I beg to move,
That this House notes the worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen; and calls upon the Government to take a lead in passing a resolution at the UN Security Council that would give effect to an immediate ceasefire in Yemen.
I am most grateful to all members of the Backbench Business Committee for granting this vital debate. I also thank my fellow officers of the all-party group on Yemen, the hon. Members for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), for leading this debate with me. I commend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the right hon. and gallant Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), for the work he has undertaken on Yemen. He demonstrated to all of us last week what a brave, honourable and decent man he is. I am also pleased to see the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), and the shadow International Development Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), in their places.
We meet today at a time when Yemen, one of the poorest countries on earth, stands on the precipice of an unprecedented tragedy. Two years ago this week, a Saudi-led coalition launched an intervention after the legitimately elected Government of the President of Yemen, Mansur Hadi, had been ousted in a coup by Houthi rebels. We welcomed the action of the coalition, which was mandated by the Security Council in resolution 2216. Earlier today in another part of this House, and thanks to the chairing of the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie), we heard from Major General Asiri, the spokesman for the Saudi coalition, on the coalition action so far and its aspirations for the future. The meeting was extremely useful.
This afternoon, we stand in a very different world from the one of two years ago. The latest figures from the humanitarian crisis in Yemen are unbelievable: 10,000 people have died; more than 1,500 of the dead were children; 47,000 people have been injured, many crippled for life; and 7 million are at immediate risk of starvation, including 2 million children. The United Nations has just announced that Yemen is only one step away from outright famine. In total, 21.2 million people require urgent humanitarian assistance—80% of the country’s population. We have become frighteningly numb to the figures. It should shock us to our very core: 21 million people is more than double the entire population of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
My right hon. Friend is making a strong and appropriate speech, setting out the scale of the tragedy that Yemen is experiencing and what it potentially faces. Does he share my great concern that both sides in the conflict continue to frustrate humanitarian access? For example, at the port of Hudaydah, cranes that were supposed to unload crucial medical and humanitarian cargoes are not yet in place.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are very concerned about the blockades by both sides and the inability to get humanitarian aid into the country. I know that other right hon. and hon. Members will, along with me, want to draw attention to the problem of access.
According to a recent YouGov poll, less than half the UK’s population even knows that there is a war in Yemen, a former British colony. It is the forgotten war, which is why the motion has only one objective: to secure an all-important, long-lasting ceasefire. I hope that in this debate we can show solidarity and unity in support of the people of Yemen. Members may of course wish to raise many issues, and rightly so, but the motion is clear, and its focus is on bringing peace to Yemen.
How did we arrive at this point? In the Arab spring of 2011, Yemen and Tunisia stood apart in the region as the sites of the only peaceful transitions to democracy. Particular praise for that goes to the current Minister for Europe and the Americas, who became the Prime Minister’s envoy to Yemen. The UK has maintained stronger links with Yemen than any other western country. Three Members of this House were born there: myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and the hon. Member for Portsmouth South. Members such as the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), who is the vice-chair of the all-party group, have visited the country, and Members including the hon. Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) have served there in the armed forces.
The past two years have chipped away at the Yemeni people’s historical good will for the United Kingdom. Last Friday, I met members of the Yemeni diaspora in Sheffield, with another officer of the all-party group, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss). At that meeting, the community’s message was one of disbelief that the United Kingdom had not acted more strongly to end the fighting. We continue to be one of the largest bilateral aid donors to Yemen, and the Department for International Development is contributing £100 million to the country. I commend the efforts of the Secretary of State for International Development, who has made additional funds available to Yemen as a priority for her Department and taken the lead on Yemen internationally. That work was begun under her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who is in his place and has recently returned from Sana’a. He has described the “appalling scale” of the crisis there. I hope he will be able to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.
So far, we have had three failed opportunities for a sustainable end to the fighting: negotiations in April 2016 ended in failure; a UN-sponsored round of talks in Kuwait ended in failure in August 2016; and John Kerry’s initiative last November led to the Saudi-led coalition and Houthis agreeing to the UN special envoy’s terms, but the agreement collapsed when President Hadi refused to sign the deal. The intervention of the Foreign Secretary secured a three-day ceasefire in October, which allowed vital aid to reach the most desperate parts of the country, but that was just a drop in an ocean of despair. The political process has now ended. Talks have not been revived. Will the Minister confirm whether a new round of talks has been planned and what ongoing discussions he has had with the key players in the conflict? Many are now part of a very complicated game of thrones that is the crisis in Yemen, including the Hadi Government, the Houthis, former President Saleh, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Iran, the UK, and the USA. The only winners are Daesh and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Oman has now been invited into the “Quad” of nations seeking to resolve the crisis.
I travelled to Oman in February to meet the Foreign Minister, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah. I thanked the Omani Government for the assistance that they gave me locally. The Minister told me that there is hope. He said that the road map of the UN special envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, was firmly on the table. He was also clear that the political road map can and should begin immediately, implementing a ceasefire while the economic and security issues are resolved. When the Minister replies, can he inform us whether, subject to the immediate obstacles being overcome, he believes the political road map can now be implemented?
On the urgency of the need for a ceasefire, is the right hon. Gentleman aware of a report in yesterday’s Washington Post that the United States Administration are now getting back into a Saudi project to invade and capture Hudaydah port?
I am not aware of that report. That would be extremely damaging to the process that I am talking about today, which is the need for all parties, including the United States, to support a ceasefire. I will certainly look at that report. Perhaps the Minister who has heard what the hon. Gentleman said will have an opportunity to reply.
When I was in Oman, I also had the opportunity to speak to President Hadi. The President, speaking to me from Aden, was focused on addressing the humanitarian crisis, but he was no closer to agreeing to the UN special envoy’s proposal. If President Hadi signs up to this agreement, he has an opportunity to be remembered as the man who brought peace to Yemen, and who stopped the suffering of his people. He should take it. I am grateful to him for accepting an invitation to address the all-party group in June. Can the Minister confirm whether President Hadi is any closer to agreeing to the terms of the special envoy’s road map?
The UK can and must be the honest broker. That means putting pressure on all parties, including those who receive British support. Can the Minister tell us whether the UK is prepared to sanction the Yemeni and Saudi Governments, if they allow the next round of negotiations to fail?
Tomorrow may be one of the most critical days in the history of Yemen. At 10am in New York, the United Nations Security Council will hold a full session on the conflict in Yemen, where they will hear directly from the special envoy. It will be chaired by our excellent ambassador, Matthew Rycroft. The United Kingdom is the current President of the Security Council, as we are, of course, the “pen holder” on Yemen at the United Nations, which means that we lead on all issues relating to Yemen. This is a unique opportunity to make a case to the Security Council, and to secure a new resolution that would enable a ceasefire.
Stephen O’Brien, the outstanding UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, and a former Member of this House, made a stunning announcement this month that the world faces its worst humanitarian crisis since 1945. He focused on Yemen. The French Government, who previously took a backseat on Yemen, announced last week the need for an immediate ceasefire. I have met both the Chinese and Egyptian ambassadors to London. On behalf of their Governments, they told me that the first priority was the cessation of hostilities. Most importantly, it is very clear that nobody is winning the war on the ground, and that nobody will ever win by military means. The only solution will come from the negotiating table. That point was forcefully made by the UN panel of experts.
