and Saferworld:
“In the current circumstances we can be clear in concluding what the UK is required to do to bring itself into full compliance with its legal obligations: it should halt with immediate effect all authorisations and transfers of relevant weapons and items to Saudi Arabia, pending proper and credible enquiries into the allegations of serious violations of IHL and IHRL that have arisen and that could arise in the future, as addressed in this opinion and the sources here referred to.”
That is consistent with the policy of the Labour party. I hope that the Minister can at least address that important conclusion in a legal opinion.
First, I pay tribute to the extraordinary range and passion of these debates. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) is a doughty, redoubtable opponent. He knows an enormous amount about this subject. I was privileged to work with him on the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill Committee, where I developed an enormous respect for his eye for detail and his ability to discover the most vulnerable and important points in an argument.
It will be difficult to touch on everyone’s points in 10 minutes, but I will run through them quickly. The hon. Gentleman produced a large overview of the context of the problems and pushed hard a strong moral line on what he felt the solution should be. The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who has been probably the greatest champion for Yemen in the House of Commons since he entered the House—he was born in Aden, like his sister—has kept a focus in endless forums on one of the most horrifying situations in the contemporary world, and strongly on the UN resolution. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) showed her own focus on this issue and in particular on technical issues around Hodeidah port.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) wanted to focus on specific questions about additional support on human rights. I very much hope he will again be the Chair of the International Development Committee, and I agree with the challenge that came from my friend the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) about the importance of setting up the Committees on Arms Export Controls as quickly as possible. The answer is that we are focused on providing additional support to the Human Rights Commission and have made that clear on a number of occasions—indeed we are already producing support.
The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) brought us into the discussion about the role of the Houthi-Saleh alliance and its culpability in these affairs. Indeed, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth focused on that as well. The hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) posed a big moral challenge to the Government, and the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) brought us back to questions that touch in particular on arms sales.
I will try to address those questions in total—they are very deep and important questions. Of course, the honest answer is that we do not have all the solutions to those problems. The British Government are doing an enormous amount—probably more than we are being given credit for in this Chamber—but clearly all the things we are doing are not sufficient to solve this crisis. The problem is—the hon. Member for Leeds North East pointed this out—although it is true that we are spending only about £180 million[Official Report, 20 July 2017, Vol. 627, c. 1-2MC.] in Yemen, we have to bear it in mind that, unfortunately, the situation in Yemen is not the only situation in the world. We are spending 0.7% of our GDP on international development and we have to make some difficult choices, because—this is the main point—the situation we face in Yemen has similarities with situations we are struggling with all over the world.
Whatever solutions are proposed her—and whatever belief there is from the hon. Member for Glasgow Central that it is within the power of the United Kingdom to sort the situation out—need to be addressed also to the problems in north-east Nigeria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine. I raise that because the fundamental problems on the ground in Yemen are driven by the region and the internal politics of Yemen. Those are fundamentally political problems. Some of their roots stretch back to the original formation of the Yemeni state.
I have not been to Yemen since March 2014. If any Member in the Chamber has been to Yemen more recently, I would love to hear from them. None of us in the Chamber has been to Yemen in the past three years. That is an important fact to bear in mind when we talk about the situation, and it is important because the situation is changing very quickly. Even since my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) visited, the situation has changed again and again.
Members of the APPG are very keen to go to Yemen in order to get the kind of information we need; the problem is that Saudi Arabia has to agree to it, because it is Saudi Arabia that allows aircraft into Yemen. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) went in under his cloak; the rest of us would love to go, but we cannot. If the Minister can help us to get there, that would be great.
That is a challenge for me, and I would love to take it on. Let me try to touch on some things in the remaining five minutes. The one thing that I unfortunately cannot touch on—the elephant in the room—is arms sales. There is a serious legal proceeding looking exactly at the question that has been posed by everybody here: whether the UK Government were, as we believe, in compliance with our international humanitarian obligations. A judge and some expert lawyers will very soon be able to resolve whether Philippe Sands is correct or we as the British Government are correct.
The Minister rightly states that he cannot do that, and I do not disagree with his wider analysis of the roots of this conflict and the wider dynamics in the region. However, can he explain why we are not using the full width of our diplomatic apparatus to put pressure on the Saudis and other parties in the conflict? Why did the Prime Minister not raise it in her call with the new Crown Prince, and why have we not called Saudi Arabia out on its repeated failure to give answers to the investigations into the allegations that have been made? The Minister said that they were running out of time and that we are getting frustrated, but we have not called them out on it.
The Prime Minister raised it directly on her April visit to Saudi Arabia, Ministers have raised it repeatedly and we have had senior military staff on the ground.
The overall picture, which I will try to touch on, is how we combine those political levers and our influence on Saudi Arabia with the influence that can be exercised by others. What influence could we exercise on, for example, the United Arab Emirates, in order to influence Saudi Arabia? What influence can we exercise on the United States? The hon. Member for Glasgow Central raised the issue of the Hodeidah port. One of the most important things that happened in changing our fears around that port was General Mattis’s intervention on the question of a military intervention there, which made a huge difference.
It is really important to understand that, along with those political and diplomatic approaches, we have to combine our humanitarian approach, which I do not think we have talked about enough, and we have to think about a long-term political solution. In terms of that humanitarian approach, we are doing an enormous amount. We are putting in people to focus on cholera and we have a huge focus on food delivery and shelter.
We are also doing an enormous number of smaller things, for which we are not getting credit. We are working with the UN specifically on the crane issue, on funding UN Humanitarian Air Service flights and on specifically funding the office of Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who is the UN envoy to Yemen. Those are smaller, million-pound projects that are all trying to identify weaknesses in the system that we can then plug. We are also working on financial flows and on trying to make sure that wheat gets in.
However, the overall solution to this situation has to be political. That is where we need to get to—but what does it look like? It is fine for me to stand up here and spout jargon. In theory, that political solution involves a genuinely inclusive answer. It has to include not only the regional powers but, above all, without fear or favour —as identified by Simon Shercliff, our really good ambassador to Yemen—all the warring parties. It cannot be a military solution, and it must include other people.
The solution must include people in Hadramaut, who have not been included in conversations to date, and it must also really think about how we include women. That is not a trivial point. One of the real strengths of what happened in 2013-14 was the genuine inclusion of Yemeni civil society. That made a huge difference, because although Yemen is now being presented to us as though it is nothing but some medieval tribal cockpit of violence, it is in fact a highly sophisticated society with a very active civil society, and the inclusion of women in civil society groups will be central to getting a lasting solution. It will also mean that we, the British Government, will have to be honest with Parliament about the real problems that we face.
There is a huge emphasis on the security side, huge diplomatic pressure and a lot of humanitarian spending. However, above all, these are the questions I will pose to finish on: first, where is the UN going to go on this? One problem is that it will be extremely difficult, in the current context, to get a new UN Security Council resolution through, because some members of the Security Council will oppose it. Secondly, what is the current relationship between Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed and the Houthi? He was shot at when he last went into Sana’a. Thirdly, what is the UAE’s position? Fourthly, how will it be possible to integrate other groups? Finally, what is the long-term position of President Hadi? Those critical, detailed questions will determine our success or failure.
Is the Minister not missing two final points: the rising threat of al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula and the rise of ISIS? It is across all of the UN reports that ISIS is moving into ungoverned spaces. Because of the aggression of the Houthis in threatening Sunni communities, they are responding by raising the black flag.
I will finish on this. What are the interests of the Yemeni—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).