[Relevant Document: First Joint Report of the Business, Innovation and Skills and International Development Committees, The use of UK-manufactured arms in Yemen, HC 679.]
I beg to move,
That this House notes the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the impact of the conflict on civilians; condemns any breach of international humanitarian law; and calls for an urgent independent investigation into reports of breaches of international humanitarian law on both sides of the conflict.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this very important and timely debate. It is good to see members of all parties in the Chamber. I pay tribute to those who have worked on Yemen for much longer than I have; my interest has arisen over the past year or so, as a result of my role as Chair of the International Development Committee.
I shall focus first on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and then on the specific issue raised in the motion: the alleged violations of international humanitarian law by those on all sides. I shall not address the specific matter of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, as I know that my friend and co-sponsor of the motion, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White)—who chairs the Committees on Arms Export Controls—will address that important issue if he catches your eye, Mr Speaker.
The Yemen conflict began early in 2015, less than two years ago, but it has its roots in the Arab spring of 2011. When Ali Abdullah Saleh was succeeded by President Hadi, the Houthi movement took advantage of the new President’s weakness, took control of parts of northern Yemen and later took the capital, Sana’a. From there the conflict intensified, with the intervention in 2015 of the Saudi Arabian-led coalition, backed by United States, United Kingdom and French intelligence, and on the other side the Houthi rebels, backed by Iran.
Yemen has been called the forgotten crisis—for example, by Amnesty International—but it is a crisis that we surely cannot ignore. The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross has said that the intensity and severity of the fighting in Yemen has left the country looking as Syria did after five years of conflict. It is estimated that since the conflict began nearly 10,000 people have been killed, roughly 4,000 civilians have lost their lives and 37,000 have been injured, which amounts to an average of 75 deaths or injuries on each day of the conflict. Surely, we cannot allow that to continue.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his Committee for the work that they have done on Yemen, and, indeed, to the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White),
The issue here is not just the scorecard of shame to which my hon. Friend has referred, but the granting of access to those amazing aid organisations. Does he agree that the most important aspect of what we are discussing today is the need for a ceasefire, which will allow the aid to get through?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s own long-standing work on the issue and to the work of the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen. He is absolutely right to say that a ceasefire is crucial, and I shall come on to access for humanitarian organisations.
At the end of 2015, the International Development Committee decided to conduct an inquiry into the crisis. Last year, we published two reports on Yemen. The first, which we produced on our own, related specifically to the humanitarian crisis, and the second was produced in conjunction with the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, through the work of the Committees on Arms Export Controls. One of the recommendations in our first report was that the UK Government should put pressure on all parties to the conflict to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law. That includes, very importantly, measures to protect civilians and, as we have been reminded by my right hon. Friend, to allow humanitarian agencies a safe space in which to operate.
The humanitarian situation is grave. Our own Government have described the crisis in Yemen as one of the most serious humanitarian crises in the world. The United Nations estimates that more than 80% of the population—more than 20 million people—are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance. Fourteen million people face food shortages, 19 million have no access to safe drinking water, and more than 3 million have had to flee their homes because of the conflict. The situation is particularly dire for children: the United Nations has estimated that eight children are killed or maimed every day in Yemen and that nearly 50% of school-age children are not at school.
The situation is exacerbated by the difficulty of gaining access for imports of essential supplies such as energy, food and medicine. That fuels the humanitarian crisis. Supplies are filtering through to the country more quickly than they were six months ago, and that progress is obviously welcome, but levels remain significantly below those of March 2015. Not only is that damaging the economy, but any further changes in the availability of food will pose a risk of famine. It is to DFID’s credit—I am pleased to see that the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), is present—that it is putting more than £100 million into Yemen to help to relieve some of the most pressing humanitarian challenges. The UK is the fourth largest donor to Yemen, and we are leading the way in many respects, as we so often do in humanitarian crises, but we need to do more to press other countries to fund relief.
If DFID is giving £100 million to Yemen—I totally support that—what is happening to the money? Presumably, it is blocked, because we cannot get through to the people who really need it. I suppose that it is in some bank or food store somewhere.
The situation varies in different parts of the country, but I remember that when the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne)—who is sitting next to the hon. Gentleman—was a DFID Minister, we discussed this issue when he appeared before the Select Committee nearly a year ago to give evidence. One of the challenges is precisely the one of which the hon. Gentleman has reminded us: securing access within the country, so that the aid can get through. The UK does not necessarily need to spend more money, but we should do our utmost to get the aid through. That brings us on to the challenges of achieving a ceasefire but also political progress in Yemen.
Even in the present challenging circumstances, DFID is working to improve food and water security and to provide emergency resilience for those who are most at risk. Unfortunately, the organisations that have been, and in some cases still are, on the ground helping to alleviate the humanitarian situation have told the Select Committee that their work has been threatened by the conflict. Since March 2015, 13 health workers have died and 31 have been injured. The World Health Organisation tells us that more than 70 health centres have been damaged or destroyed completely and that more than 600 have closed owing to damage or shortage of supplies or staff. Last year, the non-governmental organisation, Doctors of the World, withdrew from Yemen because it simply could not guarantee the safety of its volunteers on the ground. A number of non-governmental organisations have told us that the humanitarian space in Yemen is shrinking, making it even more difficult for them to carry out their work. All sides in the conflict need to comply with international humanitarian law, and one of the ways they should do so is to ensure humanitarian organisations can work unimpeded in Yemen.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that attacks on humanitarian operations have occurred on both sides, including by the Saudi-led coalition sometimes even when co-ordinates have been provided? On 27 October 2015 it was reported that there had been an attack on a Médecins sans Frontières hospital, even though the co-ordinates had been provided to the coalition two weeks before.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he has done on this issue and agree entirely with what he says, which brings me to the second part of my speech.
The second major recommendation that came out of both reports—it was also recommended by the Foreign Affairs Committee report, which disagreed with us on the question of arms sales but agreed with us on this issue—is that there must be an independent, United Nations-led investigation of alleged violations of international humanitarian law by both sides in this conflict.
I just want to make the point that not all Foreign Affairs Committee members disagreed with the report; a minority agreed with it.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and pay tribute to her for her long-standing interest in, and activity on, these issues, not least her active participation in the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which I believe perform a vital function and should continue.
I had not intended to intervene at this point, but as the FAC report has been mentioned, is it not a fact that all three reports—those of the Business, Innovation and Skills, the International Development and the Foreign Affairs Committees—were agreed by majority votes?
I believe that is the case; certainly ours was agreed by a majority vote. I thought that my hon. Friend was going to make the different point that all three reports are in support of this motion. I am not aware of any of those voting in the minority in any of those three Committees doing so because they disagreed with this recommendation. I hope that the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington and I have framed a motion that can enjoy support across the House, because it focuses on the issue of an independent investigation.
The Chairman of our Select Committee will recall that when we took that vote—my decision is on record—it was my particular concern that the independent investigation take place. I feel strongly about that and want to put it on record today.
I thank the hon. Lady, who is an assiduous member of the International Development Committee. I do indeed recall that her focus was very much on needing to see the independent investigation first, and that was why she voted in the way she did. However, we all agreed across the Committee that there should be an independent international investigation, and that, indeed, featured in our first report as well as the second.
Let me now focus on the proposal for an investigation that is independent and international. In May 2015, at the beginning of the conflict, Human Rights Watch accused the Houthi rebels of violations of international law in the southern seaport city of Aden; the crimes highlighted included the killing of civilians and the arrest of aid workers at gunpoint. Since then the Houthis have been accused of a range of other violations of international humanitarian law, such as the prevention of the import of basic commodities, as well as medicine, propane, and oxygen cylinders, into the besieged city of Taiz.
A United Nations expert panel has documented 185 alleged abuses. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) reminded us, Médecins sans Frontières, which often works in the most difficult and challenging humanitarian situations, suffered attacks on three hospitals in three months. In September 2016, the Yemen Data Project reported that one third of all Saudi-led raids on Yemen have hit civilian sites, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has estimated that 66% of all civilian deaths in Yemen have been caused by Saudi-led air strikes.
I agree with my hon. Friend and concur with his point, but the UN panel also said that the problem facing the Saudi coalition and the Gulf Co-operation Council countries was that the Houthi rebels are operating in urban areas and against international law; they are effectively using civilians as human shields. There are problems with Saudi air strikes—they are killing civilians—but that point helps provide a more balanced picture of how this is occurring.
Yes, indeed. I was seeking to be absolutely balanced in making the point that very serious allegations have been made against the Houthis, and I gave just two examples—one from Aden and one from Taiz—but I reiterate the point of the UN panel that there have been 185 alleged abuses. I very deliberately say alleged abuses; that is why this motion argues for an independent investigation into all of those alleged abuses.
I am concerned that, as usual in these debates, I will not have enough time to answer all the questions asked, although I will do my best. I did not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s speech, from which the House is learning a lot, and I hope he will concede that we take every report seriously, but the panel of experts that put the report together did not actually visit the country. We need to take account of that context when monitoring and understanding what is going on. I am not saying that we should ignore the report, but it is being used here today as if somehow we should add value to it. They did not enter the country; they were not able to provide the necessary intelligence that we would expect from a panel of UN experts.
Surely they did not enter the country because of the challenges that I have been describing; they did not wilfully decide, “We’re not going to bother going”, and just come up with the figure of 185. This was based on serious research and work done by the United Nations and I am disappointed that the Minister is so dismissive of that.
This is important, because the lines “There are 105” or “There are over 100” do get used. The Ministry of Defence has looked at every single one of the allegations, and we have asked for more information on a number of them. I am sorry to labour the point, but to offer clarification and give information to the House, the assessment was made by aerial photography with months in between, and therefore we cannot ascertain what has happened unless we have more information as to whether these acts of atrocity were caused by the Houthis or the coalition. That is the point I am trying to make.
I agree with that, and that is precisely why the motion says we should have a fully independent international investigation into all allegations against “both sides”. It may well be that some of these violations have been committed by the Houthis. I did not say that there were 105 alleged abuses by the Saudi-led coalition; there are alleged abuses by it, and there are alleged abuses by the Houthis as well.
I should say in support of my hon. Friend that the UN panel was blocked from entering the country by the Houthis. The panel explains that in the report and points out that it tried everything to get in. Furthermore, the Houthis also blocked the peace negotiators from leaving Sana’a to go to Geneva for the peace talks. So the Houthis have been complicit in creating this problem of evidence.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have heard nobody in all the debates in the International Development Committee and other Committees of the House in any sense suggest that the Houthis are not to blame, and that is why the proposal is that we should have an investigation into abuses by both sides in this conflict.
Perhaps my hon. Friend is going to come on to this, but our discussion seems to be being conducted on the basis of the Saudi-led coalition versus the Houthis. Does this not miss the very unhelpful, and indeed sinister, role played by the Iranians, particularly in providing conventional weaponry? Without going into all the data, I would suspect that many more people have been killed, injured and dispossessed by the use of conventional weaponry, of which there is a steady pipeline coming into Yemen from Iran, than they have by air action.
I have already mentioned the role of Iran in supporting the Houthis, and any independent international UN-led investigation would certainly address the issue of Iranian involvement, but I reiterate the point that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has estimated that two thirds of all the civilian deaths in Yemen have been caused by the Saudi-led coalition.
Surely one of the reasons that we need a full and independent investigation is that we are not clear about what has been assessed, and by whom. The Saudis have not produced reports through the joint incidents assessment team on the vast majority of the allegations, whether they are correct or not, and we are not clear about what this Government have assessed. Indeed, they have changed their position a number of times on the question of whether they have made an assessment or not. This has involved providing corrections to the House, in which it was revealed that they made mistakes in the evidence that they provided to us.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I thank him for his comments because they enable me to move on to the question of the timeline—
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not give way now, because I want to move on to talk about the timeline of the Government’s response on this matter.
The United Nations Human Rights Council discussed Yemen in September 2015. The Government of the Netherlands tabled a motion to the Human Rights Council that would have mandated what today’s motion is proposing. That motion, tabled 16 months ago, would have set up a UN mission to document violations by all sides in the conflict since it began. The Netherlands withdrew the draft on 30 September 2015, and instead the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution tabled by Arab states which deleted calls for an independent inquiry.
On 24 November 2015, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is in his place today, told this House that Saudi Arabia was investigating reported allegations of violation of international humanitarian law. He said:
“These investigations must be concluded…The situation on the ground is very difficult and, in many cases, we are unable to have access to verify what has happened…We have been wanting to encourage Saudi Arabia and other parties that are involved…and we want these cases looked into efficiently and properly by the country itself.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1184-5.]
That was 14 months ago.
On 3 February last year—almost a year ago—during Department for International Development questions, the former DFID Minister, the right hon. Member for New Forest West, said:
“We have supported the UN Human Rights Council resolution that requires the Government of Yemen to investigate those matters”.—[Official Report, 3 February 2016; Vol. 605, c. 907.]
He said that the Government of Yemen should investigate alleged violations of international humanitarian law that were happening during the conflict. The following day, during a Back-Bench business debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East said again that he had raised the issue of an investigation directly with the Government of Saudi Arabia. That was almost a year ago.
Then the International Development Committee conducted its first inquiry, and on 8 July last year, the Government published their response to our report. Their response stated:
“The UK Government is not opposing calls for an international independent investigation into the alleged breaches of IHL but, first and foremost, we want to see the Saudi Arabian Government investigate allegations of breaches of IHL which are attributed to them”.
That was six months ago. In August last year, following the ministerial corrections to which my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth referred, I wrote to the Foreign Secretary regarding the corrections to parliamentary questions and Westminster Hall debates relating to allegations of violations of IHL. The Foreign Office’s response in August reiterated what had been said in response to our inquiry—namely, that the Saudis should be the ones to investigate first and foremost.
Last September, during a debate on an urgent question tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East said that Saudi Arabia had to conduct thorough and conclusive investigations into incidents where breaches of IHL had been alleged. He praised the fact that Saudi Arabia had released the results of eight reports in the previous month. That was four months ago. Then in October, during an Adjournment debate led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, who is in his place today, reiterated that Saudi Arabia needed to be the party that investigated violations. He stated that the Government were
“very clear that the investigation needs to be led, in the first instance, by the Saudi Government”.—[Official Report, 18 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 782.]
So, over the past 14 months, the Government have repeatedly been asked about Saudi Arabia’s own investigations. To my knowledge—the Minister might be able to update us today—Saudi Arabia has produced nine reports on violations, even though there have been many more allegations made. Progress on this matter has been glacial, and I find it remarkable that the Government are still holding the line that Saudi Arabia must take responsibility for investigating its own alleged violations.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for interrupting him again, but I think it will be helpful if I provide further clarity as he develops his argument. First, on the Human Rights Council and the formation of texts, there is the question of consensus, as we have seen more recently in relation to UN Security Council resolution 2334. He knows this from his own experience: it is consensus that eventually leads to the creation of a text that is agreed by everyone so that it can actually pass. I hope that he recognises that fact. My second point—just to test your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker—is that I agree absolutely that the production of these reports has been far too slow. The reason for that is that we are dealing with a country that has never written a report like this in its life and it is having to learn the hard way how to show the transparency that the international community expects.
I thank the Minister for those points of clarification, which I understand and appreciate. Of course I recognise the way in which United Nations bodies, including the Human Rights Council and the Security Council, operate. The point that I was seeking to make is that the original text from the Netherlands would have enabled the independent investigation to begin more than a year ago. Because of the diplomacy involved—I accept some of the realities of that—that did not happen. My argument today is that that has been a missed opportunity and that we could have started on this path at a much earlier stage.
The process is slow because Saudi Arabia is a fledgling state. It is still a very young state that is not used to this level of scrutiny and transparency, and it will therefore take a long time for these reports to come out.
The hon. Lady anticipates my final remarks. She used the word “slow”, as did the Minister. I have used the word “glacial”. The process is too slow, and I look forward to hearing the Minister tell us at what point the British Government will take the view that we need to move to an independent inquiry. I quoted the Government saying six months ago that they were not opposed to calls for an independent international inquiry but that first and foremost they wanted to see the Saudi Arabian Government carry out their own investigation. This situation has pertained for 14 months. How much longer do we have to wait before we can move to an independent investigation?