I spoke to Matthew Rycroft yesterday, and he explained that the political process needs to begin moving in the right direction. It is clear to me, and I hope that it will be clear to the House, that a resolution adopted tomorrow would commit all sides to guarantee the ceasefire. Will the Minister ensure that the United Kingdom proposes such a resolution at tomorrow’s session? That will really help the peace process. If it is not to be tabled tomorrow, what is the timetable for putting forward that motion? Quite simply, these efforts cannot wait.
While we push for peace, Yemen continues to face myriad challenges. Organisations such as Save the Children, Islamic Relief, Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontières, UNICEF, CARE, Christian Aid and the Red Cross are performing wonders on the ground, but there are still chronic humanitarian access issues. Despite the generous contributions to the UN appeal, which is only 50% filled, serious damage to the port of Hudaydah has, as we have heard, created a monumental blockage for aid delivery into Yemen. If Hudaydah cannot function, we cannot stop famine in Yemen. Has the Minister considered proposals by the Yemen Safe Passage Group, led by a former British ambassador to Yemen, that the UN takes over the running of the port to allow aid to flow into the country? I am sure that other officers of the all-party group will speak further on the humanitarian crisis.
I will take this final intervention.
I apologise for not being here for the right hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks, but I did hear him say that he had a meeting with General Asiri this morning, as I also did. The point he made to me was that the Saudis have the capacity to block the port—they are not doing so—and that the port is in the hands of the militia, who are taking their tithe on all the goods coming in. In fact, it is the Houthi militia who are standing between the aid and the people who need it.
I was at the same meeting, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is why we need a ceasefire, and why we need the UN going in there to monitor the delivery of aid. As we heard, the aid was being hijacked and used for other purposes, which is why the ceasefire is so important.
To conclude, what we do know and what is beyond all doubt is that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Daesh have exploited the crisis that has grown in Yemen as a result of this conflict, and that they now de facto control swathes of territory. My interest in Yemen is not political; it is deeply personal. Aden, the city of my birth, was once the jewel of the Arabian sea. It was once a centre of British influence and of global trade, as ships passed through the Suez canal. The people of Yemen do not deserve to be condemned to suffer one of modern history’s greatest human catastrophes. I see a crisis that is not intractable. I see that there is a path to peace.
I began by warning that Yemen stood on the precipice of an unprecedented tragedy. This is true, but we have the chance in New York tomorrow morning to save this beautiful country. We are part of this conflict, and the time for waiting, watching and failing to act must end. Nero fiddled as Rome burned. The presidency that we hold tomorrow gives us the opportunity to demonstrate leadership, and leadership is exactly what the Yemeni people need. Let us bring light back to a country that otherwise will be consumed by darkness, starvation and evil.
Order. The House will be aware that this is a very short debate, finishing at 6 o’clock. Therefore, I have to impose an immediate time limit of four minutes.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), with his customary eloquence, has put the case extremely well. The last time the House debated Yemen, I was in Yemen, visiting Sana’a and Sa’dah, so I have an opportunity to update the House on what is happening there. I pay tribute to the extraordinary work that the United Nations and its leader there, Jamie McGoldrick, are doing in Yemen, and to Oxfam, which, in the highest traditions of British international non-governmental organisations, is performing extraordinarily well and doing magnificent work.
It is good to see the Minister in his place. My submission to him is that the Government’s policy needs tweaking. We are supporting a coalition that is not going to succeed. We need to move towards neutrality, we need to try to engineer a ceasefire and we need to update UN resolution 2216. Because of the deep respect with which Britain is held in that part of the world, and particularly in Yemen, the adversaries, and particularly the Houthis, would be willing to accept British mediation. In my view, it is essential that we engage with all parties inside the structure of the United Nations to secure the ceasefire and Yemeni-Saudi Arabian talks.
The British Government’s policy needs tweaking because it is internally inconsistent. One part of the British Government is seeking to get development aid and vital supplies in through the port of Hudaydah, while another part is supporting the coalition that has been bombing the port. The coalition has put the cranes out of action when they are vital for unloading the ships that one part of the British Government is trying to get into the port.
Britain is seeking to help to de-mine ordnance—the British de-mining group up in Sa’dah, which has been heavily bombed, is led by a former British Army officer. We can see the inconsistencies in our position. Britain is supporting a malnutrition ward in a major hospital, from which Médecins sans Frontières has withdrawn, in Sa’dah, yet it is seen as part of the coalition that is causing the problems.
As ever, the right hon. Gentleman speaks with great eloquence and is informed on these matters. Does he agree that, in that inconsistency, there is a particular issue: the continued use of cluster munitions by the coalition? Human Rights Watch reports of an incident just this month. He mentioned landmines. These are instruments of war that predominantly kill civilians and leave problems for many months and years after conflicts have ended.
The Minister will perhaps make this clear, but my understanding is that the Saudis have agreed not to use any of the cluster munitions that were sold by Britain to Saudi Arabia in 1986.
Another inconsistency is that, recently, we have heard that the Americans launched a bombing attack on al-Qaeda in Yemen, but al-Qaeda is fighting on the same side as us against the Houthis. The internal inconsistencies in the policy very much need to be addressed.
We know that the world faces four famines. Many of us had believed that, in the year 2017, it would be inconceivable that that awful biblical experience could be revisited on people, yet four famines are pending—in northern Nigeria, Somalia, southern Sudan and Yemen. However, the Yemenis are not starving: they are being starved by a blockade in which we are complicit. Although Britain has led the way in tackling those four famines, and although the Department for International Development is doing its best to ensure that steps are taken in Yemen to stop that starvation, the people of Yemen are being starved. The UN has made it absolutely clear from first-hand evidence on the ground what that means for the future of children in the country.
In my view, the Government must do everything they can to ensure that the ceasefire takes place, and that British policy is tweaked, using all the many instruments at our disposal, which the Minister knows so well, through the United Nations and elsewhere. We should try to make certain that the blockade is lifted, that the ceasefire takes place, and that there are Saudi-Yemeni talks. We then need the Yemeni-Yemeni talks, for which there is a basis—it has to be from the bottom up through all the different parties, governorates, tribes and so forth in Yemen. Britain has an important role to play in that.
We should bear it in mind that Yemen imports 90% of what it eats, and 80% through the port of Hudaydah. One effect of the blockade and the failure of the banking system is that the four major wheat importers cannot get the credits to put that right. Britain should help to lead in stopping that.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and the other officers of the all-party group on Yemen on organising a timely debate, as we have just marked the third anniversary of the crisis in Yemen.
It is a particular pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), the former Secretary of State for International Development, who kindly gave evidence to the International Development Committee recently, following his visit to Yemen. Today, he has again provided a thoughtful and important contribution.
This coming Saturday, in Liverpool, we will hold the monthly vigil for peace in Yemen, which is arranged by Liverpool Friends of Yemen, drawing on the large Yemeni community in Liverpool and on other friends. In advance of this afternoon’s debate, I contacted members of Liverpool Friends of Yemen to ask what they would like me to address if I were called to speak, and the major focus was the one reflected in the motion before the House: the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis the people of Yemen face and the need for peace in that country.
I am sure my hon. Friend would agree that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who moved the motion, forcefully said, the United Nations decisions tomorrow will be very important, given what previous speakers have said about a ceasefire, and perhaps the blockade will be lifted as well.
