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Volume 535: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Duddridge.)

It is a great pleasure for me, though a sad pleasure, to raise in the House yet again the situation in Yemen. I am delighted to see the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) at the Dispatch Box to keep the House informed of developments in Yemen.

My attachment to Yemen comes from the fact that it is the country of my birth. My parents having been born in Mumbai in India travelled to Aden in south Yemen, where I, my sister, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and my other sister were born. For the first nine years of my life I lived in Yemen. I have returned to Yemen over the years, having established the all-party Yemen group. It is a country to which I feel an emotional and physical attachment, because of the kindness that was shown to me and my family and the way in which that country has sought to develop over the past quarter of a century.

I am sorry to say that the situation in Yemen is yet again at a crisis level. That is despite the good work of successive British Governments. I pay tribute in particular to the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for International Development, the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan), our ambassador in Sana’a, Jon Wilks and Joanna Reid, who heads the DFID project there. All those people who are still in that country in turmoil show what is best about Britain. A commitment made by Ministers at the Dispatch Box and at numerous conferences in the past decade has been followed through by exceptional public servants.

The political crisis that we are seeing shows a central Government in Yemen who are weak, peaceful protests that are turned into violence and, since the start of this year, hundreds of people dead and thousands injured across this impoverished country. At least 94 children are known to have died since the start of the year. Recent reports from places such as Taiz, a southern town that has always had a tradition of law and order—a real civil society—reveal that it has become a place of lawlessness. Only last Wednesday seven civilians were killed in Taiz, including two children.

The background to the events has always been that Yemen is a poor country, but we now have a humanitarian crisis. Some 7.5 million people struggle to find enough to eat each day; 320,000 people have been displaced in the north and 100,000 in the south. Yemen is the poorest country in the middle east, with 40% of Yemenis living off less than £1.25 a day. In Yemen there are 3.6 million children under the age of five, 43% of whom are underweight and 58% of whom have had their growth stunted. There are acute water shortages, and inflation and unemployment are rocketing. One in three Yemenis go hungry every night. It has the third highest malnutrition rate in the world.

So the background to the current situation of unease and crisis is the humanitarian catastrophe. I was told recently at a meeting with the Yemeni Foreign Minister that 32 schools were closed in Sana’a due to military occupation and that there are severe electricity shortages.

The World Bank has cut back on aid, freezing its £500 million programme and citing the uncertainty in the political and security situation. As the Minister will know if he has followed the deliberations on Yemen in the House, the concern has always been that countries of good will come together, as they did under the previous Government when the former Prime Minister held a conference concerning Yemen, and the Friends of Yemen donated billions of dollars to Yemen, but at the end of the day very little of that money finds its way to the Yemenis.

So we have a power vacuum. President Saleh has been in office for many, many years. I have met him on many occasions and the Foreign Secretary met him just before the Arab spring and the protests began. He is a president who has been very supportive of the present Government, but a president nevertheless who made it clear that he wished to leave the country’s presidency, vacate his position and give way to a Government of national unity. We need to resolve the impasse. Because of the bombing that occurred in the presidential palace, President Saleh went to Saudi Arabia and the situation became a little calmer, but it has become worse again.

Why does this matter? The situation matters to us hugely because what happens in Sana’a today may well happen on the streets of London, so the counter-terrorism agenda is extremely important. That is why I have welcomed the support that the American Government gave to the Yemeni security forces, donating £90,000- worth of public order equipment in order to train members who were there to provide support. The reason we are so interested in that country is that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is based in Yemen. There are people in that country who not only want to destabilise Yemen and therefore the middle east, but want to export their brand of terrorism to other parts of the world. Tackling terrorism is a key factor in trying to deal with the situation there.

I was heartened to hear from the Prime Minister at the Liaison Committee that at a meeting of the National Security Council, the Secretaries of State of all the major Departments focused on the situation in Yemen. That pleases me, having raised the matter on so many occasions. As Yemen does not have the oil resources of a Libya or the punch power of a country such as Saudi Arabia, it is easily forgotten. It was heartening to know that at the highest levels of our Government, the Prime Minister and senior Ministers were prepared to have that discussion and set out a roadmap.

