With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement to the House on the humanitarian and political situation in Yemen and the implications of the conflict for regional security.
Her Majesty’s Government remain deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation in Yemen, and the impact that recent restrictions are having on what was already the worst humanitarian crisis in the world and the largest ever cholera outbreak. We recognise the risk of a severe deterioration of the humanitarian situation if restrictions are not quickly removed, and call on all parties to ensure immediate access for commercial and humanitarian supplies through all Yemen’s land, air and sea ports.
We should be clear about the reality of the conflict in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition launched a military intervention after a rebel insurgency took the capital by force and overthrew the legitimate Government of Yemen as recognised by the UN Security Council. Ungoverned spaces in Yemen are being used by non-state actors and terrorist groups to launch attacks against regional companies, international shipping lanes and the Yemeni people.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear, we strongly condemn the attempted missile attack against Riyadh on 4 November. This attack, which has been claimed by the Houthis, deliberately targeted a civilian area and was intercepted over an international airport. The United Kingdom remains committed to supporting Saudi Arabia to address its legitimate security needs. We are therefore deeply concerned by reports that Iran has provided the Houthis with ballistic missiles. That is contrary to the arms embargo established by UN Security Council resolution 2216 and serves to threaten regional security and prolong the conflict. I understand that a UN team is currently visiting Riyadh to investigate those reports. It is essential that the UN conducts a thorough investigation. The UK stands ready to share its expertise to support this process.
We recognise that those who suffer most from this conflict are the people of Yemen. We understand why the Saudi-led coalition felt obliged temporarily to close Yemen’s ports and airports to strengthen enforcement of the UN-mandated arms embargo. It is critical that international efforts to disrupt illicit weapons flows are strengthened. At the same time, it is vital that commercial and humanitarian supplies of food, fuel and medicine are able to reach vulnerable Yemeni people, particularly in the north where 70% of those in need live. Even before the current restrictions, 21 million people were already in need of humanitarian assistance and 7 million were only a single step away from famine. Some 90% of food in Yemen is imported and three quarters of that comes via the ports of Hodeidah and Salif. No other ports in Yemen have the capacity to make up that shortfall.
Our non-governmental organisation partners in Yemen are already reporting that water and sewerage systems in major cities have stopped operating because of a lack of fuel. That means that millions no longer have access to clean water and sanitation, in a country already suffering from the worst cholera outbreak in modern times. The current restrictions on access for both commercial and humanitarian shipments risk making an already dire situation immeasurably worse for the Yemeni people. We have heard the UN’s stark warnings about the risk of famine. We call on all parties to ensure immediate access for commercial and humanitarian supplies to avert the threat of starvation and disease faced by millions of civilians.
We also call for the immediate reopening of Hodeidah port and the resumption of UN flights into Sana’a and Aden airports, as the Foreign Office statement on 15 November made clear. Restrictions on humanitarian flights are causing problems for humanitarian workers, including UK nationals, who wish to enter or exit the country.
We have been urgently and proactively seeking a resolution of this situation. Our ambassador in Riyadh has been in frequent contact with the Saudi Foreign Minister. The Foreign Secretary has discussed the situation in Yemen with His Highness the Crown Prince, with whom we have emphasised the urgency of addressing the worsening humanitarian crisis. The Secretary of State for International Development, since her appointment on 9 November, has spoken both to the UN Secretary-General and the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs about the situation in Yemen. We also continue to work closely with other regional and international partners, including the UN.
The Foreign Secretary spoke to the UN Secretary-General on 18 November. Central to this discussion was how the security concerns of Saudi Arabia can be addressed to enable these restrictions to be lifted. It is vital that the UN and Saudi Arabia enter a meaningful and constructive dialogue on this. More broadly, we will continue to support the people of Yemen through the provision of life-saving humanitarian supplies. The UK is the fourth-largest humanitarian donor to Yemen, and the second-largest to the UN appeal, committing £155 million to Yemen for 2017-18. UK aid has already provided food to almost 2 million people and clean water to over 1 million more.
