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War in Yemen: First Anniversary

Volume 607: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the first anniversary of war in Yemen.

I am grateful for the opportunity to hold a brief debate as one of the ways to mark one year of the dreadful human suffering that this poor country has witnessed. I am also grateful to all those who have taken time to attend the debate this morning.

Yemen is a country of just under 26 million people, with a land area comparable to that of the state of California. It occupies part of the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, and its position means that it has always had immense strategic importance; it guards the narrow entrance between the gulf of Aden and the Red sea. Certainly since the building of the Suez canal, that route has been of immense importance to nations much further afield than the immediate middle eastern area.

There are records of civilisation in Yemen going back at least 5,000 years, and probably significantly longer. Yemen was almost certainly the location of the biblical kingdom of Sheba. It has been known for great wealth, great pomp and great power. Today, sadly, it is known for quite the opposite. Its nearest land neighbours are some of the wealthiest empires on the planet, and I ask Members to bear that in mind when I go on to talk about the desperate plight facing tens of millions of ordinary men, women and particularly children in Yemen.

For most of the country’s history, Yemen has been divided. In the 19th century, the British used military force to take over part of the southern area around Aden. Until then, most of Yemen had been under the Ottoman empire. The Ottomans remained in the north until their empire fell at the end of the first world war. British rule in the south continued until 1967. A few years later, the south came under Marxist rule, closely aligned to the Soviet bloc. When the Soviet bloc then collapsed in 1990, the two halves were united again, at least nominally.

However, the tension, suspicion and regular outbreaks of violence between north and south Yemen that marked the latter half of the 20th century have continued unabated since the country was notionally combined under a single ruler. The present war started after the Houthis, one of the main factions in the country, attempted to overthrow the rule of the President. The President is still recognised as such by influential neighbours such as Saudi Arabia, and also by the United Nations and most of the international community.

It is quite common for those looking for a simple answer to characterise the conflict as simply a dispute between Sunni and Shi’a Islamic forces. It is probably true that that element is part of the reason why Saudi Arabia has taken such a keen interest and has sought so hard to exert influence—sometimes by peaceful means and sometimes not. Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it is not comfortable with the idea of a Shi’a Government being present on its southern border with Yemen.

Yemen is a country that is still deeply divided. There is no right or wrong answer as to who should be regarded as the legitimate ruler just now. Democracy has never really flourished in either part of the country, certainly since it was unified. There were elections of sorts, but there has never been a time when the rule of the ballot box has prevailed for any length of time over the rule of the bomb and the bullet. If we were to ask the ordinary citizens of Yemen now who they want their Government to be, those who were not too scared to speak out would, in all probability, say, “Just give us peace. Give us stability, and we’ll worry about who our Government is later.”

It is important to recognise that the fact that the deposed President is still regarded by the UK and others as the legitimate President has been used by some powers to justify taking a one-sided stance in the dispute and conflict. For me, there are serious questions as to whether either faction can be regarded as fit to govern. Claims of appalling abuses of human rights and crimes against humanity—the use of deliberate starvation of children as a weapon of war, for example—have been laid with significant credibility at the feet of both factions, and we need to ask the question: would it be acceptable for either of those sets of war criminals to take charge of the country when there is an end to the present conflict?

There is a lot of uncertainty and no definite right and wrong answers as to who the Government should be. One problem is that going back to the days of empires, colonial powers and so on, it is hard to find a single period when anyone who governed Yemen cared very much about the 25 million to 26 million people who live there. I do not think that either of the factions now fighting for control of the country are really that interested in the welfare of civilians.

In the background, and moving very much into the foreground, is al-Qaeda, which has had a presence in Yemen for a number of years. It has taken advantage of the instability and the conflict to seize more and more territory. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as it now styles itself, is probably the most powerful, influential and dangerous element of al-Qaeda anywhere in the world. We should be concerned about that, and we should be looking for a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict so that different sides in the dispute can start to concentrate on removing al-Qaeda and the threat it carries.