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Ministry of Defence has delivered two training sessions in Saudi Arabia on the process of investigating alleged violations of international humanitarian law? I hope, as I am sure he does, that the MOD will have underlined the importance of dealing with these matters in an expedited manner.
Absolutely, and I am sure that the Minister will have more to say on that when he speaks later. If it was the purpose of those sessions to remind all parties concerned that they have obligations under international humanitarian law, it is vital that those obligations should be fulfilled quickly.
The view taken by the International Development Committee and other Select Committees of this House was that we would only get the full investigation that we need if it was completely independent. It is now long overdue for us as a country to move to support a fully independent international investigation. It is simply not acceptable for us to wait indefinitely for the Saudi Arabians to conduct their own investigations while people are still dying in this conflict.
Morocco has 15 jets, Jordan has 15 jets, Kuwait has 15 jets, Bahrain has 15 jets, Qatar has 10 jets, the United Arab Emirates have 30 jets and Sudan has 15 jets. This is not just about Saudi Arabia; it involves the Gulf Co-operation Council and the Arab League as well. Will all those countries be involved in the inquiry?
As I have made clear throughout every intervention that I have taken, the inquiry would cover all allegations made against any party to the conflict, but it is quite clear that the Saudis lead the coalition and their alleged violations will be investigated. My right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), who is no longer in his place, reminded us earlier that the Iranians will also require investigation.
Who dropped the bombs then? What do the allegations say about who carried out the air strikes and dropped the bombs?
They say it was predominantly Saudi Arabia. There is little doubt that the Saudis have the predominant air power. But of course it is not only about the alleged violations involving air power; it is about all the alleged violations by all sides, including shelling by the Houthis, which must be investigated. That is the purpose of saying today that we want to see an independent international investigation.
I finish by saying that the motion enables the House to come together and to put to one side our different points of view on the question of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia and others—the motion is not about that. I reiterate that, although the International Development Committee and the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee took one view on arms sales and the Foreign Affairs Committee took another, all three Committees took the view that we should have an independent, UN-led international investigation. This debate provides Members on both sides of the House with an opportunity to send a clear message to the Government and the wider international community that we want to see urgent and immediate progress to enable a fully independent investigation to take place.
Before I call the next speaker, it will be obvious to the House that a great many people wish to speak this afternoon and that there is limited time. I would like to try not to impose a time limit, because the debate flows better if we do not have a time limit. I trust hon. Members to behave courteously to their colleagues by speaking for around seven minutes. If lots of people speak for considerably longer than that, we will have a time limit, which will be unfair to some people. I know that I can trust Alistair Burt to begin.
I much appreciate your introduction, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the Chair of the International Development Committee, and his colleagues on both Committees for their thorough report. I also thank him for the way he introduced this difficult and complex situation. I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), and the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). We will listen carefully to their responses.
I was Minister with responsibility for the middle east between 2010 and 2013, and I also had departmental responsibility for arms control, so I have some background and feel for these difficult and complex issues. I do not want to spend a huge amount of time on the humanitarian statistics, simply because we are well aware of them—the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby got the statistics into the public domain quite effectively. I thank the Library of the House of Commons for producing yet another excellent background briefing. I am sure we all also want to thank Stephen O’Brien for his remarkable work through the UN relief agencies. To put one quotation in Hansard, he said of the recent attack on a funeral:
“This attack took place against the backdrop of a desperately worsening humanitarian situation across Yemen, with four out of every five of Yemen’s 28 million people in real and immediate need of assistance.
I was in Sana’a only last week and saw the relentless heart-breaking situation for myself: medical facilities with no medicines to treat basic conditions; parents struggling to put food in the mouths of their children even once a day; and entire communities terrifyingly affected by conflict and without access to basic services or livelihoods.”
The issue before us, as always, is not simply the relief of humanitarian pressures. We can do more on that, but it does not solve the problem.
I will talk about the elements of the motion that address the conflict, the impact on civilians and how the conflict can be resolved, because that is the most important thing. If the humanitarian crisis is to be ended, it will not be through more aid but through an end to the conflict.
I am exceptionally fond of Yemen. My visits between 2010 and 2013 introduced me to some of the country’s leaders, whose despair as events evolved was obvious. In 2011, I met some of the young people and women in the squares of Sana’a who helped to start changing the country. Things have not gone well, and the people of Yemen have been betrayed once again by those in their country who have responsibility for them, but I hope the spark of reform that was there with the youth and the women is not lost in the Yemen of the future. I hope that the political settlement, which will eventually come, includes those who were not included in the past—those people have a role to play.
We have this conflict because of that past betrayal, because of the manipulation by Ali Abdullah Saleh of all sides in the various conflicts over a lengthy time, because aid money that went into the country was used for the wrong purposes, and because there was a failure of governance and a failure in the process to deal with internal grievances, including those of the Houthis. All that led to a situation where it suits some to continue the conflict internally, but the cost is borne by the people of Yemen. It is essential that we recognise and understand that.
From the outside, it is understandable that we focus on the humanitarian crisis and that, to a degree, we focus overmuch on the role of Saudi Arabia—I will come to that in a second—but it is essential to recognise that, if we want to make a difference, we have to look at and understand why the conflict has persisted as long as it has. The conflict exists on the back of the civil strife that has been going on in Yemen for a long time. It exists because Yemen is genuinely important. Yemen matters, and this should not be a forgotten war in a forgotten country.
First, in a basic human sense, Yemen is a country of art, culture and music. It is a country of gentle people who have given a great deal to the world, and it is terrible that in our time we associate Yemen with conflict. Secondly, Yemen overlooks important sea lanes, and the Houthis have already attacked ships in the area. Thirdly, Yemen is ungoverned space. It matters to us if there is instability in the region. Yemen may be a faraway place of which many people know not very much, but it matters. Accordingly, Yemen’s location and the ability of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to exploit that ungoverned space mean that AQAP’s ability to direct attacks towards us and others in the west has increasingly become a matter of concern and importance for us. None of us in this House needs further information on the general instability in the region.
Understanding all that gives us an understanding of why the coalition came together, of why there is a UN resolution and of why the United Kingdom has an involvement. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is directly affected by instability in Yemen. It can be, and has been, physically attacked. Between 2015 and 2016, some 37 ballistic missiles were fired by Houthi rebels towards Saudi Arabia, inflicting damage. It is important that that is known, because sometimes the conflict is considered purely to be an internal issue in Yemen. The Houthis are sometimes not considered to be well armed, or anything else, but they are.
The missiles supplied by North Korea in the 1990s, Scud-Bs, have a range of 300 to 500 km and are being shot down by Patriot defence missile systems procured by Saudi Arabia from the United States.
As the hon. Gentleman indicates, there are serious armaments in the area, which causes concern to all sides. That is a reason why the coalition is there, and I maintain that it is in the United Kingdom’s interest to continue supporting the coalition, to continue supporting the partners in the coalition and to recognise what is being challenged in Yemen—it is not only the loss of the democratically supported Government of President Hadi but, as has already been mentioned, the degree of Iranian influence. The Iranians have said publicly that they see Sana’a as yet another capital that they hold, and the risk and danger of that is that Iran is a regime with a clear intent to destabilise the region, to use terrorism to do so and to threaten stability in other areas. The consequence of that, not only in an unstable region but for those outside, is that the degree of risk to the United Kingdom and others has increased. Accordingly, it is not in the United Kingdom’s interests if the outcome of the conflict is that the Iranians are successful and terrorism is successful.
The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) mentioned the fewer than 20 Scud strikes, which should be deplored, but coalition air forces are engaging in 150 air strikes, and more, a day. There is a disproportionality here that everyone in this House should recognise.
It is very easy for us on these comfortable Benches here in Westminster to talk about disproportionality in a conflict far away. My point is that the United Kingdom has focused on the activities of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia without truly understanding why it is engaged, why the coalition is there and why the United Kingdom has an interest. I simply want to put that on the record. That is not, in any way, to minimise the reason and need for humanitarian law to be respected and for the activities of those who engage in warfare to conduct it according to the rules, but it does raise the rarely made argument about why on earth we are engaged in this and why the outcome matters to the United Kingdom.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on that point?
I will just this once, as I am running short of time.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I have enormous respect for him and his experience, and I am listening carefully to what he has to say. For me, the crucial issue is respect for international humanitarian law. What is his answer to the point I raised: at what point would it be right to look at these matters independently, rather than leaving it to the Saudis to lead the investigation?
That point comes when the United Kingdom Government are not satisfied that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can fulfil its obligations, but I do not believe that position has been reached. I am sure the Minister will talk about the nature of our engagement with Saudi Arabia and how, as he says, it affects a group of states, through the Gulf Co-operation Council, that are engaged in a conflict in a manner they have not been before. There is an important point here: if we want and expect people in other parts of the world to be responsible for their own defence and security, they are going to have to get on with it and they are learning some of the processes. That is happening at the moment.
Secondly, on the nature of our engagement, I refer all colleagues to the very good report by the BBC’s Frank Gardner just before Christmas that is on the BBC website. Most of us recognise that Frank Gardner is a pretty independent voice, and he has looked at the nature of engagement. The openness of the Saudi authorities in dealing with him and explaining what they do, and the openness of the Saudi Foreign Minister in coming to this House, with any Member of this Chamber having access to talk about these issues and question in a manner not done before, is an important step forward. We know that everything is by no means perfect or clear, but the steps that have been taken by the British Government to encourage full disclosure have been important.
I must close on this next point, because Madam Deputy Speaker was very generous. We are beginning to learn that the importance of ending a conflict is paramount to the people who are affected by it, but there are good outcomes and less than good outcomes. Sometimes unless we are involved we can see outcomes to conflict that are not in our long-term interest and not in the interest of stability in the area. That is why we should continue to support our allies, who are working through the Gulf coalition. We should continue to be engaged fully with them, but recognise that our interests lie in a situation that does not create a terrorist cell in Sana’a and does not result in a Hezbollah-type operation active in Yemen. We must recognise that those states that oppose such situations are right to consider that their long-term stability and ours is best satisfied by a solution that ends the conflict, and puts in place a democratic Government supported by Yemenis and a Yemeni political process, not the outside interference of Iran.
If anyone should be allowed to exceed their six minutes, it is the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is worth all the minutes he speaks about this important subject. Those who have been in the all-party group on Yemen, which I have chaired for 26 years—almost as long as President Saleh was President of Yemen—recognise that the right hon. Gentleman has always been, both in government and out of it, very aware of the importance of this beautiful country. We are very aware of his personal concern that it is being hurt and it is suffering every single day.
The right hon. Gentleman describes Yemen as the “forgotten war”. I am extremely proud of being a Member of this House, because what has been clear over the past few months is that Yemen is not the forgotten war in this House. At Foreign Office questions on Tuesday, 48 hours ago, 26 minutes of the 45 available were dedicated to some aspect of the situation in Yemen. Along with members of the all-party group—the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), a fellow Yemeni who was born in Yemen, as I was, and whom I am delighted to see here, the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who could not be here today—I recently hosted Yemen day for the first time in a number of years. At that event, we heard excellent speeches from the two Ministers representing the Government here today, the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), and from Stephen O’Brien.
We were also able to interact with members of the Yemeni community, which is more important, because in all our discussions we must remember that it is the people of Yemen who are suffering. The families of the people of Yemen live in different parts of this country, with some in Liverpool, West Derby—I am not sure whether there are any in Warwick and Leamington, but I am so pleased that the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) has co-sponsored this debate. They are all over the country, but they feel powerless to do what they need to do to bring this matter to the attention of this House and the international community. I am therefore delighted that we are, yet again, having a debate on Yemen and that so many Members are in this House on a Thursday afternoon, when it is not usually this well attended; we probably could have had a much longer debate.
I want to confine my remarks to the urgency and importance of a ceasefire. I welcome what the shadow Foreign Secretary said at Foreign Office questions on Tuesday and the focus of those on the Opposition Front Bench, which is also the focus of the Government. I hate it when we fight over Yemen, be it on party lines, or about the role of Saudi Arabia or what is happening as far as the investigations are concerned. We clearly need investigations, as the motion suggests. I desperately want us to unite behind one concept: the importance of the ceasefire.
A few weeks ago, I was at the UN Security Council. Because of the ability of Matthew Rycroft to get parliamentarians in, I was able, after 30 years in this House, to watch my first live session of the Security Council. Every one of its members wanted to do something in support of a ceasefire—this was unanimous and included all the permanent members. Of course they had little digs at each other and at this country for our role, but the most important thing was that all the countries spoke with one voice. That is why it is so important that the draft resolution, which is really our resolution because we are the penholders, should be tabled before the UN as a matter of urgency. I know that the Minister told the shadow Minister that we table resolutions only when we know they are going to be implemented. I do not have the figures on how many of the UN’s resolutions have actually been implemented, but I know it has got up to about 2,500. The fact is that we need that resolution, because the best way to guarantee that people are focusing on the peace process and a ceasefire is if the UN speaks with one voice. That is why I seek a timetable from the Government today: a timetable to ensure that we get that resolution before the Security Council.
I was delighted by the ceasefire brokered on Syria, where the Russians and the Turks were able to make sure that we had peace in Syria. I know it is a bit wobbly, but it was followed by the UN endorsing that ceasefire. If we can get this in Syria, why can we not have it in Yemen? I am very pleased with the role the Foreign Secretary has played and the honesty with which he has spoken about Yemen. If we take him at his word, the British Foreign Secretary will be working with the new US Secretary of State and with the Russians, who are now the friends of the Americans—or will be after 20 January. The Chinese will go along with the ceasefire—I met the Chinese ambassador recently and asked whether China would support it and he said it would—and the French are on board. As the five permanent members are going to be on board and the other countries are so supportive, I think we can get this through. Will the Minister therefore tell us when that timetable is going to be achieved?
My final point is about the aid agencies. The Chairman of the International Development Committee read out the scorecard of shame: the 3.3 million women and children who are malnourished; the 370,000 children who are in immediate risk of starvation; the 7 million who do not know where their next meal is coming from; the 10 million who have no access to safe drinking water; and the fact that four fifths of the entire population—21 million, which is equivalent to the populations of London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow combined—are in desperate need of urgent assistance. These incredible organisations, ranging from Médecins sans Frontières to Islamic Relief, the World Federation of Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Muslim Communities, Oxfam, Save the Children, the Disasters Emergency Committee, are all trying to get the aid in. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), another person who knows about Yemen so well, from when he served there, was right to ask: where is the aid going? The aid cannot get in effectively unless the planes land at Sana’a airport and unless the ports are able to accept it. We have to have a ceasefire.
If I am to have a new year’s resolution, and if the House can have a collective new year’s resolution, it should be that by 31 December we will have peace in Yemen and a proper political solution. Until we get that, Members of this House will continue to raise this subject, so that the forgotten war is never forgotten and we can bring peace to what is a beautiful, beautiful country.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) just raised a very good prospect for 2017: peace in Yemen. Would that not be wonderful?
The south-east tip of the Arabian peninsula has been important to us for at least 200 years. The area was crucial to the functioning of the British empire, particularly after 1869, when the Suez canal opened and the route to India was much shortened. When oil came to replace coal, Aden became even more important, and British Petroleum set up refineries there. Time passed and the Aden protectorate became part of our empire. Indeed, the British Government had to rule it through 23 sheikdoms or tribal areas that were not great friends of one another. That remains the case to this day. We cannot just think of them as the Houthis or something; they are all different tribes, which is the problem.
This is where I come in. In the ’50s, the right hon. Gentleman and his sister, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), were born when I was in Aden—
We are not related to you, by the way.
I understand that the right hon. Gentleman was born there, although his sister might not have been. I definitely was not born there: I was a little boy there, as my father was a soldier with the Aden Protectorate Levies.
The worst thing about my having intervened from a sedentary position is that the hon. Gentleman did not hear what I said. My sister and I were both born there, it is just that he said that we were born when he arrived in Aden, and I was making the point that the two events were not connected. [Laughter.]