The only way to bring long-term stability to Yemen is through a political solution. That is why peace talks remain the top priority. The Houthis must abandon preconditions and engage with the UN Special Envoy’s proposals. The UK has played, and continues to play, a leading role in diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful solution. This includes bringing together key international actors, including the US, Saudi Arabia, and Emirati and Omani allies, through the Quad and Quint process. We intend to convene another such meeting shortly. It is vital that we work together to refocus the political track.
The United Kingdom will continue to play a leading role on Yemen through the UN. In June, we proposed and supported the UN Security Council presidential statement, which expressed deep concern about the humanitarian situation in Yemen. The statement called for an end to the fighting and a return to UN-led peace talks, and stressed the importance of unhindered humanitarian access. It is vital that the words of the text are converted into action. The international community’s unified and clear demands must be respected. I commend this statement to the House.
I am standing in today for the shadow Foreign Secretary, who has a child in hospital.
As we discuss the human cost of one seemingly intractable conflict, I am sure that the whole House will join me in commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai. I was able to visit the tunnels under Arras—the Carrière Wellington—last Thursday afternoon and to salute the service of the Royal Tank Regiment, for whom this day rightly remains sacred.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. I will not address all the points he made at this stage, given that there may be another opportunity to do so later in today’s proceedings. For the time being, I wish to address the urgent matter of the escalating humanitarian crisis in Yemen, as he has done in his statement. On that point, the Minister has joined a long line of Foreign Office Ministers who have come to this House since 2015 and told us, time after time, that they are doing everything they can to tackle the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and to limit civilian casualties. Yet, time after time, whatever the Government’s good intentions, the humanitarian crisis keeps getting worse and the civilian death toll continues to rise ever higher. We now face a dramatic escalation of that crisis, with millions of lives in even more immediate danger. I am afraid that more good intentions on the part of the Government will simply not cut it this time. Instead, we need urgent action.
We are all familiar with recent developments, as summarised by the Minister. The Saudis have reacted with understandable anger to the Houthis’ firing of a ballistic missile at Riyadh—an act that all Labour Members unequivocally condemn, in the same way in which we have condemned all the thousands of Saudi air strikes against civilian targets inside Yemen. Following the Houthi missile strike, the Saudis strengthened their blockade of all rebel-held areas of Yemen. As a result, what little supplies there were—of food, medicine and other humanitarian goods—have now ground to a halt. Millions of children, who were already facing severe malnutrition, a cholera epidemic and an outbreak of diphtheria, have had their very last lifeline cut off.
Let me quote this weekend’s joint statement by the World Health Organisation, the World Food Programme and UNICEF. They say the tightening of the blockade
“is making an already catastrophic situation far worse.”
They say the supplies the Saudis are blocking
“are essential to staving off disease and starvation. Without them, untold thousands of innocent victims, among them many children, will die.”
They estimate that if nothing is done over the coming months, 150,000 already malnourished children could starve to death. They conclude:
“To deprive this many from the basic means of survival is an unconscionable act and a violation of humanitarian principles and law.”
The Minister has said that he shares those concerns and is urging the Saudis to open up humanitarian access, but at what point will he admit that that strategy is not working? At what point will he warn the Saudis that Britain will withdraw its support if they carry on with this blockade? And at what point do we say that this is no longer a question of diplomatic persuasion but a matter of international law?
International humanitarian law is clear, and Britain’s “Manual of the Law of Armed Conflict” is clear: the starvation of a civilian population cannot be used as a weapon of war. Let me quote specifically from the British manual:
“The…establishment of a blockade is prohibited if…the damage to the civilian population is… excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage”.
It also states:
“If the civilian population…is inadequately provided with food and other objects essential for its survival, the blockading party must provide for free passage of such…essential supplies”.
So if the Saudis continue to enforce the blockade in its current form and deny humanitarian access, will it be the judgment of the Government that the Saudis are in breach of international humanitarian law? If so, will the Government suspend the sales of British arms that are being used to enforce that blockade?
The truth is that the Government have invested considerable political capital in their relationship with Saudi Arabia. They have championed Crown Prince Salman, the architect of the conflict in Yemen and the man who is calling the shots on the blockade. If that diplomatic strategy has been worth anything, now is the time to prove it. Now is the time for the Government to show that we can have influence and impact on the Saudis and to persuade them that, as a matter of urgency, they should open up the ports to humanitarian supplies and bring relief to the millions of children facing starvation and disease. If the Government cannot achieve that, it is time for them to change their approach.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, a large part of which I would not disagree with.