I agree absolutely, and let us all hope for progress as a consequence of the United Nations Security Council discussions tomorrow.
The scale of this crisis has been documented by the previous speakers and in previous debates. UNICEF tells us that more than 1,500 children have been killed since the fighting began, with a similar number being recruited to fight by both sides of the conflict. As my right hon. Friend said in his opening speech, the conflict has claimed the lives of at least 10,000 people, and some have put the level of civilian deaths alone as high as 5,000.
The United Nations has given the crisis level 3 status, putting it on a par with similar crises in Syria, Iraq and South Sudan. The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross has said that the intensity and severity of the fighting have left Yemen looking like Syria did after five years of conflict. Some 19 million people are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance—that is 80%, or four in five, of the population. Half a million children are suffering from severe malnutrition. Saleh Saeed, the chief executive of the Disasters Emergency Committee, who is originally from Yemen, has said that families are having to make the “unbearable” decision between buying medicine or food. This simply cannot be allowed to continue.
My hon. Friend mentioned medicine. Does he agree that there is a crucial crisis in the health sector? The health Ministry’s workers have not been paid since August last year. There is a lack of medicines in many areas. Despite the amazing work of organisations such as MSF, many people cannot access the help they need.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He anticipates the next paragraph of my speech, where I point out that there are 15 million people with no access to healthcare. Of course, 70 health centres have been destroyed as part of the conflict.
Today, the International Development Committee publishes its report on UK aid and the allocation of resources. The work DFID is doing in Yemen is a fine example of why the Prime Minister was right yesterday to say that UK aid is a badge of hope. This morning, the Committee took evidence on education, and we heard about the latest plans from DFID, working with other donors, to ensure that children affected by the conflict do not become a lost generation and that there is investment in the capacity of the Government and local communities in Yemen to ensure that children do not lose out on their education.
The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield talked about what many have described as the paradox of aid—the positive record we as a country have on aid, but the fact that our involvement is aligned with one side of the conflict. I am keen to hear from the Minister what the Government are doing to try to get the port at Hudaydah reopened. That issue has been raised by a number of colleagues during the debate.
Those of us on the International Development Committee have said consistently that there should be an independent UN-led inquiry into all alleged violations of international humanitarian law by both sides in the conflict. However, let us unite behind the motion. This important motion marks the third anniversary, but it also says, ahead of tomorrow, that we want to see a ceasefire, peace and justice, and that we commit to rebuilding Yemen once peace comes.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) for bringing the forgotten war back to the Chamber again. Sadly, since the last time we all spoke on this, the humanitarian situation has become worse. I will not reiterate the points about the port of Hudaydah, but I look forward to hearing what my right hon. Friend the Minister is doing, with colleagues, to ensure that it is open.
On the appeal for $2 billion of funds, sadly, although we are a third of the way through 2017, only 6% of that money has been raised. The UK is in a good position on the list—we are third—but many of our European partners have not paid up yet. I ask the Minister to urge his colleague, the Minister for Europe and the Americas, to talk to European partners about how they can do their part as well.
I want to unpick the second part of the motion, which assumes that a UN Security Council resolution would give effect to an immediate ceasefire. Of course, that is what we all want. It is in the best interests of the Yemeni people, who are now suffering greatly through starvation, more poverty and drug addiction, but it is also in the British national interest, because we cannot afford to have this training ground for terrorists that washes up on our shores.
I applaud the efforts that the Government are making on the diplomatic front. We have been able to achieve that through our long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth); through constituents of mine who have lived there for many years; through parliamentary visits; and through meetings of the Quad involving the US, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. I know that the Minister had a very good working relationship with Secretary Kerry, and I would be interested to hear what conversations he has had with Secretary Tillerson, particularly since the raid on al-Ghayil.
We need to think more broadly about the UN’s role in peacekeeping in the 21st century, because this war involves non-state actors. We did not have that as much in the 1940s and ’50s. On one side, we have the Yemeni Government of Hadi backed by the Saudi-led coalition with nations that are members of the UN; on the other, we have the Houthis. People say they are an Iran-backed Government. Yes, there are arms coming through from Tehran, but there is not the same level of boots on the ground as there is in Syria.
It is hard to believe that many arms are getting through because the country is completely blockaded, by land, sea and air, by the Saudis.
I accept that point.
I briefly give way to my Lancashire neighbour.
In January, the UN panel of experts report reiterated that point. One of the reasons arms cannot get in is the embargo, which obviously has an adverse effect on aid, too.
The hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend make my point for me.
We are dealing not with another state but with the Houthis, who are amorphous and do not play by the same rules. We need to be aware of that when we are looking for peace and a ceasefire, which is what the aim of all of us should be and what this debate is about. We need to have innovative thinking about nation states, about the role of diplomacy and about the role of the United Nations. I applaud the idea, on this anniversary, of having a UN Security Council resolution, but I am interested in how it will actually be enforceable. How do we bring the Houthis to the table? How do we get food through and how do we stop people fighting? What tools can we, as parliamentarians, give to our diplomats? What tools can we give to the Minister and his Foreign Office colleagues? What can we give to our soldiers, if that is what we need to do, in this multi-faceted modern conflict? We need to continue to engage with all parties. We need to be prepared to talk to the Houthis, the Saudis and everybody involved. We need to be able to back up our words with money and with actions, perhaps including military actions.
I extend my thanks to my co-sponsors from the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen—the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond)—both of whom are a great credit to the country of their birth.
Along with many emails from my constituents in Glasgow who follow the situation closely, I have received many briefings from organisations for this debate. There are too many to name, but I am extremely grateful for those briefings outlining the desperate situation on the ground. I also recently met the Norwegian Refugee Council, and the APPG had a valuable session with Yemen-based non-governmental organisations. Yemeni constituents of mine have also shared their experiences of the situation in Yemen.
There has been a lot of talk about Yemen being on the brink of famine, with the International Committee of the Red Cross saying that there are only three to fourth months left to save Yemen from starvation. Jamie McGoldrick, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen, concurs, saying that there is only about three months’ supply of food left in the country.
As I understand it, part of the issue with declaring famine is that there are not enough independent people on the ground to do so. People are starving, though—of that there is no doubt. The aid agencies know what they are seeing and they are all begging the UK Government to help to get food into the country as a matter of the utmost urgency.
Blockades at Yemen’s ports by the Saudi-led coalition have contributed to the situation. Hudaydah is strategically important. It used to handle 70% of food imports, as well as humanitarian aid. It has been under sustained attack, leading to the destruction of infrastructure and rendering inoperable the cranes that used to unload the cargo ships. Unloading must now be done by hand, which is an impossible task.
The frustrating thing is that the port could be operating at the moment. The World Food Programme has bought and paid for cranes to replace those destroyed by the air strikes. They are currently sitting in a port in the UAE, after being refused access by the Saudi-led coalition. That is utterly unacceptable.
Is my hon. Friend also aware that one of the offshoots of the blockade is that the boats carrying refugees from Somalia to Yemen are being attacked and sunk by Saudi Apache helicopters?
Yes, and that incident was absolutely appalling and shocking. Nobody can fail to be upset by the pictures of those Somali people, who have suffered enough without being bombed.
