I beg to move,
That this House supports efforts to bring about a cessation of hostilities and provide humanitarian relief in Yemen, and notes that the country is now on the brink of famine; condemns the reported bombings of civilian areas that have exacerbated this crisis; believes that a full independent UN-led investigation must be established into alleged violations of international humanitarian law in the conflict in Yemen; and calls on the Government to suspend its support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces in Yemen until it has been determined whether they have been responsible for any such violations.
When we discussed Yemen in this House last week, we did so in the hope that the 72-hour ceasefire negotiated by the UN envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ahmed, could lead to a lasting cessation of hostilities from all sides and desperately needed access for humanitarian aid. These hopes, unfortunately, were dashed almost immediately. Regardless of who was first responsible for breaking the ceasefire, it is the ordinary civilians of Yemen who will pay the price. It is distressing to learn that on top of all the other threats they face from air strikes, cluster bombs, acute malnutrition and the risk of famine, the Yemeni population now face an epidemic of cholera. I believe that, wherever any Member stands on the justification for this conflict, on the UN mandate for the Saudi-led military action and on the threat to regional stability caused by the Houthi uprising, the lives of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of children are directly at risk if this conflict carries on in its present form—and none of us can tolerate that.
My hon. Friend is right that the ceasefire was critical. The efforts of the Foreign Secretary, John Kerry and the Saudi Foreign Minister as well as the special envoy were vital to ensuring that we had that ceasefire. Does she agree with me that the involvement of the British Government and the American Government is crucial to ensure that we get a permanent ceasefire?
I applaud my right hon. Friend’s commitment on this issue. I know that he was born in Yemen and that he feels very strongly about it. His approach is, of course, absolutely right: the British and the Americans have a very important influence, although most important of all is the fact that we support the efforts of the United Nations.
Let me make a little progress, and then I will give way.
Let me make it clear that this debate and today’s motion are not about the causes of the conflict or whether it is justified. Today’s debate is about the grave concerns that many Members of all parties share about the way in which the conflict is being conducted and whether those concerns are being taken seriously.
My hon. Friend has moved on from the point I wanted to raise, but I thank her for giving way. She said that whatever people think about the origins of the conflict, we can debate how terrible the situation is for Yemenis on the ground, and I agree entirely. Is there any debate, however, about the origins of the conflict or the UN Security Council resolution? I thought that we were pretty much agreed across the House that we should support that resolution.
Of course no one is saying at this stage that we should not support the UN resolution. However, further action needs to be taken in respect of the conflict. For example, it has been suggested that the UN resolution of 30 September has already mandated UN experts to work alongside the joint incidents assessment team—perhaps my hon. Friend is referring to that.
The difficulty is that if we look at the history, we find that in August the Office of the UN Commissioner on Human Rights
“called on the international community to establish an international independent body to carry out comprehensive investigations in Yemen”,
which is exactly what we are calling for today. When the compromise resolution was agreed on 30 September, the Commissioner’s Office said that it was disappointed at the outcome, stating:
“We did not have any say in the final text.”
If that resolution was not what the Commissioner’s Office wanted, I do not think that we should be satisfied with it either.
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend has received, as many MPs have, a letter from the deputy speaker of the Yemeni Parliament, in which he says that the
“demand for an independent UN-led investigation goes contrary to the United Nations Human Rights Council decision in September which called for the UN to support instead the Yemeni National Commission’s investigation into civilian casualties in the conflict.”
Would my hon. Friend like to comment?
Yes, I would. I have seen the letter, and I think it is important to condemn any breaches on both sides. It is also important to note that the UN has stated that 60% of civilian deaths have been a result of actions by the coalition. In this debate, it is important for us to examine what it is that we are doing.
I appreciate that many Members wish to speak, and I have already taken three interventions. I would like to make some progress before giving way again.
In view of all these grave concerns and dire consequences, the debate is about whether Britain should continue to support the Saudi forces leading one side of the conflict. The shadow Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), will later address the humanitarian consequences in detail, but I want to focus on concerns about the way in which the conflict has been conducted and whether those concerns are being taken seriously by the Government or indeed properly investigated.
Last week, I said that there had been
“thousands of airstrikes on civilian targets in Yemen”.
In response, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), said:
“There are not thousands…—that is to mislead the House”.—[Official Report, 18 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 667.]
Let us look at the facts. In August, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report on the conflict in Yemen, which stated that between 1 July 2015 and 1 July 2016, 2,067 civilians had been killed in that conflict. On the basis of careful investigation of each incident, it said that 60% of those deaths—as I have said—had been caused by Saudi airstrikes. The report concluded—and this is important—
“In several of the…documented attacks, we have been unable to identify the presence of possible military objectives.”
In September, the independent Yemen data project went further. It examined more than 8,600 airstrikes that had been conducted between the start of the conflict and the end of August 2016, and found that 3,158 of them had struck civilian sites, while a further 1,882 had struck sites of undetermined use.
May I just catch up with myself?
All those airstrikes took place before the recent devastating strikes on a wedding party and a funeral hall. So when I say that there have been thousands of airstrikes against civilian targets and thousands of civilians killed, I am certainly not misleading the House, as was suggested by the Under-Secretary. I would respectfully suggest that perhaps someone is misleading him.
The Yemen data project, which looked at the numbers, pointed out that the identification of the targets as civilian or otherwise referred to their original use. No further assessment was made of the time of the airstrike or the circumstances that led to it. We must try to be very careful with the use of data.
I respectfully agree. Indeed, I think that that very good point supports the argument that we are advancing today about the need for an independent investigation, so that we can establish the facts rather than going on assumptions and presumptions. We must all be satisfied that whatever investigation takes place is independent and internationally recognised.
There is evidence of a further disturbing trend in the way in which the conflict is being conducted. According to Yemen expert and London School of Economics professor Martha Mundy, detailed examination of Government agriculture statistics has revealed hundreds of cases in which farms, livestock, water, infrastructure, food stores and markets were targeted by Saudi airstrikes. Her analysis suggests that the extent of the bombing in rural areas where there is little activity besides farming is clear evidence that Yemen’s agriculture sector is being deliberately targeted. Some Members will doubtless argue that what was effectively a blockade imposed on Yemen in 2015 has helped to exacerbate the starvation crisis that we are seeing today, but Saudi Arabia did at least claim some UN mandate for that action. There is no UN mandate for the destruction of Yemen’s agriculture sector, which, if it is indeed deliberate and targeted, represents a clear breach of the Geneva convention.
That brings me to the question of how alleged violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen are being investigated. In September, the House discussed the fact that the Government’s position had changed from saying that, according to their assessment, there had been no violations of international humanitarian law to saying that they had made no such assessment, and that it was for the Saudi-led coalition to investigate any such incidents.
The Saudi Foreign Minister was recently reported as saying that, although they do not play a role in choosing the targets, United Kingdom military officials in Saudi Arabia have access to the list of those targets. If that is true, does the hon. Lady share my bewilderment about how the Government can claim not to have reached a conclusion in respect of the very serious breaches of international humanitarian law that are taking place in Yemen?
It is so gracious of the shadow Secretary of State to give way. I welcome the fact that this subject is being raised in the House today and I agree with her calls for an independent investigation into this matter. The coalition is precisely focused on training Saudis to be better able to be in compliance with international humanitarian law so that our interventions, if effective, will create fewer civilian casualties. Can she explain why she has insisted, despite a number of us asking about this, keeping in the motion the fact that the UK should withdraw support for the coalition, making it very hard for many of us to vote for it?
I take on board what my hon. Friend says, and I considered that in advance of this debate. I read something said by California Congressman Ted Lieu:
“When its repeated air strikes that have now killed children, doctors, newlyweds, patients, at some point you just have to say: Either Saudi Arabia is not listening to the United States or they just don’t care,”
and I fear the same might be true for the advice we might be given.
A Pentagon spokesperson has said:
“Even as we assist the Saudis regarding their territorial integrity, it does not mean that we will refrain from expressing our concern about the war in Yemen and how it has been waged”.
I will talk later about why I believe there may be a particular reason why, although I hear what my hon. Friend says about advice that may be given in relation to some of the targeting, there may not be advice in relation to all of it, and if he has some patience he will get an answer to part of his question.
My concern is that we are therefore putting our faith entirely in the Saudis’ joint incidents assessment team to give us the truth on these alleged violations. I showed earlier that there had been thousands of documented airstrikes on civilian sites and thousands of civilians killed as a result, so we would expect JIAT at the very least to have published reports on hundreds of these incidents, but it has published just nine. That is less than 0.002% of all airstrikes documented by the Yemen data project up to the end of August.
And how credible are those reports? The United Nations protests that four World Food Programme trucks have been attacked; JIAT blames the officials in charge of the convoy. The UN protests that 73 civilians were killed and injured in a market in Sana’a; JIAT says there have been no direct attacks on civilians and no fault on the part of the coalition forces. The UN protests that another 106 civilians were killed in a market in Hajjah; JIAT disputes that there were civilians and finds no proof of fault. The UN protests that 47 civilians were killed and 58 injured at a wedding in Dhamar; JIAT says no such bombing took place.
In only two of the nine incidents it has reported on, and the thousands more it has not, has JIAT accepted there was any fault on behalf of the Saudi-led coalition: the bombing on a residential complex in July 2015 and the airstrike on the funeral hall in Sana’a this month.
Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that, despite the frank admissions over the funeral bombing, when we have met representatives of the Saudi Government they have refused to even give a timetable for giving information on these investigations, let alone answers that might be satisfactory? Does she agree that they must come forward as soon as possible and that there should be an independent investigation?
I was at the same meeting and heard the Saudi Foreign Minister telling us he was not able to give us a timetable on the investigation and I share my hon. Friend’s grave concern about that.
When asked at the weekend about the latter incident, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East, called it “a deliberate error”, by which I believe he meant at least one individual within the coalition forces was able to deliberately unleash this terrible attack killing 140 civilians without the authorisation of the coalition command in Riyadh.
This raises major questions. Members on both sides of the House have spoken to experts on this conflict who say that there are essentially two coalition forces operating in Yemen. One is run from the capital and carries out pre-planned operations based on strong intelligence under the direction of the Americans and UK advisers. There is, however, another centre operating out of southern Saudi Arabia, which carries out dynamic reactive operations, often based on sketchy evidence, often without thinking through the so-called collateral damage and inevitably often with significant civilian casualties. I hope that that answers the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) has just raised.
If any coalition forces are acting in a reckless or indiscriminate manner in carrying out airstrikes on civilian areas, that would be a clear violation of international humanitarian law, and it should cause the whole House grave concern. The Minister’s explanation that the Sana’a funeral bombing was a deliberate error raises the prospect that there has also been intentional targeting of civilians by elements of the coalition forces, but he cannot tell us—because he does not know—how many of those thousands of airstrikes against civilian targets have also been deliberate errors.
That brings me to the crucial point of today’s motion: the need for a full independent UN-led investigation into all alleged violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen. There must be an investigation into all the thousands of attacks on civilian sites, not just nine of them, and into all the thousands of civilian deaths, not just a few hundred of them. We need to know whether Yemen’s agriculture sector has been deliberately targeted in breach of international humanitarian law. We need to know whether elements of the coalition air forces are routinely operating in a reckless and indiscriminate way. We need to know whether that deliberate error in Sana’a was a one-off or part of a more systemic problem. Finally, from a UK perspective, if there have been violations of international humanitarian law, we need to know whether UK-manufactured weapons and planes have been used to commit those violations. With all due respect to the individuals who make up Saudi’s JIAT, its output to date—whether in terms of volume, speed or content—gives no confidence that it can carry out this type of comprehensive investigation, let alone an independent one.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend’s argument. In making the case for an independent UN-led investigation, will she make it clear that it should investigate alleged violations committed by both sides in this conflict?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is quite right to suggest that there have been violations on both sides. I stated that at the outset of my speech, and it is important to make that fact absolutely clear to the House. It is also important that when we are giving support to one of the sides, we should hold that fact up to the light of day.
The hon. Lady is making the case very well for an independent investigation, but given all that we know, and what she has outlined, would it not be right to suspend arms supplies to Saudi Arabia while that independent investigation takes place?
I fully understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but let me turn that question round. At present, we are unclear—perhaps the Government will tell us definitively today—whether the weapons and planes sold to Saudi Arabia today will be used in Yemen tomorrow. Until we have an answer to that question, it is impossible for us to say what type of support we will be giving to the coalition. Should that support include the sale of arms that could be used in Yemen next month?
It is manifestly clear that we need a UN-led investigation. It is equally clear to me, and I hope to all Members, that until that investigation is concluded, it is right for the UK to suspend its active support of the coalition forces. That is partly a matter of our own moral protection, but, we should not be actively continuing to support those forces while their conduct of war is under investigation. It is partly about the pressure that such a decision—[Interruption.] If I can just finish this sentence, I will give way in a moment. It is partly about the pressure that such a decision would place on the coalition forces to avoid further civilian casualties, to engage constructively in peace talks and to allow full access for humanitarian relief.
I am most grateful to the shadow Foreign Secretary for giving way. Will she explain her proposal to the thousands of people across the country who support our allies in the region? Does it mean, for example, that she is in favour of suspending all spares for the aircraft operated by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and the other members of the coalition? Does it mean that she wants to withdraw the advice given by skilled British employees that helps our Saudi friends? If that is what she means, she is doing great damage to the British national interest.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The question is about whether it is right at this stage, given the impact on our economy, for us to be suspending our support for Saudi Arabia. Given the amount of arms and planes that we sell, is it right for us to suspend arms sales to Saudi if that is part of the support that we are giving the coalition? We have always complied with international humanitarian law when selling arms to our allies. We have regulations about who we sell arms to and in what circumstances. The Foreign Secretary himself said that the test for continued arms sales
“is whether those weapons might be used in a commission of a serious breach of international humanitarian law.”