Thank God for that, Madam Deputy Speaker.
My interest in Aden comes from my time there as a little boy. I loved the place: it was a great place to grow up between 1954 and 1957. What a fabulous place to be—if one was on the right side, of course. Since 1990, Yemen has gone from bad to worse. It has essentially become some sort of cockpit that some say is an area of fighting between the two branches of Islam. That may well be the case, but do not think that within that each side is homogeneous—they are not.
It does stretch credulity that the Iranian regime has defined the Houthis as part of Twelver Shi’a Islam, which they most certainly are not. That is more an indication of mischief-making than of any orthodox theological position.
Into that cockpit comes more mischief-making with the arrival of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and then the latest lot, Daesh. The poor devils who live there have had these people imposed on them. They are not native to Yemen—they are not people like the right hon. Member for Leicester East, who really should be an Adeni, or a Yemeni, if he wants to be—they are people coming in from outside. It is a great tragedy that Security Council resolution 2216, which was passed unanimously, has not had much effect. In a way, that is a disgrace on the world.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I give way again to a gentleman who talks such sense on this subject.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind words. He referred to ISIS, which is of course developing in a vacuum. The UN panel of experts identified that where that vacuum exists—with the Houthis threatening from one side and no stabilisation force, United Arab Emirates or otherwise, on the ground—Sunni people, towns and communities are turning to the black flag as a way of getting security against the Houthis, a subsect of Shi’a Islam, coming at them. They are turning to ISIS as a defence mechanism. The problem is an absence of any governance at all and people wanting to protect themselves.
As ever, it is the little people who are suffering in this war. Apparently, 7,000 people have died. To me, that chimes with the number of people killed at Srebrenica, which I was kind of involved with all those years ago. When Srebrenica occurred, the world suddenly got its backside in gear and sorted it out. I return to my original point: let us hope that 2017 sorts this situation out. It is clear that a political solution must be had, some way or other.
First, the protagonists from both sides have to meet. They have tried, and it is very difficult, but that is the only way forward. The diplomat from Mauritius, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, seems to be respected on all sides. The first thing we require is a chairman or chairwoman who is respected, and that man is respected. Let us hope he can work it.
My second point about the steps towards resolution is that the people negotiating must be protected, because they should be able to negotiate in safety. They have had some problems in the Gulf, so perhaps they should move to Geneva, the traditional place for negotiations, if necessary.
Thirdly, there must be a ceasefire that will hold. We must recognise that although ceasefires are written down on paper, they inevitably will not hold. They will never be perfect. We should almost expect that if there is a ceasefire, it will be breached. We have to live with that.
Has the hon. Gentleman seen the text of the resolution that the British have drafted but not yet put before the Security Council? Clause 1 of that resolution calls for a ceasefire and references the UN road map. Does he agree that that might be the basis for negotiations?
I have not read it, but it sounds very sensible and logical. Everything to do with sorting out problems has to be sensible and logical.
Fourthly, I have already alluded to the fact that AQAP and Daesh are not local to the region. The one thing all the protagonist share is that they hate these people who have come in from outside. AQAP and Daesh are part of the enemy and should not be involved.
Fifthly, there should be a withdrawal of armed forces from Sana’a and other towns. It will be very difficult, and it will probably involve UN peacekeepers of some sort. I always think of the model of the British going into Rhodesia and separating people, which was good. We cannot do it; whoever the peacekeepers are, they should probably be from an Islamic state. Good military officers and good military troops should go in, if there is to be some kind of resolution. The UN will have to grip this one.
Sixthly, a political solution is obviously the objective, and I very much hope that this year we will get one. For goodness’ sake, if Yemen is a forgotten war, let us make it not forgotten, and let us then make it a forgotten war by next year because it is over.
Unlike several Members who have already spoken, I have never been to Yemen, but last September I went to Oman. What is interesting about Oman—a country that, of course, has a border with Yemen—is that it has managed, in a very difficult situation, to stay out of the conflict. The Iranians are trying to smuggle weaponry into Yemen through Oman. Yemenis fleeing from the conflict are being treated in Omani hospitals, and there is a potential for the issue to take on a wider role. Interestingly, what is probably not widely known is that the Omanis are not Shi’a or Sunni, but Ibadi. This small group has a distinctive position in the history of Islam, but so, too, does the group that we now call the Houthis. It is quite clear that this is a regional conflict, with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Co-Operation Council countries and north Africa countries also involved as part of the UN-mandated and UN-supported coalition. On the other side is Iran and Hezbollah, and their commanders have revealed that they, too, have lost people in Yemen.
In a sense, what we are seeing in Syria is an alliance between the Alawites, who belong to a complicated branch that is close to Shi’a-ism, and Iran, Hezbollah, and, of course, Putin’s Russia. In Yemen, we have something similar: a coalition of Sunni Governments supporting a weak Government in what has become a failed state and, on the other side, a coalition with former President Saleh meddling and refusing to accept the transition to the new Government. A political solution is probably even more difficult to achieve here than in Syria, because the United States is not in any real position to influence the outcome, whereas Russia has an influence in Syria. Potentially, that has serious ramifications. The Houthis fired missiles at United Arab Emirates’ ships. They also fired missiles at United States’ naval vessels. There is the potential for this conflict to widen. This is a regional security issue, and it is quite right that the United Nations Security Council has to engage with it.
We cannot simply say that Saudi Arabia and Iran can solve this conflict, because the internal actors are not proxies for Iran or Saudi Arabia. Therefore, crudely to say that we should condemn the British Government’s support for the Saudis or that we should condemn Iran’s support for the Houthis will not take us anywhere. Sadly, I suspect that even if there were a regional deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia and they agreed a common position on the Israel-Palestine conflict, this conflict in Yemen would still continue because of all those factors I have mentioned. Therefore, this crisis needs to be addressed with urgency and to have big international involvement. We should remember that, above all else, these people are among the very poorest in the world, and they are suffering not just warfare, but terrible poverty, partly because of mismanagement and misgovernment over many years.
I am pleased to have secured this debate along with the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting us this opportunity.
The conflict in Yemen between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels has created grave instability and danger. Amnesty International has stated that the conflict has seen
“violations of international humanitarian law committed by both sides with impunity.”
UN reports suggest that around 60% of airstrikes during the war have been conducted by Saudi-led forces.
The Committees on Arms Export Controls had an inquiry last year into the sale of UK arms to Saudi Arabia. It is clear to me that there is an urgent need for the Government to suspend such licences, pending the results of an independent UN-led investigation into potential breaches of international humanitarian law. That was the position taken by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and the International Development Committee in the conclusion of their inquiry.
Meanwhile, the Government have repeated their view that the Saudis should be allowed to conduct their own investigations. Almost two years into the conflict, the Saudi-led joint incidents and assessment team has initiated only around 15 investigations. Saferworld estimates that the number of credible allegations to be “well over 100”. Furthermore, feedback by that team is limited to press releases and press conferences, rather than comprehensive reports.
During the Defence Secretary’s statement on 19 December, I asked my right hon. Friend to outline the circumstances under which the Government would pause arms sales to Saudi Arabia, to which the response was:
“If we have evidence that international humanitarian law had been breached”.—[Official Report, 19 December 2016; Vol. 618, c. 1224.]
I point to the devastating twin attack on a funeral hall in Sana’a in October, killing 140 people and injuring as many as 500. According to UN reports, the attacks were minutes apart, targeting a location where it was known that senior Houthi officials were assembling among families and children.
The US has since launched a review of that attack and cancelled a sale of precision-guided munitions worth around $350 million to Saudi Arabia, citing “systemic” and “endemic” problems with Saudi targeting in Yemen. For an attack to fail to distinguish between those fighting in a conflict and civilians gives serious weight to the argument that international humanitarian law has been broken.
The UK should be an example to the world in terms of our licensing regime, our commitment to the rule of law and our responsiveness to challenges. Criterion 2(c) of our arms export licensing regime forbids the authorisation of arms sales if there is a “clear risk” of a violation of international humanitarian law. In his response today, will the Minister outline at what point that threshold is met? The evidence that the Committees of Arms Export Controls heard last year was compelling in suggesting that there is very much a “clear risk”.
I have heard arguments that if we do not supply arms, a nation with a weaker licensing regime will do so instead. I pre-empt any such point today and suggest that that is no way to approach any situation, not least the sale of weapons. We must be accountable for our own actions, particularly if we are to be an example in cementing the rule of law into our practices. Such a position does not fulfil our obligations under the criteria and the law. Unless we wish to become one of these other weaker countries, we should maintain that position.
A legal opinion in December 2015 by Matrix Chambers argues that the sale of UK arms constitutes a violation of our obligations under national, EU and international law. I also pre-empt the widely recognised point that our strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia is one that must be maintained. I absolutely agree with that position, but that does not extend to our acting as its proxy defence. We pride ourselves on our relationship with Saudi Arabia, but it must not be a mechanism to deflect criticism, and our close ties should not be used to support otherwise.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. The primary subject of the debate is the people of Yemen who are suffering. That reflects my personal feelings. The objective is clear: a ceasefire, which is the only way to relieve the situation in Yemen. Stopping arms sales to Saudi is a bogus argument.
I put this to the hon. Gentleman: you have seen the arms sales from Putin and Moscow to Assad, and you have seen the devastation in Aleppo, so I find it incredible that you can make the argument about ethical arms sales and our ethical arms sales, and then allow Saudi Arabia, using our petrol pounds, to buy arms from whoever it wants. You see from Aleppo the devastation that could be caused if they bought Russian arms. That is a ridiculous argument.
Thank you for the final point, but I suggest that where the hon. Gentleman talks about ethics he is missing my point entirely. This is not necessarily about ethics; it is about the rule of law and the criteria for our arms export licensing.
My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. I would echo the comments made by my Lancashire neighbour, the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones). On the relationship with Saudi, does my hon. Friend not recognise that, through the good offices of Ministers such as the Minister who is in his place the behaviour of Saudi has changed? For example, it now accepts that it will no longer use cluster bombs.
I will answer briefly by saying that the Government had already been in discussions with Saudi Arabia regarding cluster munitions—in 2010—but I do not think that the Saudi Arabian Government took a terribly large amount of notice of our Government’s persuasion until after the events when those munitions were identified.
The hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Committee, is making a strong speech. Members on both sides of the House and Governments of both parties led the world in arguing for the arms trade treaty, including the previous Labour Government, who put the process in place, and indeed the other arms export control criteria, so that we have a rules-based system for our defence industry to operate within and one that adheres to humanitarian principles. Does he agree that that wider principle will be at stake if we do not adhere to it?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman.
I am sorry, but I am probably getting well past the Deputy Speaker’s patience.
To return to the statement made by the Secretary of State for Defence on 19 December and to the specific question raised by the hon. Member for Hyndburn, we learned the Government’s finding that British made cluster munitions had been used by the Saudi-led coalition in May 2016. That has a number of implications and is a cause for concern, and I challenge the Minister on the responsiveness of our arms exports licensing regime. It is unacceptable that an international ally used a weapon manufactured in Britain with complete disregard for the 2008 convention on cluster munitions, of which the UK is a signatory.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will continue; my apologies. We will see. If I get a strange look, I might give way shortly.
We are duty bound by the 2008 convention to prevent the use of cluster munitions, so what steps were taken to convince the Saudis of our opposition to the use of such munitions and to convince them to decommission those weapons? I recognise that the Government have not sold cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia since 1989, but it is important to consider the durability of our munitions.
We know that the UK Government stopped supplying cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia in 1989. However, we also know that the UK Government continued to maintain those horrific weapons until 2010. No doubt, the Minister will tell us why that contract was in place for 21 years, but does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the crucial point is that accountability should extend beyond simply sales to maintenance contracts?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it will be interesting to hear the Minister’s response to that intervention.
The humanitarian crisis requires an urgent and comprehensive response from the international community. Everyone in the Chamber agrees with that. As each month goes by and casualties grow, the case for an independent, UN-led investigation of potential breaches becomes all the more compelling. From a UK perspective, and to protect our reputation as an example to the world in arms export licensing, it is right that we suspend our sale of arms to Saudi Arabia until such an investigation is completed.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should remind the House of something. A few hon. Gentleman this afternoon have used the word “you” when, really, they meant “one”, or they should have said “the hon. Gentleman” or “the hon. Lady”. I have not interrupted people because I do not wish to spoil the flow of their arguments, but it must be noted that that is inappropriate use of language, and the debate works much better if we keep it in the third person.
Yemen is one of the oldest civilisations in the Gulf, yet a unified Yemeni state was not formed until 1990. The BBC gives an excellent timeline on that, and I urge Members to look at it. Yemen has a history of war, assassinations, and political, civil and internal conflict, with earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and landslides thrown in. Its history is a toll of misery in many respects.
In 1992, along came al-Qaeda. We heard little of al-Qaeda initially, but following the attack in 2000 on the USS Cole, violence grew from al-Qaeda. In 2009, Saudi and Yemini branches merged to form al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the death toll has risen yearly. The northern-based Houthi, or Partisans of God, insurgency against the majority Sunni Yemeni Government started to grow in 2004. Houthis adhere to a branch of Shi’a Islam, and I appreciate that it is a branch.
Ex-President Saleh became President of North Yemen in 1978, and President of Yemen, following unification with the south, in 1990. He was forced to leave office in 2012, since when he has fought alongside the Houthi insurgents to control Yemen. In February 2015, a panel of UN experts released a report alleging that, during his time in power, Saleh amassed a fortune worth between $30 billion and $62 billion. The report claims that the assets—including gold, cash, property and other commodities—are held under various names in at least 20 countries.
In 2012, President Hadi was inaugurated, but he fled to Aden in 2015, as the Houthis took over large parts of the country. President Hadi is supported by the Gulf Co-operation Council—the military alliance that is often referred to as being led by Saudi Arabia.
In April 2015, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Yemen’s Houthi rebels and allies, including former President Ali Saleh and his son. That arms embargo has been broken many times by the Iranians.
The 2016 global terrorism index lists Yemen as the country facing the sixth highest level of terrorism in the world. Of the 20 most fatal terrorist attacks in 2015, two were in Yemen—carried out by Houthi extremists. In 2015, 1,591 Yeminis were killed in terrorist attacks. Three groups carried out 90% of the attacks: the Houthis, AQAP and a new group, the IS affiliates. The Houthi still claimed responsibility for 63% of deaths and 62% of the attacks, the majority of which were against private citizens and property.
There is no doubt that violence has engulfed Yemen. That country has a history of conflict and tensions between its regions, and its ethnic and religious groups. Its leadership has a history of failing the ordinary people of Yemen. It is naive to suggest that Yemen is not also a proxy battle for dominance between Sunni and Shi’a powers drawing in wealthier and more powerful regional countries. The Houthis have also launched attacks on their neighbour, Saudi Arabia. I will not repeat all the information we have heard about the famine, disease and death tolls that result from the conflict, but this disastrous situation has reached a stalemate. Ceasefires and peace deals have been made and broken, and no side seems to see a real interest in reaching and maintaining a settlement.
In a region where the headlines so often include the horrific barrel bombing of civilians in Aleppo, a rising tide of refugees, murder, rape, and the torture of followers of differing religious groups, the warring parties in the Yemeni conflict have no real impetus in getting behind peace initiatives. I appreciate that the UN special envoy has worked hard. There is little in the motion before us that I think anyone in this House would not support, but I will talk about where we should be going because I am not going to get into a tit-for-tat argument about whether the Saudis are the main problem or whether the coalition is the problem. The problem is that we do not have a clear road map to resolve the conflict.
I have looked at what I think is a very good report from Chatham House, which is one of the UK’s best independent think-tanks and can be trusted to take an impartial view. Its report points out that
“the conflict is in fact multipolar, fuelled by regional and international support for the various parties involved in the fighting. There is broad consensus among international policy-makers that the only way the conflict can be brought to a sustainable end is through political mediation.”
