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Volume 620: debated on Thursday 26 January 2017

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the situation in Yemen, from a humanitarian perspective and on diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.

The UK supports the Saudi Arabian-led coalition military intervention, which came at the request of the legitimate President Hadi. We are clear, however, that military gains by the coalition and the Government of Yemen must be used to drive forward the political process. A political solution is the best way to bring long-term stability to Yemen and end the conflict.

The UK has played a leading role in diplomatic efforts, including bringing together key international actors to try to find a peaceful solution. This is known as the quad and involves the Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Other Gulf Co-operation Council countries and the UN have also been involved. The first meeting was held in London in July 2016; it was one of the first acts of the Foreign Secretary. The last quad meeting was held in Riyadh on 18 December, and I attended. I last spoke to President Hadi on 15 January to discuss the importance of taking measures to prevent economic collapse.

We continue to strongly support the tireless efforts of the UN special envoy, Ismail Ahmed, to achieve a political settlement. We are providing over £1 million to his office to bolster the UN’s capacity to facilitate the peace process. He is due to brief the Security Council today in New York on the latest developments and the UN’s plan. Our ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, met him yesterday.

We share a deep concern for the humanitarian suffering of the people of Yemen, which we all have an obligation to alleviate. The UK is the fourth largest donor to Yemen, committing more than £100 million this year. Last year we helped more than 1.3 million Yemenis. Through the conflict, stability and security fund, we are funding: £700,000 for demining and clearing the explosive remnants of war; £400,000 for UN Women to support bringing women into the peace process and political dialogue; and £140,000 for other track II activities in support of the UN-led peace process.

Yemen is historically reliant on imports for more than 90% of its food and fuel needs. The Department for International Development is providing £1.4 million for the UN verification and inspection mechanism to speed up the clearance process for ships, so that food and fuel can get into the country more easily.

It is critical that all parties to the conflict renew their commitment to the cessation of hostilities, for the sake of the people of Yemen. All parties must engage constructively with the De-escalation and Co-ordination Committee, a mechanism created by the UN so that when incidents of concern are raised, they can be addressed effectively to reduce the likelihood of escalation.

I am grateful to the Minister for that statement. When the UN Security Council meets this afternoon, it will do so against a backdrop of heavy fighting in the Red sea ports of Mocha and Al Hudaydah and an increasingly dire humanitarian situation across the country. There are already 7 million people starving in Yemen. If those ports are destroyed or besieged, the delivery of vital aid that is required to avert famine in Yemen will become even more difficult.

The only way to prevent this unfolding humanitarian disaster from deteriorating even further is to agree an immediate ceasefire. Today’s meeting of the Security Council provides a key opportunity to bring that closer. The Scottish National party believes that the UK is in a unique position to be able to show positive international leadership in order to bring about a ceasefire. It is vital to the lives of millions of Yemenis that we do so.

I ask the Minister, therefore, will the UK Government commit to use today’s meeting of the Security Council to back a ceasefire and urge all conflict parties to protect women, boys, men and girls from all forms of conflict-related abuse and violence; to ensure that all conflict parties allow civilians safe and unhindered access to humanitarian assistance; to strongly condemn all violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law in Yemen; and to call for the establishment of an international, independent and impartial commission of inquiry to investigate them? Will the Government think once again on their own position and listen to Members across this House; and please consider halting all sales of arms to Saudi now, and in doing so, urge all Governments to follow suit?

Yet again, it is a tribute to this House that we discuss these important matters. There are so many challenges in the middle east and north Africa at the moment and Yemen sometimes tends to get buried or overshadowed by some of the other challenges that we face, so I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this matter, on which we also had a thorough debate last week.

The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the work that is taking place at the United Nations Security Council today, where the UN envoy, Ismail Ahmed, will lay out his plans for what we expect and hope to achieve in 2017. We ended the year in a better place: the Houthis were minded to support the road map—although they have yet to come to the table—and President Hadi was looking more favourably on providing support in order to rejoin talks in Kuwait in the very near future. Key aspects of the road map still need to be ratified. Once that is done, we are in a process that will lead to that important cessation of hostilities.