May I start by passing on the good wishes of all of us on the Government Benches to the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry)? We trust that all is well with her child. Secondly, I recognise what the hon. Gentleman said about the first world war battle. We all saw tweeted pictures of the tanks yesterday, which brought a glad smile to many hearts, so I thank him for reminding the House of that.
The hon. Gentleman was right to recognise, first, the frustrations in terms of the conflict. The actions to bring it to an end are not solely within the power of the UK Government; we have to work with partners to achieve that. I set out what we have been seeking to do ever since it became clear that the conflict would require political negotiation, and not a military solution, to bring the parties together and find an answer to something that has already taken too many lives.
This is very much about two sides. There is an awful lot of concentration on the Saudis and on the coalition, but very little attention is paid to the activities of the Houthis and their supporters, and to those who have been involved in human rights abuses on their side. It does take two sides.
The efforts that the United Kingdom has made, at the UN, through our ambassador in Yemen and through our work with the Quad and the Quint to try to bring this to an end have been significant, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that our frustration is that this has not yet produced the end of the conflict, which is the only thing that will resolve the humanitarian issues we are talking about. I do not in any way quibble with the concerns that have been raised by agencies. I am in touch with the World Food Programme and others who have warned, as has Mark Lowcock of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, of the severity of the problems to be faced if the restrictions are not eased.
I would challenge the hon. Gentleman and put a different complexion on his comments about what happens if the representations that we are continuing to make on the political solution do not work. We are pressing on these representations. We do not know what the answer will be, but we are making very clear the seriousness of the situation, as have other parties, and we expect and trust that there will be a change—there has to be.
I also challenge the hon. Gentleman in relation to international humanitarian law, which he says prevents starvation of civilians as a means or method of warfare. That is quite correct. The publicly made statement by the Saudis on their intent was that it is not to cause starvation but to ensure that missiles do not enter Yemen. To that extent, the solution still lies in the remarks I made in my statement. It is about a combination of two things. First, there is the support that those who wish to prevent missiles entering Yemen need in order to protect themselves, and that comes through the work being done by the UN and the coalition to try to secure the entry ports to make sure that there are no threats in the same way that there was to the airport in Riyadh. At the same time, it is vital to make sure that there is humanitarian access. We believe that concentrating on both those things will relieve the humanitarian situation while securing the safety of those who wish to protect their own people. We will continue to do that in addition to the work that we are continuing to do on the political negotiations that are the only solution to the conflict.
My right hon. Friend has been most helpful in coming to the House today. I thank him and the Opposition spokesman for their comments about my old regiment, which will be celebrating and commemorating the events of 100 years ago in Cambrai next weekend.
On Yemen, are not three features of our engagement absolutely clear? First, the current policy on Yemen is doomed to strategic failure both for Saudi Arabia and, by extension, for the UK. Secondly, Saudi policy violates international law, as clearly set out in the United Nations Secretary-General’s letter of last Friday. Thirdly, we are dangerously complicit in a policy that is directly promoting a famine and the collective punishment of an entire population. Are we not on the brink of witnessing in Yemen a totally preventable, massive humanitarian catastrophe the likes of which we have not seen in decades?
On my right hon. Friend’s last point, it is for the very reason that we wish to prevent the concerns raised by agencies and the UN from coming to fruition that we are bending all our efforts to working with those who have put on restrictions to the ports in order to preserve their safety and prevent arms getting through to make sure that humanitarian access is indeed given. He is right to raise these concerns, which are shared by the whole House. That is giving the United Kingdom Government every extra incentive, as if we needed any, to try to continue to do all we can to raise those issues with those who fear for their own safety to make sure that they are not putting others at risk in the manner described by so many agencies.
I very much agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). I thank the Minister for giving me advance sight of the statement. I am glad to hear that there is dialogue, but we need to hear an awful lot more in this House about actions.