An indication, perhaps, of just how complex and often incomprehensible the whole situation is are the credible—and I believe thoroughly accurate—accounts that Saudi-led coalition forces have fought alongside al-Qaeda forces at times during the conflict. If a war leads to Saudi forces and al-Qaeda fighting on the same side, it should tell all of us that we have to think very carefully about how we get involved.

What there can be no room for any doubt about whatsoever is the desperate plight of tens of millions of ordinary men, women and children just like us in Yemen. Save the Children provided a helpful briefing for us a few weeks ago, and I will quote some of its figures. It is producing a much more detailed and up-to-date report tomorrow; I do not want to pre-empt that launch, other than to say that the report does not change very much Save the Children’s description a few weeks ago of the severity of the situation. It has reported, as have others, that more than 2,000 children have been killed or seriously injured in the past 12 months. The initial report states that

“1.3 million children under the age of five are suffering from acute, life-threatening malnutrition.”

It continues:

“In 2015, more civilian deaths and injuries from explosive weapons were recorded in Yemen than in any other country around the world.”

Yemen is the most dangerous place in the world in terms of civilians being killed by bombs and missiles. It is also regarded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and, I believe, by Save the Children as the country with the most people in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Estimates of the number of people who are in a life-threatening situation through a lack of humanitarian aid start at around the 10 million mark. As I said, 1.3 million children under five are suffering from life-threatening malnutrition. For a four or five-year-old, the time it takes to go from life-threatening to too late is not very long at all. We have to act, and we have to act now, to establish safe and secure routes for food and other essential supplies to get to those children, their families and their parents.

There have been reports—again, reliable ones—that when explosive weapons have been used in built-up areas, 93% of the casualties have been civilians. If that is the case and attacks keep happening, we have to ask ourselves: is that really accidental? Is it really unintentional? It cannot be claimed to be unforeseen, and my view is that anyone who undertakes any act of violence when civilian casualties are foreseen or foreseeable must be held fully responsible for wilfully and recklessly causing deaths.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely discussion. As he will be aware, the UK is Europe’s largest donor of humanitarian aid to Yemen, but at the same time the UK is also the largest arms supplier to Saudi Arabia. Does he agree that it would be great to have an answer from the Minister today about how the Government can reconcile that stark contradiction?

I am grateful for that intervention, and I agree entirely. I do not remember the exact figures— I have them somewhere—but I can say that UK emergency aid to Yemen is measured in the tens of millions, whereas UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are measured in thousands of millions. The disparity is stark.

I come to the question of arms sales. The Government have previously defended them, essentially by saying, “We can’t find any evidence that weapons from British sources have been used actively in this oppression and in killing civilians,” but that is not good enough. The United Nations panel of experts has identified 119 cases in which Saudi-led coalition forces have undertaken military action in breach of international humanitarian law, either because they have deliberately targeted civilian targets or because they knew that by attacking military targets, there was a significant risk that civilian targets would be affected. That is why we are seeing schools, hospitals, roads, railways and mosques—the very fabric of society in Yemen—being destroyed.

My good friend mentions hospitals in Yemen. Does he share my horror that Médecins sans Frontières hospitals in Yemen have been hit by projectiles and missiles, and that even ambulances have been hit as part of the conflict, putting at risk medical staff and the people they are desperately trying to help?

Again, that is a very valid point. It seems to me that whereas Governments the world over—if they are doing anything—are siding with the Saudi-led coalition, the only people who are really putting themselves out to help those in the most need of it are organisations such as Médecins sans Frontières, Save the Children and other non-governmental organisations. Many of them put their staff and volunteers at enormous risk and many of them, including Médecins sans Frontières, have seen colleagues lose their lives in air strikes, which I do not think can credibly be laid at the door of anyone other than the Saudi-led coalition.