Tensions are rife not only between the two warring factions—the two ex-Presidents—and we need to tackle those because the groups are also deeply divided. Whether we come down on the side of the Houthis or on the other side, an ongoing civil war will still ultimately emerge. We need a peace process that is more inclusive. I wish we would all listen much more to the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who happens to be, in my view, one of the great experts on the region. We need to move away from prioritising elite-level mediation and security concerns, particularly counter-terrorism initiatives, to look at the economic needs of the population.
The Chatham House report also states:
“The new political process will need to give equal weight to bottom-up, grassroots local approaches to peacebuilding alongside top-down, national and elite-level interests; and ensure that the political, security and economic tracks of the transition are interlinked rather than dealt with separately. Failure to expand representation and to focus on local governance will…lead to renewed hostilities at a local level that could push Yemen a step closer to becoming a ‘chaos state’”.
There are many reasons why we in the UK need to pay great attention to what is happening in Yemen. Yemen sits on the Bab al-Mandab strait, a narrow waterway linking the Red sea with the Gulf of Aden, through which most of the world’s oil and trade traverse on a daily basis. Security and stability in the straits is vital to the whole world’s economies and whoever controls the straits has a potential stranglehold on those economies.
The situation is a matter of urgent attention for the world. In my view, it is only the United Nations that can speak on behalf of the world, so it is to the UN that we must turn. It is the UN’s responsibility to take that bottom-up, rather than top-down, approach. A coalition of support for the people of Yemen is where we must give our support. Rather than dividing the issue into attacks on Saudi Arabia or attacks on Iran, let us focus on the peace needs of the people of Yemen.
Colleagues have used the phrase “forgotten war” a number of times during the debate, so I pay tribute to many hon. Members on both sides of the House who keep bringing the issue of Yemen back to the Chamber to ensure that it is not forgotten.
There is an acute humanitarian crisis. I do not want to go over those details again, as many hon. and right hon. Members who have spent time in Yemen have detailed that. However, I would like to put on the record my thanks—and, I think, the thanks of us all—for the Government’s great contribution to helping the Yemenis, including the £100 million of Department for International Development money that has been spent. [Interruption.] I cannot, unfortunately, hear the sedentary interventions. I am proud that we have made our 0.7% commitment. It says a lot about this Government, the previous coalition Government and our commitment to being an outward-looking global nation, which is very important, particularly after the referendum result.
We are all here to discuss stability and peace in Yemen. That is our aim and it is what is right for the people of Yemen. However, I would argue that it is greatly in the interests of all our constituents as well. We have seen that terrorist organisations thrive in war zones and failed states. There was Afghanistan. Then it was Syria, where Daesh grew. Now that it cannot get a foothold in Syria, it is moving over into Turkey. We are providing people who want to kill our constituents with a training ground, so the stability of the state of Yemen can only be in the best interests of our constituents.
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady. She is making a very important point. Does she share my disappointment that there continues to be a small—I am glad to say that it is only small—number of Members in the House who continue to say that we should scrap all the aid budgets and scrap DFID? It is actually very much in our national security interests and in the interests of the people who are suffering in those countries that we continue to provide funding.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman and I can see a little bit of cross-party love coming through. I do not think he will agree with the rest of my speech, but we totally agree on this point.
The conflict is having a profound effect, of course, on the people of Yemen, but it is having a wider effect on Saudi Arabia, which is suffering from the effects of migration, disease and terrorism on its borders. As I said in my intervention, Saudi Arabia is a state that has existed only for decades, to which its people might say, “Well, as a Persian, of course you’d say that.” It is in a state of transition. We have heard that some of its leaders are starting projects to think about how it will move towards further democracy and have more representation from women and other groups. As an ally, we should support the state in that and we should support its Government.
I was heartened when the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister came to speak to hon. Members before Christmas. He was open about recognising that there is a great challenge for his country, because we do not want a situation where Jeddah and Riyadh are controlled by Daesh or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The war is legal, but we can argue about how effective President Hadi is as the leader in Yemen. My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) and I differ on the role of selling armaments to Saudi Arabia, and I would echo some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on that. One must understand that relationships take a long time to build up in the middle east and they are reliant on trust, so we must keep talking to people. Historical relationships through trade and diplomacy take an awfully long time to build.
Has the hon. Lady seen that the European Council on Foreign Relations has said that it is absolutely vital that Europe and the EU post-Trump keep a good relationship with the GCC and the Arab League in relation to Security Council resolution 2216 and the intervention in Yemen? If we are to resolve this problem, we have to see that it is about building relationships, not destroying relationships, as the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) wants to do.
I agree: it is about relationships, and it is about influence and guidance.
What is written in the law about arms export control—my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) was instrumental in overseeing that when he was the Minister responsible—is very important. We need to do those things, and all arms exported to anybody go through a rigorous process. The coalition fighting in Yemen, which is led by Saudi Arabia but includes other Arab countries, is defending its borders and its interests.
Since what happened in the early 2000s, we have heard that we want to get out of the middle east and that countries there need to be self-sustaining, independent and more democratic.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I just need to finish this point before I lose my train of thought.
We need to allow those countries to do that, with the guidance that one would expect from an ally and a friend. Having our personnel there explaining compliance with international humanitarian law and explaining targeting is very important. I do not really like saying what my Labour neighbour, the hon. Member for Hyndburn, is saying, but if we are not in there, who do we really think will be there doing these things? This relationship is fundamental in terms of trade, security and the intelligence and co-operation we get.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am not going to speak for longer, because there are more expert voices in this House. I thank the hon. Members who are here today to speak in the debate, but all of us must really think about what we are talking about and whether it will actually protect Yemenis in the long run.
Brexit aside, I feel as though this House has spent more time on Yemen than on most other issues. That is not a complaint—I would spend as long as I could debating the disastrous situation facing people in Yemen. Sadly, the evidence is that this Government are not entirely listening.
The misleading of the British people and the international community over Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and its use of cluster weapons, in particular, is a blot on the record of current and former members of the Government. Ministers stuck to their stock phrases of denial, denial, denial, before the Defence Secretary was chosen to open the worst possible Christmas present and reveal that Ministers had, indeed, misled the House on a number of occasions. I wonder what the likelihood is of any such Minister facing sanctions for their part in that cover-up. Call me cynical, but I am not holding my breath. Perhaps the Ministers concerned were, to quote something the Minister said earlier this week, “inadvertently disingenuously” misleading the House, although I am sure that was not the case.
At least none of the Ministers was quite so misleading as the spokesman for the Saudi coalition, Major General Asseri, who claimed that Saudi Arabia’s British cluster bombs were obsolete and had been destroyed. In fact, he went further and declared that Saudi Arabia’s Tornado strike aircraft were not configured to drop the weapons. Now that our Defence Secretary has admitted that British cluster bombs were used, it is interesting to wonder how that happened if the Saudis had no aircraft configured to deliver them.
If we ever get to the truth of this matter, we may find that the Government’s denial lasted for only as long as Saudi Arabia still had a number of British-made cluster bombs left to use. In other words, someone somewhere appears to have made a calculation that the use of these weapons may just have been enough to deliver a kind of victory and that the Saudi and UK Governments should deny their use until that had been achieved. Given the continuing situation in Yemen, I have to conclude that the code of denial was broken simply because Saudi Arabia now has no or few cluster bombs left to deploy.
However, if it is not the case that the stocks have been exhausted, and there is evidence that the Saudis still hold such weapons, will the Government commit to doing all they can to have them withdrawn from service and destroyed and to get Saudi Arabia to sign the convention on cluster munitions? That is what the Government are committed to doing under the convention: article 21 expressly obliges parties to the treaty to encourage non-members to ratify it. So I ask the Government to commit to coming back to the House to report on progress in securing Saudi agreement to withdrawing any remaining cluster munitions from use and to signing up to the convention.
Interestingly, the convention, perhaps uniquely, allows signatories to co-operate militarily with states that have not signed it, but it does not require them to do so. Surely, if we believe that cluster bombs should not be used, and especially not indiscriminately against civilian targets, it is clear that we should not be working in a coalition doing exactly that.
In addition to cluster bombs, the people of Yemen face another threat—from the increasing use of armed drones, especially in targeting so-called high-value al-Qaeda figures. While such strikes have been part of US operations in other countries, those carried out in Yemen have been criticised for having far fewer safeguards than those in other countries. If that is the case, will the Government use their bilateral discussions with the Americans to press for a change in their approach?
As the incoming Administration in Washington take shape, many fear that events are moving in an unhelpful direction. Some of the views placed on the record by senior members of the President-elect’s team are frankly astounding. Comments I have seen attributed to General Mike Flynn, the incoming National Security Adviser, would appear better suited to a fake news site. Unfortunately, it seems they are true reflections of his views—for instance, that fear of Muslims is rational. The most concerning aspect of that was not just the horrible nature of the statement, but the shallow, hate-mongering video he was promoting to the world. Well, I have some news for General Flynn: President Hadi is a Muslim, and so, too, are the leaders of Saudi Arabia. Appointing someone to play a key role in a conflict such as that in Yemen who states that it is rational to hate all those involved defies belief.
In an earlier debate in Westminster Hall, the Minister for Europe and the Americas chided those of us expressing concern about the Saudi coalition’s tactics and behaviour, and he suggested the situation was too complex for us to understand. He is, of course, entirely right that the situation is hugely complex, which means there is all the more need for an independent investigation, but some issues are very clear, and so are some of the actions we must take, because the UK’s involvement in this situation is deeply regrettable. We must investigate, and we must suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. We must clarify exactly what the role of UK military personnel has been, and we must do everything we can to build a consensus around individuals and institutions that can build a new future for Yemen. In that respect, I am pleased that the United Nations special envoy to Yemen has called a new round of talks in Tunis at the end of the month to advance Yemen’s constitutional process, and I am sure the whole House will join me in wishing the participants well in their endeavours.
I cannot say that it is a pleasure to take part in this debate on Yemen today. Almost a year ago, we discussed this very subject in this Chamber. Yesterday, I reviewed what was said in that debate, and it is a source of great sadness that I could simply read out my speech of 12 months ago because nothing has changed, except for one thing: the suffering of the people of Yemen has got worse—much worse—and there is unimaginable suffering.
Another thing has changed: many more Members of Parliament are taking a keen interest in this forgotten conflict. Members of the public, including my constituents, are now becoming aware of the atrocities that are taking place. The BBC report by Fergal Keane was terrifying in showing what is going on. It is so easy to put these parts of the world out of the public eye, especially when there is another crisis nearby in Syria.
My own interest results from the fact that I was born in Aden, so I have always felt a special affinity for the country, and I would like to return. I know that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) feels the same, and I hope we will be some of the first MPs to visit when the devastating civil war is at an end.
The situation continues to disintegrate, and even though we have a United Nations road map, it continues to be nowhere near implementation. I continue to be hopeful that this conflict can be resolved through diplomatic means, but that depends on the willingness of external powers to make it happen, just as it does on the willingness of the two sides in Yemen itself.
The transfer of power from President Saleh to President Hadi in 2011 could have been a fresh start. It was brokered by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Co-operation Council. Hundreds of thousands of Yemeni men and women peacefully demonstrated for democracy, but, sadly, the internal situation deteriorated—a process led by ex-President Saleh and the Houthis—so Yemen is now in a desperate state.
These events started as an attempt to put the democratically elected Government back in place, but Yemen has now become a failed state, with many different actors, including Iran, Russia, al-Qaeda and Daesh, all creating chaos. Even worse, there is a humanitarian crisis, with millions of people displaced and thousands dying.
Will the Minister comment on what is going to happen following the inauguration of the United States President, who appears to have a shaky grasp of issues in the region? Secretary of State John Kerry spent much time working on the road map, but I feel that the UK may now have to take the lead if we want to get a quick resolution to this humanitarian crisis. There is a real groundswell of support in this House, and beyond, for us to do exactly that.
We have a very close relationships with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries that are part of the coalition. As a critical friend, we have already pushed Saudi Arabia to be more transparent and to investigate each violation and publish the result.
Will the hon. Lady join me in particularly commending the work of the RAF personnel who have been guiding the Saudis in relation to rules of engagement? It is absolutely crucial that we are there, changing the nature of the conflict, and that is possible because of this long-standing commitment. If we just criticise the Saudis, the conflict will get worse.
Absolutely—I totally agree. We have a very long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, and long may it continue. We can work side by side with them to create peace in the region.
We will need an independent investigation into reports of breaches of international humanitarian law, not least because of the violations by the Houthis, but let us concentrate on getting the road map back on track first. Can the Minister confirm that there are people on the ground who can verify each violation, as I am concerned that there are difficulties in getting international experts into Yemen? We have all heard in other speeches about the humanitarian crisis. I am very grateful to all the charities who work so hard in Yemen and who update us regularly in the all-party parliamentary group. I am pleased that the news channels have started to alert the public on this neglected civil war.
Unfortunately, people in Yemen cannot escape. They are either too poor or cannot cross borders because the only border is that of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Co-operation Council, or Oman—or the sea. Yemen has always been one of the poorest areas in the world. Before the conflict, 90% of food was imported. With the closure of ports and lack of cranes, 14 million people are now food-insecure and half of them are classified as severely food-insecure—that is 7 million people. I am sure we have all read about families scavenging on rubbish dumps just to survive.
I am pleased that because of the pressure that the Government have put on the Saudi coalition, the blockade of ports has eased, but imports are still significantly below pre-conflict levels. Bureaucratic obstacles, restrictions on access, and insecurity are not helping. I urge the Government to continue the pressure on the coalition and the Houthis to allow aid to move quickly through the country. The aid is available, but until flights are resumed into Sana’a international airport and food aid is allowed to move freely from the ports and around the country, the humanitarian crisis will continue.
I am confident that Yemen has the capacity to thrive again, as it has done so in the short time in which was there has been peace. Although it is not a major producer of oil or gas compared with other states in Arabia, oil was responsible for three quarters of Government income before the crisis, and there may be possibilities of exploiting other wells. Agriculture in Yemen depends on fuel to drive irrigation pumps to produce cereal. It is estimated by Famine Early Warning Systems Network that the planting of staple foodstuffs in Yemen is now down by around 30% on previous years. This is not influenced by climatic conditions, since rainfall has been at healthy levels in the main cultivated regions; it is simply because the war and its consequences are destroying agriculture.
I know that the international community will want to help Yemen to get back on its feet once peace has been established, but that will not happen until we show leadership. I hope that the UK Government will take on that role immediately, as too many people depend on it. It is also in our national interest, as al-Qaeda and, particularly, Daesh will use it as a base once they have been evicted from Syria and Iraq. There is no time to waste. I hope that the House will continue to push for further action to save what could be a thriving country like some of its neighbours, inshallah.
The scale of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is unimaginable. A number of Members have referred to some of the statistics involved. I would refer only to the fact that 19 million people in Yemen—70% of the population—need humanitarian or protection assistance. This is clearly a huge crisis that the international community is responding to, or at least partly responding to. I hope that the Minister will be able to update the House on the progress being made on the United Nations appeal, which currently, according to the latest figures I have seen, is just under 60% funded.
I want to focus my comments, I am afraid—some Members will feel that this is not the appropriate focus—on the Saudi actions. I do so because the military action that is taken by the Houthis and the Saudis is a major driver of the humanitarian crisis that we see in Yemen. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Houthis are committing serious human rights abuses. The Minister was right to point out to me in a written answer about the attacks on Saudi Arabia that 90 Saudi deaths have been caused by the Houthis through cross-border attacks, with more than 500 people injured. However, it is also right that we in this place focus our attention on the Saudis, because they are our allies and they are using the weapons that we are providing them with.
I will limit my remarks to a few questions on which I hope the Minister will receive some inspiration in responding to the debate. First, do the UK Government know whether UK planes were used in the delivery of cluster munitions? This question has been posed before, but I do not believe that an answer has been given. I take that to mean that they probably have been used, in specific operations. Have the Government looked at whether UK-supplied aircraft have been used to deliver cluster munitions, whether there are any legal obligations under the Cluster Munitions (Prohibition) Act 2010 that would pertain to those activities, and whether the use of UK aircraft in that way would be covered by the UK’s cluster munitions prohibition?
