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Volume 630: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2017

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if she will make a statement on the impact of the escalation of Saudi Arabia’s blockade on the humanitarian situation in Yemen.

First, it has been made clear where the Secretary of State is, and we have apologised for her being on a visit to Africa. Let me answer the question.

Yemen is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis: 21 million people in Yemen are in need of humanitarian assistance, and nearly 10 million are in need of immediate help to support or sustain life. As the third-largest humanitarian donor to Yemen and the second-largest donor to the UN appeal, the UK is already leading the world’s response to the crisis in Yemen. Our funding of £155 million this year will provide enough food for 1.8 million people for at least a month, nutrition support for 1.7 million people and clean water and sanitation for an expected 1.2 million people. 

As penholder on Yemen at the United Nations Security Council, the UK was responsible for a presidential statement earlier this year that called on all parties to provide safe, rapid and unhindered access for humanitarian supplies and personnel to all affected governorates in Yemen. We continue to call on all parties to the conflict to respect the statement and take action accordingly.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out in his statement on Sunday 5 November, the UK condemns the attempted missile strike on Riyadh this Saturday in the strongest terms. The ongoing ballistic missile attacks by Houthi-Saleh forces against Saudi Arabia threaten regional security and prolong the conflict. This latest attack deliberately targeted a civilian area. We therefore recognise the coalition’s concern about illicit flows of weapons to the Houthis, in direct contravention of UN Security Council resolution 2216. 

We also recognise that, following Saturday’s attack, Saudi Arabia needs to take urgent measures to stem the flow of weapons into Yemen. At the same time, it is vital that the country remains open to humanitarian and commercial access. The Saudi-led coalition has confirmed that it will take into account the provision of humanitarian supplies. We are encouraging it to ensure that humanitarian supplies and access can continue. Our ambassador is actively making this case directly to the Saudi authorities.

Finally, there remains a desperate need for a political solution to the Yemen conflict, to help to end the suffering of the Yemeni people, to counter destabilising interference and to end attacks on neighbouring countries. It is vital that this situation does not escalate further. The United Kingdom will continue to work towards a political settlement that supports regional stability, and calls on all countries in the region to support that goal. We will also continue to support our partners in the region in protecting themselves against security threats.

I join the Minister in condemning the missile strike on Riyadh by the Houthis, which has been described by Human Rights Watch as

“most likely a war crime”.

We have seen alleged violations of international humanitarian law on all sides of this conflict. Will the Minister update the House on progress towards the independent investigation that was agreed at the recent United Nations Human Rights Council? I welcome what he says about seeking to bring all parties back to the table in Geneva. Can he tell us what progress has been made towards securing a ceasefire, so that a political solution can be achieved?

The scale of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is truly appalling. The cholera outbreak is considered the worst on record, and as the Minister said, the UN estimates that more than 20 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance, with 7 million on the brink of famine. The Saudi-led coalition has now intensified its blockade. With 90% of Yemen’s food imported, that risks making the dire humanitarian situation even worse. Does the Minister agree that that blockade could constitute unlawful collective punishment of the people of Yemen?

The Minister mentioned the representations that our ambassador was making. What representations has he and the Foreign Secretary made to Saudi Arabia to have the blockade lifted as soon as possible? I urge the Minister and the Government to do everything in their power to get that inhumane blockade lifted.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is the Chair of the International Development Committee, for raising this issue. Let me try to take matters in order. On the reaction to the incident, we should in no way mistake the intent of the direction of that missile or where it came from. An Iranian-supplied missile to the Houthis was deliberately fired towards Riyadh airport, with all the implications that that involves. That the Saudis would take immediate steps to safeguard their country and ensure that the flow of missiles into Yemen was further checked is not unreasonable.

At the same time, as the hon. Gentleman makes clear, it is vital that humanitarian and commercial access should continue. We have consistently urged the coalition to take all reasonable steps to allow and facilitate rapid and safe access for humanitarian assistance and essential commercial imports of food and fuel. We are actively engaged with the coalition and those responsible for humanitarian support in Yemen to try to find a way that will enable the blockade not to affect the humanitarian access, while still safeguarding the important rights of those in Saudi Arabia who might be under attack. I spoke to the Saudi Minister on Saturday, shortly before the attack took place. I intend to speak to him again shortly, either today or tomorrow. Since Saturday night, the ambassador has been actively engaged in Riyadh in trying to deal with these issues.