I understand the hon. Lady’s desire to call for a ceasefire—a cessation of hostilities—immediately. We will see what comes out of today’s meeting and the United Nations, but I am absolutely in agreement with her that that is what we want to happen. Calling for it needs to work in conjunction with the art of the possible; otherwise it is just words. In order for us to ensure that any ceasefire will hold, we need to be able to say what happens if either side breaches the cessation of hostilities, which means there need to be some prior agreements in place. There need to be some confidence-building measures as the build-up to the call for a ceasefire.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady’s concerns about safe access. Humanitarian access to the country has been extremely limited, not least in respect of use of the ports, which we have discussed on many occasions. She yet again repeats her call for a UN independent commission of inquiry into some of the allegations on humanitarian and human rights law. In our previous debate on this matter, I stressed that it is the protocol for any country to conduct its own activities. I have said that if I feel that the reports that are due to come—and are slowly coming from a country that has never had to be pressed to write a report before—are deemed to be unworthy, unsuitable or miss the purpose for which they are being written, yes I will join with her and say that this should be moved to an independent examiner, possibly the United Nations, as well. But until we reach that point, I will continue to back Saudi Arabia conducting its own inquiries, in the same way as we do ourselves, and America does itself, not least when it hit the hospital in the north of Afghanistan.

The hon. Lady mentions arms sales. We have one of the most robust sales processes in the world. Each sale is conducted and scrutinised on its own basis. As we have said in the past, where we see ourselves at the moment is that we fully support the continued sales of arms to Saudi Arabia.

Order. Given the significant interest in the subject, I appeal for pithy questions and pithy replies. I call Bob Stewart.

Everyone in this House totally understands that a ceasefire is the only way ahead; and it is going to come. But it is only going to come when President Hadi and the Houthis agree it. I think the Minister will agree with me that when that happens, we will expect there to be breaches of it, but we must not break the ceasefire.

Order. Well, I suppose the Minister can invent a question mark at the end and then provide a sentence of reply—it was not a question but a statement. But can we have a brief sentence?

But he does make an important point, in that President Hadi is not the only stakeholder, nor are the Houthis: there are the Zaydis that do not support the Houthis, and there are the many tribes that do not support President Hadi. It is a complex country; we need to make sure that all the stakeholders are buying into the ceasefire, and that if there are breaches of the ceasefire, they can be reconciled without the whole ceasefire collapsing.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) on securing this urgent question, and I agree with everything she said.

We need once again to ask the Government what they are doing to end the conflict in Yemen. The Minister talks about the need for a political solution. When is he going to present our resolution to the United Nations? When are we going to get proper investigations into alleged violations of international humanitarian law? Why are we continuing to sell Saudi Arabia the arms to wage this conflict? Ultimately, when are we going to bring the suffering of the people of Yemen to an end and then get to them the humanitarian aid that they need?

In every debate, every month, and now every year, we ask the same basic questions, and every time the Minister, whose name is now, I am afraid, synonymous with the Yemen conflict, stands there and gives us the same non-answers. We have had the same today, so let me simplify these things for him a little and ask him some plain, factual questions. First, did he read the excellent article on Tuesday for “Middle East Eye”, which was written by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell)? If he did, can he tell us what in that analysis he disagrees with?

Secondly, and even more straightforwardly, questions on which we must get answers today: how many civilian deaths in total are involved in the 252 alleged violations of humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition, which the Ministry of Defence admitted today that it is tracking? Have any of them been the subject of one of the 13 reports that the coalition’s joint incidents assessment team has produced over the past nine months? If so, which ones? If not, why not?

Thirdly, does the Minister really think that Yemeni mothers who are today desperately scavenging for food for their children would agree with him that we ended 2016 in a better position than we started it in?