A number of Members have mentioned that cluster munitions have been sold to the Saudis only up to a certain period. We know that 500 cluster munitions were delivered over a three-year period, and that they were safe and suitable for service only until 2008. I hope the Minister can clarify what that means in terms of the increased risk of civilian casualties. Presumably, if they are safe and suitable for service only until 2008, more recent use would increase the risk of civilian casualties because the ordnance would not explode on impact.
Leaning on my previous military experience, as a general rule I would not want to go anywhere near any munition that has passed its sell-by date. I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with a more detailed answer, but I understand that these munitions did not fully blow up as they should have done. The fact that they were so old meant that they failed to work. This serves as advice to any country that has such stocks in their armouries: once the sell-by date has gone, they should clearly be removed. In this particular case, the country is not a signatory to the cluster munitions convention. From that perspective, it is not illegal to use cluster munitions, although we obviously advise against it.
I understand that, but some Opposition Members would challenge the Minister on whether their use, in any circumstances, can be deemed legal. It is regrettable that he is arguing, in effect, that their use can be considered legal in some circumstances, because most people would consider their impact to be indiscriminate.
I am following the right hon. Gentleman’s argument and he knows that I am going to make a counter-point. The state of Qatar is involved in the Gulf Co-operation Council mission in Yemen, so does he think that we should suspend our sales of coastal defence systems to it?
I had anticipated the hon. Gentleman’s line of inquiry, but the focus of my remarks is on what the Saudis are doing, the use of cluster munitions and whether there is sufficient evidence to call for a suspension of arms sales and sufficient support for an independent inquiry, which the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) called for in his opening remarks. I believe that there is.
Will the Minister explain the basis on which the Saudi Arabians refused in 2010 to swap their cluster munitions for the more precise Paveway III bombs? I understand that the Ministry of Defence offered a free swap with no cost implications, so what is the Government’s understanding of why the Saudis refused to take up that offer?
My final point relates to the joint incidents assessment team, to which, as I made clear in an earlier intervention, the Government have provided advice on how to investigate matters of international humanitarian law. One of the JIAT members is Mansour al-Mansour, a Bahraini judge who played a significant and unfortunate role in a series of trials in Bahrain about which it has been said:
“A pattern of due process violations occurred at the pre-trial and trial levels that denied most defendants elementary fair trial guarantees.”
Does the Minister think that that person and, possibly, other members of the JIAT are suitably qualified to adjudicate on the issue of civilian casualties in Yemen? Clearly, the credibility of the JIAT must depend on the credibility of its individual members.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Mansour al-Mansour is known in Bahrain as “the butcher”?
I thank the hon. Lady for putting that on the record. Clearly, there are significant concerns about his role and, therefore, his suitability for sitting on the JIAT.
In conclusion, there is a huge amount of evidence that suggests that the UK should suspend arms sales. I want to finish on the first point that was made in this debate, which is that there is now an overwhelming case for an independent inquiry into Saudi activities in Yemen. I fail to understand why the Government do not show the same enthusiasm as they did when they rightly made a very strong case for a similar independent inquiry in Sri Lanka.
I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) for securing this debate. Although I do not entirely agree with their views on the matter—I think they know that—this gives us an opportunity to debate and bring the issue of Yemen back into the public domain. Sadly, neither the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) nor my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) are in their places, but it was interesting to hear their thoughtful contributions.
It may come as no surprise that I want to focus on the humanitarian aid aspect of the situation in Yemen, given that I serve on the International Development Committee. This debate takes place in a week when the term “humanitarian crisis” has been used. For me, it is what is happening in Yemen that is a humanitarian crisis, not some of the other issues that have been raised in the Chamber today.
It is two years since hostilities began to escalate in Yemen. The suffering of children and their families continues. Today more than 18 million people are estimated to be in need of humanitarian assistance, many of whom, very sadly, are children. Some have described the situation as a children’s emergency. The United Nations estimates that more than 4,000 civilians have been killed and more than 7,000 injured. It has also been estimated that more than 3 million Yemenis are internally displaced. They and many others suffer from food insecurity. Close to half of Yemen’s health facilities are either closed or able to function only partially. Nearly 2,000 schools remain closed due to damage and destruction.
The International Development Committee often talks about the need for education for children. The sustainable development goals use the term, “Leave no one behind”, and concerns in Syria have led to the No Lost Generation initiative. I fear that Yemen may have another lost generation of children whose long-term futures will suffer because of a lack of education as a result of the conflict.
Last year, the Committee heard evidence from a number of non-governmental organisations and members of the Yemeni diaspora. Some of their stories, particularly those of the diaspora, were really striking and incredibly moving, including those about the need for water, food and urgent medical supplies—things that we take for granted in our own country. Low levels of imports of commercial supplies, such as fuel and medicines, simply add to the humanitarian crisis, as do the problems at Yemeni ports. Even so, the conflict continues to be described as the “forgotten war”, so debates such as this are helpful in raising awareness.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech on behalf of young people who are severely affected by the forgotten war in Yemen. I hope that she will go on to talk about the outrageous and disgusting use of child soldiers in Yemen. The UN and the UNICEF report identify two particular groups: the resistance groups—not the United Arab Emirates and Saudi armies—and the Houthis. The predominant age of those child soldiers running around with Kalashnikovs and getting killed is between six and eight. That is absolutely outrageous and I hope that she will comment on it.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. That specific point is not in my speech, but it is very important. Not only does war have an impact on children’s education, livelihoods and health; some get dragged into war and become part of it.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and she makes a powerful point. The UNICEF report has evidence that the Houthis in particular are purchasing young people from foreign countries and bringing them into Yemen to fight as child soldiers.
Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman, who makes his point eloquently. I hope that he will speak later in the debate and elaborate on it.
Debates such as this help to raise awareness, including in this Chamber on a number of occasions over the past year to 18 months. They also help to raise awareness beyond the Chamber, including among our constituents and the media. I fear that it is often overshadowed, understandably, by other events in the middle east region. Of course, by that I am referring to Syria; and yet, according to Save the Children, Yemen is the country with the largest number of people in need of humanitarian assistance. Conflict drives food emergencies, and it is clearly impacting on the broader humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Such conflict also makes it extremely difficult for DFID, NGOs and other aid agencies to deliver aid safely and effectively. That is why safe humanitarian corridors are absolutely vital, and we must continue to press for them.
At this point in my speech, it would be fair for me to recognise the tremendous work and commitment of DFID staff and the work that they do in delivering UK aid to those who need it in Yemen, with more than £100 million in aid being delivered through schemes such as the Social Fund for Development, the Yemen humanitarian resilience programme, the programme to address malnutrition in Yemen and protection support through the UNHCR. The UK is one of the leading donors to Yemen; in fact, it is the fourth largest. Surely this is a good indication of the good work that our 0.7% commitment on international development can do, and how that aid goes out to help some of the world’s poorest and those most in need. We must continue to use our leadership role to influence other donors as much as possible to encourage them to step up to the plate.
That brings me to the wider point of seeking a political settlement and a cessation of hostilities. The UK has strong relationships in the region, and I urge us to continue to use our influence there to help to bring about the lasting peace settlement for people in Yemen that we are all desperately searching for. Today we have debated the security situation, and we know from what we have heard and seen that this is a brutal conflict. We should recognise that the allegations about violations of international humanitarian law are exactly that—allegations. They must be investigated, but surely we must not let that overshadow the real answer to the crisis, which is a ceasefire, peace and long-lasting stability, not just in Yemen but in the region. In bringing that about, we should make sure that we avoid creating a vacuum that could be filled by those whom we would not wish to enter it.
There have been some powerful contributions to the debate, and I welcome the chance to discuss Yemen in further detail. This has been talked about as a forgotten crisis, although not in the House and certainly not in my constituency. I am delighted to say that the Yemeni community in Cardiff has a long history, and it has long expressed its concerns to me about the situation.
That community is also willing to reach out to Yemen. Before Christmas, I was delighted to support the Disasters Emergency Committee campaign in raising funds for Yemen. The campaign had already been very publicly supported by Grangetown Primary School in my constituency, by TramShed and by the Cardiff Devils ice hockey team. That unusual coalition came together to make it clear that they did not want the scenes that we saw on TV over Christmas of people suffering and starving—those horrific scenes that the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) and other Conservative Members referred to—to continue.
I agree with the comments made by many Members across the House about the need for an absolute focus on securing a ceasefire and a peace settlement. Only through that can we truly address the horrors that we see in Yemen and the situation that Stephen O’Brien rightly described as a humanitarian catastrophe. Oxfam International states that 7 million people do not know where their next meal will come from, and we have all seen those horrible images on our screens. The UN and World Health Organisation estimate that 18.8 million Yemeni citizens—almost two thirds of the population—are in dire need of assistance and protection. As of 25 October last year, health facilities reported that there had been almost 44,000 casualties, which is an average of 75 people killed or injured every day. There are 3.15 million internally displaced people.
We have heard about the import restrictions at ports and the crisis in accessing food that has been caused by food shortages. Oxfam reports that almost half a million infants and young people are in need of immediate treatment for severe acute malnutrition. The war has led to the collapse of food imports. Yemen imported 90% of its food supplies before the escalation of the conflict. In November 2015, the country imported enough food supplies to meet demands, but in October 2016 imported food covered only 40% of the demand. Many aid agencies are warning that if the plunging trends in food imports continue unabated, they may come to a complete halt in four months.
There is a risk of a cholera outbreak, because the restrictions on fuel imports are having a catastrophic effect on Yemen’s water and sanitation infrastructure. There has been an extremely worrying rise in gender-based violence, especially sexual violence, domestic violence and early marriage. Reports indicate an increase of 70% in reported incidents today compared with March 2015, and 8,000 or more incidents were recorded between January and September 2016, with 64% of the cases defined as emotional and psychological abuse or physical assault.
The psychological impact of the conflict on children, let alone the physical impact, is absolutely appalling. I will read out the words of 13-year-old Wahiha:
“I see the damage everywhere and I see how many people are affected by the bombs. I feel scared when I see weapons and especially when I hear the sound of planes up in the sky. When you hear that sound it means a big explosion will follow and that people will be killed... Hospitals and schools are damaged too. For children there is no education any more. Life is very difficult in Yemen right now.”
That is a powerful testimony from one of the young people living through the conflict. The UN tells us that 3,000 children have been killed or injured since March 2015.
I pay tribute, as others have done, to the DFID team working in Yemen. Our Committee’s report found that DFID had been instrumental in supporting and facilitating the humanitarian relief effort through its timely and flexible response, and we commended the Department for that. DFID has more than doubled its humanitarian commitment to Yemen, making the UK the fourth largest donor last year. DFID’s work is crucial evidence of why we need to adhere to our 0.7% aid commitment. To do so is not only morally right, but in our national and global interest.
I believe, as I have done for a long time, that such excellent work risks being undermined by the continued sale to Saudi Arabia of arms that are being used in Yemen. Let me be clear from the outset that I accept the very serious concerns that have been raised about the wider regional nature of the conflict. I do not have an agenda against Saudi Arabia, nor do I have an agenda against our defence industry. I believe in a regulated defence industry that adheres to the rule of law. The reality is that the UN estimates that more than 60% of civilian casualties were the result of attacks by the Saudi-led coalition. We might as well look at the current evidence: we have heard in the last few days about a Saudi-led coalition airstrike that was reported to have killed five people, including two children, near a primary school in the north of Yemen. That is just in recent days.
We have heard about the atrocities committed by the Houthis, and I want to be clear that I recognise and condemn them. We heard some absolutely disgusting stories about the use of child soldiers. The Houthis are blockading humanitarian access and using landmines and other indiscriminate weapons—just as cluster munitions are—against civilians. They have carried out appalling, indiscriminate artillery attacks at Taiz and along the borders, in which they have killed civilians.
We are not selling arms to the Houthis, however; we are selling arms to the Saudi-led coalition. Human Rights Watch reports that 61 allegedly unlawful coalition actions and airstrikes have resulted in the death of 900 civilians, and there have been attacks on markets, schools and hospitals. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) asked who was dropping these bombs, and where they were coming from. Human Rights Watch suggests that US-supplied munitions were used at 23 of those locations. UK-made weapons, including one produced as recently as 2015, have also been found there.
Let us be absolutely clear. The UK is a signatory to the arms trade treaty, and we led the fight for it internationally. I am proud of the fact that there was cross-party support for it, and that successive Governments have driven it forward. We have signed up to the EU consolidated criteria and we have our own regulations, which are very clear. A legal opinion has been produced which states that the UK is potentially in breach of article 6.3 of the arms trade treaty because the Government ought to have had the necessary knowledge that serious violations of international law were taking place; that the UK may be in breach of article 7 because there is a clear risk that future weapons supplies could be used to commit or facilitate serious breaches of international law; and that in such an ongoing crisis, no feasible mitigation measures were deemed possible.
The position is clear: we are signed up to those restrictions. Unfortunately, we have had a series of obfuscations and confusions not only from the Saudis, but from the UK Government, who changed their position several times on whether they conducted assessments, the nature of those assessments and the date on which they were conducted. The Minister and others admitted that progress has been glacial. That is simply not acceptable. As the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), a former Foreign Minister, pointed out, the Saudi Foreign Minister visited twice. That was a great opportunity to question him. He gave us assurances that there would be responses to the investigations, yet we have not seen them.
There are more than 180 documented incidents. Clearly, some will prove not to be true, but that is why we need a thorough investigation, and progress to date has been slow, whether from the Saudi Government and the Joint Incident Assessment Team, or the UK Government, who I believe know full well what is going on and have conducted assessments and possess information to show whether atrocities have been committed against civilians. We need independent verification of what has gone on. Until we get that, I support the calls for a temporary suspension of arms sales because of the principles that the arms trade treaty sets out.
I hope that the Minister will give us some clear assurances about what assessments and investigations are happening and whether he is convinced that the UK is adhering to its legal obligations. We know that legal proceedings are ongoing and due to be in the courts soon. It is crucial that, before those proceedings, the UK Government are clear about what they knew and when they knew it because we need assurances that we are adhering to our international obligations.
The crisis in Yemen will be resolved only through a peace settlement and a negotiated solution. All our efforts must be focused on that. There is a great deal of unity on that in the House, on the need for a humanitarian and development response, and, indeed, on the need for an independent investigation. We have a part to play in that; we are selling arms to one of the parties. Until we have clear answers, I will remain unsatisfied.
Many Members have used the phrase “the forgotten war” this afternoon, but as my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) made clear, the House has been doing everything it can to ensure that that war is not forgotten. Although he is not in his place, I pay particular tribute to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for all he has done over many years to highlight Yemen’s plight.
I know the country and the region well, having travelled there. I have been to and around Yemen on several occasions, and I therefore regard the situation there with particular sadness. As my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) said about her own speech, I could be making the same remarks as those I made a year ago in the same debate in which she spoke.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) set out with brilliance and insight, as always, the background to the situation. He did that in a measured and balanced tone, which is crucial.
The pre-war position in Yemen was always complex. I think that it was Ali Abdullah Saleh who described governing Yemen as like dancing on the heads of snakes, so complex is the tribal, political and religious make-up of that country. It is the most populous country in the middle east with a population of around 30 million, yet it has the lowest annual income per head—pre-war, it was $1,500. It has significant economic challenges and a young, male population with limited opportunities, even pre-war, to prosper. Yemen also relies heavily on foreign imports and was heavily armed, again, even pre-war. All that created a challenge for that country before the conflict broke out.
The position is even more challenging now. The geopolitical context is that Yemen is surrounded by a complex power network of different states and alliances, which make it all the more important to focus on it.
Possibly uniquely in this House, I do not intend to repeat the important points that other hon. Members have made—they have been very well made—but I will briefly touch on two things: the background and Saudi Arabia’s involvement, and the future.
It is right, as all hon. Members who have spoken said, that we remember that there is fault on both sides. Simply attempting to apportion blame does not advance the cause of peace. Of course, like all other hon. Members, I condemn any deaths of innocent civilians. It is right that, when they occur, they are properly investigated.