How do we deal with the situation? That is what I hope the Minister will tell the House about tonight. We need somehow to move on the good work that we have done in the international debate that we are having and the pressure that we are applying in the Security Council, with an excellent resolution sponsored by the United Kingdom recently about the situation in Yemen. We have to turn those resolutions into good deeds.

That means that we need to send support for the UN envoy, and as I have said for the past six months and seriously believe, we need to send to Yemen three wise people, one representing the UN, one representing the Government, and one representing the European Union, to negotiate directly with the president and the Opposition to try to bring all sides together. It is clearly something that cannot be done just by the Yemeni Government and the Yemeni people. The Gulf Co-operation Council and the Saudi Arabian Government have tried and failed. My message to the Minister tonight is that we cannot allow the situation to drift and eventually Yemen to break up into civil war.

The picture I have painted is bleak, but we must not forget the courage of the Yemeni people. The country is awash with weapons, yet peaceful protesters are going out and trying to bring international attention to what is happening. There is a long history of peaceful protest in the Arab world. My first memory of Yemen is of standing after school one day on the top floor of the block of flats where we lived and seeing my first political protest. A group of Yemeni students were walking through the centre of Malah and protesting about the level of English teaching in their schools. I went to the balcony and watched that amazing protest. There is a long history of peaceful protest in Yemen, not a history that ends with the violence we have seen.

We must come to the aid of the Yemeni people. I know that the Minister is very busy—he now has responsibility for India, in addition to his large responsibilities all over the world—and that this is not his primary area of concern as a Foreign Office Minister, but he has come to the Dispatch Box today because he represents the Foreign Office. When he goes back to his fellow Ministers, he must tell his right hon. and hon. Friends that the House is debating Yemen today because we believe that tomorrow will be even worse.

The good news is that in a few days’ time I will welcome Tawakkal Karman, the first Yemeni to win the Nobel peace prize, to the House of Commons, where she will talk with colleagues. Because of the House’s wonderful structure of all-party groups, the all-party group on Yemen has been able to visit the country almost every year, but we have not done so for the past year and a half. I am assured by the President and the ambassador that it is safe to visit but, as I pointed out to the ambassador, even the President was not safe in the presidential palace. I am not sure that they could guarantee the safety of British Members of Parliament, so we said no on this occasion.

It has always been my dream to take my young son and daughter to visit the country where their father and aunts were born and where their grandparents had such a wonderful life before the revolution started in Aden. My dream is that one day I can ask you, Mr Speaker, to go to Sana’a and speak to the Yemeni Parliament in a situation that is very different from the one that exists currently. You have been such a great Speaker and gone to so many countries. You recently went to India and spoke to the Indian Parliament. Your going out to speak to the Yemeni Parliament in different circumstances would be of such great benefit.

I do not use the term often, but I beg the Minister, as a Government spokesman, to give this as much ministerial time as he can, not to lose focus, not to allow Yemen to break up in civil war and not to allow those who wish to peddle terrorism to take it from the streets of Aden, Taiz and Sana’a and bring it to the streets of Birmingham, London and Manchester. That is my plea to the Minister tonight.

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this short but important debate. I start by paying tribute to you, Mr Speaker, for your recent visit to India—it is not the topic under consideration, but it was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)—which was greatly appreciated by the Foreign Office and Parliament. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, a former Foreign Office Minister himself, for his long-standing interest in Yemen, which is born of his personal commitment to the country and a very contemporary interest. It is a constant reminder to the House and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the importance of Yemen to Britain’s national interests.

The British Government have a long-standing relationship with Yemen, and we have worked with its Government and our partners in the international community for some years to pursue security, prosperity and democracy in the country. The current situation is of increasing concern, however, and I am grateful for this opportunity to lay out comprehensively before the House the British Government’s current assessment.