Ministers must make sure that the cranes, which have been bought and paid for, are installed in Hudaydah. That would turn on the taps: it would get aid and commercial operations flowing again, and get things moving.
Hudaydah’s strategic importance is recognised by both the Houthis and the Saudis. Aid agencies, including the UN, fear that the conflict in and around Hudaydah is ramping up, which must be prevented at all costs. Half a million people would be displaced and it would make aid efforts all but impossible. Yemen’s primary port cannot be a frontline in this conflict, and I seek the assurance of Ministers that they will pursue the matter.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. We have already heard about the ridiculous situation of the UK Government giving aid with one hand while arming the antagonists with the other. Does she agree that famine relief and a ceasefire can come about only with the immediate suspension of the Government’s selling of arms to the Saudi regime, which has already been found to be guilty of breaches of international humanitarian law?
Absolutely. As I said in Foreign Office questions earlier, £3.3 billion has been made from arms licences over the past two years, which dwarfs the £85 million in Government aid, welcome though that is. The arms sales must stop now. Peace will not happen if bombs continue to rain down on the heads of people in Yemen.
The UK Government’s role in establishing the UN verification and inspection mechanism at the port of Hudaydah, inspecting the goods entering Yemen’s ports while they are still at sea, is welcome, but Save the Children told me yesterday that that has not prevented the Saudi-led coalition from carrying out its own inspections, thereby delaying vital aid shipments. That can mean a delay of up to three months in delivering aid and medical supplies, leaving aid workers making life and death decisions on the ground about who they can help with dwindling resources.
Some shipments have been diverted from Hudaydah and around the coast to the smaller port of Aden, meaning that convoys have instead to complete the dangerous journey overland, via checkpoints and across the frontline, adding at least another three weeks to the time taken for that aid to reach the people it needs to reach and risking the lives of everybody on the convoy.
Moving goods and people across the country also requires confirmation of deconfliction from authorities in Yemen, without which the convoy will become a target in the war, and nobody wants that to happen. Other Members will no doubt outline the grave mistakes and errors that have happened during air strikes. NGOs based in the country tell me that they are fearful for the lives of their workers at every single checkpoint where they get stopped. They become targets, regardless of the assurances given to them by the governing parties and their warm words.
All the organisations I have met have stressed the difficulty of moving around Yemen, the complications with visas and the delays caused by petty bureaucracy. Some agencies have not been able to make field visits to support their operations on the ground and to bring back evidence that will enable funders to encourage more people to donate to their campaigns. They are not being well enough supported by the Government agencies that should be facilitating aid.
There are increasing problems in getting to Yemen, with limitations on travel by land and sea. Sana’a airport is also closed and people cannot leave, including those who seek urgent medical assistance. I ask the Government to speak to the Saudis about removing that blockage so that people can get in and out by air and receive treatment.
All the delays are costing lives and leaving the population with long-term health problems as a result of severe malnutrition. For want of clean water and a suitable diet, people are less able to fight off disease and their immune systems are more susceptible to cholera. There have been a suspected 22,000 cholera cases in 15 governorates in the past six months alone, and at least 100 people have died as a result. Tragically, UNICEF estimates that 63,000 children died in 2016 from preventable diseases linked to malnutrition. That is 8,500 more children than were born in the whole of Scotland last year. That is a generation. The future of Yemen hangs in the balance, and the Government must do more.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to hold this incredibly important debate, and I thank my friend the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for organising it.
The situation in Yemen really is a forgotten conflict—or perhaps a better term would be an ignored conflict, in the UK. The humanitarian crisis is on a knife edge. Yemen has always been desperately poor, and 90% of its food and goods are imported, but it is surrounded by huge wealth, and there is no reason why it should not be a functioning country with help from its neighbours.
The war has left Yemen unable to make the best of its own resources. It has some reserves of oil and gas, but its inability to export them has crippled its foreign exchange reserves. The Yemeni central bank has no power to sustain the economy, and the move from Sana’a to Aden without its database or bureaucrats has not helped. There are 1.5 million public sector employees who are being paid only sporadically, if at all.
Yemen’s GDP has contracted a further 35% since 2015. A war economy is now in place, and tribal leaders are making a fortune while Yemenis starve. As part of any settlement of the conflict, the international community must be ready to rebuild confidence in the country’s financial institutions and guarantee the restoration of the Yemeni economy while bringing rural tribes back together.
I can understand why the coalition has fought to keep its own people safe from attacks. There were four Scud attacks this morning into Saudi territory, and the frequency of such attacks is increasing. The continued fighting is storing up problems for the future. There is no doubt in my mind that the country will continue to be used as a base by Daesh and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula if the conflict persists, and there are growing signs that the groups involved in Syria and Iraq see Yemen as a long-term safe haven. Al-Qaeda has claimed 76 attacks this year in southern and eastern Yemen, and 11 Yemeni security forces were killed near Aden only yesterday. I disagree with the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) that al-Qaeda is on our side. It could be an immense threat to the stability of the region.
The point I was making is that in attacking al-Qaeda, the Americans attacked an element that was fighting the Houthis. They attacked an element that was, in that instance, on our side of the conflict.
That may be the case, but al-Qaeda is still attacking the Yemeni security forces, and it is a grave danger to the rest of the region.
We are already supplying aid, which is limiting the impact of the humanitarian crisis, but I want to ask the British Government to be an honest broker in ending the political crisis. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield recently visited as a guest of the Houthis, and they told him that they were happy to engage with the British Government on a peace process. Let us challenge them to see whether they really mean it, and whether they really understand UN Security Council resolution 2216, which asks them to lay down their arms and withdraw. We have much expertise in peace negotiations and a long history of engaging with everyone in this area, from Governments to tribal leadership.
On the humanitarian front, I urge the Government to continue to work to improve the flow of aid. We have already helped to ease the blockade on Hudaydah port for supplies of humanitarian aid, fuel and food, but the coalition recently refused access for four new mobile cranes, supplied by the World Food Programme, which would vastly improve the port’s capacity for unloading essential supplies. This is a UN body, and the coalition must accept the role of the UN as an impartial agent in this crisis. That includes acceptance of the role of the UN inspection and verification mechanism. I know there are doubts about this being in Djibouti, and there is concern that weapons are still being bought in.
Will the Minister report back to this House on whether the UN inspection and verification mechanism is working in a timely fashion. What evidence is there that weapons are being smuggled? Is there any possibility of the mechanism being established in the port of Hudaydah to reassure the coalition that weapons are not being smuggled? The cranes must be got to Hudaydah, and they must be put to work. Other ports, such as Aden and Mukhalla, must be used to bring in more aid. Will the Minister call on the coalition to support the rehabilitation of port infrastructure and get the cranes working? Is there any indication that the coalition, backed by the US, will soon be attacking Hudaydah, which I know is a concern? Most importantly, will the British Government demand an immediate ceasefire, call all sides to negotiations on the basis of the special envoy’s proposals and lead the country of Yemen to peace?
Order. I have to reduce the time limit to three minutes, and I remind the House that it is not compulsory to take an intervention and thus increase the time limit for one’s speech.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your generosity with the time. I am very glad to speak in this place about the current situation in Yemen.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I seek your clarification about this observation, Madam Deputy Speaker. When this debate ends, there will be an Adjournment debate that, if I understand the protocols of the House correctly, will be allowed more than its 30 minutes. Is it not possible for us to use our full allocation and the time up to the period of 30 minutes before Members of the House disperse today?