I cannot express the background more effectively, eloquently or eruditely than my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). The conflict came about through the Houthi attempt to take over the country some years ago, the march on Sana’a and the request by President Hadi, leading the legitimate Government of Yemen, for aid to stop that advance. The Saudi-led international coalition responded. We must remember that, just as there are consequences of action, on which we are focusing today, there would have been significant consequences to inaction had the Houthis been allowed to continue their advance and take over the country. I would argue that the consequences would have been much worse for the people of Yemen. There would also have been greater regional instability and a risk to our national interest.
We should also not forget that Saudi Arabia is regularly attacked across its border in the context of the conflict and that it has the right to defend itself. I therefore believe that it was right for the coalition to step in and act in defence of a legitimate Government and regional stability. It is also right to remember the vital role that Saudi Arabia plays in the region to our national interest and the partnership that we have with them in intelligence matters and in taking on terrorism. That engagement and relationship are vital to our national interest. It is not an uncritical relationship—as with all our relationships with our friends, we will be critical in a measured way when appropriate—but not engaging and not participating constructively in that relationship would be detrimental to our national interest, the interests of the people of Yemen and to regional stability.
I conclude by focusing on three key elements as we look to the future. First, a ceasefire to allow aid to get into the country and talks to take place is vital. I do not believe that any hon. Member would disagree with that. I particularly pay tribute to DFID for its work, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) for his work in his previous role in pressing the case for a ceasefire and to the Minister for his tireless work. The people of Yemen could have no better friend in this country than the Minister for the middle east.
Secondly, there must be a long-term political settlement that will hold. That settlement must emerge from within Yemen and its people and not be imposed from outside, although of course countries and friends of ours, such as Oman, have a significant role to play in facilitating such a settlement. It must ensure that all tribes and groups in Yemen are represented and that none are excluded.
Thirdly, it is important to focus on rebuilding Yemen and giving the people hope. That will involve investment from outside and security. I believe that it will also have to involve a clear focus on fuel because so much of what goes on in Yemen—electricity generation and the provision of water—relies on diesel fuel.
Is this not a prime example of when UN resolution 1325 could come into play? It involves the engagement of women in rebuilding a society after conflict and in setting out the peace conditions. Women and children have been many of the victims in this war. Is this not a wonderful example of how women can be involved in rebuilding Yemen?
I cannot disagree with the hon. Lady. She makes her point well and effectively. She is right about the role that women can play in rebuilding a country after conflict. Of course, everyone in that country needs to play a role in helping to rebuild it. I hope that when we next debate this matter, significant progress will have occurred. The Minister, the British Government and the people of Yemen desire that. I hope that 2017 will bring peace to that troubled country.
There is a hidden element running through this debate. This House and the UK Government can hope to influence the conduct of Saudi Arabia and the other states of the Gulf Co-operation Council. We have less hope and opportunity of influencing the Houthi and the various elements active in Yemen, including Iran. No Opposition Member who wishes to be critical of Saudi is blind to the crimes committed against humanity, against their own people, by the Houthi leadership and other elements of the coalition Government. So if we are talking with emphasis about Saudi, it is not because we ignore the other side and its crimes, but if we are to move the debate on, all we can do—as a major ally, weapons supplier and market—is to influence Saudi. That is why we are doing it. Some Members have tried to present the discussion in terms of some people being anti-Saudi or forgetting about the Houthis, but that is not where we are going. We can influence Saudi. The argument from Opposition Members is that Her Majesty’s Government have been niggardly in how they have tried to influence Saudi. I will provide some evidence.
On 13 December, the United States Government vetoed the sale of 16,000 guidance systems for munitions that were going to be sold by US companies to Saudi Arabia. That tells me a couple of things. Why does Saudi need 16,000 guidance systems for bombs? It is something to do with the disproportionality of the air offensive that Saudi and several other air forces in the Arab world have been conducting. That disproportionality is getting in the way of a settlement. What began as a civil war—yes, there were some implications around the Saudi border—has been turned into a humanitarian disaster by the sheer scale of the action the Saudis have undertaken.
The fact that the Saudis are continuing after there is very little left to bomb suggests an unwillingness by the Saudi regime to come to a compromise before it is able to impose the political settlement it wants. It is therefore incumbent upon the UK to try to put pressure on the Saudis to reduce the scale of the bombing and say that they have to do something else. If the United States can do it, so can we. The US spokesman, when announcing the veto of the weapons sales in December, said, “We will not give a blank cheque to the Saudi regime.” My criticism of HM Government is precisely that they are trying to give a blank cheque to the Saudi Government.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point well, but does he recall that the Secretary of State for Defence, in a statement to this House on 19 December, made it clear that the United States Government had suspended a particular licence but had continued to supply military jets, helicopters and other ammunition to Saudi Arabia? It was not a blank cheque.
I am well aware of that. Politics is politics in the western world, so while the US was banning the guidance systems, it was simultaneously agreeing a major contract to supply battle tanks to Saudi Arabia, but that just makes my point. If we presume, as HM Government do, that Saudi Arabia is an ally, the way we should deal with it is not to give it a blank cheque but to give it a choice. It is carrot and stick. The British Government have not done that. They spent a long time pretending or arguing that British cluster weapons had not been used. Once that was definitively proved, they moved back to saying that Saudi should conduct its own inquiries.
We have been training the Saudi air force. For the past 40 years, we have been helping to set up the command and control system for the Saudi air force. If it is not getting it right now, it is for political reasons, not because of any defectiveness in its command and control system. Waiting on the Saudis to investigate is a subterfuge. We have to put political pressure on the Saudis to come to the negotiating table to reduce the scale of the bombing and move towards some kind of ceasefire, and to do it properly. If we do not do that, we let them off the hook. As long as the British Government are being so soft—I use the word advisedly—on the Saudis in this context, we will never to get the international inquiry, which is the start of the process.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) crystallised the debate right at the very beginning by asking at what point do the British Government move on from demanding the Saudis investigate the failures in the bombing war to having an independent inquiry. That is the simplest thing. It is an even more modest request of HM Government than suspending arms sales temporarily, yet they will not even do that. That is the issue.
My final point is that as long as the British Government continue to underwrite the excessive Saudi bombing offensive, it becomes more and more likely that British personnel, in the military and in the Government, could be culpable legally.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the Saudis can purchase arms from abroad from whoever by selling petrol to nations like the United Kingdom? Perhaps he has been to a local petrol station near him and filled his car up with Saudi Arabian petrol. Did he ask at the petrol station whether it was ethical petrol or whether it was funding arms purchased by Saudi Arabia?
Fortunately, I can safely say that I do not possess and have never possessed a driving licence. I make the point again that I am not trying to identify Saudi as the only culprit in this difficult situation. I am saying that the only people we can influence is the Saudi regime. That is why I am trying to get the British Government to underwrite and support an independent inquiry.
My final point relates to the possible legal culpability of British service personnel, whom I greatly applaud. The Cluster Munitions (Prohibitions) Act 2010 makes it clear that it is an offence to “assist, encourage or induce” other persons to make use of cluster bombs. That is a pretty wide definition. As long as the British Government go on underwriting the Saudi air offensive, the more it becomes a possibility that British personnel could fall under that heading.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about legal culpability, but does he agree that that relates not just to cluster munitions but to the wider sales and compliance with the arms trade treaty? I do not know whether he has had the chance to look at the freedom of information request, but officials in the Foreign Office were clearly very exercised. They say that, owing to the high-profile nature of this subject and the attention it is getting from Parliament, the media and the courts, they have been advised that they have to correct answers. They are clearly worried about their legal position. Is that why we are seeing such obfuscation from them?
I totally accept what the hon. Gentleman says. In his contribution, he made the wider legal case very well.
My worry is for British personnel if a legal case begins to develop. The Minister alluded to section 9 of the 2010 Act, which gives a defence for British personnel involved in an international conflict with allies who might not be party to the UN cluster convention, but the problem is that it is only a technical, theoretical defence. I do not think that section 9 could be interpreted beyond a point where we know a non-compliant state is deliberately using British cluster weapons over a long time, causing great civilian casualties. The position under the 2010 Act then becomes more opaque. Will the Minister comment on what legal advice the British Government have taken on those grounds?
I thank the hon. Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) for securing today’s important debate through the Backbench Business Committee.
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen continues to worsen, despite all the parliamentary time we have spent over the past months discussing it. The situation is continually deteriorating, despite all the reassurances from our Government that millions of pounds is being spent on aid. There seem to be no end in sight for the suffering of the Yemeni people in the near future. Meanwhile, according to figures from Oxfam, some 14 million are food insecure, with about 7.5 million on the brink of famine. Unless something changes radically, the situation is set only to worsen in 2017. Yemen was heavily dependent on food imports prior to the conflict, and the war has had a devastating effect on food security. Not enough is making its way into the country to meet daily demand.
The country’s decimated infrastructure is making it impossible to get food to all who need it. It is not just roads that have been destroyed; ports have been targeted by the Saudi-led coalition. As a result of air strikes on the port of Hodeidah, only one of the six loading cranes remains functional. Prior to that, aid groups had complained that the coalition naval blockade prevented relief supplies from entering Yemen. There is further evidence to suggest that aid agencies are not being given proper opportunity to deliver aid.
About a year ago, Oxfam and other NGOs were sent a diplomatic note stating that if they were delivering aid anywhere remotely close to where Houthis were operating, they were doing so at their own risk. In effect, the Saudis were saying that they would not take responsibility for bombing aid workers if they were near Houthis. That diktat, which was surely a breach of international humanitarian law, has meant that civilians in need of aid are unable to receive it. Hunger should not be used as a weapon of war. Famine Early Warning Systems Network warns:
“To mitigate severe, ongoing food insecurity and prevent Famine over the coming year, the international community and local actors must protect the ability of private traders to import staple food”,
“more resources are needed to support the continuation and expansion of humanitarian response”
and that traders and humanitarian actors must have access to conflict zones.
The UK needs to play its part and heed these recommendations. The Saudis are a key ally of the UK, and we should be working to ensure that it is acting responsibly in the conflict. Such responsibility includes military operations—actions should be proportionate to the military threat—yet we continue to hear reports that would suggest that this is not the case. Serious questions need to be asked of the Saudis about their targeting. There are too many documented cases of indiscriminate bombings leading to thousands of needless civilian death and injuries, including of many children, as we have heard.
As we have also heard, the conflict is certainly not one-sided, but the fact remains that we are a key ally of the Saudis and have licensed £3.3 billion-worth of arms sales since their intervention in Yemen. We cannot shirk responsibility. That is particularly the case where UK-supplied weapons are being used in the conflict. Too many questions remain improperly answered around the use of BL755 cluster munitions. I have pursued the Government on this issue since last June, and I am sick of their cluster bluster. Members deserve nothing less than full transparency and disclosure.
Last June, I asked the MOD, by way of written question, when the UK had last maintained cluster munitions held by Saudi Arabia. The Secretary of State delivered a succinct and blunt response, saying:
“The UK has never maintained cluster munitions held by Saudi Arabia.”
Yesterday, I got sight of a response to a freedom of information request submitted to the MOD by Amnesty International. Contained within is confirmation that up until 2008 there was contracted manpower support in place for the maintenance, handling and storage of these cluster bombs. I will be seeking urgent clarification from the MOD on this. I seriously hope that I have not been misled by the Department.
Furthermore, it is revealed in the freedom of information response that the MOD offered to replace all of the Saudi stocks of BL755s with Paveway III precision-guided bombs as recently as 2010 but that the Saudis continually refused this offer. The MOD must provide answers to the House urgently as to why this offer was allowed to be declined without repercussion. Why have subsequent arms export licences been issued without question when the Saudis have so resolutely refused to give up their stockpile of UK-produced cluster munitions?
We also need concrete answers from the Saudis on how many of the BL755 bombs have been dropped on Yemen and absolute transparency on the targeting data of such air strikes. Furthermore, will the UK Government take sole responsibility for ensuring that any and all UK-produced cluster munitions dropped in Yemen are cleared, working alongside national de-mining institutions, including the Yemen Executive Mine Action Centre, and increasing the direct funding it receives from the UK as necessary? In short, I am asking the Government for an undertaking to clean up their own mess and show an appropriate level of responsibility. Our foreign policy needs to put the innocent civilians of Yemen first and foremost, now more than ever. Our efforts can help to avert a full-scale famine, but the time to act and help secure a ceasefire is now.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) for securing this debate and pay tribute, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), to the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), each and every minute of whose speech was a valuable contribution to this debate.
The primary purpose of this debate is to end the killing and suffering, to secure a ceasefire and to stop the humanitarian crisis. It is not just the primary purpose; it is pretty much the sole purpose. There are some other ancillary issues, but that is what we are here to do. This is a humanitarian crisis and a forgotten war—it has been under-reported and under-considered. I therefore welcome this debate. We must elevate it not only for those living in Yemen but for others in the region who will suffer and perhaps also for the people of western Europe, given some of the extreme Islamist elements within Yemen.
The country has a history of problems. To the members of the Labour club in Accrington, I say, “The problem is we have this despotic leader, Saleh, who has now returned. He was once fought by the Houthis, but now he’s joined them. He milked the nation, and after robbing it and leaving impoverished, he is now involved in a war.” This is a very simple view, but it is the view that the United Nations takes in UN Security Council resolution 2216: that there has been—dare I use the word?—a coup. A coup has been carried out by some very terrible people, including Houthis and the Saleh alliance, and the resistance on the other side has become involved in committing some atrocious acts. A vacuum has been created by the former President, who is now causing trouble again.
If we do not stop the conflict in 2017—if we do not resolve the situation and bring about a ceasefire—there is a risk that the situation will become intractable. It will not be in the interests of Iran or Saudi Arabia to achieve a peaceful settlement, and they will continue the middle east proxy war. We must not allow the conflict to reach that stage, which is one of the reasons why resolution 2216 refers to an arms embargo, a blockade, and the need to stop the transfer of assets that is bringing illegal weapons such as guns and munitions into Yemen and exacerbating the situation.
Let us consider the scale of what is happening. The United Nations has reported that children aged between six and eight are carrying Kalashnikovs, and are being killed. This is the war that we face.
I fully accept what my hon. Friend is saying about the use of child soldiers by the Houthis. Does he not recall, however, that the United Nations found Saudi Arabia to be culpable of being the biggest killer of children in the war in Yemen through its bombing, and that the Saudi regime forced the UN to take Saudi Arabia off its list of states with the worst records of dealing badly with children?
That is a valid point. The United Nations has had trouble, and no one the in Chamber thinks that either side of the conflict is right. Both sides are killing people. That is what needs to end, and that is we need to focus on rather than blaming individual nations.
Let me set the record straight. I come to this debate frustrated, because 2016 was the year of false truth, false fact and fake news. It was a terrible year for Britain and for the world, in which moderate people in a democracy lost arguments to extremists—Breitbart on one side and The Canary on the other, or the alt-right versus the hard left of the Labour party. Yemen is being used as the next vehicle for the advocating of some lunacy, rather than the principled position of those who ask, “How can we help these people?” It is about time that moderate Britain fought back against some of those who pursue such extremist views.
We must not allow this to become an Iran versus Saudi conflict, because if we do, the situation will indeed become intractable. I accept, however, that all the reports show that there is a mass of complications on the ground. It is not simply Iran versus Saudi, because we have not reached that stage yet, but we ought to be exceedingly mindful of the possibility. We have Saleh, the guy who robbed Yemen. According to the UN, when he was President and also an arms dealer, he was buying bullets for 50 cents as an arms dealer and selling them to himself as President at a dollar a time. He was buying Kalashnikovs and other guns for $150 as an arms dealer, and selling them to himself as President for $600. The UN describes this man as creaming off the whole Yemeni state. At one depot, there were 1,500 troops; he had an invoice for 80,000. There are nine teachers for every child in Yemen, if we believe ex-President Saleh. Of course, he wants his old position back, and he wants to use all the money and assets that the United Nations is trying to freeze to fund a war in which ordinary people are being mercilessly killed.