As the right hon. Gentleman has already said, Yemen is in a sad state today. The political process is stalled, the economy is in tatters and ordinary Yemenis are suffering greatly. Security is fragile, violence is worsening and the country is fragmented and divided. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will exploit and is exploiting that instability. The country will take a long time to recover, and the British Government are profoundly concerned by Yemen’s decline, a concern that is reflected at the highest levels of the Government and in the interest being taken by the most senior Ministers.

Yemen is stuck in political stalemate. The momentum behind the valuable initiative of the Gulf Co-operation Council—GCC—to broker a political settlement leading to a managed transition has been lost, and over the past 10 months we have seen widespread demonstrations throughout Yemen calling for President Saleh to step down and for democratic change. Tragically, the demonstrations have also frequently seen the use of excessive and lethal force by Government security forces, but regrettably the armed opposition, too, has been partly responsible for the frequent escalation of violence.

We have condemned in the strongest terms the use of excessive force against unarmed protesters, and we have called for restraint by all sides and for the Yemeni authorities to listen to the legitimate demands of the Yemeni public for change. We continue energetically to encourage negotiators on both sides urgently to conclude discussions on implementing a plan for political transition based on the Gulf Co-operation Council initiative. That plan, brokered by Yemen’s neighbours and with widespread international support, represents the best hope for a peaceful end to the crisis. It envisages a transfer of presidential power to the vice-president, the establishment of a national unity Government led by the Opposition and early presidential elections.

We welcomed President Saleh’s decree in September in which he authorised Vice-President Hadi to restart dialogue with the Opposition and to sign the initiative on his behalf. Along with our EU, US and GCC partners, as well as the UN, we have been working closely with the vice-president and the Opposition to encourage a speedy conclusion to discussions on an implementation mechanism.

It is important to appreciate, however, that our and, principally, our regional partners’ efforts are ultimately dependent on the willingness of President Saleh to fulfil his promise to agree formally to transition. To date, he has pledged on several occasions to pass all executive authority to the vice-president and then to step down, but each time I regret to say that he has reneged on his promise.

Our task, alongside our international partners, has been and continues to be to impress upon the Yemeni leadership that, in the absence of an agreed and sustainable political settlement, Yemen will continue to spiral downwards towards state failure and humanitarian catastrophe. We can already see that the country is fragmented and under-governed, with growing insecurity, especially in southern Yemen, and with frequent episodes of extreme violence, targeted largely at unarmed protestors.

The Yemeni authorities have lost security control over large swathes of the country, and the Government are barely functional, struggling to deliver services and to pay salaries. The current situation has the biggest impact on the wider Yemeni population, who are struggling to eke out an existence in an environment of food price rises, water scarcity and sudden upsurges in violence, so it is indeed a truly terrible situation.

I thank the Minister very much for what he has said so far, but there is a logjam: we have groups, in their particular positions, unwilling to give way. The President has said that he wants to go, the Opposition want to take over, and the Saudi Arabian Government and the Gulf Co-operation Council are involved, but what is the mechanism by which we break that logjam? We do not want a bloody revolution, so there must be something that we can do, with all the great diplomacy at our disposal, to try to break this logjam. What does the Minister think it should be?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s assessment. I hope that the next passage of my speech will at least provide him with some assurance that we are seeking to make progress, while recognising that we inevitably face some restrictions and limitations on our ability to bring about the change we all wish to see.

The lack of urgent progress in Yemen towards achieving peace, alongside a worsening humanitarian situation, has placed the country increasingly under the international spotlight. Since the Adjournment debate on the subject secured by the right hon. Gentleman in April, the United Nations has begun to play a helpful political role in support of the efforts of the GCC, alongside our EU and US partners. A UN special adviser has visited the country five times and will be arriving in Yemen again shortly. We welcome the UN Security Council’s statements and, most recently, resolution 2014, which was adopted unanimously on 21 October. As the Foreign Secretary stated, that resolution represents a clear indication from the international community that the deteriorating humanitarian, economic and security situation in Yemen is a direct result of President Saleh’s refusal to agree to a political settlement.