In relation to cholera and malnutrition, we try to be at the forefront of international efforts on both those topics to provide support to UN agencies that are actively involved, and we will continue to do that.

Importantly, on the political negotiations, I am well aware of what is happening there. We had a meeting in New York recently, and there is likely to be another ministerial meeting shortly at which we will be trying to find a pathway through to the descaling of the conflict. This is not just about the coalition forces. It is about the Houthis and those who support them, and about whether they have any willingness to take regard of the appalling condition of the people of Yemen, which has been caused by their actions in starting the conflict and usurping a legitimate elected Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK is playing a leading role in the response to the appalling humanitarian crisis in Yemen, as the third largest humanitarian donor to Yemen in the world and the second largest donor to the UN appeal?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for helping to make that case. The United Kingdom has played as big a part as it possibly can, whether through its bilateral support or through UN agencies. In September, we announced a £16 million uplift in funding to Yemen, which took our total funding for this year to £155 million, as I detailed earlier. This will support millions of people with food, clean water and sanitation, and other life-saving interventions. We recently reallocated £8 million specifically towards the cholera response, but further work is necessary and the United Kingdom is contributing what it can.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for asking this urgent question. The escalation of the conflict in Yemen in recent weeks, resulting in the Saudi-led coalition closing all land, air and sea entry points, represents a particularly alarming development, even in a protracted conflict that is now more than two years old.

The country is already facing the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history, with more than 800,000 cases, and more than 20 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. The blockading of ports will only add to the already catastrophic humanitarian situation, and the UK must do whatever it can to ensure that we mitigate the impact of this new development.

With the UK’s own actions in mind, will the Minister tell us how the Department for International Development is responding to this new development, and what assessments have been made of the blockade’s impact on DFID’s humanitarian operation across Yemen? Given that other countries, such as the US, refused to sell arms to countries that impose humanitarian blockades, will Her Majesty’s Government now finally re-evaluate their decision to continue to sell arms to the Saudi-led coalition and suspend further arms sales immediately?

I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks. The first and most important thing is to try to ease any impact of the blockade in relation to humanitarian access. I returned to the fact that missiles flow into Yemen through ports and through other areas. The firing of those missiles puts innocent civilians at risk, both in and outside Yemen, and it is not unreasonable to seek to ensure that that does not happen. We stand by those who want to take such measures to prevent that action from happening, while at the same time ensuring that there is appropriate access for humanitarian and commercial supplies. The commercial supplies feed people, as well as the humanitarian aid, and they are therefore essential.

Since the events at the weekend, and as part of the Government’s approach, DFID has made representations because we want to ensure that the UN agencies that we fund have that access. But of course, the situation is particularly difficult in the immediate aftermath of an event that could have had catastrophic consequences, including for UK citizens, has that missile landed on Riyadh airport. The hon. Lady is right, however, to concentrate on the blockade. We will do all we can to press the point that we have to find a way through for increased humanitarian and commercial access.

On the arms control issue, the House knows that this matter is extensively trawled over by the Department and that we have a rigorous arms control regime in place. Every request for support is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The Government were recently successful in the legal action in relation to that, but that does not stop us being very careful about any supplies. The important thing is to end the conflict, and that is what the United Kingdom is devoted to. However, too little attention is given to the fact that there are two sides to this conflict and that it could come to an end tomorrow if the Houthis and those who support them would agree to the negotiations that are necessary to end it, so that Yemen can at last emerge from a period of some years in which the people have not been well regarded by those who purport to govern them, to give them the chance they deserve.

Have the Government made an assessment of the current political convulsions in Saudi Arabia? If so, might there be implications for the situation in Yemen?