I think I answered many of those questions in my opening replies, but on the UN resolution, which the hon. Lady raises again, the UN special envoy is in New York today, so we will hear when it is appropriate for him to promote the resolution. It is likely, once we have confirmation from the parties that agree that, that they can confirm that the UN resolution is there to consolidate and legalise the process. So we will wait to hear an announcement today; I am sure that, by the end of the day, we will have a statement by the UN envoy himself.

Regarding the sales, I repeat what I said earlier: we have one of the most vigorous arms export licence schemes in the world. Export sales are subject to our consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria.

We are getting humanitarian aid into the country. The process is slow and cumbersome, but we are making a significant contribution to providing support to the people who are caught up in this awful conflict. The sooner the people of Yemen recognise that there is no military end to this, but that there must be a political solution, the sooner we can get even more aid into the country.

The Houthi rebels in Yemen enjoy the support and patronage of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is the world’s most prominent state sponsor of terror, responsible for genocidal violence in Syria. What pressure is being brought to bear on the regime in Tehran to advance the cause of peace rather than to continue to glory in slaughter?

I visited Iran last week, and I was in Tehran. I raised a whole range of issues, including some of the regional matters. I made it very clear that not just Yemen but the wider region will benefit if this cold war that almost exists between Saudi Arabia and Iran were to thaw. If we can get the security right and have an understanding of where things should go in the future, the prosperity for the region will be huge, and not least the benefits for Yemen, because we will then see an end to this war.

Before the war, up to 70% of Yemen’s food supply came through Al Hudaydah port. What representations are the Government making to the Saudi-led coalition, urging them not to pursue a sea and air attack and instead to pursue a ceasefire?

I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman does on these matters, in which he takes a huge interest. He is right to highlight the importance of that port in gaining aid access to the country from the Red sea, further up, because the port of Aden cannot cope. The port is currently in Houthi hands, although the UN has access to part of it. The problem is that the cranes are not working. I have been in discussions with Oman, which has similar cranes that could perhaps be put there, and that would speed up the process of getting aid into the country.

Does the existence of the rebel Iranian-backed regime pose an existential threat to the stability of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the entire region?

If I understand my right hon. Friend’s question correctly, we have an indigenous stakeholder in the north of the country that is part of Yemen—they are part of the future of the country themselves—but they have attacked Saudi Arabia in the north. They have killed people and struck villages and so on, so the war has spilled beyond the borders of Yemen. That is all the more reason why we need to work towards a ceasefire and a political agreement.

Has the Minister seen and examined the reports of UK military personnel in Saudi Arabia? Do these reports justify his continuing support for the Saudis’ own investigation into breaches of humanitarian law? Can he give any explanation or succour as to why the Government are refusing to back the international and independent examination? Given that the Foreign Secretary himself has described this conflict as being in the nature of a proxy war, why do the Government persist in giving such unfailing support to Saudi Arabia?

We have a long historical, and close, relationship with Saudi Arabia, but I have been the first on many occasions to make it very clear that this is a country where the establishment are on the liberal wing of a conservative society. They are not used to having the limelight shone on them in this way. A sustained war, which, again, they do not have experience of, has exposed a number of absences of skills, which they have had to learn the hard way, one of which is going through proper investigations to show what happens when mistakes and errors are made. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman; I do not refuse to say that I will call for independent investigations. I am first asking Saudi Arabia to provide those reports itself, and if they are found wanting, then yes, I will stand with the right hon. Gentleman and ask for the United Nations to take on that role.

The Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said last week in Davos that he could see no reason why Iran and Saudi Arabia should have hostile policies towards each other. He went on to say that they should work together to end the miserable conditions of the people in Syria and Yemen. Does the Minister have any indication that this is a new initiative, because it would be very good news for the peace process?