Let us face some truths. The biggest donors to Yemen over the years, which have, in the past, prevented the humanitarian crisis from being what it is today, have been the Gulf Co-operation Council and Saudi Arabia. Because of the Houthis, the aid tap has been turned off. Worse than that, however, because the Houthis want to fight Saudi Arabia on the border, foreign workers from Yemen can no longer work in Saudi Arabia, which is logical, so all the remittances have dried up. No wonder the country is in poverty—and we are allowing these people to get away with it. It is obvious why Security Council resolution 2216 pins it all on the Houthis, the people who started this in an alliance with the person whom they were formerly fighting, President Saleh. Therein lies the problem, and the reason for resolution 2216.
We must try to deal with the situation, but that will mean building bridges. According to the UN reports, the GCC has tried—twice in Geneva, and also through the Muscat principles—to bring the two parties together for a peaceful settlement. Which party is resisting the peace talks? It is the Houthis, who will not allow a peace delegation to fly to Geneva, and will not allow the UN panel of experts to go in and observe the situation on the ground. This is a group of people who to my mind—I say this to the people in the Labour club in Accrington—are just trying to rob the state. They are not interested in a peaceful settlement, and that makes things very difficult, but we should never abandon the principle of trying to build bridges, and that includes trying not to upset or destabilise the GCC or the Arab League.
I am enjoying listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Does he agree that one of the things that shows these people’s intent is that the coup disrupted a constitutional process that was in place in Yemen to try to bring in a lasting and stable Government?
I wish this debate were longer, as I could speak for two hours on this issue. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby is right; I have had a good go at going for three hours. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) is right, however. The proposal in that constitutional settlement was for a six-state federated Yemen, and President Saleh walked away from that; he walked away from the talks at Geneva because he did not want a federated state. He wanted to do what he was doing before: milk the state for himself. That is the problem, and all the while the people are suffering.
The Saudis are trying to get aid in. We have donated £100 million, which I am pleased about, but that is a fraction of what Saudi Arabia donates, yet we are trying to castigate the Saudis.
This conflict has been presented as Saudi Arabia against the people of Yemen: what an absolute load of garbage. The Saudis are operating under a UN mandate; five members of the GCC and four members of the Arab League are operating under that mandate, and Saudi is one component of that. It is the biggest component; I do not deny that. The Saudis are also guilty, it appears, of doing some awful things, and they should be held to account; nobody is saying anybody should be exempt from the law. But we must never take our eye off the ball: people are suffering in Yemen, and we must try to get to the end result of relieving that suffering. That is the primary purpose, and I am never going to slip away from that. I am not going to be taken on to some hard-left, loony left or right-wing bandwagon about arms sales to Saudi Arabia if that impacts negatively on the people in the region. I stand here unequivocal: I am here to help the people of Yemen, and I want to see the best outcome for them.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware, however, that after the strike on the funeral in which I think 140 people died, even the UK Government were quoted as saying they were going to review their policy towards arms exports to Saudi Arabia? I wonder whether he has had any feedback on what that review has stated.
There is an issue there; there is a concern—a well-meaning and genuine concern—that the speed and efficacy of Saudi’s investigations into some of the things they have done is not up to the required standard. However, as has been explained by many Members, they have attempted at least to come to this place, to speak with foreign powers, and to allow coalition partners who supply military equipment, as well as the British, to go in and be involved in looking at what is going on and in training. They have tried to a degree—although we do not know to what degree—to be open and transparent.
One of the issues that has not been addressed is the risk that, if we take Saudi Arabia out of this and isolate that coalition, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS will fill the gap and flourish in Yemen, making the conflict even worse.
My hon. Friend takes my next words out of my mouth, and I congratulate her on raising a point that has perhaps not been raised enough. If we read the UN report and all other reports, this is the situation on ground: we have the Houthi-Saleh alliance marching south and, as there are next to no Government forces, they are marching through and they are marching into Sunni areas. We are seeing a repeat of Mosul; we are seeing history repeat itself in Iraq. We are seeing Shi’as marching into Sunni areas and the consequence of that, as in Mosul, is a consolidation of the presence of the black flag over these places.
So when I see 150,000 Saudi troops marching to the south through Aden and Iraq, and when I see the UAE send troops in—if I lived in the area I would prefer that as a force—I am at least satisfied that some degree of civil and military force is moving into place to try to secure the area. Instead, as is happening, as we see from the UN report, towns and communities are becoming fearful. Salafists and extremists then turn to their towns and communities and say, “The only way we can defend ourselves from those Houthis and Saleh supporters is to raise the black flag.” It will be terrible, because we will not be able to remove ISIS from those communities for years to come. We are storing up a major problem. So when I see the Saudi and UAE troops moving to south Yemen, it has to be welcomed. Let us not forget that it is not just the Houthis and the Saleh alliance who are using child soldiers; the resistance forces who are fighting them are doing so as well. We need a restoration of civil governance. We cannot support a coup against a legitimate Government, even if that Government are not popular or efficient. We cannot allow that to happen.
I want to talk about arms, because some issues relating to arms have not yet been discussed. Who is supplying arms to Yemen? The UN register of interests gives us a list of the countries that have done so. They are: Russia, Bulgaria, Moldova, France, the USA, Ukraine, Belarus and China. Those armaments have included tanks, attack aircraft, rocket launchers and MiG jets. All those have been provided to the nation of Yemen. But I will tell you one country that has not supplied arms to Yemen: the United Kingdom. We have not supplied arms to Yemen, but all those other countries have done so. That ought to be noted. We have a good, robust system of arms export controls, far better than many others—[Interruption.] I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall end my remarks by saying that 2017 will be the year in which we will seek a ceasefire, and that I shall stand up and oppose anyone who wants to jump on the passing bandwagon of using Yemen to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
As we have heard, the conflict in Yemen has sometimes been labelled a forgotten conflict. I want to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who mentioned earlier that it has not been forgotten in this House. I also want to pay tribute to the hon. Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) for their excellent contributions to the debate, which I have thoroughly enjoyed. It has given all of us here in Parliament a chance to keep the issue at the forefront of the public debate and to remember those killed and injured as a result of the ongoing violence and those who are starving or stricken with illness as a result of the breakdown of civil society.
We must also remember the UK’s central role in the middle east, and in particular in this conflict. It is our moral and civic duty—and also in our best pragmatic, strategic self-interest—to do all we can to end the conflict and bring peace to Yemen. I think that there is consensus across the Chamber that that is what must happen, first and foremost because the humanitarian suffering in the country has now reached a horrifying tipping point.
I was grateful this week to have the opportunity to host a presentation by a range of aid organisations, setting out the scale and scope of the human suffering we are now seeing in the Yemeni population. We were warned by Oxfam, Christian Aid and the Yemen Safe Passage Group that the dangers of famine in the country are now very real indeed.
My hon. Friend mentioned Oxfam. I have been contacted by a number of constituents who are supporting Oxfam’s Red Line for Yemen campaign. Will she join me in welcoming the campaign and support its call for the Government to uphold the spirit of the arms trade treaty and end any illegal arms sales that could be used to cause further suffering in Yemen?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising awareness of that campaign, and I hope that many more people will now sign up to it.
Even before this conflict, Yemen was reliant on imports for between 90% and 95% of its food. By October 2016, the combined effect of a blockade of ports by coalition forces and severe damage to roads and port facilities meant that imported food covered only 40% of demand.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
Ordinarily I would give way, but the hon. Gentleman had 15 minutes to make his speech and I want to make sure that the Minister has time to answer the important questions we have all posed. Please forgive me.
Oxfam has stated that, if the trend of plunging food imports continues unabated, food imports will come to a complete halt in four months’ time. Adding to the spiralling economic problems now facing the country—the central bank has stopped salary payments to Government employees, pension payments to the elderly and welfare payments to the vulnerable—a human tragedy on an almost epic scale is upon us. The estimate of the experts is that, by April or May 2017, there is a high likelihood of a “cataclysmic” famine that would condemn millions to suffering and death.
It is important that we bear in mind that those civilian victims are not a by-product of the conflict. They are the targets of military action, with the lack of food being used as a weapon of war. We have a moral responsibility to our fellow human beings to act now to address this crisis, which is why I welcome the work of aid organisations in Yemen. They have ensured, as best as they possibly can, that aid is delivered to those who need it now. I recognise that the UK Government have contributed more than £100 million-worth of aid to the country, and the Scottish Government have donated to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s ongoing Yemen crisis appeal, but our charity alone will not avert this tragedy.
What the people of Yemen need now, as much as they need food, is international leadership. I welcome the efforts of the outgoing US Secretary of State, who tried to broker a ceasefire deal at the end of last year, but we know that the incoming Trump Administration are unlikely to take the same view of relations in the region. I fear that the policies of the new White House Administration will instigate a worrying degree of further instability in the middle east, a point also made by the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond).
Because of the vacuum that has been created—obviously, with a new Administration—Britain holds the pen, as we are told, at the Security Council. There is nothing to stop us hosting a conference that tries to bring all sides together or tabling a resolution, because it will take several months for the new American Administration to get into the right position. Of course, they might take a different view from the Obama Administration.
The right hon. Gentleman demonstrates how we can show international leadership on this issue. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), has already been very active in this area, but we need to build on his efforts. We should do so not just because of the humanitarian crisis but because it also makes strategic sense in helping to combat the bastions of al-Qaeda terrorism on the gulf of Aden while de-escalating the tensions caused by what the Foreign Secretary called the “proxy war” between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Before we take on the role of peace broker, we have to face up to our role in the conflict now. If Saudi Arabia and Iran are, in the Foreign Secretary’s words, the “puppeteers” in the conflict, the UK has often acted as the quartermaster. That must end now. The UK has exported £3.3 billion of military equipment to Saudi Arabia since 2015. If we are to be an honest, impartial broker in the conflict, the Government must immediately suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia and facilitate a full, independent, UN-led inquiry into Saudi Arabia’s conduct in the war in Yemen. That has to happen because we now know that, after consistently failing to live up to our moral and legal responsibilities on the use of the now-banned cluster munitions manufactured in the UK and exported to Saudi Arabia, the current approach to arms sales has failed in the case of Yemen. The Yemeni people are the innocent victims.
The Government must show the same leadership shown by the Netherlands and Germany in suspending licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia. More specifically, at the end of last year the US Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan) has already said, banned the sale of guided munitions kits to Saudi Arabia. Will the Minister clarify whether the UK Government have granted export licences to Saudi Arabia for any similar weapons manufactured here in the UK? Would the Government be happy to do so in the future? In addition, rather than relying on the Saudis to dispose of the weapons themselves, Ministers should demand that they are turned over to our own personnel for disposal. As signatories to the cluster munitions convention, are we not legally obliged to do everything we can to prevent their use? Decommissioning them ourselves would serve that responsibility, so will Ministers pledge to do so today?
To be the honest broker that the region so desperately needs, we need to be clear about the involvement of UK forces on the ground in Saudi Arabia. When it published its report in September, the Foreign Affairs Committee recommended that the UK Government answer the following questions:
“How many UK personnel are assisting the Saudi Arabian armed forces and in what roles, including BAE Systems employees;
What is the extent of the involvement of each group of UK personnel with the Saudis operations in Yemen; and
How are UK personnel advising the Saudi Arabian armed forces on IHL and what level of understanding do they have of the coalition’s regard for IHL in its operations in Yemen.”
Those answers should also be forthcoming now.
This Government have an opportunity: to show international leadership; to use our power and influence in the middle east to stop violence, not to sell more weapons; and to end the suffering of millions of Yemeni men, women and children. In order to do that, the Government must come clean, with this House and with the country, about our involvement to date and the actions they have taken to put things right. Then, the Government can begin to play their part in consigning this forgotten conflict to history, where it belongs.
Let me start by echoing everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and Members from both sides of the House have said today about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. I congratulate him on securing this important debate. Let me also make it clear at the outset that we agree with the principles behind UN resolution 2216. We all want to see Yemen restored to the control of a legitimate, stable and democratic Government, capable of peacefully leading the whole country, and we all want to see the Houthi rebels held to account, both for their illegal coup and for the atrocities they have committed during this war. But with all due respect to those on the Government Benches and to some Members on my own Benches, may I say that it is possible to agree with the principles of the UN resolution while disagreeing profoundly, first, with the way in which this has been enforced and the way alleged violations of international law are being investigated and, secondly, with the abject failure of the British Government to bring this war to an end?
First, let me deal with the investigation of alleged war crimes. [Interruption.] If Government Members will give me a moment, I will be going into details, as I have 10 minutes. First, let me turn to the investigation of alleged war crimes committed by both sides, coalition and Houthi. Labour Members have said many times, just as the UN, all leading human rights groups and a number of Select Committees of this House have, that the only way to ensure the comprehensive, thorough and impartial investigation of those alleged crimes is to commission an independent UN inquiry. In response to our call, the Government have been consistent, saying that the Saudi-led coalition must be left to investigate themselves. Let us see how that is going, shall we?
In October, I revealed at this Dispatch Box that of the 3,158 documented airstrikes against civilian targets up to the end of August 2016, the coalition’s joint incidents assessment team had issued reports on just nine—a pathetic 0.002%. How many more reports has it completed since? It has completed just four. Of that total of 13 “investigations”—I use that word advisedly—there are just three in which the JIAT has found any culpability on behalf of the coalition. In the other 10 cases, comprising 241 civilian deaths and the bombing of four food trucks, three medical facilities, one school, one wedding, one cattle market, one food market and one food factory, the JIAT has found—surprise, surprise—that the coalition has done nothing wrong. This is the investigatory body into which the Government have put all their faith to ensure that the coalition is not violating international law.
Let us look at the man in charge of the JIAT, Colonel Mansour al-Mansour—or, as he is known by some in Bahrain, “The Butcher”. In 2011, while Bahrain’s popular uprising was being brutally supressed and martial law was being put in place, Colonel al-Mansour was the military lawyer who presided over the kangaroo court that was set up to jail and execute the protestors, activists, Opposition politicians, teachers, doctors, religious clerics, journalists and human rights campaigners—in fact, anyone seen as a threat to the Bahrain regime. Hundreds were jailed or sentenced to death under his orders, yet this is the man in whom the Government have put all their faith to investigate alleged war crimes in Yemen. What are we to make of that? The Government are being either extremely naive or extremely negligent, but either way it is not good enough.
I thought it very telling when on Tuesday the Minister said of the Saudi coalition:
“It is having to provide reports when it makes mistakes, and it has never done that before. It has no experience of even writing reports.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2017; Vol. 619, c. 145.]
That much is obvious, given that it has produced only 13 reports in eight months. What is more telling is the Minister’s implication that the JIAT’s role is just to identify mistakes.
No, it is not.
The Minister shouts from a sedentary position that that is not its role, but he said on Tuesday—I am simply quoting him—that it is having to provide reports when it has made mistakes. If it has only to identify mistakes, contrary to everything the Government have claimed, the JIAT is not investigating whether international law has been breached; it is just being taken on trust. All the JIAT is doing is looking at a handful of high-profile incidents and in one or two cases saying that a mistake has been made. Again, that is not good enough—[Interruption.] If the Minister wants to intervene on me, he is welcome to, but if he is just going to sit there and heckle, I am afraid he is not doing his cause any good. What I have described is not good enough as an investigation and it is certainly not good enough as the basis for confidence that our arms laws are not being breached. It is not good enough for this to be investigated by al-Mansour in the way that it is being investigated. Thirteen reports in eight months is not good enough.
I turn to the role that Britain must play in bringing an end to the conflict and, again, I go back to what the Minister said on Tuesday. The House may remember that I asked why the UK had not presented its resolution to the Security Council, and the Minister explained that
“we will not get a Security Council resolution passed until we get the cessation of hostilities in place.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2017; Vol. 619, c. 142.]
If that is the case, why does clause 1 of the UK’s draft resolution demand an immediate cessation of hostilities? Why would the very first line of the resolution demand something that is already in place?
Back in October, the UK’s ambassador to the UN said:
“We have decided to put forward a draft security council resolution on Yemen calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities and a resumption of the political process”.