I draw Members’ attention to an answer given on 10 March to a written question from the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who is one of a number of Members who have pressed the Government on aspects of the conflict. He asked specifically what the response of the Government of Saudi Arabia was to the representations that had been made about the attack on the hospital and about a number of other reports of attacks on civilians and breaches of human rights. As is so often the case, the Government provided a reply but not an answer; they gave no indication that they had had any response at all. I ask the Minister today: in response to United Kingdom representations, have we yet had a substantive answer from the Saudis explaining specifically the destruction of the Médecins sans Frontières hospital?

My view is that it is not enough to say that we cannot find proof that the Saudis have done this deliberately, or even that the Saudis have done this at all. It is not enough to say that we cannot find substantive proof that weapons or weapons components—some of which are manufactured by Raytheon in my constituency, incidentally—have been used. By this time, there should be conclusive evidence that they have not been used. The UK Government’s position appears to be, “We are not going to investigate it particularly carefully; it is up to the Saudis to investigate what their military forces are doing.” What kind of system of international justice would we have if an accusation of mass murder was investigated only by the accused person?

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. As he will be aware, a recent UN panel of experts found that all sides in the Yemen conflict have committed serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, yet at the UN Human Rights Council, the UK Government and Saudi Arabia blocked the establishment of an independent international commission inquiry into the allegations. Does he agree that it is now time for our Government to push for that independent international UN commission of inquiry so that we get to the bottom of these crimes against humanity?

Absolutely—and I should say that questions have been asked about how exactly the Saudis got that position on the Human Rights Council and who wielded influence. That is possibly a debate for another day, but Her Majesty’s Government still have questions to answer in that area.

I want to give the Minister as much time as possible, because I am aware that responses to Westminster Hall debates fall into two camps. One is when a Minister gives a reasoned, thoughtful and helpful response, and although they are perhaps not able to give commitments, they certainly recognise that concerns have been raised and give an undertaking that the Government will seriously consider the representations that have been made, which the House no doubt accepts in good faith. The other kind is when a Minister reads a brief that could have been prepared and read by anybody, and really takes us no further forward. I hope that the Minister’s response today is of the former kind, because we need answers, including the answer that has not come yet to the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. What responses have the Saudis given, as of today, to the serious and urgent questions that the Government asked them several weeks ago about reports indicating that the Saudi-led coalition is in breach of international law? What responses have they given on the bombing of the Médecins sans Frontières hospital, for example?

Of the 119 documented cases where it appears that Saudi-led coalition forces have committed war crimes and acted in breach of international law, can the Minister point to any one that he is satisfied has been properly investigated? The Saudis are investigating in general terms, and it is quite clear that they will not take it on themselves to investigate individual incidents. If nobody investigates individual incidents when there are accusations of war crimes, the war criminals will get off scot-free.

Most importantly, I want a commitment from the Government that they will use their full influence to call for an immediate and lasting ceasefire across the whole territory of Yemen, because until that happens, we cannot start to get essential food, medical and other supplies brought into the country. Yemen relies heavily on imports for its food, fuel and other life essentials. I commend the Government for the action they were able to take to ease the blockade that was imposed on the main port of Yemen, but we still have to ask how anybody could blockade the major port in a country that relies on imports to feed its children and not stand accused of deliberately using the starvation of children as a weapon of war. Whatever else may come out of the investigations into individual military airstrikes, I believe that those who sanctioned the blockade and those who helped to enforce it have a case to answer. I want to hear a commitment from the Government that they will press for those responsible to be brought before an international court if evidence can be found against them.

We have to turn off the tap to stop the bath from overflowing. If we operated a country sports shop and heard claims that one of our customers was shooting children as well as deer in the forests, would we wait for them to be convicted, or would we say to them next time they came in, “We are not selling you any more bullets”? There are surely enough credible, documented cases for the United Kingdom Government to say immediately, “We will no longer provide weapons of war, or the components of weapons of war, until we have cast-iron evidence that none of them have been used for the killing of children in Yemen.” Otherwise, all those who have condoned the military action in any way, whether they are brought to account soon or much later on, will be faced with the accusation, “I was hungry and you cut off my food supply. I was sick and you bombed my hospital. I was a child and you denied me the right to grow to adulthood.” If we have done this to the least of these children, we have done it to the creator of these children. There is no more time for prevarication. There can be no more justification for complicity, direct or indirect, in the killing of Yemen’s children. There should be an immediate ban on the sale of military equipment of any kind to anyone involved in this carnage.