My hon. Friend makes a very important wider point as to where the relationship between these two important countries in the region will go. I hope that we will endeavour to see a thawing of that cold war. Other countries such as Kuwait and Oman are looking at this to see what they can do to help—to see whether there is an ability to develop the communications that we need, to allow for a greater understanding so that mistakes cannot be made, and to improve security and prosperity for the region.

Can the Minister confirm that the Saudi-led coalition is operating in pursuance of a UN resolution, and that the conflict is fuelled particularly by the ambitions of Iran? Will he stress the UK’s very important security and defence relationship with Saudi Arabia and its importance to security, not only in the region but in our own country? Finally, can he confirm the enormous importance of Saudi Arabia to our world-beating aerospace industry and its skilled workforce?

The right hon. Gentleman raises some important points. The UN resolution gives legitimacy to Mr Hadi’s call for support by any means—I think those are the words that were used—which is why it was possible to put together the Saudi-led coalition to thwart the advance of the Houthis from the north of the country.

The right hon. Gentleman is also right to underline our important relationship with Saudi Arabia, which it values and we value. Saudi Arabia is learning the hard way, and making those steps has been difficult. It is better that we do as we are doing and take Saudi Arabia through the process than for it to join other countries that would not exert the same pressure concerning humanitarian issues, women’s rights and all the other aspects that we want it to move towards.

What discussions have my hon. Friend and his colleagues had with the UN Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs, Stephen O’Brien? Have the United Kingdom Government agreed to meet any request that the United Nations has made in that respect?

The Minister of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) met Stephen O’Brien only a couple of weeks ago, and I meet our former colleague regularly. At the UN General Assembly in September last year, he co-chaired a meeting with the Secretary of State for International Development to raise funds, to ensure that other countries joined us in providing the finances necessary to give humanitarian support to Yemen. I pay a huge tribute to him and the work that he is doing in the United Nations.

Does the Minister agree that repeated violations of international humanitarian law would feed the humanitarian crisis in Yemen? The UK Government’s assurances that no such violations have been committed by the Saudi-led coalition are worthless when, in the Minister’s own words,

“neither the MOD nor the FCO reaches a conclusion as to whether or not an IHL violation has taken place in relation to each and every incident of potential concern that comes to its attention.”

I have mentioned that we had the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia come here and answer that question directly. Saudi Arabia has no interest in somehow bombing Yemen back into the past, and the storyline that some are trying to perpetuate is simply wrong. We are talking about an ally and a neighbour, and the two countries have a long combined history. It is in Saudi Arabia’s interest for Yemen to thrive and prosper, so the idea that Saudi Arabia would continue to want to bomb agricultural areas, schools or other such things for the sake of it is simply misleading.

The GCC initiative for peace and the partnership for peace were previous initiatives that the Houthis signed, prior to 2014 when they left their communities in the north and pushed in towards the capital. Those initiatives are the basis from which UN Security Council resolution 2216 has been crafted, and I hope that they will be the basis for the road map that we will work towards. The fact that the Houthis signed those initiatives in the past is, I hope, a good indication that they will back the road map.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government are at present tracking 252 allegations of humanitarian law violations by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and has he heard what the former Business Secretary told the BBC? The former Business Secretary said that he was “staggered” by the number of potential breaches, and that if he were still in government, arms exports to the Saudis would have stopped

“a long time before now”.

The tracking and covering of the various elements of what is happening in Yemen is done by the Ministry of Defence. If I may, I will get the MOD to write to the right hon. Lady with details of where things stand.

Could the Minister confirm the presence of al-Qaeda and Daesh in Yemen and comment on whether this is also a threat for us here at home?

In all the discussions that we have had about the Houthis, President Hadi and other stakeholders, we can end up glossing over the fact that al-Qaeda was and has been in the Arab peninsula for some time. Al-Qaeda is responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack, the printer bombs, the underpants bomb and many others. This is one of al-Qaeda’s most advanced and complex capabilities. That is why it is so important for us to get good governance in Yemen so that al-Qaeda cannot take advantage of the vacuum of governance.