In other words, the resolution was designed to be the driving force behind a ceasefire and peace talks, just as one was with resolution 1860 on Gaza, resolution 2174 on Libya, and resolution 2254 on Syria. For the Minister to claim now that we must have the ceasefire before we can have the resolution makes no sense. So what is the real explanation for the delay?
I do not know where to start with this. Perhaps I should begin by saying that when a draft resolution is put together—when the words are formed and so on—we do not air it in public because it is very likely that the details will change. The hon. Lady needs to hold on until the actual UN resolution comes about, and then we can absolutely debate it. I pose a question to her, as I am supposed to in an intervention: has she read UN Security Council resolution 2216? I ask because it calls for exactly the same thing. She is asking for a ceasefire, but that is already inherent in UN Security Council resolution 2216.
I am very interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I will listen with some care to his speech. I know that the Government have said on many occasions that the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen is backed by the UN, and that they rely on the same resolution. I would be interested to hear where that is in the resolution, and how it can be claimed that Saudi intervention in Yemen is—[Interruption.]
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Yes, of course.
I do not think that there is a huge gap between what my hon. Friend and the Minister are saying. When I was at the Security Council, what was in the draft resolution was certainly common knowledge, and every member of the Security Council spoke in favour of the ceasefire. Given that everyone knows what is in the draft resolution—it is in the public domain—there is no reason why this cannot be tabled.
I respectfully agree. For 50 days, we have all known what is in the draft resolution, and we wait and wait for the British to put the resolution on the table. There is support for it, and it has a number of elements in it. During the rest of my speech, I wish to explain why the British are not putting it on the table. I will take interventions as necessary if the Minister wishes to explain.
The hon. Lady tempts me. I ask her to join in with the spirit of the debate and try to look at the positives and at what we can actually do. She is focusing deeply on a draft resolution, which, having been involved in the Riyadh talks on 19 December, I can promise Members is now out of date. I will go into more detail in my response, but if she devotes another few minutes to this matter it will be superfluous to the wider debate—the good debate—that we have had in this Chamber.
Before the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) rises, may I remind everyone that we have another debate after this and that it is quite well subscribed? There are perhaps only one-and-a-half minutes remaining.
I will not take any more interventions. I will just go straight through the rest of my speech, because I have some important points to make.
The truth is that Saudi Arabia does not want this resolution to be presented. When asked about the UK’s draft resolution in November by an Arab newspaper, the Saudi ambassador to the UN said.
“There is a continuous and joint agreement with Britain concerning the draft resolution, and whether there is a need for it or not.”
The newspaper goes on to say that the Saudi ambassador claimed that the UK draft resolution
“includes an unnecessary text, in addition to having a wrong timing.”
So there we have it in black and white.
Saudi Arabia does not sit on the UN Security Council, but it has been able to veto the UK’s draft resolution without so much as a discussion. Why has it done so? Is it because of clause 4, which calls for
“full, transparent and timely investigation”
of all alleged war crimes? We know that JIAT’s investigations have hardly been full, transparent or timely. Is it because of clause 5, which calls on all sides to negotiate a political solution on the basis of the UN road map? President Hadi has described the road map as
“the betrayal of the blood of martyrs.”
Is it because, just like Assad in Syria, Saudi Arabia sees no value in agreeing a ceasefire when it believes that the rebellion can still be crushed—no matter the civilian casualties, and no matter the humanitarian cost? No matter what Saudi Arabia does, it knows that this Tory Government will remain on its side.
The Foreign Secretary was right last month to call Yemen a “proxy war” and he was right to criticise Saudi Arabia’s “puppeteering”. Although I am happy to applaud his honesty, it is just his hypocrisy that is all the more disappointing. If he knows what Saudi Arabia is really doing in Yemen, he should follow America’s lead and stop selling it arms. If he is worried about the scale of civilian casualties, he should back a proper, independent, UN-led investigation to see whether international laws have been broken. If he wants to see an end to the conflict and get the children of Yemen the humanitarian aid that they need, he should have the guts to stand up to Saudi Arabia and present the UK’s resolution to the UN. It is time for the Government to stop the hypocrisy and the delaying tactics and start doing the decent thing: present the draft UN resolution, end the conflict, demand an independent investigation of war crimes, and send a signal of intent to the Saudis today by supporting this motion.
I am saddened to hear the comments made from the Opposition Front Bench. I am not sure that they are supported by those who sit behind the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). I am not going to react to anything that she said, other than her final statement: to say that Saudi Arabia is not wanting a ceasefire in the same way that Assad does not want a ceasefire in Syria is absolutely shameful and shows a misunderstanding of what is happening. Let us leave it at that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg)—let me call him my hon. Friend, as we have known each other for a long time, since the days of being involved in student politics—and my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) on securing the debate. The majority of speeches reflected a growing sense of understanding and expertise, and, without insulting anybody, I would say that we have moved on from the Thursday afternoon armchair generals, who often look at things through a particular prism, to understanding that this is a deeply complicated issue and conflict, and that the solutions are deeply complicated as well.
If I may, I shall start with the causes of the conflict, which many have touched on. In 2014, the Houthi forces and those loyal to former President Saleh overran the capital, Sana’a, and forced out the legitimate Government of President Hadi. Those forces have subsequently attacked Saudi Arabia, shelled border villages and killed Saudi civilians.
In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of 10 countries started a military occupation to restore the Hadi Government, deter further Houthi aggression—which, otherwise, was likely to have reached the port of Aden—and defend the Saudi border. In April 2015, UN Security Council resolution 2216 condemned the Houthi actions. Paragraph 5 of the resolution called for a cessation of violence. In that context, the UK supports the coalition’s efforts.
UK diplomatic efforts also play an important role here. The Government believe that a political settlement is the only way to find lasting peace in Yemen, and we have been at the forefront of the international diplomatic effort to make progress towards that goal. In July last year, here in London, we brought together the Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the US Secretary of State, to discuss a political way forward and to show support for the role of the UN in mediating a solution to the crisis.
Will the Minister give way?
If there is time at the end of my speech, I will give way, but I am under pressure from Madam Deputy Speaker as there is another debate after this.
That informal group of key players is known as the Quad, and subsequent meetings have expanded to include the UN special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ahmed, and representatives from other Gulf countries.
The last Quad meeting I attended was in Riyadh on 18 December, and we agreed to urge all the Yemeni parties to engage with the UN process and put the needs of Yemen’s people first. We will continue to engage directly with the parties and with our partners in the region to support the UN’s proposals for peace. I spoke to President Hadi on 6 January—just a week ago—to emphasise the urgent need to find a way forward in the political process. We clearly have a transition, and in America, Rex Tillerson will take over from John Kerry. He is familiar with the area, having lived and worked in Yemen for about three years during his career.
Will the Minister give way?
No. I will give way at the end, as I need to pay tribute and comment on other contributions.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby paid tribute to the humanitarian work that has been done, and I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development, in his place. He has been very engaged with this matter, and the work that Britain does is recognised across the Floor of the House. The role that we play not only internationally, but in respect of this conflict, marks our place on the Security Council.
Will the Minister give way?
I am afraid I will not as I am really under pressure. Like others, I wish we had more time. If there is time later, I shall be delighted to give way.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby touched on the history of the region, and it is worth underlining the fact that there are complex divisions in that country, not simply one between those supporting President Hadi and those supporting the Houthis or Saleh. There have been internal conflicts and power struggles since unification in 1990. There are super-tribes, tribes, militias, family clans, elites, secessionist groups and terrorist organisations—all this leads to instability on a grand scale. Loyalties are not firm. They move and come and go, along with the winds. That is the backdrop against which we are dealing with this matter.
The hon. Gentleman asked the key question as to when we will join calls for an independent inquiry. We have said we will support an independent inquiry, and I shall make the argument to say when that case might come to the fore.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) gave a powerful speech, reflecting his understanding and grasp of what is going on in the region. He paid tribute to the work that the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien, is doing at the UN in exposing what is actually happening and what further work needs to be done. I think the whole House would join my right hon. Friend in that tribute. He also talked about the remarkable visit, which I was pleased to be involved in, of the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir. Had we ever before heard of a Foreign Minister from any of the Gulf nations coming to this House, meeting parliamentarians and answering every question as best as he could? I hope that will happen again.
The Saudi Foreign Minister asked the clear question, “Why would we want to bomb farms and schools in Yemen?”, putting into context the fact that the two countries have a deep history with one another. There is no long-term interest in Saudi Arabia causing damage right across the piece to Yemen in the way in which some Opposition Front Benchers have described. It is not in the interests of Saudi Arabia, especially because of the international condemnation that that brings about. The Foreign Minister admitted that Saudi Arabia is slow in providing the reporting that everybody in this House has been calling for, and he was willing to ask whether we could help him to provide that.
Saudi Arabia is very much a culturally reserved country. It is unused to the limelight that it now has to adapt to live in, and to the sustained warfare in which it is now having to participate. It is also clearly unused to having to provide the reporting and scrutiny required when sustained warfare takes place, in the same way that we have had to learn to have those mechanisms in place to provide the transparency that is now expected on the battlefield.
Will the Minister give way?
On the issue of transparency, the Minister says that Saudi Arabia should learn from us, so will he explain something? He said that his Department had immediately decided to correct the mistakes that it had given to this House in debate and in parliamentary questions, but he has just confirmed to me in a written answer at 3.11 pm that, in fact, the Foreign Secretary knew about it as early as 28 June. Why did it take nearly a month to come to this House with the correct information?
The Defence Secretary made a point about that. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) knows me; I have done my best to be as transparent as possible. Those Opposition Members who have ever been Ministers will know that we have one of the best civil services in the world, dealing with thousands upon thousands of written answers.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I will not. I will finish my point. Occasionally mistakes are made, and we put our hands up and say that they have been made. I am sorry that there was a delay. At the time, I think we were in the middle of the Brexit piece as well. As soon as we realised that one error was made, we did an investigation and found that, out of almost 100 parliamentary questions answered, there was one clerical error, which continued on; I think there was a handful of them.
Six, yes. In six out of almost 100 the wording was incorrect. We then did an investigation that took some time. I tell the House now, as I did before, that I apologise for that. There is no conspiracy. It was an error that I take on my shoulders. Yet again, I apologise to the House. I will now move on.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not because I want to mention the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who made some important points about the conflict being a forgotten war. Today’s debate is doing well to ensure that we have not forgotten about it here. He mentioned the urgency of a ceasefire, which gives me licence to talk about the pending UN Security Council resolution—it has not yet been completely written, but is in the process of being written. It is based on the road map, which was discussed on 19 December, and includes seven steps. I will elaborate a little on those steps so that hon. Members can see how complicated it is to get a consensus on them.
The measures include: the sequence of security steps for the withdrawal of equipment; the agreed roles and appointments of who is going to run a transition process; the resumption of consultations in accordance with the GCC negotiations, the partnership and peace agreement, and UN Security Council resolution 2216; the additional withdrawals; the signing of a detailed agreement; and a potential donor conference, which we need a commitment for. All that leads up to an electoral road map. That is complicated business, and that is why a UN Security Council resolution is not going to be a draft coming straight out, because that one is out of date.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not give way to the hon. Lady—I have actually made that clear.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) made an important point, which came up at Foreign Affairs—
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In your absence, there has been a bit of backwards and forwards between the Front Benches, and I gave way on several occasions to the Minister. He is now making it clear that he will not allow me to intervene at all.
Let us just be clear about this. It is up to the Member, the Minister or the shadow Minister whether they give way or not—those are the rules of the House. The other point is that I understand this debate was meant to finish at 3.30 pm. We are now running over. The fact is the Minister does not wish to give way—that is his choice. It is no use getting uptight about it—that’s life.
I am grateful for your guidance, Mr Deputy Speaker. I understand that, with the remaining two minutes—
Order. This is not a continuation, I hope. Let us get to the end of the debate. There are people who want to go on to the next debate. Please, I want to look after all Members of this House and all Members who wish to speak in the next debate, but they will not do so if we run on a lot longer over time. Please, let us get to the end, because I do want Mr Twigg to come in next.
Order. No, I am sorry—I have finished.
In the last two minutes I have, I wanted to make a point to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, who raised an issue that was mentioned at FCO questions on Tuesday. The fundamental backdrop to this issue is, in essence, a cold war that exists between the Sunni and Shi’ite leaderships. We need to solve that; we need to try to move forward from it. There is actually—technically, theologically—no doctrinal difference between the two faiths. They both believe in the centrality of the Prophet Mohammed; it all actually goes down to the difference in succession in 632—was the successor Ali, the son-in-law and cousin, or was it Abu Bakr, the father-in-law? Since then, there have been varying tensions throughout Islamic history, and peace and prosperity might improve if the two faiths could actually reconcile their political differences. That is at the core of a lot of the challenges we find in the middle east.
Time prevents me from being able to respond to other contributions, although I will do my best, as I have in the past, to write to Members. I will end by clarifying—
Will the Minister give way before he sits down?
I will give way, unless I can answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, as I think I am about to, by talking about when we feel it would be inappropriate to have faith any longer in the Saudi system.
The Government are not opposing calls for an international independent investigation, but, first and foremost, we want the Saudis to investigate allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law attributed to them, and we want their investigations to be thorough and conclusive. The Saudis have the best insight into their own military procedures, and will be able to conduct the most thorough and conclusive investigations. That will also allow the country really to understand what went wrong and to apply the lessons in the best possible way.
That is the standard we set ourselves and our allies. For example, when allegations were made against us in Afghanistan and Iraq, we investigated them. When, for example, the US was accused of bombing the Médecins Sans Frontières facility in Kunduz, it investigated that incident and applied the lessons learned to its military procedures to reduce the risk of such things happening again.
Saudi Arabia has publicly stated that it is investigating reports about allegations of violations of IHL and that any lessons learned will be acted on. It is absolutely right that, to date, only 13 have been reported. The machine is slow in putting these things together. The conduct of the investigations is absolutely new, and the Joint Incidents Assessment Team is learning its way. I keep putting pressure on those involved, and I will continue to do so.
To digress, we should remember how long it took for the Chilcot inquiry to come together, and the machine we have in this country is well versed in the legal parameters we have to deal with. For the moment, we need to have faith in Saudi Arabia to say, “Yes, these reports must be forthcoming.” For the moment, I remain with that and confident it can produce these reports.
In conclusion, this has been a very good debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee. This is not a forgotten crisis, and we remain fully engaged in securing a political solution. We will continue to lead the way in providing humanitarian support. Ultimately, it is for the Yemenis themselves to reach a compromise, and we stand ready to help them.
I am very disappointed that the Minister, in his final remarks, gave us no further indication of when the Government would actually move to support a fully independent investigation. I am pleased that he responded to my point, but we have not been taken further on this issue, and I think that the House will return to it.
I agree with the Minister that we have had a very good debate. There are many areas of agreement. This is a complex country in terms of history and politics. The humanitarian crisis is appalling. We all want to work together to ensure access for humanitarian organisations. We welcome the positive leadership role that DFID has played in getting aid in. We need a ceasefire, we need a political settlement, and we need reconstruction.
This debate was co-sponsored by my friend, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), who chairs the Committees on Arms Export Controls. Those Committees play a crucial role in this House in monitoring arms exports. Some are arguing that that system should be abolished and that instead this should all fall under the remit of the International Trade Committee. This debate demonstrates again the importance of effective scrutiny of arms exports controls in terms of development, foreign affairs, and other aspects; it is not simply a question of international trade.
Evidence to my Select Committee from humanitarian organisations said:
“There is a paradox at the heart of the”
“approach to Yemen.”
We are generous on aid but we are also contributing to the conflict through our arms sales. There are different views on arms among those on both sides of the House, and that has been reflected in the debate. However, I hope that we can all come together behind this motion, supported by three Committees of the House, which says that we should have this investigation, because, yes, we want peace, but alongside peace we want justice. A ceasefire is a necessary condition, but not sufficient. We will get justice only when we have a full, independent investigation into all alleged violations by all parties to this conflict.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the impact of the conflict on civilians; condemns any breach of international humanitarian law; and calls for an urgent independent investigation into reports of breaches of international humanitarian law on both sides of the conflict.