We have rules on arms exports and we must make sure that we abide by them. We are a proud country that does our utmost to abide by international law. The questions that we are raising today are important because if our support means supporting a coalition that is acting in contravention of international law, we must reconsider that support. That is the right position.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I urge her to think for a moment about the impact that such a suspension would have on our credibility as an ally in this dangerous, fractured part of the world. There is a great difference between saying that civilians have been killed because terrorists are perhaps sheltering around what were civilian facilities and actually alleging that there is a deliberate programme of mass slaughter.
We have been doing an awful lot of historical commemoration and it is worth remembering the huge number of French civilians whom we killed in the build-up—
I refer the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) to the earlier part of my speech in which I quoted one of his own Ministers saying that a “deliberate error” had resulted in hundreds of deaths in Yemen. He must bear that in mind when we are deciding whether to continue supporting the ongoing action in Yemen. I will answer the rest of his question in the rest of my speech.
This is about the kind of signal that we are sending to the rest of the world. On Syria, Members on both sides of the House have rightly protested the bombardment of eastern Aleppo by Russia and Assad, demanded tougher international action against Russia, dismissed Russian claims that civilians are not being targeted, and called for those responsible to be tried for war crimes if necessary—they must face justice.
No, I am not giving way—26 people want to speak.
We have heard all those things strongly from the Foreign Secretary, so does he accept that when he says nothing about Yemen apart from unflinching support for Saudi Arabia, when he says that the Saudi coalition should be left to investigate itself, when his Ministers dismiss reports of thousands of civilians being killed as somehow misleading the House, when we say one thing about Russia and Aleppo but another about Riyadh and Yemen, what the rest of the world hears is hypocrisy and double standards?
Today’s motion gives us an opportunity to send the opposite message to the world: to show that we hold all countries, friend or foe, to the same high standards that we aspire to ourselves, and that although Saudi Arabia will remain a valued strategic, security and economic ally, our support for its forces in Yemen must be suspended until the alleged violations of international humanitarian law in that conflict have been fully and independently investigated, and until the children of Yemen have received the humanitarian aid they so desperately need. That is the right message to send to the rest of the world and that is the message that reflects who we are as a country. I hope that it is the message this House will vote to send today.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from ‘crisis;’ to the end of the Question and add:
“and calls on the Government to continue to support the UN Special Envoy in his ongoing efforts to achieve a political solution to bring sustainable peace to Yemen.”.
I am grateful to the Opposition for selecting this vital subject for debate. The war in Yemen has reached a critical moment, and I welcome this opportunity to set out what Britain and our allies are doing to help restore the peace and stability that Yemen’s people so desperately need.
First I should remind the House how this tragic conflict began and, in particular, how Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Gulf states came to intervene, because, contrary to the impression given in some quarters, they did not act out of some spontaneous desire to invade Yemen and attack its civilian population. Saudi Arabia and its allies were responding to a crisis that was forced on them and that posed a grave threat to international peace and security. This round of the conflict began in September 2014, when Houthi rebels overran Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, in collusion with Ali Abdullah Saleh, the previous President, and with the reported backing of Iran. Their aim was to overthrow Yemen’s legitimate Government. In January 2015, President Hadi, the serving leader, was forced to flee his own capital for the safety of Aden, a move that availed him of nothing, because two months later the Houthis attacked the south, striking as far as the outskirts of Aden and forcing President Hadi to flee his country altogether.
The situation in Yemen is potentially disastrous, and it is vital that we stand by the people of Yemen and by the coalition that is trying to sort it out. The position when President Hadi was forced to flee was potentially disastrous. Yemen is a country of 26 million people, more than half of whom are under the age of 18. There is a long-standing presence of al-Qaeda in that country, which has a history of fratricidal bloodshed and chronic instability. At that moment, there was a clear risk that the country would fall into the hands of forces avowedly hostile to Saudi Arabia, which shares an 800-mile border with Yemen, one that is vulnerable and porous. It was against that background that the Saudis and their allies took a decision to intervene in Yemen in March 2015—a decision that was not only justified, but legally sound.
I will give way in a moment.
President Hadi had formally requested military action to restore his Government, while the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation Council had both called for
“all means and measures to protect Yemen and deter Houthi aggression”.
Their fears have plainly been borne out: mortar bombs and rockets have frequently been fired over the frontier and into Saudi territory. Only two weeks ago, the Houthis launched a Scud missile which flew 300 miles into Saudi Arabia, exploding outside Taif, a city the size of Birmingham that has a population of 1.2 million and lies close to Mecca. The last time Saudi Arabia came under bombardment from Scud missiles, the weapons were fired by Saddam Hussein.
As the House will readily appreciate, this conflict has wider regional and global ramifications. Yemen sits beside the Bab el-Mandeb straits, running between the Red sea and the Indian ocean. On the same day as the Scud was fired at Saudi Arabia, the Houthis launched two other missiles at an American destroyer passing through the Bab el-Mandeb. On earlier occasions, they had fired missiles at civilian vessels plying this vital shipping lane. Every trading nation in the world, including this one—particularly this one—has a vital interest in safe passage through those straits.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is laying out his case in a forensic manner. Does he recognise that the argument from these Benches is not that there was not a legitimate political and strategic security crisis in Yemen, but that the reaction of Saudi Arabia and the coalition forces is out of all proportion to the crisis with which they were trying to deal?
It was absolutely right to support President Hadi and to recognise the scale of the crisis that Yemen faces. As I have been explaining to the House—I am glad that the hon. Gentleman accepts that I am laying out the case in a forensic manner—Britain has important interests at stake. By the way, it is right that we should be discussing this subject this afternoon. Furthermore, I can assure the House that, over the past few months, this country has been leading the way in a sustained diplomatic effort to try to settle that conflict.
I will give way in just a second.
In my first week as Foreign Secretary, we convened a meeting on Yemen with my American and Saudi counterparts and others at Lancaster House. At the United Nations General Assembly in September, I brought together all of the Gulf Foreign Ministers along with the United Nations Special Envoy, Mr Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. Together with the United States and other partners, we are doing all we can to support the efforts of Mr Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to mediate a political settlement—and there must be a political settlement. The only way forward is to get a political settlement. The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) is absolutely right that the first step towards achieving that settlement must be an enduring ceasefire, which is precisely what we are calling for. I welcomed the three-day cessation that occurred last week, and our efforts are now directed at securing a new cessation of hostilities.
I am chair of the Yemen all-party group, which is much more important to me.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving way and commend him for the efforts that he has made. The critical date was 16 October when, together with John Kerry, Ismail Cheikh and the Saudi Foreign Minister, we achieved the three-day ceasefire. Next Monday, the Security Council will be discussing the issue again. What are the right hon. Gentleman’s instructions to our permanent representative to ensure that that three-day ceasefire becomes permanent?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Like the hon. Lady, I recognise the closeness with which he follows this issue and his deep personal interest in the crisis in Yemen. What we are saying to our representatives in the UN and elsewhere is that it is the road map on Yemen that offers the route forward. As he knows full well, that road map has been presented to both sides of the conflict—both to the Houthis and to President Hadi and the coalition. It is up to them now to seize that opportunity. Of course they will not agree on every aspect of it, but it is that road map that offers the way forward.
I will make a little more progress.
I say to the Houthis and those loyal to former President Saleh who say they want peace—that is what they say—that their actions suggest otherwise. They promised to obey UN resolution 2216, joined the framework for the talks and turned up in Kuwait for the negotiations, but, at the same time, they have taken a series of unilateral steps that have gravely damaged the cause they claim to espouse. The Houthis have announced the creation of a Supreme Political Council and set up a shadow Government to rival the legitimate Administration of President Hadi, which is emphatically not the way forward.
I do not find myself in disagreement with much of what the Foreign Secretary has said so far, but does he accept that the issue for many Members on both sides of the House is the conduct of the operation in Yemen by the Saudi coalition, and whether or not UK weapons and ammunition have been used, in violation of our legal obligations? Does he consider that we are acting legally under our obligations under the arms trade treaty, notably article 6?
I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s point in a moment.
Let me conclude my point about the Houthis and the Saleh loyalists. It is very important that the matter is solved politically. The single most important thing they can do is withdraw their forces from Sana’a by agreement with the UN special envoy. That is where our diplomatic energies are currently engaged.
I come to the point that the hon. Gentleman raised, which the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury also raised. I know that many Members on both sides of the House and people throughout the country have concerns about UK defence sales to Saudi Arabia. Let me say a few words about the general context. Saudi Arabia has been a key strategic and defence partner of the UK for decades, which is of immense value to this country, as Members on both sides of the House have rightly pointed out in this debate.
In the course of her contribution, the hon. Lady substantially retreated, I thought, from the text of the motion before the House in her name. Under questioning from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) as to whether she would support the immediate suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces, as is specified in the motion in her name, she refused to say that she would. She was very wise. There is a wide measure of agreement, therefore, between our parties. The hon. Lady spoke very wisely about our export control regime and she was exactly right in what she said.
May I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the motion? That would help him, if he could take a moment—perhaps we could read it together. It states:
“This House supports efforts to bring about a cessation of hostilities and provide humanitarian relief in Yemen”,
and goes on to say
“and calls on the Government to suspend its support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces in Yemen until it has been determined whether they have been responsible”.
I hope I have given the right hon. Gentleman enough time to read the motion.
Most fair-minded Members of the House will recognise that under pressure about whether she would suspend UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the huge economic damage that that would entail, the hon. Lady retreated in the course of her remarks. I thought that was very striking and her judgment was entirely correct.
We take our arms export responsibilities very seriously indeed. This country operates one of the toughest control regimes in the world. All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the established criteria. The most relevant test is whether there is a clear risk of those weapons being used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law. We keep this under careful and continuous review.
I think the Foreign Secretary has confused the SNP amendment with the Labour motion. Why will he not accept the concept of an independent investigation? What will undermine our case against the Russians’ breaches of humanitarian rights in Syria—will it be newspaper columnists praising President Putin’s ruthless efficiency, as the right hon. Gentleman did earlier this year, or it is the thought that UK weapons are being used illegally in south Yemen? What undermines our case more?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course we are pressing for a full investigation, particularly of the attack on the funeral hall in Sana’a on 8 October, which shocked so many people around the world. The following day I raised this country’s concerns with the Saudi Foreign Minister and pressed for a full investigation. I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), to visit Riyadh to underline the strength of our feelings. An investigation is now taking place—the interim findings were announced on 15 October—and we look forward to its completion. I welcome Saudi Arabia’s public commitment to review their rules of engagement and their command and control system and to take action against those responsible.
I am afraid that I must make some progress, as many Members wish to speak in the debate.
The Saudi Government have thus far approached the matter with the great seriousness it deserves—I think that those who have had the chance to interrogate the Saudi Foreign Minister in this House would agree. However, the House should be in no doubt that we are monitoring the situation minutely and meticulously, and that we will continue to apply our established criteria for granting licences with fairness and rigour and in full accordance with UK law.
Those who say, as apparently the Opposition now do in their motion, that we should simply disregard those legal procedures should be in no doubt that we would be vacating a space that would rapidly be filled by other western countries that would happily supply arms with nothing like the same compunctions, criteria or respect for humanitarian law. More importantly, we would, at a stroke, eliminate this country’s positive ability to exercise our moderating diplomatic and political influence on a crisis in which there are massive UK interests at stake.
To the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury, who sought to draw ill-informed and inapposite comparisons, in what I thought was a singularly inappropriate analogy, between what is happening in Yemen and what is happening in Syria, I respectfully say that all wars are horrific and involve loss of innocent life, but important distinctions need to be made with the carnage taking place in Syria, where poison gas and barrel bombs are being used on the civilian population in a campaign of barbarism that has cost 400,000 lives and driven 11 million people from their homes. She should not let analogy replace analysis in what she says.
Britain is at the forefront of efforts to hold the Assad regime in Syria to account, and we are at the forefront of delivering humanitarian aid to the entire region. We can be proud of our efforts to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen—the whole House can be proud of what we are doing. As the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury said, some 7 million people in Yemen face severe food shortages. Last month my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development hosted an event in New York that raised $100 million for the people of Yemen, on top of the £100 million contributed by the people of this country. We in Britain stand ready to do whatever we can to alleviate the suffering of the innocent, and the best service we could perform would be to help them secure a peaceful settlement.
The Government’s position is clear: the conflict in Yemen must end; and a political agreement between the Yemeni parties must be found. I agree with the hon. Lady: for that, we need a durable ceasefire and a return to negotiations. I agree with what she says, in that we should do everything we can to support the UN envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. But in the end, it is the Yemenis themselves who must also compromise. Peace is what the Yemeni people need and deserve, and that can only come from a political and a diplomatic solution. In helping to bring about that political and diplomatic solution, I believe this country, once again, is helping to show the way.
If I may, I would like to stick to what the motion actually says. Many points have been made on which we can agree, but it is important to drill down to what the motion is actually asking the House to do.
Of course we all agree that a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Yemen. The responsibility we all have, as has been said, is to help restore peace and bring stability to the country and the wider region. There is no doubt that the crisis continues to grow. By June 2016, health facilities in the country reported that nearly 6,500 people had been killed, and more than 31,400 have been injured since March 2015. That is an average of 113 casualties a day. At least 7.6 million people, including 3 million women and children, are suffering from malnutrition, and at least 3 million people have been forced to flee their homes. So far, according to Save the Children, 747 children have been killed, and more than 1,100 injured. More than 2.5 million children have been displaced, and 3.4 million are out of school. This year, more than 848 children were forcibly recruited as child soldiers. More than 600 health facilities and 1,600 schools remain closed due to conflict-related damage.
The human stories behind those terrifying statistics are tragic and horrifying, so it is the view of the Scottish National party that the UK Government have a moral responsibility to act now and to do what they can to protect lives in Yemen. However, in addition to that inherent moral responsibility, which should put human lives at the centre of our decision making, the UK Government have legal responsibilities in relation to the conflict that they are failing to act on.