Well, if the House has 20 minutes—[Laughter.] In an ever-fascinating region, to add to what we know about what is happening in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the moment would take a little while. Recent events in Saudi Arabia include Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman consolidating his already strong position by taking action at the weekend on corruption as part of his efforts to drive Saudi Arabia forward. He believes that the “Vision 2030” plan—the economic and social advancement of Saudi Arabia—cannot be achieved without dealing with corruption, which is so widespread across the region. The decision that certain individuals had to be arrested and questioned about their activities has had a clear impact.

The relevance to Yemen is limited, but there is no doubt about the impact of the missile strike on Saudi Arabia, in addition to the missile strikes that already take place. The House does not always concentrate on the number of civilians in Saudi Arabia who have lost their lives as a result of missiles from Yemen. My right hon. Friend is right that the combination of the two factors means that we have to work even harder to try to find a negotiated solution, which is what all parties now seriously want.

The scale of the devastation and cruelty outlined by the Chair of the International Development Committee and by the Minister should haunt us all, but the Minister sees his Government’s record through somewhat rose-tinted glasses. The Saudi Government have benefited from the sale of £3.8 billion-worth of weapons from this country, yet the Government have given only £200 million in aid to Yemen. Will the Minister explain that large disparity? As other Members have said, should we not join countries such as Germany and the Netherlands by suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia? Does the Minister not see that there is an inconsistency in the Government ending a prisons contract with Saudi Arabia over human rights concerns, but not suspending arms sales over the humanitarian crisis in Yemen? Finally, will he outline what he hopes to achieve at the joint Foreign Ministers meeting with Saudi Arabia, the United States, Oman and the UAE on 14 November? What will Her Majesty’s Government be calling for, and what is he hopeful of achieving?

Let me start with the last part of the hon. Gentleman’s questions. We have convened that meeting, which we hope will be in London, and it follows a meeting that I hosted in New York at the end of the General Assembly of the United Nations that involved what is known as the “quad”—the United Kingdom, the United States, the UAE and Saudi Arabia—meeting the UN special envoy for Yemen to discuss progress on the negotiations and talks. The engagement of Oman is about trying to provide the link that will get the Houthis and those who support them to engage in the talks and use the good offices of Oman to try to achieve that in Muscat. It is part of an effort made over many months to support the work of the UN special envoy, to try to make political progress, which the United Kingdom is doing all it can to facilitate. What do I hope comes out of it? I hope that we get a detailed plan for the de-escalation of the conflict, but that will work only if all parties agree to it. It is a matter of utmost concern to the United Kingdom that we do that and that is what we are engaged in.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s other questions, I spoke earlier about the arms control situation. It is not the United Kingdom’s policy to change matters in relation to Saudi Arabia, but to continue to use rigorous arms controls mechanisms and our legal obligations, not least to ensure that international humanitarian law is applied in relation to the use of any United Kingdom weapons by the Saudis. Any allegations that that is not happening are open to legal challenge.

As I have indicated, we are the third largest donor of humanitarian aid to Yemen. We have supplied £150 million this year to provide nutrition for 1.7 million people and clean water and sanitation for 1.2 million people. However, I fully appreciate that unless the conflict comes to an end the handing over of aid is a plaster over the situation. The whole House should be united in wanting to see the negotiations succeed, and that is what the United Kingdom is spending all its efforts on.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that no-one should envy the Saudi-led coalition and the complexity of the task it has set itself, under a unanimous mandate from the UN Security Council, to deliver some security and stability in Yemen? Is he able to give us some sense of the number of Saudi civilians who have been killed by missiles coming from Houthi-held areas, as illustrated today by the missile that was fired at Riyadh?

The number of deaths among the Saudis is measured in hundreds and relates to a variety of missile attacks over a significant period. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about the complexity and difficulty of the situation that the coalition is trying to deal with: an insurrection against an elected Government that is complicated by all the history of Yemen. That is why it is taking such effort to try to pull it all together. There is also the unwelcome involvement of those who are supplying weapons to the Houthis, instead of contributing to the peace process. There is always a chance for any of the parties involved to play a part now, recognising the seriousness of the humanitarian situation.

The profile of Daesh terrorism in the region is increasing. What are the United Kingdom and the international community doing to prevent the collapse of Daesh in Syria from further prolonging the horrific humanitarian situation outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg)?