I have every sympathy—heartfelt sympathy—with what the Minister has said. This is a vital debate, and I will not use up time in fully answering his point of order. The House decided on the timetable. The Backbench Business Committee gave 90 minutes for this debate, and I am powerless to change that. The Minister has, however, made a very good point.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and the hon. Members for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing today’s debate. I pay tribute to them not just as a politeness but because by choosing Yemen as a topic for public debate in the House they have brought into our public arena an urgent discussion that it is clear our Government would much rather not have and that is, or at the very least should be, deeply embarrassing for them. I say that not to score a petty political point, but to highlight the fact that it is the role of all elected Members to speak up when our Government are acting wrongly on the international stage. That is the essence of our democracy.
As Members have said, a famine in Yemen is imminent, which is a disastrous prospect on top of the many children and adults who have already died. This famine is not a consequence of natural disaster, but a result of the civil war. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) memorably said again today, “Yemenis are not starving: they are being starved”. It is a famine that is being deliberately used a weapon of war, but one that can be stopped as soon as we find the political will to stop it. That is a huge responsibility for all of us in the House, and we must find the political will to do so as a matter of the utmost urgency.
That is a particular responsibility for us because the UK is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, we hold the presidency this month of the UN Security Council—that will end this week—and we of course have close political ties with neighbouring states. It is clear that we have been gifted an opportunity to set the international agenda, and it is nothing less than our absolute moral duty to do so. Let us begin by acknowledging that, notwithstanding the good intentions in the motion, we cannot pass a resolution that
“would give effect to an immediate ceasefire in Yemen”
however much we might wish we could do so. We must, however, call for an immediate ceasefire, and throw our weight behind that goal.
We can certainly recognise that all major parties to this war must be part of the solution, and that United Nations Security Council resolution 2216 needs to be replaced by a realistic alternative that will bring everyone to the negotiating table. We can and must recognise the importance of independent witnesses on the ground, and the urgent need for reliable data relating to food insecurity so that relief can be well targeted. Binding assurances are clearly needed from both sides on the protection of humanitarian workers. These are credible and achievable political goals.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on securing the debate. I think it is the second time in six or eight weeks that we have come to the Chamber to debate Yemen. I am delighted to do so. I think last time I opened up by saying that the most important point is not armed sales, but the people who are suffering in Yemen. This is about a ceasefire, about peace and about throwing all our weight behind trying to achieve something that will benefit the people on the ground. It is not about token policies bandied around for self-promotion.
The UN panel of experts published a new updated report in January and I would like to pick the bones out of it, even if I will not get to say a great deal in two minutes. The panel stated that
“an outright military victory by any one side is no longer a realistic possibility in the near term”.
We have to recognise that there are three sides to this conflict. As well as the misery and suffering of the people on the ground, Islamist terrorists will profit from the conflict for as long as it goes on. It is important to remember that the UN panel of experts continues to support the democratically elected President Hadi and the coalition through UN resolution 2216, which condemns the Houthi-Saleh coup and calls for meaningful peace talks. It praises the Gulf Co-operation Council for its attempts in trying to bring about a ceasefire. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East pointed out that one of the blockages on the Houthi side is that so far they do not seem willing or able to come to the table. Listening to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), it may be that that is going to change. Let us hope that it does. It is important for them to come to the table, because that is the road map to peace.
The UN panel reports that both sides have committed terrible atrocities and that
“some of the coalition attacks may amount to war crimes”.
The Saudis, who are involved in coalition operations in Iraq and Syria, operate to NATO standards. They openly admit that they have made mistakes. None the less, some atrocities have occurred and the UN panel recognises that some of them have been committed by the coalition. However, the panel recognises that many atrocities, if not more, have been committed by the Houthis. The panel’s report states that
“violations of international humanitarian law and human rights norms were widespread”,
including the use of mortar bombs, free flight rockets into densely populated residential areas, attacks on hospitals, forcible disappearance of individuals and detention, torture and murder.
I see that the clock has run down. I ask the Minister to press for a ceasefire and meaningful peace talks.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this very important debate on Yemen. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), and the hon. Members for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). I want to pay tribute in particular to my right hon. Friend. Yemen has been called the forgotten conflict. The way he speaks so passionately about his country of birth means that that will never be the case in this House as long as he is here.
The political situation in Yemen, which has led to this point, is obviously very complicated. Once the Houthis captured parts of Yemen and essentially launched a coup d’état against the new President Hadi, it became evident that the country would descend into civil war. There is a natural instinct and a well-established principle in international law that where there is conflict and a humanitarian situation develops, there is not only a right to intervene but an international responsibility to protect civilians in certain circumstances.
In a single attack in March last year, which involved a Saudi air strike on a crowded village market, 106 civilians, including 24 children, died. We must face up to the fact that there is a very realistic chance that the weapon used to cause so much destruction and grief was sold to Saudi Arabia by the UK. We have heard that the UK has given advice and support to Saudi forces to help them to comply with their obligations under international law, but the message clearly is not getting through. Saudi Arabia has designated the entire Yemeni governorate of Sa'dah a military target. That tramples over protocol I of the Geneva convention which defines legitimate military targets, and to which both the UK and Saudi Arabia have signed up. The definition includes a wide range of infrastructure, military industrial and communications targets, but it does not include hospitals, including those run by aid organisations or village markets. Illegally declaring an entire governorate a military target, and recklessly killing civilians in cities, schools and hospitals as a result, is a clear breach of international law. This is a position supported by the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen.
Turning war into peace is never easy, but the United Nations can be a fantastic vehicle when properly used. We must take the civil war in Yemen and seriously encourage our counterparts on all sides of the conflict—with the exception of the terrorist groups of Daesh who are taking advantage of the war—to stop the armed conflict and get around the negotiating table. Brokering a ceasefire is the first step towards that, and it is something in which we could and should play a role.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the Saudis have invited the United Nations to monitor the port movements? Would that not help to relieve the humanitarian problem?
I fully accept that the Saudis have been invited into the Government, but what I am concerned about is the Saudis using civilians as targets and those civilians being hurt. That is when we have a humanitarian catastrophe on our hands.
To be absolutely clear, the Saudis are preventing the replacement cranes from getting into Hudaydah, in spite of the fact that the Department for International Development urgently needs these cranes in order to unload vessels carrying aid, medicine and food.
I accept the right hon. Gentleman’s point.
Clearly, ceasefires are simply the beginning of a long peace-making process. Any ceasefire needs to be enforced if it is to be successful. Without enforcement, ceasefires have a tendency to fall apart and very quickly become active armed conflicts. This can be seen in Syria and to some extent in Ukraine. UN peacekeepers are specifically intended for this very purpose, and could be deployed in Yemen to enforce a ceasefire agreement.
To conclude, this would clearly be difficult, given the wider geopolitical forces involved and the necessity of agreement among the United Nations Security Council, but it is something we must strive towards, encourage and support. Too many people have died; we cannot oversee another famine such as the one we see in Yemen at the moment.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on bringing this debate to the House today. What we are seeing in Yemen is a humanitarian crisis—referred to as one of the worst the world has ever seen. Over the past 18 months, the war and destruction have killed over 10,000 people, with at least 1,200 of them being children. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the majority of those deaths are from coalition air strikes. Some 3 million people have severe malnutrition, with a further 21 million requiring urgent humanitarian assistance.