That is because of the actions of the coalition forces backed by the Saudi Arabian Government, which have faced serious and sustained evidence that they have acted in a manner that is at odds with international law. I understand that many atrocities have been carried out against Yemeni civilians by al-Houthi rebels, who have also shelled civilian homes, and deployed snipers who have targeted women and children. That is evil, wicked and wrong, and of course we do not agree with it. However, it is the actions of the Saudi coalition that concern me most today, because it is in that respect that the UK should be able to make decisions and use its influence for good.
I visited the air operations centre in Riyadh, where British air force personnel are helping the Saudis in their target planning. I have also talked to the pilots and the operational planners there. They assure me—and I believe them—that they are doing everything in their power to stop innocent civilians in Yemen dying. We should get that point across.
I will actually make reference to that work in a few moments. I simply cannot understand, though, why the Government are so averse to an independent UN-led inquiry into what is happening. What is the problem? What is there to hide if there is so much confidence on the Government Benches about how we are conducting ourselves?
It is clearly and undeniably the case that the Saudi-led coalition forces have bombed funerals, weddings and markets, and used banned cluster bombs on populated areas and on protected sites such as power stations. They have systematically targeted Yemen’s agriculture economy—as alluded to by the shadow Foreign Secretary—in what academics have called a programme for the destruction of the rural livelihood of Yemeni civilians. They have killed men, women and children who have been gathered at family celebrations, and they have specifically targeted bombs and missiles on sick and dying hospital patients.
The reason why that is materially different from the actions of the al-Houthi forces is that the UK does, indeed, train and support Saudi pilots. We have military personnel embedded in Saudi Arabian military command and control rooms giving advice on the selection of targets. We sell Saudi Arabia the weapons and bombs it is using and the jet planes that deliver them. We have a material stake in this disastrous conflict. We therefore have a responsibility to the people of Yemen to do the right thing. On this, the Government are failing—but do not take my word for it.
Let me make some progress, and then I will.
According to the January 2016 UN Panel of Experts report on Yemen, the coalition airstrikes have failed to uphold the cornerstone principles of proportionality and distinction in any armed attack, and have clearly failed to take all necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties. In March this year, Amnesty International released new field-based research documenting the further use of cluster munitions by the Saudi-led coalition, including the first reported use of UK-manufactured cluster munitions in any conflict for nearly two decades.
In a moment.
Amnesty found a partially exploded UK-manufactured BL755 cluster bomb munition—we discussed this in an urgent question—that had been used by the Saudi-led coalition forces. BL755 cluster munitions are known only to be in the existing stockpiles of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and are specifically designed for use by UK-supplied Tornado aircraft.
I just want to finish my point about the report.
Cluster bombs are an illegal weapon banned under international law since 2008, and the UK is a state party to the 2008 convention on cluster munitions.
So what does this mean for the UK? A legal opinion prepared by Matrix Chambers in December last year detailed how UK arms transfers to Saudi Arabia constitute a clear violation of our national, regional and international arms transfer obligations.
I thank the hon. Lady for that point, which was made during the urgent question. There is absolutely no definitive position on this, nor can any guarantee be given that these weapons are not being used. The question has been asked on a number of occasions.
I know that the Government do not like hearing legal opinion, or indeed the opinions of experts, unless it suits their case, but I will continue to make my case. [Hon. Members: “Give way!”] I understand, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I am within my rights not to take interventions unless I so wish. I shall therefore proceed. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The UK is also in violation—[Interruption.] For those who are clearly not listening, this is legal opinion. The UK is also in violation of article 7 of the arms trade treaty on the basis of a clear risk that future weapons supplies could be used to commit or facilitate serious breaches of international law.
What have this Government done to address and investigate these serious and widespread concerns? By their own admission, they have done nothing. After spending most of 2016 telling Parliament that assessments had been conducted and that they were confident that no breach of international law had occurred, they changed their story to declare that no investigation had been carried out at all, and now appear to have changed their mind again. On 4 January 2016, the then Foreign Secretary told this House—I am glad that I now have the Government’s attention—the following:
“I regularly review the situation with my own advisers and have discussed it on numerous occasions with my Saudi counterpart. Our judgement is that there is no evidence that”
international humanitarian law
“has been breached, but we shall continue to review the situation regularly.”
However, the written statement published by the Government on 21 July this year stated that it was important to note that the Government had not reached a conclusion as to whether the Saudis were guilty of international humanitarian law violations in Yemen. They said:
“This would simply not be possible in conflicts to which the UK is not a party, as is the case in Yemen.”—[Official Report, 21 July 2016; Vol. 613, c. 42WS.]
Then last month the current Foreign Secretary, who is in his place today, completely contradicted his own ministerial colleagues—a frequent occurrence—in an interview with “Channel 4 News”. He definitively stated that, after taking evidence from a “very, very wide” range of sources, the UK Government do not believe that Saudi forces have broken humanitarian law, despite the fact that his own Ministers withdrew previous similar statements to Parliament.
Who are we to believe—the previous and current Foreign Secretaries, who say that there has been a UK investigation, or the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is in his place and has been sent out to defend the indefensible once again? Do they really believe the assurances given to them by the Saudis? Have this Government really not properly independently investigated the claims? Do we really have no idea at all, given the close links that clearly exist between our Government and the armed forces, whether our closest ally in the middle east is using our weapons in this conflict, as the Prime Minister herself suggested last week to my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson)? This matters, because when the UK is presented with serious and widespread evidence of breaches of international law, we simply cannot take for granted the words of those who are accused of it.
The hon. Lady is right to mention the letter of international law and the question of knowledge and clear risk. Does she agree that it is absolutely incredible, not least in the light of the funeral bombing, that some claim that there is no knowledge or clear risk that actions may be taken against civilians? Does not that get to the heart of the matter?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Three Committees of this House—the Select Committees on Foreign Affairs, on International Development and on Business, Innovation and Skills—are of the uniform view that we cannot rely on the assurances of the Saudis and that there must be an independent, UN-led inquiry. Why are the Government not listening to the Select Committees of this House?
We agree with the Foreign Affairs Committee, whose recent report, “The use of UK-manufactured arms in Yemen”, concluded, among other things:
“We do not believe that the UK Government can meet its obligations under the Convention on Cluster Munitions by relying on assurances from the Saudis.”
I am not giving way. The report continues:
“We recommend that the Ministry of Defence carry out its own investigation into the evidence of a UK-supplied cluster bomb found in Yemen.”
The Committee also believes that there should be an independent, UN-led investigation.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. We also agree with the joint report by the BIS and International Development Committees, which states:
“We do not believe that the UK Government can meet its obligations under the Convention on Cluster Munitions by relying on assurances from the Saudis.”
I have indicated that I am not going to give way to the hon. Gentleman. The report continues:
“In the case of Yemen, it is clear to us that the arms export licensing regime has not worked. We recommend that the UK suspend licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia, capable of being used in Yemen, pending the results of an independent, United Nations-led inquiry”.
We have read tragic reports of cluster bombs being happened upon by children and of the terrible damage that they cause, so I welcome and agree with the hon. Lady’s intervention.
I agree with the proposition of all three Select Committees, which are unified in their view that there must be an independent inquiry and that we cannot rely on the Saudis to give assurances.
I just want to help inform the debate. I put the point about cluster munitions directly to the Saudi Foreign Minister when he came here. He said that, yes, they had bought them, but that was 30 years ago; that they are not usable, because they are 30 years old; and that it would not be possible to use them anyway, because they cannot be integrated with modern jets.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I note the points that he has made and his questioning of the Saudi Minister, but does he not agree with the view of the Select Committees of this House that the UK Government cannot meet their obligations under the convention on cluster munitions by simply relying on the assurances to which he refers? I agree with the Committees.
Does my hon. Friend agree with the views of Penny Lawrence, the deputy chief executive of Oxfam, who said a few weeks ago that the UK had gone from being an “enthusiastic backer” of the international arms trade treaty to being
“one of the most significant violators”?
I hope that hon. Members and the Government were listening to my hon. Friend’s point. This is a serious issue, and it should come as no surprise that people in this debate speak with such passion and concern about the loss of life and the Government’s inability to hold themselves to account. One wonders what the Government are afraid of.
There is a clear and overwhelming case for halting UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia. As the shadow Foreign Secretary pointed out, if the Foreign Secretary read the motion he would see that the amendment on halting UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia was ours. The amendment was not selected, but it remains our position that unless and until it can be confirmed categorically that these weapons are not being used on civilians, we should not be selling arms to Saudi Arabia. There is a moral and a legal case for that position, and the Government should act now. We need full disclosure over whether UK personnel have played any part at all in the conflict in Yemen. We support calls for an international independent inquiry into violations of international law in Yemen. It is the duty of all of us—all states—to uphold international law, and we should not be afraid to argue for that. Let us be absolutely clear: the UK must immediately suspend all sales to Saudi Arabia.
Order. May I just advise Members that we are going to have to be very brief and very concise? I will be a bit more lenient with the first two Members; I have asked them to take only seven minutes. After that, the limit will be five minutes.
It is probably essential that I follow the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) because she quoted extensively from the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on this subject. My critique is that she took the comments about the cluster munition incident and extended them considerably more widely, and that is at the heart of the problem with the assessment of this issue.
Although the Committee felt that there should be independent verification around the cluster bomb incident, and we did say that a
“United Nations-led investigation of alleged violations by all parties to the conflict is necessary to supplement the internal investigations of the Saudi-led coalition”,
it is standard international practice that the Saudis should be given the opportunity to investigate these incidents in the first instance; that is an established principle. We said in the report:
“We agree with the Government that it is appropriate for the Saudi-led coalition to investigate these allegations in the first instance.”
We went on to look at the detail of the operation of the joint incidents assessment team, saying:
“further progress is needed to ensure that JIAT is transparent, credible, and publishes its investigations in a timely manner. We recommend that the UK Government offer its support to the JIAT where appropriate so that it can meet these ends.”
In the rather limited time available, I want to refer briefly to the allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law. We have imposed on ourselves through the law the toughest set of conditions around arms licences. The proper place for those laws to be tested is in a court, and that is what will happen. More widely, in relation to our interests both in Yemen and the Gulf as a whole, the Government are charged with the responsibility of promoting our national interest and the international interest, as well as the wider promotion of our values.
No one will disagree when I say that there are, of course, challenges in this area. The Yemen conflict represents an immensely difficult challenge on a number of levels. However, as the Foreign Secretary said, the conflict did not come out of nowhere. We have to look at the issue of intent. I disagree with the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire when she says that the Saudis are targeting women and children. The judgment we have to make is whether the Saudi-led coalition, in executing a unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution to restore some kind of order to the recognised authority in Yemen, is trying to do so with the best of intentions. What is the Saudi interest in committing breaches of international humanitarian law while progressing a very difficult military campaign in the most unbelievably difficult geographical circumstances, given that the coalition is relatively immature and has never done this before? We should be thinking about what support to give our ally in picking up its responsibility for the delivery of regional security, because if it was not doing so, where would that responsibility sit?
The hon. Gentleman mentioned intent. Does he not accept that arms trade law is based not on intent, but on the clear risk of violations of international humanitarian law? Like me, he supports an independent inquiry. If that found that international humanitarian law had been violated by the Saudi-led coalition, what action would he support?
As I have just made clear, that is a matter for the courts. It is a matter of law that should be judged in the courts. The judgments that we need to make are policy ones. As far as the conduct of the operation in Yemen is concerned, it is in our interests to give as much support as possible to the Saudi-led coalition, which is, in effect, acting on our behalf, so that the coalition is able to conduct the operation successfully and within international humanitarian law.
Would that aim be achieved by pulling all support from the Saudi-led coalition, as the Opposition’s motion proposes? Would it be assisted by suspending arms exports, as the Scottish National party’s amendment suggests? It is pretty clear to me that either of those actions would seriously damage the sensible and proper conduct of the operation in Yemen by making it more difficult for the coalition to execute the operation with the advice and support of both the United Kingdom and the United States.
Despite the limited time, I want to put this issue in the context of our wider relationship with Saudi Arabia. What lessons would the Saudis take, and what message would it send to Saudi Arabia if, in these circumstances, we pre-emptively—in advance of any legal challenge to the basis of the licensing regime—pulled support from Saudi Arabia? Whether they are acting under international humanitarian law will be tested in the courts, but I believe at least that their intent is to make sure that they progress the operation within international humanitarian law.
What is happening in Saudi Arabia today, and in what direction is the state going? We have had a long-term strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia, and I invite hon. Members to examine what is happening there. They should look at Vision 2030. They should look at the people who are now in charge. Anyone who has listened to the Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir—he has been to the House twice recently to give a presentation to MPs—will have seen how impressive a Foreign Minister he is. The deputy crown prince who is now leading economic reform in Saudi Arabia has put extremely impressive technocrats in charge of that process. It is all part of a wider modernisation process, not just economically but socially. It is absolutely in our interests that that direction for Saudi Arabia is supported and is successful.
Order. Can I just say to the hon. Member for Reigate—sorry Mark, because I am sure you want to come in shortly—that he has had eight minutes. I want to bring Keith Vaz in. When other Members have no minutes left, they are then going to wonder who to blame. Is the hon. Member for Reigate going to give way?
I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for giving way. I ask him quite simply: what is the alternative to the Saudi royal family as a Government—liberal democracy or an extreme Islamist Government? I think it is rather the latter. This country, and the west generally, must deal with the current Saudi Government whether we like it or not.