The Secretary of State has confirmed in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), that the US has been feeding arms to the Saudi coalition, fuelling the desperate humanitarian crisis in Yemen. What will Ministers do to persuade their new American counterparts to stop supplying these deadly cluster bombs in future?

I have worked quite hard to get not only Saudi Arabia but all the GCC nations to show a willingness to join others around the world in signing the convention on cluster munitions. The Americans are obviously not a signatory to it, but I hope that Saudi Arabia, which is considering this, will recognise its importance. I would say that Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State—he lived in Yemen for three years, and knows the area very well—will meet my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in the very near future.

People in Kettering agree that providing humanitarian assistance to vulnerable people in war zones is a proper use of our overseas aid budget. How many people are we supporting in Yemen, and what plans do we have to extend that budget in 2017?

As I have said, we are the fourth largest donor for the country of Yemen, providing over £100 million. We are looking at ways of getting other countries to match our funding and to work with the United Nations. I hope my hon. Friend’s constituents will be reassured that we check to make sure that the funds going to the country do go where they are actually needed.

Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), will the Minister confirm that all the evidence we hold about violations will be passed to any inquiry, preferably an independent, UN-led commission of inquiry?

Again, in relation to that question, I will ask the Ministry of Defence to write to the hon. Lady with details of how the process works.

Will the Minister confirm that the UK remains fully committed to diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Yemen?

That is at the heart of what we now need to achieve. As I have mentioned, the quad met on 19 December 2016. I pay tribute to John Kerry for the work he did in forming the quad. We are now in discussions, and we will speak to the UN envoy about the quad meeting at the very earliest opportunity, so that we can get the parties back around the table in Kuwait and put in place a cessation of hostilities agreement.

I hope the Minister will join me in welcoming the fact that the Disasters Emergency Committee has raised £17 million, which I believe includes DFID funding. Does that not show the importance of the UK meeting its 0.7% target as an example of global leadership? Will it, as I hope, encourage other countries to contribute to the UN appeal, which is currently only 60% funded?

I confirm—I think for the third time—that we remain absolutely committed to the 0.7% target. Perhaps we do not see it so much in the House, but when we attend meetings at the United Nations General Assembly or in Geneva and Vienna, our soft power—the leadership we show, our commitment to helping others less fortunate than ourselves across the world and our leadership in how such money is spent—allows us to punch above our weight across the world.

Building on the last question, will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating all those in this country who do such important work in fundraising and collecting items to send to people in humanitarian crises such as this one?

I do. People often ask what they can do as individuals, and their contributions, whether financial or otherwise, are certainly very much appreciated. It is also very important that we thank the non-governmental organisations providing the facilities to make sure that such processes can be followed. I pay tribute to Oxfam, which is conducting a conference on this subject today, at which the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border will be speaking.

The Minister mentioned the discussions within the United Nations. When the Prime Minister meets President Trump, will she emphasise to him the important role that the United Nations has in resolving regional conflicts such as the one in Yemen, and will she tell him not to undermine the UN by cutting the US contribution to it?

I read an article, in The New York Times I think, suggesting that there may be such changes. It is important that people not just in America but across the world understand that the United Nations is pivotal as the international forum in which countries can come together to resolve their issues. If it did not exist, we would invent it. However, we must recognise that the troubled period it has had in the past six months or so, because of the use of the veto, means that it is perhaps now time for it to be reinvented.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) has said, 7 million people in Yemen are going to starve to death. Ninety per cent. of the food that will keep them alive has to be imported. The sea ports through which that food has to be imported are being deliberately and systematically bombed into oblivion by the Saudi-led coalition. How can it possibly be morally defensive to sell any weapons whatsoever to a regime that is undertaking such inhumane actions?

I understand the spirit in which the question is asked, but it is not the case that the ports are being bombed into oblivion. As I said earlier, the Al Hudaydah port is divided into two areas, one operated by the Houthis, the other by the United Nations, and they can get ships in, but there is a queue of ships because the working cranes are not large enough to get the kit off. That is the bottleneck that we need to resolve.