It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I very much welcome this debate, which is one of a series we have had—and, I hope, will continue to have—that scrutinises what the Government are doing with the international community to assist people to see the atrocities and tragedy taking place in Yemen, and not least to raise the profile of what is happening there, bearing in the mind the other challenges that we face in the middle east. I very much congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on securing this debate.

The UK counts itself among Yemen’s strongest friends, with a relationship, as the hon. Gentleman outlined, that dates back centuries. Aden was the main refuelling stop for ships between Britain and the far east and many Yemeni immigrants form some of the oldest Muslim communities in the UK, particularly in the port areas of Liverpool, South Shields and Cardiff.

Yemen is the poorest country in the middle east. For some years now, the UK has taken the lead in trying to tackle poverty, support state institutions and address the dire humanitarian situation. Furthermore, peace and stability in Yemen matter to the UK because that is the best way to mitigate the terrorist threat emanating from the Arab peninsula. Well-established groups in Yemen, such as AQAP—al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—and now Daesh, are a threat to our national security and we remain resolved to tackle this.

Regarding the conflict, the House is aware that Yemen had been making steady progress towards improved stability. A Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered initiative back in 2011 committed all parties to talks, to a new constitution and to national elections, but regretfully the Houthis stepped away from the talks. They chose conflict instead of consensus and in September 2014, with support from forces loyal to former President Saleh, they staged a takeover of the legitimate Government of President Hadi and took control of key state institutions. That was clearly unacceptable, but also a clear violation of the 1994 Yemeni constitution and the principles of the 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council initiative.

The legitimate President of Yemen, President Hadi, called for help to deter Houthi aggression. A Saudi Arabian-led regional coalition responded to enable the return of the legitimate Yemeni Government. The UN then passed Security Council resolution 2216—the House has become very familiar with it—condemning the unilateral actions of the Houthis and the destabilising actions of both the Houthis and former President Saleh.

The Houthis consistently failed to implement commitments made in the so-called peace and national partnership agreement of September 2014. Houthis and pro-Saleh forces seized territory and heavy weapons across the country. They are holding the Minister of Defence and other senior members of the Yemeni Government under house arrest and have shown total disregard for the welfare of civilians. They have also failed to adhere to UN Security Council resolutions.

It is important to remember that this is the context of the Saudi Arabian-led coalition’s military intervention. Saudi Arabia and the coalition have played a crucial role in reversing the military advance of the Houthis and forces loyal to former President Saleh. I want to make it clear that the UK is not part of the Saudi-led coalition. We are encouraging the coalition and the Yemeni Government to use their military gains to drive forward the political process.

I can share with the House the fact that in recent days there has been some encouraging progress. We have seen de-escalation along the Saudi border in the north and prisoner exchanges. We welcome the announcement on 17 March by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition that it intends to scale back its military operations in Yemen. A political solution is the best way to end the conflict and to bring long-term stability to Yemen.

The hon. Gentleman raised human rights violations. Hon. Members have mentioned several alleged violations of international humanitarian law by actors in the conflict. We are aware of the allegations that have been made by a variety of sources, including the UN panel of experts in its recent report. We looked at that very closely and take the allegations seriously. However, as I shared with the House, the report was conducted by people who did not enter the country, but used satellite technology to make their assessments, so we must place that in context with our ability to do our own assessments. The Ministry of Defence monitors incidents of alleged IHL violations using available information, which in turn informs our overall assessment of IHL compliance in Yemen.