We have seen the consequences of the uncontrolled loss of governance in the region, and they are pretty ugly. The truth is that the current leadership in Saudi Arabia is probably taking the country in a general direction that we can all approve of. The Saudi Government face huge challenges in doing that, but Saudi Arabia is the most important country in the Gulf. I believe that we should try to be alongside its Government on that extremely difficult journey, rather than making things more difficult. If they have to turn elsewhere for support, they will not be getting laser-guided bombs, but weapons that will not enable them to carry out operations in the Yemen in the way that they are or with the benefit of our advice. I am aware that I have now run out of the time you allocated me, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Although my heart is breaking looking at the violence and humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, I am very proud of this Parliament. In the past seven days we have discussed Yemen twice, and 60 Members of the House are here today.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), the shadow Foreign Secretary and shadow International Development Secretary, for agreeing to hold this debate. I thank the Foreign Secretary for his pivotal role in ensuring that we got a ceasefire when he met John Kerry and the Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister on 16 October. I also thank the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh), for the way in which she and her party have raised this issue over a number of months since the last election.
In the brief time that I have, I will concentrate on the ceasefire and the UN resolution that I hope will come on Monday. The ceasefire announced last week lasted only 72 hours. Fighting and bombings have swiftly returned at an intensity identical to that seen before the brief cessation of hostilities. The ceasefire had allowed food and humanitarian supplies to reach areas that had otherwise been completely inaccessible. The special envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, begged both sides for an extension to the ceasefire, but violations by both sides rendered those efforts fruitless.
We are now at a critical stage in the history of Yemen. We have said this so many times before, but now, more than at any previous time, Yemen is on the brink of disaster. That is why our concern in this House should be to bring about a permanent ceasefire in Yemen, and why all our efforts should concentrate on that critical UN meeting that will take place on Monday in New York.
I am sorry that we are going to divide on this subject this evening. I put forward an amendment that I hoped would be selected. If the House could only vote as one in favour of peace in Yemen, I would be very happy.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for mentioning that. Peace is absolutely essential. May I remind hon. Members of the various elements of the combat in Yemen and the situation regarding arms? We are talking about Saudi Arabia in this debate, but the Houthis are being backed by Iran, so Iranian weapons are going in there. Can we remember that there are two sides and two foreign parties involved?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—this is much more complicated. There are many sides to this, not just two. Anyone who has dealt with Yemen or lived there for a while will know that the tribal system is extremely important. It is important that we do not make this simplistic. What is very clear is the scorecard of shame that Members have talked about today: the 21.2 million people who require urgent humanitarian assistance, 9.9 million of whom are children; the more than 10,000 people killed in the last 18 months; and the 14.1 million people at risk of hunger, the equivalent of the combined populations of London, Birmingham and Glasgow.
I welcome what the Government and the International Development Secretary have done to ensure that more money has been pledged to Yemen, but it is critical that the money is used for supplies, and that those supplies reach the people who are hungry. Otherwise, all the money we raise will not be enough to deal with the crisis. Oxfam’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, who addressed the all-party group last week, called the situation in Yemen “Syria without cameras”. I thank the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), who was born, as I was, in Aden; the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), another officer of the group; and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for all the work they have done.
On Monday, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who is not in the Chamber, said to the Prime Minister that when 7,000 people were killed in 1995 in Srebrenica, the international community acted. That is why it is so important that we not only debate today’s motion, but follow through with a resolution that will be taken on board by the whole United Nations. Despite the incredible work of Islamic Relief, Oxfam, UNICEF, Médecins sans Frontières and many others, they simply cannot get the aid in. I hope that when the Minister, who has engaged fully with the all-party group, comes to wind up the debate, he will tell us more about what can be done to ensure that the aid gets through. He will say, I think, that unless we get the ceasefire, people will starve. I commend the international community for all the work that it has done to try to ensure that the ceasefire occurs. The issue of investigations has been raised, and while it is important that we get the investigations, we need to have the ceasefire. Once we have that, any investigations to deal with violations on all sides will need to be addressed, and we will need to address the question of what arms are being used.
What concerns me and what should concern the House—I know it concerns the Foreign Secretary—is what is going to happen on Monday. In my debate last week, we were told that Britain holds all the pens as far as Yemen is concerned. That is why the instruction that the Foreign Secretary gives to our permanent representative—the excellent Matthew Rycroft, who is leading for us in New York—will be so critical. I wish that the Foreign Secretary could go to New York on Monday and argue the case, but I do not manage his diary. I think that the presence of the British Foreign Secretary at the United Nations on Monday would be critical.
Members will raise all kinds of issues, all of them important, but unless we have a permanent ceasefire, Yemen will quite literally bleed to death while we discuss them. I beg everyone involved in the process to please move together in a united way, without dividing opinion, and concentrate on that one critical issue: getting the United Nations to back a permanent ceasefire. Then the people of Yemen can actually survive.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) for not being in the Chamber at the beginning of her remarks.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak. Without covering all the ground, because there is so much to talk about, I would just like to say two or three things. I speak from the experience of having been a Minister who visited Yemen and understands a little bit about it, and who also had the responsibility of signing off arms control applications in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I speak as someone who I think on occasion got it both wrong and right.
The FCO has some incredibly difficult choices to make in dealing with any of these issues. The focus of the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who made a typically excellent speech on this subject, was absolutely right. It is understandable that the motion is before us, and the sentiments behind it are well understood. Is it the most significant thing at the moment? Probably not, because ending the conflict was what the right hon. Gentleman focused on, and in getting to the end of a conflict, some incredibly difficult choices have to be made. The balance between our values and the practicalities of the issues surrounding decisions in the middle east has never been more finely balanced or more difficult.
I repeat that I understand the sentiments behind the motion, but I do not think that it is the right answer to the problems we have. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out well the complexities and some of the background that is essential to understanding where Yemen is today.
Two things about the kingdom of Saudi Arabia might be usefully known. First, as the right hon. Member for Leicester East and others know, Yemen has been in a state for a long time. It was the king of Saudi Arabia who picked up Yemen and sent money over a lengthy period of time. This friends of Yemen process was started by the Labour Government when they were in office. A lot of money was put into Yemen; it did not get through to the people because of the actions of the then President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is a constant factor in the difficulties created in the region. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been extremely generous in trying to support Yemen and pick it up.
Secondly, we need to be aware of the openness with which the Saudi Foreign Minister addressed the issue of the dreadful bombing attack on the funeral recently. That is relatively new, and it indicates, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) said, a different approach in Saudi Arabia, which is of huge significance in the region.
With that in mind, we come to what we are trying to say and do today. The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury said that our values would come forward from what the House did. With all due respect, that is not necessarily so. It is not just our interpretation of our values that is important; other people’s interpretation of our values is important as well. I know from tough experience that what we sometimes say and do here with the best of intentions is not always seen in the same way elsewhere. Sometimes what we hold to be dear can be seen as naive misjudgment by those who are closer to the action and have difficult judgments to make themselves.
What is most important is that in a region where friendships have been changed in recent years—most notably by some of the actions of the United States leaving people wondering whose side they were on, and who was going to be a balance in the regional interests and conflicts—for the United Kingdom to be seen to make a similar judgment at this time would undermine the efforts being made for peace.
Let me quote from the letter sent to Members from the ambassador to Yemen before today’s debate. In respect of the peace efforts being made, he said:
“We hope the Houthi militia who control Sana’a may be persuaded to engage seriously in peace talks”—
which is obviously what we all want. He continues, however, by saying:
“They hope instead to weaken the Coalition by undermining relationships with its Western Allies”.
That is what we might, unwittingly, fall into.
No, but I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. The great work that we are doing on humanitarian relief is well respected, but the issue of who is supportive in a situation that, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said, is not of the Government of Yemen’s own making is a complex one. The undermining of a constitutional process that is absolutely vital to the further development of Yemen and the issues between north and south are further complicating issues. I went to both north and south and I went to Aden; I met the southern leaders; the constitutional process was getting somewhere—but it was undermined by the Houthi attacks and then the support of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Only when that is stopped can the constitutional talks continue and the efforts for peace be delivered, because that is what is most important for the people who are suffering in Yemen. With the best will in the world, this action by the United Kingdom would not achieve anything on the ground, and it might make the process more difficult. We want to see a ceasefire as quickly as possible, but I do not think that by withdrawing our support from one of the parties that can actually make that happen and by giving false hope to others to continue the conflict, we would be doing our best for the people of Yemen.
I greatly appreciate not only being given the opportunity to speak, but some of the difficult judgments that my colleagues have to make. Sometimes it is not easy to get the balance right. I think that on this occasion my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and, above all, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), are doing the very best that they can for the people of Yemen, and that we should back them up.
It is right for us to support the legitimately elected and UN-backed Government of Yemen. It is also important for us to work tirelessly to bring about the ceasefire to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) referred, because without it we shall not be able to get humanitarian aid into the country or advance a political settlement. However, I cannot support the motion, because my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), concentrated on only part of the story, which she does quite a lot when it comes to this conflict. She condemned the actions of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, but completely ignored what is being done by the Houthis, and the Iranian-backed weapons that are being taken into Yemen to fuel the conflict and help the Iranians to destabilise the region.
War is a horrible thing, and if there are violations on either side, I strongly believe that they should be investigated. It is sad that it was only in response to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury said yes, we should investigate all sides.
I will not, because time is limited.
The Iranians are fuelling the conflict with millions of pounds’ worth of weapons. That is not a sign that a regime wants a peaceful settlement. As for their involvement in the peace process, there is evidence that they undermined the ceasefire that was in operation in the past few days. That is not helpful.
I accept that there are people, in the House and elsewhere, who take a moral stance against either the manufacture or the export of arms. Do I respect those people? Yes, I do, but I do not agree with them. I take what is perhaps, in the Labour party, the rather traditional view that we should be able to manufacture weapons, and that individual countries should be allowed to protect themselves when that is possible. I am proud that our legislation on arms exports was one of the achievements of the last Labour Government. The Export Control Act 2002 was the first such legislation for 50 years. We have a robust system in this country, and we should not shy away from it.
Let me say to the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) that if Members want to comment on certain matters in the Chamber, they should consider them in detail first. When the Saudi Foreign Minister came here, I asked him about cluster munitions. However, I did not simply take his word for it. I knew from my own experience that using a 30-year-old cluster munition would be unsafe—and, in any case, how could it actually be delivered? I entirely agree that those issues should be investigated, but I do not think that they should be represented as facts when there is evidence to show that it might not be possible for such munitions to be used.
The situation is complex, but I do not think that the motion does anything to support the peace process, which I think is what we all want to do. I agree with the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) that a united voice from the Chamber this evening would be the best way of achieving what we all want to achieve. I am thinking not just of peace in Yemen but of the need for us to support our allies in the region, who are important not just to stability in that part of the world, but to the prevention of terrorism and other threats to us at here at home.
I do not regard myself as an expert on Yemen, but I have had a long association with the region, both as a banker and as a Member of Parliament. I am a former Defence Minister who was responsible for defence exports, and a Member of Parliament for Aldershot. I represent the headquarters of the fourth largest defence company in the world, BAE Systems.
As we heard from the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones)—and I agreed with everything that he said—it is important for us to understand that the United Kingdom has enjoyed a very long and mutually beneficial relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There have been occasional differences between us, but those are to be found in any relationship.
We have got to understand the big picture. The kingdom is a key player in a region currently facing massive challenges, not least from Iran. In the case of Yemen, the kingdom has assembled an Arab coalition to take action against Houthi rebels following the ousting of President Hadi by Houthis widely believed to be supported by Iran. The coalition is operating under UN Security Council resolution 2216 and is composed of a pretty formidable array of Arab states: Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. That is a not-insignificant Arab grouping.
The coalition is also taking action against Daesh and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as demanded by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) when she was a shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, who said that the UK needs to
“work with the Saudis to ensure that we stop the flow of funding and support to ISIL/Daesh.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2015; Vol. 603, c. 122.]
The Saudis should be commended for what they are doing, not criticised.
As the hon. Member for North Durham said, the Houthis have a long record of atrocities, including recruiting child soldiers, using civilians as human shields and preventing aid groups from delivering medical supplies. Members should also know that the Houthi flag reads:
“God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam”—
a motto partially modelled on that of revolutionary Iran and almost word for word a translation of Ayatollah Khomeini’s slogan. So we should be doing all we can to support our key ally in dealing with these disreputable people.
So, what about the criticism of Saudi Arabia? There was indeed an attack on 8 October on a funeral party which tragically killed some 140 innocent people, but the Saudis ordered its joint incidents assessment team, a body formed of representatives from the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Yemen as well as the kingdom itself, to undertake an immediate inquiry which established that the air operations centre in Yemen directed a close air support mission to target the location without obtaining approval from the coalition command to support legitimacy and without following the coalition command’s precautionary measures to ensure that the location was not a civilian one. JIAT concluded that action should be taken against those found to be responsible.
We all make mistakes. I have had responsibility for targeting, and the Americans are not without criticism in this regard; they attacked a hospital manned by Médecins Sans Frontières. To suggest that the UK should suspend defence exports to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is at best SNP grandstanding and at worst a kick in the teeth for an important ally, as well as doing a disservice to the hundreds of highly skilled workers at Raytheon and Leonardo plants in Scotland which supply equipment to the BAE-led Salam programme of defence exports to Saudi Arabia—but I suspect SNP Members do not care about the employment prospects.
Like the Al Yamamah programme before it, Salam has made a significant contribution to the maintenance of the defence-industrial capability of the UK, generating prosperity across the UK, including Scotland.
I am sad to say that I will be unable to back the motion my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) has introduced today. I think this is the first time I have not supported an Opposition day motion, and God knows I have backed some rubbish—only joking. There is much in the motion that I agree with, but I fear it is ultimately undermined by the abandonment of our commitment to the UN Security Council resolution, and I fear that while it may make us feel better, it will not make the situation on the ground better.
The situation in Yemen is appalling and is quickly becoming the greatest humanitarian challenge stalking the planet in what is a most difficult time. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) spoke movingly about the scale of the human catastrophe in Yemen and I agree with him that it is a shame that we are seeking to divide the House on this issue.