When the Saudi Foreign Minister came twice to speak to Members and the Minister, he made it clear that he would investigate the allegations. As we have heard, there are 252, yet we have had responses to only a handful. When will the Minister say enough is enough, not least given the potential humanitarian consequences of an attack on Al Hudaydah?

I will join the hon. Gentleman and say that the pace of the reports coming out is far too slow and that the process needs to speed up, but Saudi Arabia did not even have an investigations process. When we think about some investigations that have taken place, for example Chilcot, we should ask ourselves how long did they take. Perhaps I am comparing apples with pears, but when starting from scratch, it takes time to have the processes in place to ensure that there is the necessary evidence for a report to be compiled. I will invite Adel al-Jubeir, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, back here so that we can put those questions to him again.

Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), what can the Minister do to ensure that cranes are available to get the ports working and to get aid in?

My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, the DFID Minister, has just spoken to Simon Collis, our ambassador in Saudi Arabia, and I raise the matter regularly. The challenge that we face is the question of who has ownership of the port and the fact that it was used to bring in weapons. That was the coalition’s concern. Several possibilities—joint ownership, ownership by the United Nations—are being explored to ensure that the humanitarian challenges, particularly with winter coming on, can be met.

The revelation that the Ministry of Defence is tracking 252 allegations of international humanitarian law violations by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is truly shocking, but with the civilian death toll now passing 10,000, according to the UN, and the country on the brink of famine, when will the Government halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia until the alleged IHL breaches can be properly investigated?

Again, I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her interest in the process and for holding the Government to account, but I reiterate that we have a robust arms export licence system and we are doing all we can to ensure that we can get humanitarian aid into the country and that we work with Saudi Arabia so that it improves its systems and become more accountable and transparent.

It is clear that the Minister’s patience with the Saudis’ ability to carry out investigations is wearing a little thin. Have we a timescale in mind for when the Government will finally say, “Enough. We now need an independent, international investigation”?

Yes, I do feel that my patience is being tested here. Saudi Arabia is aware that this is in the limelight and that the international community is getting more and more concerned about some of the events and incidents that have taken place. It is not good for Saudi Arabia or any members of the coalition. I will endeavour to make a statement after we have heard what the UN Security Council has said on the matter, so I think that we have a plan for 2017 and some better news.

Children in Yemen face a desperate situation. Recent estimates show that some 40% of children could be malnourished—double the proportion that the World Health Organisation recognises as a food emergency. Does the Minister agree that the British Government should increase diplomatic efforts with Saudi Arabia to address urgently the food crisis for children in Yemen?

The question gives me licence to say that it is not just us or the United Nations doing this: the coalition is putting in a lot of effort to get aid into the country. Last year, a series of Saudi Arabian trucks full of aid were blown up by the Houthis. The aid commitment by Saudi Arabia and the coalition is significant and they are doing their part to make sure aid gets into the country.

The Minister just made the point: is not the Gulf Co-operation Council the biggest donor to Yemen in direct aid—and indirect aid, through remittances—and should not the sensible position of this House be to support the council in its efforts to seek peace in Yemen, instead of playing silly games?

The work of the Gulf Co-operation Council is important in bringing together a collaborative and joint approach from the Gulf nations. I was pleased that our Prime Minister was able to address the council’s summit last November, where many of those issues were raised.

Is not the difference between Afghanistan—where obviously the UK and the US carried out their own investigations—and Yemen, the sheer number of allegations that have been made? Does not that justify moving to an independent investigation as soon as possible?

Looking at the number of allegations that took place in Afghanistan, I would not necessarily agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is looking at only the British and American—or allied and Operation Enduring Freedom—side of things. If we include what the Afghans were doing as well, the numbers would rise. He is not comparing like with like. We have to include not only what the international community is doing, but what Saudi Arabia is doing.