The hon. Gentleman is mostly right in his questions, and he is back on form with that one. As Daesh collapses elsewhere, he is absolutely right that it will look for other areas of instability to exploit. Al-Qaeda is already exploiting the peninsula, which is why the prolonging of this dispute, particularly the engagement of those outside who are supplying weapons to the Houthis, makes life much more difficult. The United Kingdom is trying to end the conflict by negotiation, but in the meantime we support the coalition’s efforts to prevent any further conflict and damage to civilians.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the actions of the Iranian Government both in Yemen and in the wider region are having a direct impact on the lives of millions of people in the Arabian peninsula? Does he agree that the position of Her Majesty’s Government must be to face the enemies not only of our own country, but of our allies? In this region, the situation points to Iran.

How my hon. Friend perceives the situation is correct. In many ways, we are trying to understand a future Iran that is looking for engagement with the wider world on the one hand, but is engaged in disruptive activity on the other, whether in Syria, Yemen, Iraq or Bahrain. There is always the opportunity for those who have been responsible for such disruption to change, and our engagement with Iran is partly about providing the opportunity for it to be part of an answer, rather than part of a problem.

Is it not a bit misleading for Ministers to suggest that there is rigorous control of arms exports in this House when the Committees on Arms Export Controls have not met for several months for several reasons? They will be meeting soon, but almost a year has gone by without a meeting, and the outcome on exports to Saudi Arabia may have been different.

I understand the right hon. Lady’s question. Having been at the receiving end of Sir John Stanley on many occasions, I know how rigorous the House can be. However, re-establishing the Committees is more of a matter for Parliament than the Government. The Government would be entirely open to that, but the rigorous control of the law is certainly clear and very much in the Government’s mind.

The Minister highlights easing the blockade and supporting innocent civilians as a priority. Will he update the House on the viability of peace talks and on the role the UK is playing in cajoling everyone to come to the table? How likely are such talks, and what could be the outcome if we get around the table?

I commend the actions of our ambassador to Yemen, Simon Shercliff, and our permanent representative to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, both locally and internationally in support of the work I mentioned earlier to get the various parties together and to find a negotiated outcome. They, in particular, are doing all they can, and they have the full support of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London.

How does the Minister reconcile the fact that the urgent humanitarian disaster in Yemen, which we are rightly sending aid to try to address, has been made worse by the weapons the UK has sold to Saudi Arabia?

If no further weapons were supplied by the United Kingdom, the conflict would still go on. [Interruption.] That simply happens to be true. There has been conflict in the area for some considerable time, and there are many issues to be decided. I wish it were as simple as the United Kingdom making a single decision and all the conflict in the area comes to an end, but I cannot see it.

It is exactly what the hon. Lady said. I make it very clear that I do not believe it would assist the situation; I think it would make it more difficult for the United Kingdom to play the part it is playing in the negotiations—that is the most important thing.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the UN appeal for Yemen raised only just over half its target? Does he agree it is now time for other countries to follow the UK’s lead by making pledges or by honouring the pledges already made?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Sadly, there is appeal fatigue at present. Whether it is new issues such as the Rohingya or the pressures in northern Iraq with the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, as well as Yemen, it is true that efforts to raise money through UN appeals have been very difficult, which is why it is important that the United Kingdom keeps up its extraordinary record. I am proud that the United Kingdom has been such a donor, both bilaterally and through these appeals.

There seems to be a softening of attitudes towards human rights in Saudi Arabia and, I hope, towards a more secular society. Will the Minister indicate whether he has had discussions with Saudi Arabia’s new leaders about resuming peace talks, using the scheduled meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Oman and the United Arab Emirates on 14 November?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has already engaged in direct conversations with His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. I engaged with the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, the Foreign Minister of the UAE and others at the weekend. There is a constant conversation. We all desperately want to see an end to this conflict and crisis. More than just the coalition is involved, which is why efforts have to be made with the Houthis and those who support them. The involvement of Iran is so important, as Iran could also make a contribution to peace. All efforts are being made, and my right hon. Friend is working extremely hard on the situation.