I have previously committed to raising the allegations with the Saudi Government and did so most recently on my visit to Saudi Arabia and with the Saudi ambassador last month. I will continue to raise any such concerns. It is of course important to determine the facts of any incident and the Saudis set out their own internal investigation procedures, which are very welcome, at a press conference on 31 January.

Hon. Members also raised the issue of arms sales, but I ask whether the humanitarian situation would be any better if the UK were not selling arms to Saudi Arabia and that country was not engaged in supporting President Hadi. The hon. Member for Glenrothes questioned that. Without the coalition, the Houthis would have pressed down to the port of Aden and the scale of the humanitarian disaster in that country would be a lot worse than the one we are facing now. The fact is that the Houthis have been forced to the political table, and we now see the potential for a ceasefire because of the stalemate.

Just for clarity, will the Minister say whether the UK Government’s view is that there is no credible evidence that the Saudi coalition forces have been involved in actions against international humanitarian law?

No, I did not say that. The hon. Gentleman is leaping and almost putting words in my mouth. I want to make it clear that we have discussions with the Saudi Arabian regime and say that if there are alleged violations, they must be looked into. The Médecins sans Frontières hospital is an example of that and of when the regime should put its hand up. We have experienced this in the past in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq when collateral damage took place. It is important that procedures are in place to make sure the hand goes up, investigations take place and the necessary reparations are made. We do not want violations glossed over, which is why we are firm with every partner in the coalition to make sure they are clear about their targeting processes.

Given the growing number of serious allegations, does the Minister believe it would be right for the UK Government to call a pause in arms exports to the Saudi Arabian regime until we get to the bottom of those allegations? Would that not let him sleep at night?

What would make me sleep at night is making sure people come to the table. We are now embarking on that, thanks to the work of the UN envoy and those involved in the discussions. That is the direction we are heading in. Yes, there are allegations and we make it clear that we are doing our own assessments to understand whether the equipment we sell has any participation in that and indeed whether the violations are by the Houthis or the Saudi Arabians.

I was pleased the hon. Lady recognised—the hon. Gentleman did not mention this—that another adversary is in breach of many humanitarian laws, not least the use of child soldiers and so on. This is not to exonerate any alleged breach or violation or the fact that they must be looked into. In its resolution in October 2014, the UN Human Rights Council made it clear what the process would be. It offered UN assistance to make sure violations are looked into and a report will come back to the council in the next month.

There are two and a half minutes left. This is the hon. Gentleman’s debate and I will give way if he wants me to, or I can conclude.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I think he misunderstood or missed part of what I said. Let me be clear: I believe that both sides in this conflict are guilty of appalling crimes and that neither is fit to take over the Government of Yemen. I do not make a distinction between good war criminals and bad war criminals. There is only one sort of war criminal in my book.

I am glad I gave way and that the hon. Gentleman was able to place that on the record. It is very much appreciated.

In the limited time left, I want to say that the British military have some of the highest standards in the world governing our conduct in armed conflicts, including with regard to civilians. We have drawn on our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and we certainly want to share that with other nations, but we are not part of the targeting process in Saudi Arabia or the coalition.

The humanitarian response is important, but also complex. As the hon. Gentleman said, 82% of the population is in need of assistance. That is why the Government have pledged more than £85 million to date, making it the fourth largest humanitarian donor.

The Government are doing all we can to support a meaningful peace process and to seek an early political resolution to the conflict. At UN-facilitated talks in December 2015, the parties committed to further dialogue and that offers some hope for the future. We continue to support the UN special envoy in his efforts to convene those talks over the coming weeks and to review the ceasefire.

The Government’s position is clear: the conflict in Yemen must end and the humanitarian situation must be addressed. The legitimate Yemeni Government must be allowed to return to the capital. A political solution remains the best way to end the conflict, to bring long-term stability to Yemen and to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. All parties must engage constructively, without preconditions and in good faith. We are working closely with diplomatic channels to make this political solution a reality and to bring this devastating conflict to an end.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.