There are legitimate concerns about the actions of Saudi Arabia in the Yemen. There is little doubt that the recent bombing of a funeral in the Yemeni capital constitutes a war crime; it was an appalling act that sickens us all, and I am pleased that the Saudis have accepted culpability and that an investigation into this incident is ongoing. I hope that as the investigation continues those responsible for this awful incident will be brought to justice and tried by the International Criminal Court.
There are other allegations against the Saudis that should concern us all. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury referred to the reports of deliberate strikes against agriculture infrastructure and the bombing of recently besieged areas in which aid is being provided. For that reason, I support the call for an independent inquiry to establish what has been done, by whom and on whose orders. My hon. Friend is right to push the Government and the international community to do more to ensure clarity on this matter, and we should be attempting to use our influence to ensure that a legitimate UN-sanctioned campaign in Yemen is not undermined by inexcusable actions. She posed some important questions, but I have to say that I was not certain what support she was asking us to withdraw. The motion clearly does not refer to arms exports. So if I were to support it, I would not be clear exactly what I was asking for.
It is true that our relationship with Saudi Arabia is not an easy one, but we do wield some influence and our security is enhanced by the relationship. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, once a secretive, suspicious and insular country, now sends its Ministers here to be scrutinised by MPs in the Houses of Parliament. Other Members have referred to our significant economic interest in continuing to have positive relations with the Saudis, and to the fact that they have been a useful ally for our own security in the past and today. For years, the west has asked Saudi Arabia to take on more responsibility for what happens in the region, and it is now doing so. None of this means that we should ignore or underplay the significance of infractions of international humanitarian law, but we should think very carefully before isolating Saudi Arabia in the way that the motion suggests.
We should also be clear about the true threat posed to the people of Yemen, and indeed to the wider middle east region, by the Houthis. They are a terrorist organisation and they are unapologetic in their slaughtering of civilians. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) has just referred to the words inscribed on their flag, and those words tell us everything we need to know about the true motives of that organisation. It is for precisely that reason that, in April 2015, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 2216, which mandated military action. It would be a huge mistake for us to turn away from that. As everyone in the House is aware, thousands of Yemeni women, children and old people will sleep fitfully tonight, never knowing what horrors tomorrow might bring. Now is not the time to throw away the influence we have. It is time to use it to help to create a safer middle east.
I see that the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) is on the Front Bench. I welcome the Government’s commitment to addressing the humanitarian situation in the Yemen, which has made the UK the fourth largest donor this financial year by committing £100 million to provide food, clean water, and medical supplies. However, those emergency supplies do nothing to abate the arguably more serious, yet still intertwined, threat to the humanitarian situation: the war crimes and human rights abuses of which the evidence speaks volumes. Such evidence has implicated all parties involved in the conflict in abuses of human rights.
Let me be clear. Even if you are a legitimate Government in exile struggling to reclaim your country from aggressors, or a foreign state charged with assisting in that recovery, and even if you have the backing of the United Nations itself, you are never exonerated from the duty to uphold human rights. Human rights abuses are always unacceptable, illegal and totally barbaric, and they must be called out and stopped. I am of course completely in favour of an independent UN-led investigation into the accusations of human rights abuses made against the Saudi-led coalition—one that can support Saudi Arabia’s own investigations—but to say that we should withdraw our support for the coalition until such investigations have gone ahead would be, quite frankly, ludicrous.
Sir Simon Mayall, a former middle east adviser in the Ministry of Defence, said when giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee that it was likely that without Saudi intervention, groups such as ISIL would have gained a similar footing in Yemen as they have in Syria and Iraq. The Houthis would also have been able to expand throughout Yemen far more freely. Indeed, we would have seen an Iranian-backed militia having huge influence over the security of the vital Bab el-Mandeb shipping strait. With more Houthi territory under poor and unstable government, the opportunities for al-Qaeda to gain territory would have been greater still, adding to the substantial Yemeni regions it already possesses.
It could not be clearer that without Saudi military aid the situation would be far worse. Time and time again, Saudi Arabia has proved a crucial ally of the United Kingdom. We have worked together in Iraq and Syria, and in providing relief for Syrian refugees. The regional stability in the middle east that our close connection with Saudi Arabia has engendered is also of particular note. I ask the whole House to recall the first Gulf war and the location from which the then military coalition launched its offensive against Saddam Hussein’s illegal occupation of Kuwait. No Member of this House would disagree that it was illegal and that the offensive needed to happen. Saudi Arabia hosted the US-led coalition that liberated the country. It is staggeringly obvious that we would be less safe without our ties to Saudi Arabia, and so would the Yemeni people.
In the limited time remaining, I want to turn to the future, because the only way to resolve or alleviate the crisis is by reaching a political solution. In this conflict, and in so many across the middle east, the sectarian divide plays a huge part in the political process. Whether Yemen, Syria, Iraq or Lebanon, the Shi’ite tradition of Islam, spiritually led by Iran, and the Sunni tradition, led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both need to learn to reconcile with one another. From my background in Baghdad, I know that Sunnis and Shi’as can exist harmoniously and that religious divides need not be exploited as they have been across the middle east. I hope with all my heart that such a future awaits the people of Yemen.
Last Saturday in Liverpool, I helped to organise a vigil for peace in Yemen, at which we launched the “Liverpool Friends of Yemen”. The scale of the humanitarian crisis is truly appalling. Thousands have been killed. Three million are acutely malnourished. As the motion says, it is a country
“on the brink of famine”.
More than 21 million Yemenis require humanitarian assistance—80% of the population. Over 1 million children are internally displaced. More than 14 million are in need of basic healthcare.
I pay tribute to DFID and the Government for their humanitarian relief work. This country has committed £100 million at a time when the UN appeal, according to my latest figures, is only 47% fulfilled. I also pay tribute to the many NGOs that are doing fantastic work in relieving the appalling crisis.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many describe the situation as a forgotten crisis—although I welcome the fact that this is the second debate on Yemen in this House in the space of just a week.
The International Development Committee’s inquiry into the Yemen crisis reached a number of conclusions. The first thing to say is that the evidence is clear that appalling atrocities have been committed by both sides in the conflict. We heard not only that over 62% of the killings have been caused by the Saudi-led coalition, but that Houthis have recruited children to armed groups and have sieged towns such as Taiz, denying basic access to humanitarian aid and medicines. There is no suggestion in the motion or in my Committee’s reports that we are taking sides with the Houthis; this is about a balanced approach.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is clear that negotiations and a peace process are needed, that we need a lasting ceasefire and that humanitarian work and civilian protection must be prioritised. The International Development Committee started with the view that this was a humanitarian crisis, but as we took evidence it became clear that we simply could not divorce the humanitarian position from the alleged violations of international humanitarian law by both sides. In turn, we could not divorce that position from the fact that we are arming one of those sides.
There are widespread reports of violations of international humanitarian law. The UN documented 119 abuses, and Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented substantial numbers more. The Government, however, have been rather dismissive of the evidence from such organisations. Saferworld told the Committee:
“In other contexts, the Government will cite their reports. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty will be cited in Syria; they have been cited in Libya and Sudan in support of the Government position. Here, they are referred to as not good enough to be considered evidence compared with a reassurance from the Saudis, one of the belligerents to the conflict, that there are no violations of international humanitarian law.”
I welcome the fact that at the recent UN Human Rights Council the UK position did shift and we signed up to an EU common position that enabled there to be a greater independent element in the investigation of abuses, but I support what this motion says, which is that there should be a fully independent UN-led investigation into abuses by both sides. My Committee reached agreement that in the meantime we should suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The scale of arms sales—
The hon. Lady is an excellent member of the Committee and she is right that in our earlier report we did indeed say that, but in the later report in September, after the CAEC discussions, we then agreed a report, jointly with the then Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, that advocated a suspension of arms sales while the independent investigation was undertaken.
I wish to finish on the following point—the clock seems to be being rather generous to me and I thank it for that.
I am even more grateful to those human forces. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee spoke about intent, and this issue is vital. What European Union, United Kingdom and international arms trade law says is that licences cannot be granted if there is a “clear risk” that the arms may be used in the commission of violations of international humanitarian law. This is not about intent; it is about there being a clear risk. That is the test we face, and my major concern is that the approach that the Government have taken is inconsistent with the UK’s global leadership role on the rule of law and international rules-based systems.
A point was raised earlier about reputation, which is very important. Our reputation as an upholder of international humanitarian law is very important. We can be proud of the active role this country played in the shaping of the arms trade treaty, and I simply do not believe that that test of “no clear risk” is the one being applied. I agree with colleagues on all sides of this debate who have said that we want a ceasefire and a political process, and that this conflict will be settled diplomatically, not militarily. However, crucially, the reason why I support this motion is that I really do believe that we need a fully independent UN-led investigation into all of these appalling alleged violations of international humanitarian law—on both sides.
It is a pleasure to follow some very learned speakers, including my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth). Today’s debate comes after a recent Adjournment debate in this Chamber about humanitarian aid to Yemen and a number of other debates, including a Backbench Business Committee debate and a Westminster Hall debate, and after the report by the International Development Committee, of which I am a member.
All of this highlights the seriousness and complexity of the situation, but it also raises awareness of what is often described as the “forgotten war”. It is worth remembering that the conflict in Yemen has its roots in the failure of a transitional process that it was hoped would bring stability to the country. Following the uprising in 2011, that has, sadly, not been the case and now, despite nearly two years of conflict, neither side appears close to a decisive victory. The UN estimates that more than 4,000 civilians have been killed, with more than 7,000 injured, that 3.1 million Yemenis are internally displaced and that 14 million people are suffering from food insecurity. But this humanitarian crisis was going on before the current situation began. So in calling for humanitarian relief, we should recognise the tremendous work done by the Department for International Development in Yemen, as well as that of all the non-governmental organisations. This is a country in which the challenges of getting aid to those who need it most is great. Whenever and wherever UK aid is sent, the importance of an unimpeded passage cannot be underestimated, not just for those in need, but for the safety of those NGOs and DFID staff who work in-country.
On 21 September, the Secretary of State announced an additional £37 million of aid to support Yemen, which brings the UK’s total humanitarian funding for the crisis to £100 million this year. DFID and the UK Government should be commended for that. The UK is now the fourth largest donor, which shows that it certainly has stepped up to the plate. However, the aim above all must be to seek a political settlement and a cessation of hostilities. The Government must use their leadership role and influence as much as possible and remain fully involved in diplomatic efforts to bring about peace. The UK’s strong relationships with a number of important players in the region is vital. Our influence in the middle east must put us in a unique position to help bring about the lasting peace settlement that we all so desperately want.
There is no doubt in my mind that the security situation in Yemen is serious. This conflict is brutal. The UN has reminded all parties that they have a duty of care in the conduct of military operations to protect civilians. Yes, concerns and questions remain, particularly around the airstrike that hit a funeral hall in Sana’a on 8 October. It is for the Saudis to investigate and report back in the first instance. We must remember and recognise that, at the UN Human Rights Council in September, the UK supported a strong resolution, which included a commitment to increase the number of international human rights experts in the Yemen office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights.
Surely a political solution and an immediate, unconditional ceasefire between Houthi rebels and Government forces must be the way forward—a way forward in the pursuit of a long-term solution to this conflict. As the embassy of the Republic of Yemen has pointed out, this conflict did not begin with the arrival of the Saudi-led coalition in March 2015. It began much earlier.
There is much more that I would like to say, but I appreciate that I am short of time. Let me end by saying that I will not support the Opposition motion, but I will support the Government’s amendment, because it is the right and proper thing to do.
The situation in Yemen is appalling and indeed devastating to the population. It is right that we hold our friends to higher standards, but to withdraw our support from Saudi Arabia is to remove ourselves from being a critical friend and ally of a regime that we want to reform and that is going through a process of change which will only improve its governance and its prestige in the world. It is the world’s largest oil exporter in a region that is fraught with dangers and conflicts. Why would we want to abandon an ally in that situation, especially as they supply us with intelligence on al-Qaeda and ISIL and support us in our fight against terrorism more generally?
Stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia will not end the conflict in Yemen. In fact, it could exacerbate it, because, obviously, it would no longer be listening to the sound advice of this country, its Government and its military. At the same time, it would also devastate many thousands of highly skilled people who are working in an industry in Lancashire that provides aircraft and systems that defend with great effect not just our borders, but the borders of our allies in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
If the reported human rights abuses are taking place, are they accidental, are they planned, or are they being carried out by rogue elements of the Saudi air force? I do not know, and I welcome the coalition’s interim report and look forward to its final report.
The Foreign Secretary referred to the fact that the interim report, which was published on 15 October, stated that Saudi Arabia is reviewing its rules of engagement and will take action against those responsible for the atrocities. He also said that the House should not be in any doubt that the British Government are meticulously monitoring the situation. Having served on the Committees on Arms Export Controls, I would expect them to do that, and I expect them to do so again in the future.
As I said in an intervention, the alternative to a royal family governing Saudi Arabia is not liberal democracy, but extremist Islamism. Undermining one of our allies in the region is not an alternative to guiding them to abide by international humanitarian law and the standards to which we all in this House aspire.
The House should remember that the countries involved in the terrible war in Yemen do not have a history of intervention. Historically, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar have not intervened in other jurisdictions, despite their location in a very difficult and volatile region. They have certainly never come together, as they have done on this occasion, collectively to enter another country—in this case to take on the Houthi rebels.
We ought to pause for a moment to think about the historic consequences and the unique situation that we find in all these disparate countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) listed the names of the countries that have come together because collectively they see the appalling consequences of what is happening in Yemen. My contacts in Saudi Arabia tell me that many Saudis are married to Yemenis and that there has historically been a huge amount of exchange between Yemen and Saudi, and the idea that they would deliberately target civilians is one that they find appalling and shocking.
Yemen is being destabilised by the Houthi rebels. As we heard from the Foreign Secretary, they are firing Scud missiles into Saudi Arabia and carrying out the most appalling brutality throughout that country. We have heard from the SNP about the civilian casualties, but the Emirates have lost more pilots in this conflict than in the history of their nation, so they have suffered a great deal as well.