That was also the view of the EU Foreign Affairs Council in October, which said that it would explore all available options if the political impasse persisted and the economic and humanitarian situation continued to deteriorate as a result. We, the British Government, will continue to work closely with our international partners and allies, including in both the EU and the Security Council, to support a peaceful transition. We look forward to the Security Council’s review on 21 November of the situation in Yemen in the light of the adoption of resolution 2014.

We have talked about the Yemeni economy. Its situation is truly desperate. Economic collapse and escalating conflict and violence is pushing Yemen into a humanitarian crisis. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the role played by the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan) in that regard. We share the UN Security Council’s grave concern about the deteriorating humanitarian situation. Although a £15.4 million package of humanitarian assistance has been given, DFID continues to support a range of initiatives being carried out by non-governmental organisations, UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross to help to alleviate the suffering of Yemenis. DFID continues to be active in Yemen.

More generally, the current crisis has set back Yemen’s development by years. Yemen was already the poorest country in the middle east and faced significant challenges, including falling oil revenues, increased water scarcity and rapid population growth. There is political instability, violence, great poverty, economic hardship and, as a result, humanitarian suffering. It is very much the Government’s intention to approach Yemen in a broad co-ordinated way, drawing on our security and diplomatic expertise, as well as on our humanitarian and development knowledge.

Yemen’s human rights record is also very worrying. The high number of credible allegations of violations perpetrated by the authorities against peaceful demonstrators is disturbing. There have been numerous reports of detentions, civilians caught up in armed conflict, the recruitment of child soldiers and restrictions applied to the media. We have witnessed appalling violations by the security forces since the beginning of the protests, in particular in Sana'a on 18 March. Most recently, we have seen an escalation of violence by both sides in Sana'a in September, and the shocking use of heavy artillery to quell demonstrations. We estimate that more than 400 civilians have now been killed and that thousands have been injured.

I should like to use this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of all our staff in the embassy at Sana’a. The right hon. Gentleman said at the end of his speech how much he would like to be able to take a cross-party delegation from this Parliament to the Parliament in Yemen but was prevented from doing so by his concerns about the security situation. It is worth placing on the record the fact that the United Kingdom staff and their Yemeni colleagues have been operating in very difficult circumstances in an environment of high terrorist threat. Sana’a is now probably our most dangerous post world-wide—the most dangerous place for Foreign Office and other British Government staff to serve in. Our diplomats’ ability to operate has also been continually constrained by ever-present and unpredictable bouts of violence and civil disorder. Our staff are living in temporary container accommodation inside the embassy compound and have to cope with irregular electricity, and occasionally even water, supplies. Life for our local staff has often been even more difficult, with many living in areas of the city affected by ongoing violence and curfews. They have been constantly affected by frequent food, fuel and electricity shortages. Yet through all this, all our staff continue to show willingness, effectiveness and commitment in pursuit of our vital national objectives in Yemen.

That brings me to the crux of what I wish to say. The reason we maintain, at considerable cost and, in terms of hardship, a considerable burden on our staff, a diplomatic and wider British Government presence in Yemen is that we recognise, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the great importance of Yemen in its own right across the wider region and globally. As he said, it is important in security terms because the presence of al-Qaeda and other malign influences in Yemen means that they have the potential to visit themselves on us here in the United Kingdom. However, we also recognise it in other regards.

I hope the Minister will forgive me for interrupting. We also have responsibility because the Aden protectorate was, for a very long time, a responsibility of ours. I speak as someone who lived there for four years. We also have a responsibility to this part of the world because of that.

I endorse the point that my hon. Friend makes. We have a narrow self-interest in security terms, but I hope and believe that we also have a wider enlightened interest, and a desire on humanitarian grounds to see the population of Yemen living more materially prosperous lives free from the degree of insecurity that they must feel on a daily basis. I hope and believe that not only because of the hard concerns about national security but because of a desire to see stability, peace and relatively greater prosperity in Yemen, the British Government are affording that country the degree of attention and seriousness that it clearly warrants.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to discuss Yemen’s manifold challenges and what he has said about them. I am sure that we will have other opportunities to discuss what I hope will be progress by the British Government and our international partners in the months and years ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.