This is one of the world’s worst hunger crises. The Red Cross warned this month that there are only three or four months left to avoid famine. We are used to statistics and figures in this place, but I remind my hon. Friends that each and every one of these people is a mother, a father, a brother or sister, a husband or wife or a child. These are the innocent victims caught up in the forgotten war. The conflict is making this enormous catastrophe worse every day that it continues—and both sides are failing to facilitate the flow of vital humanitarian aid, and failing to conduct any kind of credible investigation in Yemen that meets international standards.
There are many Yemeni people living in my constituency, many of whom have family caught up in the destruction in Yemen. They are absolutely terrified for their relatives. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East joined me at an event in Sheffield with a local Yemeni community. I commend his huge commitment to shedding light on the crisis and his work on the issue.
Over the weekend, we marked the two-year anniversary of the beginning of the conflict in Yemen. I must say, with enormous regret, that if the current political will remains as it is, this conflict will continue. We must take action now. There must be an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian aid must be adroitly brought in and distributed. If the conditions for that are not met, huge numbers of Yemenis will continue to suffer and die. The coalition insists that it has only military targets, but I suggest that the evidence of the Saudi-led coalition attacks on civilians and the resulting civilian catastrophe that has ensued shows either incompetence on the part of the Saudi coalition or, as suggested by human rights organisations, a blatant breach of international humanitarian law.
The United Kingdom’s approach to the war in Yemen is a total contradiction, and I urge the Government to do all that they can to adopt a new resolution. We must see some progress towards an immediate ceasefire as soon as possible. Alongside that, humanitarian access must be a priority, and food supplies and aid routes must be established if we are to avoid an even greater catastrophe.
The humanitarian situation in Yemen is extremely serious, and continues to spiral out of control. A report released by UNICEF yesterday makes harrowing reading. It states:
“Malnourished children across Yemen are teetering between life and death…. Cemeteries are filling up with small unmarked graves, the deaths of children unreported to authorities, their suffering invisible to the world.”
Some 9.6 million children—80% of all children in the country—are in need of humanitarian assistance. That is a moral outrage.
Citing international development budgets in response to repeated expressions of serious concern about the United Kingdom’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia is also an outrageous way for any supposedly responsible Government to act. As we have heard, the Saudi-led coalition has destroyed much of the infrastructure in Yemen. As a result of air strikes on the port of Hudaydah, only one of the six loading cranes remains functional. That is seriously hampering DFID’s efforts to get aid into the country.
Good intentions count for absolutely nothing. What good is it if we allocate an aid budget but continue to support those who are making it near-impossible to get the aid to those who need it? Nearly 10 million wee ones need assistance, and not only are we not doing enough to help; we are actively preventing ourselves from helping. Why are we ignoring the brutal and realistic prospect of an impending famine, a famine that we will have been utterly and shamefully complicit in creating? The international development line simply will not wash any more.
Why are the UK Government so keen to continue selling weapons that they are unwilling even to try to persuade their Saudi allies to stop the bombing? Why are we not front and centre, leading ceasefire negotiations at the United Nations? There are clear breaches of international humanitarian law on all sides of the conflict, but the Government continue their policy of implausible deniability about their allies, and, worse still, their collusion in those breaches. Their insistence that the Saudis should be allowed to investigate themselves would be laughably absurd if it were not so obscenely improper.
Unfortunately, I do not have much time. Let me end by saying this. The Government appear to be totally incapable of changing direction or doing the right thing. Instead, they stick to their line and ignore the consequences. This is real life. Millions of children are starving, and that simply cannot continue. We must see action if we are to prevent a catastrophe. The Government cannot and must not wait for another moment. Let us show real leadership, and help to bring an end to the widespread suffering of the people of Yemen.
Let me put it to the Minister—for whom esteem has never been higher in the House after last week—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear”]—that tomorrow will be the United Kingdom’s last chance to influence materially the course of events in Yemen. There seems to be a great deal of building up to ensuring that the conflict and the bombing will worsen rather than lessening.
Since the arrival of the Trump regime, the United States has changed its stance significantly. The level of US bombing in Yemen has increased, and is higher than it has been in the last two years. The Trump regime has changed the Obama regime’s position on supplying precision weapons to the Saudi air force, which had almost run out of such weapons. It is feared that the Saudis will now use the resupply to intensify the bombing. Yesterday, the Washington Post contained a very reputable report that Defence Secretary Mattis was asking permission from the White House to change the rules of conduct to enable United States forces to intervene more strategically, with the Saudi-led coalition, in order to occupy the port of Hudaydah. The Saudis and the Emirates do not have the matériel to undertake such an invasion; that would have to come from the US Marine carriers in the Gulf. That will only end up with a situation where, far from reducing the conflict, it will increase, and therefore the humanitarian crisis will get even worse.
It has not so far been mentioned in the debate that, despite this conflict, more than 250,000 African refugees have poured into Yemen in the last two years, and over 100,000 in the last year, fleeing famine in Africa. That is making the situation on the ground in Yemen even worse.
What discussions have the Government had with the Trump regime on the intensification of the American military involvement in Yemen, and what steps are the UK Government going to take to intervene now, when they have the chance, in the UN, to try to get a ceasefire before the conflict becomes even more bloody and the humanitarian crisis becomes even worse?
Summing up from the Scottish National party Benches is something of a tall order today, and I hope colleagues will forgive me for not mentioning all the excellent contributions. Looking back over my notes, I see that 23 March marked a year almost to the day since the Committees on Arms Export Controls first met to discuss this issue. I am a member of that Committee, and it is with some sadness that I find myself speaking more than a year later with us having achieved very little from our side, while the humanitarian situation in Yemen becomes ever worse. During that time we on the SNP Benches have been consistent in our position that Her Majesty’s Government must suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia immediately, until a full, independent and transparent investigation into the alleged breaches of international humanitarian law has taken place.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, as I want to leave some time for the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) to speak at the end.
We in the SNP have had a very straightforward, honest and consistent position throughout this whole sorry saga: it is simply that this already atrocious humanitarian situation cannot be allowed to get worse through a continued Saudi offensive, and if this Government have any leverage at all, as they claim, with the regime in Riyadh, they must convince it to stop the bombing now and come to the table to bring peace to the people of Yemen.
This debate also provides an opportunity for the London Government to reflect on how their decision to allow arms sales, and how the military and security assistance that they give their Saudi allies, has affected this humanitarian situation. It is a damning indictment of UK foreign policy that we have become so reliant on this one bilateral relationship, not only in terms of the options it gives the UK in the region, but in terms of how important this is to maintain the current level of arms exports.
The stories we have heard today of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen are extremely distressing, and we are hearing ever more harrowing stories from the non-governmental organisations on the ground there trying to help. They come not from just one or two NGOs, but from Save the Children, Oxfam, Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins sans Frontières. They have also come up with plans that all have a similar theme. All these agencies are looking to secure rapid and unimpeded access, to deliver humanitarian aid to the affected populations. They are asking for the current spending and funding commitments to be built upon—a previous speaker talked of the 6% or 7% of funding that has already been given—and for support to be given to the Human Rights Council resolution of September 2016 which calls for an investigation and an international independent inquiry. They are urging all parties to stop the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects on populations, and they are calling for an intensification of efforts to support the UN-led peace talks. Lastly, but most importantly, they are calling for no sales or transfer of arms to any party involved in the Yemeni conflict.