I, too, understand the difficulties facing the Saudis regarding the attack on Riyadh, which of course we also condemn. There needs to be a recognition of the two sides to this conflict—at least two, if one counts al-Qaeda. We know about the sophisticated weaponry that the Saudis have because the UK sold it to them. The £155 million in aid that the Minister talks about is dwarfed by the £3.8 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. There are daily reports of Yemeni civilians on the ground being hit by Saudi airstrikes. Will he speak a little more about those?
Aid agencies have reported for years the difficulties of getting aid into Yemen and across Yemen, including the difficulties involved in getting visas and moving goods and people around the country. Only recently, I heard from the head of Islamic Relief. When he visited to see how the organisation’s projects were going, he was unable to travel around the country because of the visa system that is in operation.
Despite the UN verification and inspection mechanism, Save the Children reports that 13 ships carrying vital humanitarian aid were denied entry to Yemen. What are the UK Government doing to get air and sea ports open, especially when those aid convoys are quite clearly aid convoys and they do not contain missiles? It is fine to say that the Government are providing funding, but without access and without workers on the ground who can deliver it, it is almost meaningless.
The population of Yemen are deliberately being starved by the country’s neighbours, which are key allies of the UK. Today is International Children’s Day. Save the Children reports that 130 children in Yemen will die today, tomorrow, the next day and each day until this conflict ends. Will the Minister tell us how he will stop this?
Again, I come first to the hon. Lady’s last point: how will this conflict come to an end? This conflict will come to an end when both sides are brought together by people who make it clear that there is no military solution to it, and that there has to be a political one. That is what the United Kingdom has sought to do for many months, through meetings with appropriate parties here in London, in New York and in the region. We share her frustrations because, like others, we can see the impact.
I will comment on one or two of the hon. Lady’s other perfectly proper remarks. First, the key test for our continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia in relation to international humanitarian law is whether there is a clear risk that the items that are subject to the licence might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law. That situation is kept under careful and continual review, and, like all other aspects of the United Kingdom’s arms control policy, it is subject to rigorous examination here and by the law.
Secondly, the hon. Lady is right to raise the question of access, as we have done. The restrictions on access do not mean that our work now is meaningless, as she indicated; I am sure that she does not mean that. We are working through partners who are there on the ground, but distribution is, of course, harder. That is the case not just in coalition-controlled areas, but in Houthi-controlled areas; I have to remind the House that there are two sides to this.
Lastly, I will deal again with the subject of arms exports, because I know that it is fundamental. I related this to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) the other week, and I shall do the same thing again; I do not mean to be harsh about it. If we thought that our not sending support to our allies—who are facing attacks on their own soil, from missiles imported into ungoverned space, where they are trying to support an elected Government against the insurgency—would send the right signal in the region and would prove to be of any use, it would be a course of action, but I do not believe that that is the case. I do not believe that if we were to take that action, it would not fundamentally undermine a number of other regional issues and make our allies wonder, when they faced an attack on their Heathrow, whether we were making the right judgments. We have to pursue other means of bringing the conflict to an end, and that is what we seek to do.
Yemen is subject to restrictions brought in by the coalition parties following the attack by a Houthi missile on Riyadh, and because of the smuggling of arms and weapons that has threatened the coalition in the UAE and Saudi Arabia for some time. I am not sure that the nomenclature adds a great deal, but that is the reality of the situation.
I think it is pretty clear that this is a blockade, and the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis must now require urgent action by this Government and our partners to press the Saudis to lift the blockade. The Minister said in his statement that our NGO partners in Yemen are already reporting that water in major cities has
“stopped operating because of a lack of fuel.”
Can he tell us how extensive the fuel supplies are? When will it no longer be possible to distribute food? The level of death will increase dramatically as a result.
We of course hope that we do not reach such a case. Mark Lowcock from OCHA has made it clear that both these issues will become critical within a number of days. On what we have done since the attack on 4 November and the response from the coalition, on 5 November, an FCO statement condemned the missile attack; on 13 November, the Secretary of State for International Development called Mark Lowcock to speak to him about the circumstances; on 15 November, we issued a further statement stressing the need for immediate humanitarian and commercial access; and on 18 November—just this weekend—the Foreign Secretary conferred with the Secretary-General. Conversations are taking place in Riyadh all the time to reassure the authorities there on the security they need to deal with weapons capable of launching an attack on their civilian areas. At the same time, however, humanitarian and commercial access is absolutely vital.