I am concerned that the coverage of the situation by our own media in this country, the BBC and Newsnight in particular, is superficial, poor, and I would even go so far as to say biased, leading to motions such as that emanating from the SNP.
We met the coalition forces at the Royal United Services Institute. RUSI kindly organised a meeting for us at which we engaged with the head of the Saudi air force, who told us, “Every single plane has cameras on it. We can pinpoint exactly where the planes are at any one time. If you have evidence that any of them have deliberately”—that is the critical word, and my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) alluded to it—“targeted civilians, that must be raised directly with the Saudis.” They are doing everything possible to try to limit civilian casualties. There is a report in The Independent today that the Americans’ recent bombing in Syria has led to over 300 casualties. Of course, civilians are affected, regrettably, when there is a bombing campaign.
We take great pride in Shropshire in training many pilots from the Gulf states—Kuwaitis, Emiratis and Saudis—at RAF Cosford and RAF Shawbury. It is not just about selling the equipment to those Gulf states. We take great pride in training those pilots to the very highest standards. They are taught by their British counterparts not just about professionalism and about flying, but about the ethics of flying those planes and the importance of what they do. I am very proud of the contribution that we make and I regret that there are Members in this House who think that we would be party in some way to deliberately targeting civilians.
I thank the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is not in his place, for his initiative in securing the Adjournment debate last week on the humanitarian atrocities in Yemen. We all look forward to the UN peace talks that will take place in a few days and I hope they bear fruit. That debate was well attended and there are even more MPs here for this debate. Government Members should take note of the growing discontent and unease in this House and across the country about breaches of humanitarian law in Yemen. This issue has not emerged just in the past week. I remind the House that the debate today takes place more than a year after the first evidence emerged of deliberate human rights violations by the Saudi regime in Yemen. It will come as no surprise to anyone here today that I opposed the granting of arms export licences to Saudi Arabia then, and I oppose it now. Although I am pleased to see many more Members gradually coming to that view in today’s debate, it astonishes me that there are still those who cannot see the contradiction in continuing to allow those arms sales while asserting that Britain is a force for good in the world.
With over 3 million internally displaced persons in Yemen and almost 15 million people experiencing food insecurity, the human cost of the conflict is all too clear. Last week the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen watched in silence as Krishnan Guru-Murthy introduced a Channel 4 exposé of the level of suffering we are releasing on the children of Yemen through our actions and inactions. We heard from Yemenis who told us that they welcomed the current ceasefire, as perhaps being a path to lasting peace, but that that peace could not be delivered while the civilian population was in danger of being bombed in school, at weddings, at funerals or at work in Yemen’s faltering economy. This is not grandstanding—but if it is grandstanding, I plead guilty.
We on the SNP Benches understand perfectly well that Saudi Arabia is an ally, that it is fighting on the side of the legitimately recognised Government of Yemen, and that atrocities have been committed on both sides, but the fact remains that the sale of £2.8 billion-worth of arms to the Saudi regime over the course of this conflict has undoubtedly contributed to humanitarian suffering. Surely those on the Government Front Bench cannot take a contrary view.
The most galling aspect, in my opinion, has been the blatant attempt to ensure that no independent investigation takes place that would put our Government in the inevitable position of having to request that arms sales be halted. In October last year, when the Netherlands sought to establish the first UN investigation into war crimes in Yemen, the UK Government supported a Saudi motion that would see it investigating its own crimes. I have met no one who seriously thinks that Saudi Arabia has the capacity to conduct a rigorous, independent and transparent investigation into itself. The Foreign Secretary knows that a Saudi-led investigation is worthless, I know that it is worthless, and this House knows that it is worthless.
Put simply, the UK Government must immediately support the establishment of a thorough, UN-led investigation into these crimes, and the continuing inability of anyone on the Government Benches to move that forward is to their immense discredit. As the Committees on Arms Export Controls found in their evidence, it opens Ministers—these Ministers—up to international criminal investigation, and that cannot be in our national interest.
The SNP’s position is that the Government must halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia immediately and ensure that a full investigation, under the auspices of the UN, now takes place.
I think most of us in this House would recognise that Saudi Arabia is a country in transition. It has come a long way in a relatively short space of time in order to address some of the concerns that we in this House have articulated. To deny that it has made progress is to deny the facts. I think we all share the concerns about what we have seen taking place in Yemen. No one could defend the bombing of a wedding party and the deaths of civilians. However, when we stand back and look at the conflict in its totality, and the crimes that the Houthis are responsible for, such as the capture and the killing of Saudi personnel and intrusions across the Saudi border, we have to recognise that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, like any sovereign state, has the right to defend itself.
As someone who has visited Saudi Arabia, I have not been shy about criticising aspects of its Government’s direction of travel, but neither should we be blind to the fact that the kingdom has made some great strides forward in recent years to address the concerns of many Members of this House.
I think that we would be wrong to withdraw support in an attempt to influence the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A withdrawal of support, which is implied in Labour’s motion and made explicit in the SNP’s amendment, relates to the withdrawal of arms sales. I unashamedly defend our right to sell defence equipment legitimately, with export controls, as we do, to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In my constituency, 6,500 men, women and apprentices are employed by BAE Systems at Warton, 4,000 over at Samlesbury and another 1,000 over at Brough, working on Hawk trainer aircraft, Typhoons and Tornado upgrades. Without the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and without those arms exports, 16,000 people would be out of work.
It is all very well for people to sit as though they were at an Islington dinner party and, over their latest glass of Uruguayan wine, say “Let’s stop arms sales,” but let us look at one key fact: every single one of those people is a human being, not a number; they have mortgages to pay, they have skills and they have jobs. Twice in my time as a Member of Parliament I have been at the gates of BAE Systems in Warton when redundancies have been made. My goodness, when you see proud working people at the risk of losing their jobs, it is a humbling moment. So when I see people in this House tabling motions calling for those people to lose their jobs—that is what is happening—I question their moral judgment. These are supply chains. If we seek to suspend the sale of this defence equipment, these people do not just go somewhere else; they do not just switch to manufacturing for someone else—they lose their jobs; that is what happens. When people feel really proud that they have said and done the right thing, there are also people who will lose their jobs—tens of thousands of them up and down this country.
I am not going to sit and take lessons from the Scottish National party about what we are doing morally. I know what we are doing morally: we are controlling arms sales, and I support the Government’s actions on this issue. We are controlling arms sales through the rigorous approach taken by the Government, and anyone who seeks to deny that is denying the truth.
I thank the official Opposition for securing the debate. I also thank the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is not in his place—he is by your Chair, Mr Speaker—for rightly putting the focus on the ceasefire, which is what we in the House would all like to see, although we will not be debating his amendment this evening, or indeed voting on it.
I shall focus briefly on the international investigation. Clearly, there are precedents for the UK Government pushing for international investigations—Sri Lanka, for instance, springs to mind. In the right circumstances, we would all support an investigation that covers both sides, because human rights abuses are potentially being committed on both sides. The Government’s position is that they are not opposing calls for an international, independent investigation, but I would like to press the Minister on the circumstances in which they would actually support such an investigation. He has referred to allowing the Saudis to conduct their own investigations, but at what point—using what test, what criteria and what timetable—do our Government say, “Actually, we think we’ve reached the point where we need an international, independent investigation”? I am sure the Minister is aware that the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 93% of casualties from air-launched explosives are civilians. It is difficult to see, with such statistics, how civilians are not being targeted, certainly through the use of air-launched explosives.
An inquiry might also consider whether the use of cluster munitions is in breach of international humanitarian law. I know that the Minister’s view—or the legal advice that he has received—is that, provided those munitions are used in a way that does not contravene international law, and particularly international humanitarian law, their use per se is not necessarily unlawful. I hope that he will be able to set out on what legal judgments he bases that view that the use of cluster munitions in civilian areas is, on occasions, legal.
I certainly think that the Americans would be in favour of an international investigation. The Minister may be aware that US officials have looked at whether the United States might be a co-belligerent and could be pursued under international law for war crimes. I hope that our Government have investigated that.
I welcome the visit of the Saudi Foreign Minister. I agree that he was very open and frank, which is a good start in what is, perhaps, a developing relationship. He said that changes would be made to how the Saudis handle these issues as a result of the incident, or mistake, that they accept what happened in relation to the funeral bombing. We have heard that the Saudis will take action against those directly responsible, but what else does our Minister expect them to do? What additional measures does he expect them to put in place to ensure that such incidents do not happen again? Perhaps he will say something about double-tapping, which we have heard is a war crime in Russia, but does not appear to be so in relation to Yemen.
There is, I am afraid, overwhelming evidence that breaches of international humanitarian law are taking place in Yemen, and that is why I shall support the motion tonight.
The situation faced by the Yemeni people is grave, and I am pleased that our Government are the fourth largest donor of humanitarian aid there. I am dismayed, however, that while the international community has pledged $100 million of aid, Germany is still to commit to pay, and the EU has paid less than it promised. A cessation of hostilities is in the best interests of not only Yemen but the wider region, but I do not believe that the suggestions in the Opposition’s motion would in any way achieve that aim.
We cannot overestimate the importance of UK-Saudi relations to the British national interest. Our strong alliance, which spans decades, encompasses trade, security and intelligence. It has, over many years, provided us with crucial intelligence that has saved the lives of our constituents. We must not forget that, nor the fact that it has taken decades to build up that relationship of trust. This understanding comes from the fact that tens of thousands of British nationals, including many of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) and the hon. Member for Preston (Mr Hendrick), have lived and worked in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia through their work in the defence aerospace industry. They realise that this fledgling state—we must remember that it was founded only in 1932—is not perfect, but that progress will be made only through experience, engagement and co-operation.
Stability in Saudi Arabia is in the British national interest. Chaos has ensued in the past few years since the so-called Arab spring, with a spike in terror meted out at home, and unprecedented migration to our own shores. The country does not have the perfect liberal democracy that we have here, but what it has is better than anarchy and terror. We must support Saudi Arabia in its drive towards reform in a peaceful fashion, because these are difficult times for that country. The falling oil price, and unemployment and underemployment, are creating a vacuum that could be filled with radicalisation, which, again, would have an impact in our constituencies.
It is unsurprising that Saudi Arabia will do all that it can to prevent the war in Yemen from spilling into its own territory. This is the country’s first experience of extended military action, as its Foreign Minister made clear when he came to Parliament last week and spoke frankly about that fact. It is through British intervention and guidance that the Saudis will learn about accountability and transparency. How would they do so without allies like the UK? If the UK were to suspend its support for the Saudi-led coalition forces, as the motion suggests, that would not expedite the publication of reports. Rather, Saudi Arabia would continue its campaign but without our influence as regards better targeting, transparency, accountability, and our understanding of international humanitarian law.
Moving on to the SNP’s position, I will not reiterate the arguments so ably set out by other hon. Members about our arms control policy and the importance of the aerospace industry to our country. This is not an either/or situation; the Government are not pursuing trade to the exclusion of human rights. We can have these conversations about human rights because we have strong trade and diplomatic relations. It is naive to think that if we suspended arms sales, Saudi Arabia would not buy from somebody else. The motion, and particularly the SNP’s position, misunderstand the realities of the region and our role in it, and the British national interest.
It is almost five months since I successfully secured a Westminster Hall debate on human rights and arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Part of my speech focused on the situation in Yemen, and since then that situation has gotten progressively worse. There is a massive humanitarian crisis as the country heads into winter, and it is also careering towards a famine. Millions of people urgently need food assistance, but unfortunately they are not receiving it due to the lack of unhindered access.
I appreciate that the Government have been making efforts to ensure that aid starts to get through—that has certainly helped the situation—but the war-related damage to Yemen’s infrastructure means that essential supplies are still not getting into the country. Onerous restrictions on humanitarian access have resulted in 1.3 million children under five suffering from malnutrition. Is it going to require images of dead children to make us do more? There will soon be no shortage of them—that fact is heartbreaking and infuriating.
The Department for International Development will no doubt argue that we are already doing our fair share, and of course it is only right that we do so. I am afraid, however, that handouts cannot make up for us arming the forces that are causing a lot of the damage to the country’s infrastructure. Make no mistake: although we are not coalition partners, we are willing accomplices.
A lot of Members want to speak, so I am sorry but I am going to continue.
I have been calling for the suspension of the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia for more than a year, and I have heard many excuses for not doing so. First, the Government insisted that the Ministry of Defence had conducted assessments of the situation in Yemen and determined that there was no evidence of breaches of international humanitarian law. That was as recently as June, when the then Foreign Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), insisted, in response to me in a Westminster Hall debate, that that was the case.
There was then a climbdown when the Government admitted that the MOD had not, in fact, conducted any assessments. The new refrain is that the Saudis should be responsible for investigating themselves, and that is what has started to happen. Although the joint incidents assessment team has investigated relatively few incidents, even it has been forced to admit that the Saudi-led coalition has indeed broken international humanitarian law. That still does not seem to be enough to shame the Government into action. Even the coalition airstrike in Sana’a on 8 October was not enough.
The UN panel of experts on Yemen has condemned the airstrike. It said that the coalition had “violated its obligations” under international law and that it
“did not take effective precautionary measures to minimize harm to civilians, including the first responders”
on the scene. When I tabled a written question to the Foreign Office in June to ask for an assessment of an extensive report published by the panel of experts in January, it responded:
“The UK has supported, and continues to support, the work of the panel of experts commissioned by the UN, but we do not always agree with their conclusions.”
What is totally shameful about that response is that not once have I seen any evidence whatsoever that the Foreign Office has ever disagreed with the conclusions of the Saudi authorities, let alone questioned them. Why is it that the Government seem content to take the word of a participant in the war at face value, yet disregard so readily the findings of the UN panel?
We need to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and we need an independent investigation. It is time for the Government not only to come clean about their role in the conflict, but to start putting things right.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate. A number of issues have been touched on very ably by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House.