We are also now seeing increasingly desperate tactics employed by Houthi rebels, including the use of unmanned craft to attack Saudi warships in the Red sea, in what is something of a modern warfare first. As I have said, the UK contribution to this is significant, not only in the sense that we have allowed weapons to be exported, but, I believe more significantly, because of the numbers of UK personnel who are advising the Saudi armed forces on a number of issues. What they are doing there is a mystery; it is unclear as the Ministry of Defence refuses to tell us.
When I visited Saudi last year with the Defence Committee, the British embassy was clearly keen to impress upon us that UK personnel were looked on by their Saudi counterparts as playing a vital part—something that gets to the heart of the Government’s narrative—so I would appreciate answers to the following questions. In a war being fought largely by mercenaries, how confident can we be that no current or former UK citizens are involved in ways that would put their actions beyond the purview of the Ministry of Defence? Why have the UK Government stopped trying to buy back the Saudi Government’s undoubted stockpile of cluster munitions, as per their obligations under international law? The issue of cluster munitions sold legally by the UK to Saudi in the 1980s brings to mind the length of the relationship, and I want to reflect on how we got to where we are today.
The UK Government have been involved with Saudi Arabia from the start. UK engineers extracted oil and built roads and infrastructure in the kingdom. UK nurses have staffed the hospitals, and teachers have staffed the schools. How is it, after all that, that the UK has so little leverage over the regime? Why must we always hear about the carrot, not the stick? Germany and the Netherlands have banned the sale of matériel to Saudi on international humanitarian law grounds. Indeed, it is the Government’s rejection of the Dutch-led UN motion on war crimes in favour of the Saudi one that first called their priorities into question. I only hope that it is not the size of the commercial relationship that has skewed priorities in Whitehall.
I have no doubt that the defence sector is important to our national economy, just as it is to the local economy in Fife, but despite the highly skilled jobs and the civilian applications of defence technology, we must consider the high licensing standards that defence products need to conform to in order to be sold worldwide. No one on the SNP Benches does not understand the complex situation. We are expected to believe, on the one hand, that the role that UK personnel play is significant enough to mean that the UK has substantial leverage over the Saudi regime while, on the other hand, that those personnel are not in the country for anything more than an advisory role. I hope that the Minister will take the time to enlighten us today on where those people stand. What is the UK role in Saudi? If it is significant, we are tired of not being given the proper answers. If it is not, please stop telling us we are able to affect matters in the kingdom.
Colleagues have asked other questions today. The right hon. Member for Leicester East is a doughty fighter on Yemen. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) talked about the 5,000 people who have lost their lives—1,500 of whom were children. The hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) asked about other nations not paying their way, and I am sure that the Minister, with his influence, can bring more pressure to bear on nations that are not putting money into the pot to help Yemen. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) mentioned there not being enough independent people to declare that the famine exists and also the £3.3 billion- worth of arms sales, which dwarfs the figure that we offer in international aid.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), who always speaks on these matters with great distinction, wants Yemen to return to being a successful, functioning country. That is what we all want, but we must stop the arms sales now to allow space for peace to occur. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) highlighted the £500,000 for children who are suffering from malnutrition. We should cease the arms sales, get on a path to peace, and ensure that the people of Yemen have a fighting chance of rebuilding their country in the future.
I thank the sponsors of this debate, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), both of whom were born in Yemen and bring a depth of knowledge and passion to such debates, for which we are grateful.
In previous debates, we have tended to see Yemen through the prism of British involvement in the conflict in the form of arms sales and other military support to the Saudi-led coalition. I do not intend to dwell on those issues today, although I am sure that they will be raised again, not least because we await the High Court’s judgment in the next few weeks on the legality of the Government’s sale of arms to Saudi.
When we look at Yemen today what we see, first and foremost, is a humanitarian catastrophe—the world’s worst, according to the United Nations. We should not forget that, even before the start of this war, Yemen was the poorest country in the Arab world, a destitute nation surrounded by wealthy neighbours and with a desolate landscape that meant it relied on imports for 90% of its food.
Now Yemen is engulfed by famine in all but name, and no wonder. It is not just that 90% of the country’s food is imported but that most of those imports need to go through the port of Hudaydah, the Red sea port that has been razed by airstrikes—the airstrikes have completely destroyed the port’s cranes, making it impossible to unload cargo. Even if supplies could get as far as the port and then through the roadblocks, the paperwork and the searches—some, indeed, call it a blockade—mean it is unlikely that the supplies would be able to get any further because the Saudi airstrikes have also systematically destroyed the roads and bridges that make it possible to get supplies from one place to another.
The other 10%—the small amount of food that the Yemeni people produce themselves—has for the most part gone, too, as bombs have struck factories, food markets, poultry farms and even fishing boats. Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator, has said:
“The economic dimension of this war has become a tactic…It is an all-encompassing, applied economic suppression and strangulation that is causing everyone here to feel it”.
However, the UN special envoy for Yemen told the Security Council in January that a viable proposal for peace was on the table and within reach. What happened to that proposal? Where has it gone? Was it connected to the ceasefire resolution that we were told the UK would introduce six months ago? Can the Minister tell us what has happened to the resolution?
The last time we debated this matter, the Minister told us that the British Government were in the process of redrafting the resolution to make it up to date. How is that going? Do we have an up-to-date resolution? When the Security Council meets tomorrow, under British chairmanship, to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Yemen—I understand the Russians pressed for the discussion—we will be the pen holder, we will be chairing the meeting and we should be putting forward a peace resolution. Are we going to? I fear not.
I have been told that the UK is, in fact, increasingly stepping back on the diplomatic front for fear of upsetting the Saudis on the one hand, and the Americans on the other. I am told by my sources on the 38th floor that the new Administration in America are now considering stepping up their support for the coalition military campaign. If that is right, will the Minister confirm that the Saudis have been given the rest of the year to stabilise Yemen—that is the wording—and to reassert the Yemeni Government’s authority over the entire country? Surely that cannot be the case, because we all know that a military approach alone will not work.
May I also ask about the role of Stephen O’Brien? He is a former Member of this House whom many Members will know. He is now the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and is obviously important in this regard. He has said that we are facing the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945 and that the crisis is in Yemen. I would appreciate it if the Minister could confirm that Mr O’Brien is not leaving his post and that rumours he is leaving, not out of choice but because of Saudi objections, are wrong.
Is this forgotten war becoming the new Syria? It is a multi-layered civil war being fought by major powerful nations, either directly or through proxies, in which the victims are civilians who suffer unbearable and insufferable torment. People are also being starved. I urge the Minister to ensure that Britain, once again, takes up a proactive role on Yemen because we are a permanent member of the Security Council, because we are currently the president of the Security Council, because we are the pen holder and because we have a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, one of the major parties. What the people of Yemen need more than anything else at the moment is peace. We have some power in the conflict, and we can do something about it tomorrow.