I fully understand why the Minister has made a statement at the Dispatch Box today, but may I remind him that there have been 15 oral statements, 16 written ministerial statements and nine urgent questions on Yemen since 2010? Through your good offices, Mr Speaker, may we tell the Minister to spend more time in the Department sorting out the problem, and less time coming to the House to discuss it?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, a former Minister, for his support, and I understand his point. Since 2010, when I first stood at the Dispatch Box to speak about Yemen, we have had all sorts of opportunities for a different future for the people of Yemen: the end of the presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh; a process that resulted in a national dialogue; an opportunity for a new democratic future; and an opportunity for voices that had never been heard—those of young people and women—in the governance of Yemen. However, those opportunities were dashed by the current conflict and an insurgency by a group seeking to take power with violence, removing the chances we had seen for people to benefit from the development and building of democracy. The United Kingdom has been engaged right the way through the process to encourage all the right things. Reporting to the House is important, and it has not taken any time away from the time we have needed to spend on Yemen itself.
The Minister is of course right to say that a political solution is essential and the only route to solving the humanitarian crisis in the medium term, but access for aid is vital in the short term. I am glad that the UK Government have raised this issue with the Crown Prince. What was his response, and do the Government, if they stick to their current position, have any hope that the Saudis will let in vital supplies of food and medicines in the near future?
The Crown Prince’s response, on behalf of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was to point out the need to control weapons that might threaten Saudi Arabia being smuggled into Yemen and used by those with whom the Saudis are in conflict, as has been the case for a period of time. We worry that the sophistication of the missiles being smuggled in has increased, which has thus increased not only the risk to Saudi Arabia and neighbouring places, but the risk of the conflict escalating and becoming still worse. There is a serious concentration on trying to prevent that, because it looks likely to prolong the conflict and make the humanitarian situation still worse.
At the same time, I understand that the Crown Prince was absolutely aware, as the public statement by the Saudis made clear, that the restrictions were intended not to cause the humanitarian situation about which there are now concerns, but to deal with the arms supplies being smuggled in. The partners, the agencies with which we work and we ourselves are impressing on the coalition that such a situation may be the unintended effect. That is why the restrictions need to be lifted, and there has to be the access for which the hon. Lady is looking.
Given that the United Nations has recently said that if the blockade is not lifted we are likely to see the worst famine for decades and given the outbreak of the deadly disease diphtheria and the 1 million cases of cholera, may I urge my right hon. Friend to make some kind of statement—not necessarily an oral statement, but one in writing—to this House every week, because the situation is developing daily and weekly, and we must be kept informed about it? I hope there will be a turn for the better.
I will talk with the Department and the House authorities about what the best way to do that would be. I quite understand my hon. Friend’s point. If there is a way to make sure that adequate information from Government and the other agencies involved is made available rapidly and effectively, of course I will try to do that.
Like many others, I utterly condemn the missile attack on Riyadh. I would argue that arms should not be supplied by anyone to any of the sides in the conflict, given the humanitarian catastrophe, but may I press the Minister on access to the airport and to Hodeidah? In discussions with the Crown Prince, did the right hon. Gentleman get any idea of timescale, or have the UK Government expressed any idea of timescale? Is there any reason why Sana’a airport should not be reopened to UN and humanitarian flights within the next 24 hours, for example?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his condemnation of the missile attack, echoing his Front- Bench spokesman. On the timescale, we have asked for the restrictions to be lifted immediately. No, I cannot speak for the coalition regarding its timescale, beyond the fact that it wants to be assured that the ports are adequately protected against the sort of attack that was carried out. That is why we are urging that the UN has access to the ports and works with the coalition authorities, with neither side demanding that the other side moves first, to make sure that there is an opportunity to secure the ports against weapons being smuggled in and at the same time immediately to improve access.