The first thing we have to consider is that Saudi Arabia—I have visited the kingdom twice in the past three years—is itself on a journey. I first went there in 2013 as part of a delegation, when it was clear that one regime was coming to an end. I and a few colleagues went there earlier this year, and it was equally clear that the country had evolved. There were new programmes in place under the direction of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who spoke candidly about the nature of Saudi involvement in Yemen, as has his Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, very ably in many instances.
The Saudi action in Yemen is not coming out of the blue. It is not something that the Saudis are doing for the sake of it. They are doing it in response to UN resolution 2216, which other Members have alluded to, so in this instance they have the force of international law behind them.
I do not dispute that there have been incidents. I do not dispute that the Saudis have, at times, been overbearing and acted ultra vires, as we used to say—beyond their authority—and that civilians have been killed. That is greatly to be regretted, and it is an appalling violation. When there have been violations, they need to be looked at, but I do not believe that suspending the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia would help this country or the interests that are represented so ably by colleagues such as my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy), the hon. Member for Preston (Mr Hendrick) and other north-west Members. To do so would not help them or their constituents, nor would it be of any strategic value to the region itself.
In the past five years, there has been an appalling collapse of order right across the middle east. Libya has descended into chaos, and Yemen has been riven by this terrible conflict, in which right is clearly on one side. The Houthis are rebels and do not wish to conduct themselves according to international law as set out by the UN. There has been chaos in Syria. It is absolutely clear that, in this instance, Saudi Arabia is not acting unilaterally. It is acting as part of a coalition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) suggested. Many Arab countries—not just Gulf countries, but countries such as Morocco—are involved in the action. Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are all involved—[Interruption.] They may not be the shining democracies that you would like to see in Scotland, but they are functioning Governments that are a source of stability.
I know that, Mr Speaker. I just had a rush of blood to the head when I saw the hon. Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan) chuntering from a sedentary position.
It is quite clear that the countries I have just mentioned are sources of stability, and it makes absolutely no sense for us to turn our backs on them. On the contrary, we must work with them and make sure that where there are violations, the right people are held to account. It makes no sense for us to walk away. We have important strategic relationships with these kingdoms. To achieve stability in the region, we will need to be mature in our relations with them, and friendly and co-operative when we can be, but we can also be particularly critical if we feel that that is needed.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) accused the SNP of grandstanding and of denying Saudi Arabia the right to self-defence. Our argument is rather that the Saudi intervention in Yemen is disproportionate; that is the key. Several legitimate and well-respected human rights organisations have used open source material to try to count the number of airstrikes in Yemen since March of last year, when the Saudi coalition began the bombing. There have been at least 8,600 airstrikes, and that is disproportionate. There are not enough targets for the Saudi coalition to go on bombing as they have done. One of the findings from that open source material is that at least one third of the airstrikes have resulted in civilian casualties. That is the issue.
I would not only accept that, but go further and say that it is undermining the Saudi case for trying to create a stable Government and a stable political position in Yemen.
The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) introduced a new doctrine: the doctrine of intent. He said that we should look at the intent of the Saudis and, since they say they are doing good things and they want peace and security, we should consider that to be enough. Let us look at the intent of the Saudi Government. They have not signed up to the international convention on cluster weapons. If they do not want to use them, I would have expected them to sign up to it. In fact, as we all know, they have been using them—air-launched and ground-launched cluster weapons. I know that the Houthis on the other side are using them as well, but we are talking about a massive, western-funded, western-armed coalition versus a small group of rebels. That is disproportionate.
If we look at which cluster weapons have been found by human rights organisations across Yemen, we can see that they are not just the BL755 cluster weapons manufactured in Britain, but the CBU-105s, CBU-87s and CBU-58s manufactured in the United States. They have been found to have been used in at least five provinces in Yemen. Here is the thing: the American cluster weapons were sold to Saudi Arabia 20-odd years ago. I do not know how they got there or who used them, but it is surprising that all the types of cluster bomb weapons supplied to the Saudis about 20 years ago—in the 1980s and 1990s—have been found to have been used comprehensively and across the whole of Yemen. That deserves an investigation, which is what our amendment asks for.
The test of what Saudi Arabia is doing is not intent, but whether there is on balance a risk that humanitarian law has been broken. I put it to the House that there is ample evidence of that. How do we get the attention of the Saudi regime? That is at the core of the proposal in the SNP amendment, which has not been selected, to call for an immediate withdrawal of current sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
To respond to the hon. Members for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) and for Fylde (Mark Menzies), our proposal is not to stop all arms sales in perpetuity. We are trying to get the attention of the Saudi regime, which cannot put its own ground troops into Yemen. The real secret is that the regime cannot trust to using its own ground troops—it keeps them at home to protect the regime, which has no democratic legitimacy—so it uses its air force, which has very close links to the royal family, in a consistently indiscriminate way.
Hon. Members have repeatedly mentioned the bombing of the funeral. It was the funeral of a leading Houthi Minister and a lot of Houthi Ministers were expected to be at it, so one suspects that it was not quite the accident that it has been made out to be. There have been repeated cases of civilians being killed in missile and bomb attacks in places where Houthi leaders were expected. My point is that calling for an investigation and for a halt to arms sales in the short term is a way of getting the attention of the Saudi regime to ensure a ceasefire and a permanent solution to this crisis.
The situation in Yemen is dire. As the House has already heard, nearly 7,000 people have lost their lives as a result of the conflict, and more than 14.4 million people are food-insecure. The recent ceasefire provided a welcome few days of relief, allowing much-needed humanitarian aid through to areas that simply cannot be reached while clashes are going on, as was passionately noted by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz).
A true and lasting solution to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen must come from a longer, stable ceasefire during which efforts are made by both sides to agree a long-term, balanced peace deal that the people of Yemen have invested in themselves. I strongly support the Government’s work at the UN and, through our ambassador, Edmund Fitton-Brown, in Yemen. We should be proud that we have contributed £100 million to the UN’s humanitarian response, making us the fourth largest donor. I am pleased that our ambassador was present at the Kuwait talks. Our support for the UN special envoy, both politically and financially, is also extremely welcome.
However, we must recognise that this is not about us and that we are just one player. It is very easy to moralise on foreign affairs, but the devil is always in the detail. History has taught us that it is not our role to dictate relations between neighbouring countries in a region in which, if we are honest, our record is not exactly perfect. I suggest that we show some humility in our role.
My reservations about how Saudi Arabia conducts some of its affairs, internally and externally, are known. To discuss those concerns would require a whole other debate in itself. But however critical we are and will continue to be about the involvement of Saudi Arabia in this conflict, that involvement is at the request of the legitimate Government of Yemen, to deter aggression by the illegitimate Houthi rebels.
The situation in Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s involvement are not isolated, but have to be seen in the context of the wider difficulties in the middle east and, once again, ongoing tensions between Sunni and Shi’a; in this case there is also the involvement of the Zaydi Shi’a, who are so extreme that even Iran at some points calls them out.
As regional power struggles continue between Sunni and Shi’a, Saudi Arabia and Iran are once again the players in the situation. Iran has allegedly been increasing the frequency of its weapons shipments to the Houthis via the Omani border. Will the Minister outline what the coalition and the UN envoy are doing about that?
As I draw to a close, I once again have to mention terrorism and extremism. We know the danger posed by failed states. It is the fuel that Daesh feeds on, allowing it to export its ideology and terrorism. As we continue to defeat Daesh, we must also recognise the role being played by Saudi Arabia within the Islamic military alliance, which now has 39 members. The organisation’s joint command centre is in Riyadh, and the role of the alliance in the future defeat of Daesh has been recognised by us, the United States and others. We cannot risk weakening that alliance or the willingness of its leading members to lead the fight against Daesh by attempting to undermine its role in the Yemen conflict.
As my time is running out, I put one further request to the Minister. In the context of getting lasting peace in the region and strengthening co-operation, I suggest that he pushes for some sort of inclusion of Yemen in the Gulf Co-operation Council. That would send a strong message of solidarity and sustainable economic co-operation.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. When we consider that the war in Yemen is reported as the forgotten war, it seems even more appropriate that it is raised in this place, the highest seat of democracy, to ensure that our international obligations are being satisfied.
I support the legitimate Government in Yemen. I also put on the record that I support the peace process as we try to move forward. It is important that we do so, and to put that on the record when we are looking at these issues in this House. Indiscriminate bombing and the murder of innocents in Yemen—the destruction of property and the loss of life—are issues we are very aware of. We must condemn such actions, wherever they come from, and I have done so in the past. Amnesty International has said that violations of international humanitarian law have been committed by both sides with impunity, so it has said that both sides have been guilty of—dare I say it?—war crimes, in many cases. That has to be condemned by everyone in the House.
The Saudi-led coalition has been responsible for scores of airstrikes that have indiscriminately targeted civilian objects, disproportionately harmed civilians and attacked infrastructure indispensable to the civilian population, including hospitals, schools and humanitarian installations. According to the UN report on Yemen of 2016, the coalition airstrikes have failed to uphold the cornerstone principles of proportionality and distinction in any armed attack, and have clearly failed to take all necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties.
There is a definite need for intervention. That is the reason for my highlighting this issue back in June in a written question, asking what assessment the Foreign Office had made of the UN Secretary-General’s report, “Children and Armed Conflict”, and its annexe, published in April 2016, in which the Saudi-led coalition is listed as committing grave violations against children in Yemen. I ask the Minister again, what is being done to provide the response there should be to a war of this magnitude? What aid has been sent, what diplomatic pressure has been applied and how are we attempting to bring an end to this forgotten war?
As other hon. Members have said, Yemen is a tribal society. Islam is part of the identity of the Yemeni tribes, and tribal leaders are likely to enforce punishments for those who wish to leave Islam. That can mean honour killings, house arrest or, for women, forced marriage. Those are human rights abuses that we cannot legitimise or support. I put on the record my concerns about those abuses.
In the power vacuum resulting from the conflict, al-Qaeda and Islamic State are trying to gain power. That alone should mean we do all in our power—we must act to stop another Muslim country turning into an ISIS-held country. The world can little afford more strongholds for those who despise our very existence, and passionately wish to stop any of us in this place having another breath.
We have a duty to help children who are being slaughtered indiscriminately. We must send aid to the support networks to provide the assistance that is needed. We have a duty internationally to stand with our allies and ensure that those who seek to tear down and destroy understand that we will not stand by and passively allow or, even worse, encourage atrocities to take place.
Finally, we have a duty to our constituents to prevent terrorists from having an even greater hold upon this world. Evil triumphs when good men do nothing. I do not want that to be said of this House in this debate. At a sensitive time of delicate diplomacy, let us support the UN initiative as it elevates this critical problem in Yemen and support a solution and a peace process that can last. Let that be the message from this House tonight.
It is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), given that we regularly see each other at a range of debates in this House.
It is welcome that we are here again discussing Yemen. Having attended the recent Adjournment debate secured by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), I share many of the comments he expressed earlier about the scale of the crisis gripping Yemen and the disaster that the conflict has proved to be for the Yemeni people. I think it was earlier this year when the UN highlighted that both sides were preventing the access of food aid. I know he shares my disappointment that the ceasefire has not held. Again, I share his hopes that the forthcoming UN discussions will bring what everyone here wants to see: a return to a system based on a constitutional structure for settling differences, not one based on armed conflict.
That said, we have to look at the choices and the alternatives, and at why the UN voted to support an intervention. It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan) talk about a small rebel group. It is perhaps worth quoting the House of Commons Library on this “small rebel group”:
“The Houthis have managed to gather dozens of tanks and plenty of heavy weaponry from these defectors and deserters.”
It also states:
“Yemen’s government and armed forces have long been weak and fragmented, and have had too many forces lined up against them to put up a strong resistance to the Houthis.”
This is not a small band of people who are incapable militarily; these Houthi rebels are former soldiers who are able to pose a direct threat of overthrowing the main Government. That is why the intervention is there. We then have to be clear about the alternative. If we did not have coalition involvement, the Houthis would overrun the whole country. We would have a failed state in Yemen, equivalent to the failed state we have had in Somalia for so long.
Let us be blunt. It is not a small rebel group that fires effectively a ballistic missile at a neighbouring country or attacks a US warship in international waters. That does not fit my definition of a small group of lightly armed individuals. This is a serious and coherent threat to the recognised Government of Yemen, any constitutional process, and, ultimately, to the security of one of the key trade routes of the whole world through what we once saw as the Straits of Aden, with shipping heading up towards the Suez canal. Ultimately, if we allow a failed state in Yemen we will all pay the price for it in the cost of shipping, and disruption to energy supplies.
The alternative to the Saudi coalition—let us assume it is not the Saudis and their allies who intervene—is western intervention to enforce a UN motion. The same people very busily attacking this coalition are the same people who regularly oppose any western intervention in the middle east. For a UN resolution to have any meaning it needs to be implemented and it is questionable who it would want to take the action.
No, I do not think I will as we are running short of time.
The argument that the support should be removed is wrong.
On the motion itself, it was interesting to hear the shadow Foreign Secretary telling us about the two command centres. That is what leaps out from the motion. She talks about the northern command centre in Riyadh, where our advisers are and where the strikes were not authorised. She then talked about the southern command centre, where our advisers are not, and says that that is where the problems are in terms of targeting. Well, it does say something that we are going to pull away from the site where it is not happening, which would not make any difference.
The southern command centre has been identified, but who is in it has not been identified. Neither has it been identified whether it included anybody from any particular company—whether it be a British company or not; or indeed what British personnel, if any, are involved.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. However, I still do not see how pulling out our supporters and advisers from the northern command centre in Riyadh, as the motion suggests, would make any difference to what is happening there. It is therefore a rather interesting point that the hon. Lady has raised. Certainly for me, the Government’s amendment is far stronger than the Opposition’s motion. I nevertheless pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Leicester East, who managed to come up with an amendment that showed a lot more understanding than his party’s Front-Bench motion. It might not agree with the view being presented on Russia Today, but it had a bit more understanding of the region and the area.