Let me briefly make the point that I wish there were more time to respond to this very good debate, as I have only eight minutes in which to do my best to do justice to it. It has served as a reminder that the House takes these matters very seriously. I join Members in paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and the others who tabled the motion. I will do my best to rattle through the points and, as usual, I will write to right hon. and hon. Members with more details. Again, I make the point that I find it bizarre that we are stopping in order to have an Adjournment debate of an hour and a half, when such debates normally last only 30 minutes.
I will focus on the points made by the right hon. Gentleman, who made a comprehensive speech in summarising the challenges that Yemen faces. The scale of the tragedy is well known to us all, with 70% of the population now needing humanitarian assistance. In answer to the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), let me say that Britain continues to play a leading role, unswayed by the prejudice or interest of any other country. As she says, we are the pen holder, and we are determined to do that job without prejudice and without influence from other nations, doing what we see is best. We show leadership at the United Nations and in the new Quint, which involves nations from around the middle east that are looking at this and which met in February, along with UN special envoy Ismail Ahmed. I met him two weeks ago, when we discussed what parameters we need to get in place in order for a ceasefire to work and then for a UN Security Council resolution to be supported.
Many right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned the importance of the port of Hudaydah, and that must not be underestimated. Yemen has two critical access points, one being the port of Aden, in the south, and the other, halfway up the Red sea, being Hudaydah, with a population of 3 million. If the civil war moves into that area, it will devastate that city, probably displacing about half the people who live there—1.5 million people—and causing mayhem. Not only will it further the prospect of famine and lead to a refugee crisis, but it will flatten the port itself. We may be frustrated with the amount of aid getting through the port at the moment, but the situation will be even worse if the battle commences in that populated urban area. We therefore call on the coalition and the Houthis to recognise that the world is watching and that they need to come back to the table. This will be sorted not by a military solution, but by a political one, and it is very important that that is recognised.
A lot has been said about the cranes, but let me make it clear that the old cranes were bombed a number of years ago and the new cranes are sitting in Dubai. They have been moved there to keep them out of harm’s way; no one knows exactly what is going to happen to the port of Hudaydah as it is unclear where the battle is going.
I reiterate how unhelpful and wrong it would be for us not to work towards a peaceful solution. The right hon. Member for Leicester East rightly said that this problem is not intractable—there is a path to peace. An awful lot of plates are spinning in the middle east, but I genuinely believe that Yemen is one problem that can be solved—to do that, however, we also need the will of the Yemeni people.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), for whom I have a huge amount of respect, made a helpful visit to Yemen, although such travel is not endorsed. In his own inimitable way, he went there and he has shared his findings. He paid tribute to the UN agencies—I join him in doing so—and spoke about there being perhaps a difference in strategy between different Departments. I make it clear that we have one clear strategy, but I can see the dilemma in that on the one hand the Department for International Development is determined to get aid into the country, whereas on the other we are dealing with this protracted war, which this coalition is pushing, and it is not doing a particularly good job of it. I have been critical about its actions before; it is not used to sustained warfare and it has made mistakes, which we have debated here. We have made it clear to the coalition that, as I have just said, the war will not be ended in this way.
We certainly support Saudi-led efforts to restore stability and check the advance of the Houthis, because that started all this in the first place. Let us not forget that the Houthis pushed through Sana’a and would have taken over the port of Aden had a coalition not answered the call by President Hadi to stand up for his legitimacy.
I am afraid I do not have time to give way; I do apologise.
Members talked about weapons systems getting into Yemen. I am afraid they are getting in by land and by sea, not so much through the port of Hudaydah. Smaller boats are getting in and providing arms up and down the Red sea, and arms are also getting in through land corridors. The UN verification and inspection mechanism is not working as well as it could because it is not able to capture all the boats that are moving in.
I have to contend with a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield. We can discuss this after the debate, but I do not agree that because al-Qaeda is fighting the Houthis we should somehow be in some form of alignment with it. Al-Qaeda’s track record shows that we cannot entertain any alliance whatsoever. It has brought insecurity and harm to the middle east and, indeed, to Europe.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I shall give way briefly; I thought my right hon. Friend might wish to respond.
I should make it absolutely clear that no one regards al-Qaeda with greater abhorrence than I do. The point I was making was that in this particular conflict there are some very uneasy alliances against the Houthis.
I apologise to the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury; I know she wanted me to give way earlier, but it is important that my right hon. Friend was able to put that on the record.
Many have called for a ceasefire, which is fully understandable given where we want to go. Nevertheless, for one to work in practice, parameters need to be in place. We need withdrawal lines and the decommissioning of heavy weapons, or agreement on that decommissioning. We need buffer zones ready, in place or agreed, and we need policing mechanisms to manage any violations that take place; otherwise, we will see the situation ratcheting out of control again and the ceasefire being breached.
In my discussions with Ismail Ahmed, the UN envoy, and with other countries, we have talked about what the parameters of a ceasefire would look like and the process that would be needed. The parameters would have to be built around, first, the sequencing of security steps, including withdrawals; secondly, the agreement of roles and appointments—in essence, a transition leadership; thirdly, the resumption of discussions based on resolution 2216 and the Gulf Co-operation Council initiative; fourthly; the signing of a detailed agreement; fifthly, the finalisation of an electoral road map; and, finally, the drafting of a constitution, which would lead to elections. That is a ballpark design that the UN envoy is trying to promote. Unfortunately, it is signing up to the detail that is causing problems for all stakeholders. Nevertheless, we are absolutely committed to pursuing that process at the UN to ensure that a ceasefire eventually comes around.
The role of the United States was mentioned. I will visit it soon to make sure it is committed. Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State, worked in Yemen for several years and knows the area very well indeed. I make it clear that the additional military support the US is giving is not designed for more precision munitions; it is designed to enable better intelligence gathering so that fewer mistakes are made. More to the point, it is important that the US works with us and others to deter further military action and to focus on getting that political agreement in place.
UN Security Council resolution 2216 was clear that unblocking the political process required the Houthis and forces loyal to former President Saleh to withdraw from Sana’a and hand over their weapons. Despite consistent demands from the international community, the Houthi-Saleh alliance has refused to discuss these issues with the UN special envoy. It has also taken a series of unilateral steps that have undermined peace efforts, including the establishment of a supreme political council and a shadow Government to rival President Hadi’s. This is unacceptable. We do not recognise the rival Government, and the Yemeni parties must engage with the peace process and meet the obligations set out in the UN proposals.
In conclusion, the UK Government are gravely concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. We are taking a leading role in the international response, which means not only providing substantial humanitarian aid but using all diplomatic means available to us to support efforts to reach a political agreement and to press for a solution to the economic crisis. As I have said before, it is ultimately the Yemenis themselves who must reach a compromise. The Yemeni people need and deserve peace, and we continue to work with international partners to secure it.
The House has spoken with one voice today. A total of 45 Members have attended the debate over the past 90 minutes—we could have had another 90 minutes to discuss this war. It may be a forgotten war outside, but it is not forgotten in the House of Commons. The voice of this House is very clear: we want peace in Yemen; an immediate ceasefire; and the aid to get into Yemen to avoid the predicted famine; and we need to start tomorrow. We place that motion in the hands of the Minister. We wish him well, and ask him to come back with better news for us.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes the worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen; and calls upon the Government to take a lead in passing a resolution at the UN Security Council that would give effect to an immediate ceasefire in Yemen.