The missile attack on Riyadh takes the conflict to a new and dangerous phase, sending ripples through the Muslim world, with Muslims urged to take sides, Sunni versus Shi’a, in a regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is supplying missiles to the Houthi. Will my right hon. Friend outline the Government’s efforts to tackle the political deadlock and secure humanitarian access?
I thank my hon. Friend for her perceptive question, which sadly goes to the heart of the situation. This is another conflict in the region being fought out over people who ill deserve it, where the issues between regional powers have brought them into direct confrontation. She is right to say that the sophistication of the missile launched at the Saudi equivalent of Heathrow takes the conflict into a different sphere. Had that missile landed on the airport and destroyed civilian airliners carrying passengers from all over the world, perhaps including the United Kingdom, we would be facing a still greater crisis. My hon. Friend is right to say that our actions are seen in relation not only to this conflict, but to a wider issue of legitimacy and those who seek to disrupt it. That is why we need to bend all our efforts first on the humanitarian side, and secondly on making sure that the political negotiations and solution improve the regional situation, rather than make it worse.
All of us condemn the missile attack on Riyadh, but may I express some surprise at the Minister’s reluctance to use the word “blockade”? When the UN is warning that diesel and petrol will run dry within a month, when we know that in that month 150,000 already malnourished children will die and when Save the Children is saying that 130 die every day now, as well as pushing for the political solution, which the Minister rightly says is necessary, is he indicating in any way to Saudi Arabia that it could be accountable for the deaths of potentially millions of people?
I think the descriptive term used is less material than the impact. The impact of the restrictions is clear: they have led the situation in which the agencies warn about running out of food, fuel and water. That is one of the reasons why the UK has called, as we did in a statement last week and have again today, for the immediate lifting of the restrictions, subject to what we believe are reasonable controls by the coalition authorities to protect themselves. There is no doubt about the seriousness of the situation. Whether it is called a blockade or restrictions, it is the impact that is important, and that is why we must work to relieve it with our partners as quickly as possible.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Given the supposition that the rebels will not engage in the important UN-led process unless Iran allows them to and that there is no interest in Iran in thawing relations with Saudi Arabia or improving Saudi Arabia’s perception in the world, how does my right hon. Friend see peace being delivered?
My hon. Friend speaks with knowledge of the area and asks a question that goes to the heart of the issue. Our perception is that channels are always available to different parties in conflict, which is one reason why all parties to the Quint process are so important. We hope that common humanity prevails in terms of what is being inflicted on the people of Yemen as a result of the insurgency—the attempted removal of a legitimate Government and all that has flowed from it—and that the parties appreciate that there is no military solution and that therefore there has to be a political solution. That applies to all parties. There are skilled negotiators, not least the UN special representative, those working with the Quint and those in the countries in the area who wish to see an end to this conflict because of the pain being suffered. I pay tribute to the Governments in the region who are attempting to mediate with both sides. The United Kingdom will give them every support.
There is a UN verification and inspection mechanism, which works through UN professionals and technicians, to provide the tools to ensure that supplies coming into ports are subject to the right sort of testing. My understanding is that the UN and Saudi Arabia are in contact on this matter, and we would wish them to get onside as quickly as possible to do this. The problem with the smuggling of weapons is that they can go through various routes, which is always difficult, but we have to respond to the concerns of those who have had improved and increasingly sophisticated missiles targeted against them before there is a further catastrophe. It should not be impossible to be able to satisfy security conditions as well as to relieve humanitarian problems.
I highlight my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As someone who has spent time in Yemen on a number of occasions in the past, I associate myself with the remarks made by those on both sides of the House about the tragedy befalling this special country. The Minister is absolutely right. The immediate priority must be the alleviation of humanitarian suffering. Does he agree that the UK should, and indeed must, continue working to facilitate a multilateral ceasefire followed by a political solution, but that for that to have any long-term chance of success, it must emerge ultimately from the Yemenis and other parties to the conflict and not be imposed externally?
I thank my hon. Friend, who speaks with some knowledge of the area and the subject. First, I commend Matthew Rycroft, our permanent representative at the UN, and our ambassador to Yemen, Simon Shercliff, for their efforts in driving the UN process and trying to bring the parties together. Secondly, ultimately there must and should be a Yemeni solution. If we could go back to the opportunities presented by the national dialogue—the people of Yemen were so close to something different before those in the country who have traditionally held power through the gun reasserted themselves—that is the solution we would all wish for. The reality, however, is that that will only come about when there is agreement between the current parties to the conflict, who have to find a way to set their weapons aside.