Let me move on to the potential or alleged use of cluster bombs. It must be clear—it might not have been clear from one of the SNP’s contributions—that the weaponry was last delivered in 1989. Whether or not that weaponry delivered in 1989 is being used will not change anything that we do today. That said, an issue on which I challenged the Saudi Foreign Minister directly was that the country’s signing up to and ratifying the international treaty is long overdue. Yes, I was told that Saudi Arabia was considering it, but I suspect that its consideration will be a lot longer than most of us would prefer. I would be interested to hear more from the Minister about the work we are doing to encourage the country as one of our key allies to ratify that treaty and send a powerful message that it no longer intends to produce, retain or—crucially—use that type of weaponry.
Finally, I accept that the decision to be taken is going to be difficult for anyone. It is a complex situation and none of the outcomes looks particularly ideal. I accept that we therefore have to be realistic about the outcome. As with so many other situations in the middle east, we need to be careful what we wish for, because we might sometimes find that what we wish for turns out to be a lot worse than the devil we know.
As mentioned in the debate, the Committees on Arms Export Controls has in recent months conducted an inquiry into the conflict in Yemen and the use of UK-manufactured arms in it. In a joint report of the then Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and the International Development Committee, following the inquiry that I chaired, the conclusion from the widespread evidence that we heard was that there have been violations of international humanitarian law, as reported by organisations such as the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. As a result, the joint Committee report has called on the Government to push for a UN-led investigation into the conduct of the Saudi-led coalition, and for the suspension of arms sales to the country while this investigation takes place.
Since the report was published on 15 September, we have seen further civilian casualties—not least on 8 October, which saw the most severe attack of the conflict yet, as mentioned by a number of colleagues.
I would like to ask my hon. Friend the same question as I put to the shadow Foreign Secretary. When he talks about suspending arms sales, what does that mean? Does it mean that he and his Committee believe that the United Kingdom should withhold the supply of spare parts and withdraw our advisers to the Royal Saudi Air Force, or does it relate just to future sales down the track?
I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I thought I should grant my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) the chance to ask that question. We have a very short amount of time for this debate, but we deserve the opportunity to have a proper discussion of what a pause in arms sales would be. I would ask a more open question in response to those who have spoken on the same side as my hon. Friend: we were looking for a UN-led independent investigation, so what is preventing that investigation?
Saudi Arabia has described the airstrikes on the funeral as a mistake, while the Government continue to depend on Saudi assurances in relation to the conflict. The number of civilian casualties prompts me to ask whether every act that results in such loss can be considered a mistake. As Philippe Sands QC told the Committees on Arms Export Controls, the question of whether or not a state “intends” to commit a violation does not detract from the fact that a violation is committed by that state.
The United Kingdom’s legal obligations stipulate that the Government must suspend arms sales if there is a clear risk that there might be a violation of international humanitarian law. I suggest that that criterion has been met, and that arms sales to Saudi Arabia should therefore be suspended. I repeat our report’s recommendation that while such doubt and uncertainty about compliance with international humanitarian law in Yemen exists, the default position of the UK Government should be not to continue to sell weapons, but to pause until they are satisfied that allegations have been investigated properly.
I wish that there were more time for me to express my sadness at seeing a beautiful, seductive, complex country, which I have had the pleasure of visiting several times, laid low once again. When I last visited Sana’a, I was told about a speech made 100 years ago by Aubrey Herbert, who was then Member of Parliament for Yeovil, about the situation in the country. He said that it was
“like the dream of some haunted painter.”
He said that women and men were “skin and bone”, with
“begging eyes and clutching hands”.
That speech, made 100 years ago, could have been made today, and it fills me with great sadness to see the state of the country.
Let me turn briefly—for I have very little time—to the emotive question of arms sales, which has been the subject of our debate today. Let me make clear what those arms sales are about. They are about giving a nation that is under attack the arms that it needs to defend its territory. They are about giving an important ally the arms that it needs to re-establish, or try to re-establish, a legitimate Government who have been displaced by the Houthi rebels. We must not refrain—and we have not done so today—from expressing our views about the way in which the war in Yemen is being conducted, and we are very concerned about the large number of casualties.
It is right that this country has high standards. However, we must not forget the context, and that, I am afraid, is what some of the speeches missed, including the speech made by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). The context is that a Houthi-controlled, Iranian-backed regime would create a chaotic, unstable place, ripe for exploitation by Iran, by al-Qaeda and by Daesh. It would pose a risk to freedom of navigation in a geopolitically crucial part of the world, and would encourage terrorism there, across the Arabian peninsula, and in the horn of Africa. That is the context, and that is our strategic interest.
We must also not forget that this debate is more important than the sale of weapons, although jobs understandably depend on them. It is a message to our friends and allies, and it is a message to our enemies as well. If we as a nation want to help this desperate country, we must have an influential voice in the region. We must beware of simple answers to complex questions. We must be cautious about adopting a singular, anti-Saudi Arabia line. We must appreciate the context: the need to support a legitimate Government; to allow Saudi Arabia to defend its borders and territorial integrity; to try to resist the descent of a proud, great nation that I have had the pleasure of visiting into an Iranian-backed Houthi regime of chaos and destruction; and to retain some modest influence over the conduct of the war. We would have no influence were we to suspend our arms sales and walk away. Among our many security objectives and values should be keeping faith with old and important allies and being a reliable security partner, which we should consider essential.
We have heard an impassioned and informed debate on the conflict in Yemen, to which there is no end in sight and which is rapidly turning into the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) spoke with his customary passion and authority on this issue, and I believe he spoke for Members in all parts of the House. Likewise, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who has tirelessly pursued peace in Yemen, once again made a powerful case for a proper investigation of all these allegations. As an illustration of the cross-party concern on these issues, we heard forceful and eloquent contributions from the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias), who told us of the use of cluster bombs, the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh), who spoke of the atrocities in Yemen and the targeting of innocent children, and the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who spoke about the international investigation that needs to cover both sides.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) supports the call for an independent inquiry and spoke of other issues. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr Hendrick), the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who has great insight and understanding of the region, and the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), who spoke with passion about the conflict and its effect on the civilian population and how we should scrutinise the true threat in the region. We heard, too, from the hon. Members for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) and for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), and the hon. Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan), who spoke of the airstrikes, the hon. Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani), who spoke about the desperate need for humanitarian relief, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who supports the peace process and has a lot of experience. Many Members from all parties spoke powerfully about the need for a full independent investigation; I do not have enough time to mention them all, but I know that they stand with me on the comments they made.
I believe everyone who spoke today is united on one thing: wherever we stand individually on the causes of this conflict and how it must ultimately be resolved, and wherever we stand individually on Britain’s long-term relationship with Saudi Arabia as a military ally and trading partner, we share the common view that what matters above all else now is the need to tackle the humanitarian crisis that is gripping Yemen and to stop the thousands of civilian deaths turning into tens or hundreds of thousands as the country tips into famine and epidemic disease.
We have all been moved by the images of emaciated children and teenagers so weak with malnutrition that they are almost beyond help. The healthcare system in many parts of the country has been destroyed and humanitarian relief bodies are often physically unable to access those in the greatest need. We have also all been saddened by the stories of young goat-herders in rural areas picking up cluster bombs, thinking they are toys, with all too predictable and devastating results. But the true horror in Yemen lies not in individual images and stories, but in the sheer numbers affected, especially of children, and in asking what on earth the future holds for them.
Even before the war, 1.6 million children in Yemen did not go to school. Since March 2015, thousands more schools have been closed, and up to 600,000 more children are receiving no education. Even before the war, Yemen had one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world, but since March 2015 some 1.3 million children have now moved into a state of acute malnutrition. Their situation is getting worse. Muhannad Hadi of the World Food Programme said only yesterday:
“Hunger is increasing every day and people have exhausted all their survival strategies”.
The WFP director, Torben Due, explained the situation on the ground, saying:
“We need to provide a full ration to every family in need, but sadly we have had to…split assistance between impoverished families to meet growing needs”.
His devastating conclusion is:
“An entire generation could be crippled by hunger”.
On top of that, Yemen is now facing a cholera epidemic, with the number of cases growing and spreading every day.
According to the UN, the majority of those who have been killed have died as a result of coalition air strikes. Time and again, we hear from the Saudis that they are investigating. Indeed, what are the UK Government doing? We are told that the reports of civilian casualties from coalition air strikes are greatly exaggerated, and that those being hit are in fact Houthi rebels. Will the Government tell us how that squares with the fact that well over 1,000 of those casualties are children?
At the heart of this debate and today’s motion is a simple question, as set out by the shadow Foreign Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). This is not about whether or not anyone agrees with the justification for the conflict or the UN mandate that underpins it. Given the concerns about the way in which the coalition forces are conducting the conflict and about the potential violations of international humanitarian law, given the clear inadequacy of the Saudi-led investigations into those alleged violations, and given the terrible and worsening consequences for the civilian population of Yemen as long as the conflict continues, it surely makes sense for the UK to suspend its support for the coalition forces until there has been a proper, full investigation into how the war is being conducted and whether international law is being broken.
Let me boil this down to one example. On 11 September, in the rebel-held Sa’ada province, coalition air forces attacked and destroyed a drilling rig building a major new clean water well. When local civilians and healthcare workers rushed to the scene to aid the workers who had been injured, the coalition air forces returned and struck the scene again. In total, 30 civilians were killed and 17 were wounded. That is why the motion makes a simple case, which we hope will command the support of the whole House. Let the UN investigate this and all the thousands of other incidents. Let the UN determine whether there have been violations of international law. In the interim, let the Government suspend their support for the coalition forces; and let the message go out from this House that we care about the children in Yemen who are at risk.
It is a pleasure to respond to this important debate, to dispel some of the myths that surround the conflict, to put the background to the conflict in context and to clarify the UK’s role as we seek to resolve the challenges facing Yemen today. As we have heard, Britain has a historical relationship with the region. We are a P5 member of the United Nations Security Council and we work with our international colleagues. We also support the UN envoy and recommend his road map, which has been shared with stakeholders.
It is worth stepping back briefly to set in context the challenges that Yemen currently faces. It is a young country. The north and south were united only in 1990. The failure by its then President Saleh to strengthen the nation’s bonds created space for extremism in the form of al-Qaeda. He was then forced to stand aside in the Arab spring. Vice-President Hadi was then legitimately appointed President, and work began on trying to unite the country through the national dialogue conference, which took place in 2013 and 2014. The peace and national partnership agreement in September 2014 was signed by the Houthis themselves, yet in that very same month they moved south from their strongholds into the capital, took over key buildings and placed Cabinet members under arrest. Those actions prompted President Hadi to request international support. That was legitimised through UN Security Council resolution 2216, which includes the words “by all necessary means” and led to the formation of the Saudi-led coalition.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) said, the UK has an important relationship with Saudi Arabia—a strategic and defence partner for decades. We need to use that relationship to advance Saudi Arabia’s accountability. It is itself a new country, gaining independence in 1932, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy). The concept of central government is relatively new. Its leadership is on the moderate side of a conservative population, a point made earlier. We want more accountability and transparency, and we need to get involved in pushing that forward. I welcome the Deputy Crown Prince’s “Vision 2030” which underlines where he would like to take the country. Is it in Saudi Arabia’s interests to test the resolve of the west and deliberately breach international humanitarian law?
The hon. Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) mentioned the visit by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister. Where better to hold to account another Foreign Minister than in the mother of all Parliaments? He did a service to his country and to us by holding his hand up and talking about the challenges he faces and what role Britain could play in moving the situation forward.
Humanitarian issues were raised by several colleagues. DFID is at the forefront of that engagement. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, who held a donors conference at the UN General Assembly that increased our aid package to £100 million and encouraged others to join us in providing support to tackle the humanitarian situation on the ground. We estimate that 80% of the population is in need of assistance.
There is not enough time.
I stress the importance of the port of Hudaydah, where ships are queuing up to get in. I am pleased that DFID is looking at the situation to see what we can do to repair the cranes.
The licensing issues have been taken seriously, with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary focusing on them. The Ministry of Defence monitors the incidence of alleged violations of international humanitarian law using all the available information to form an overall view of Saudi Arabia’s approach and attitude to international humanitarian law.
The Saudi evaluation process has been slow. It has taken time and there have been mistakes. Modern warfare is complex and difficult, but we must ensure that we work with the Saudis so that they can put their hand up, which is exactly what happened when I went to Saudi Arabia to ask what happened when the funeral attack took place on 8 October. This was a shocking and tragic incident. The Foreign Secretary expressed deep regrets about it when speaking to the Saudi Foreign Minister, and I travelled to the capital to express our concerns and to ask about the details of the investigation. It transpires that standard operating procedures were not followed in this particular case. At least one senior officer did not follow the agreed rules of engagement, and I expect him and others to face a court martial.
To conclude, this Government’s position is clear: the conflict in Yemen must end; a political agreement between the Yemeni parties must be found; and the humanitarian suffering and the economic situation must be addressed. Britain continues to play an important role and supports the UN envoy’s road map, which was recently distributed to all stakeholders. We continue to monitor the situation closely and factor any incidents of concern into our consideration of our continued export of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
The Government are not opposed to the idea of independent UN-led investigations, as I have said in this Chamber before, but first we want Saudi Arabia to investigate allegations—that is international convention. Unlike Russia, which is defying international concern in Syria, Saudi Arabia—
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Question put accordingly (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.
Question agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this House supports efforts to bring about a cessation of hostilities and provide humanitarian relief in Yemen, and notes that the country is now on the brink of famine; condemns the reported bombings of civilian areas that have exacerbated this crisis; and calls on the Government to continue to support the UN Special Envoy in his ongoing efforts to achieve a political solution to bring sustainable peace to Yemen.