The closure of Sana’a airport has reportedly cost over 10,000 lives as it continues to restrict humanitarian assistance. It is therefore paramount that the airport is reopened immediately. What recent representations has the Secretary of State made to the Saudi-led coalition on reopening Sana’a international airport?
We agree with the hon. Lady, and it is not just a question of getting supplies in; it is about getting humanitarian workers in and some medical cases out. There is worry about the airspace around Sana’a, hence the restrictions and concerns there, but I say again that we recognise the importance of Sana’a airport. It is one of those areas of access we wish to see reopened as quickly as possible.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is highly commendable that the UK is the fourth-largest humanitarian donor to Yemen, but equally we play a key role in diplomatic talks, not least with Saudi Arabia, so will the Minister give assurances that all pressure is being kept on Saudi Arabia to open access lines, especially given that Yemen is pretty much completely reliant on food imports?
My hon. Friend speaks with knowledge. Some 90% of the food and supplies that Yemen needs is imported. That is why the issues of the ports and airport are so important. Her question makes it very clear how important these issues are to the people of Yemen and why the United Kingdom is so engaged in dealing directly with parties to the coalition, whose security concerns we understand, but who must also appreciate the humanitarian consequences of the actions they are taking to protect themselves.
It is worth noting that the Houthi-Saleh alliance, which started this war against a legitimate Government, is a brutal army that has done some brutal things, as Members will see if they read the UN reports. Not only that, but it is 750 miles to Riyadh, so we are not talking about missiles made at the local foundry; this is the import of high-tech equipment. Moreover, the vast majority of people suffering are suffering in Houthi-held territory, and the Houthis are blocking the peace process. What can the Minister do to unblock the process and get the Houthis involved in peace in Yemen?
The hon. Gentleman speaks with some knowledge on this subject and puts a necessary balance into the conversation. It is much easier to pick up on media interest in the Saudis and the coalition, so it has been harder to talk about what the Houthi insurgency has done, but he rightly points a finger at its numerous atrocities and human rights abuses. Its willingness to bring in sophisticated missiles to spread the conflict emphasises how important it is to bring it to an end and to support those trying legitimately to prevent it from taking over the country and subjecting its people to still more conflict and ill rule.
As previously pointed out, today is the UN’s Universal Children’s Day, and the UN estimates that more than 2 million children are starving in Yemen, so will the Minister assure the House that the Government are doing all they can to lobby the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to allow aid into Yemen?
I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that we are doing that, but again I draw attention to remarks made in the House about there being two sides to the conflict and the need to make sure that both contribute to an end to the conflict. That is the only way to ensure access to food, medicines and water in those areas currently under Houthi control. The heart-rending pictures of suffering children are an affront on a day like today, which is why we must continue to bend all our efforts to supporting a conclusion to this terrible conflict.
The Minister says he hopes the crisis will be addressed via diplomatic and political means, but if this strategy fails and the blockade continues, will the British Government and other countries, given the pressing nature of the crisis, also consider sanctions against the Saudis, especially on arms exports?
I say again that we are some way away from that. First, we are working extremely hard with the coalition to understand the impact of those who would bring missiles to target their airports and civilian population, and in those circumstances, threatening them with sanctions is not appropriate. Secondly, to recognise just one side in this conflict only gives comfort to those who might wish to prolong the conflict because it puts pressure on others. I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not mean to convey that, but it is why we are working so hard for a negotiated solution through the good offices of other states in the region.
The conflict in Yemen has led to a cholera outbreak that has affected more than 902,000 people and caused the deaths of more than 2,000. Given that the Yemeni medical system has collapsed, what engagement have the United Kingdom Government had with key international allies and the World Health Organisation to help to stem the rapid spread of cholera? It is treatable and also preventable if people have access to clean drinking water, which for too many has been out of reach owing to rising prices, lack of fuel for delivery and the blockade.
Two or three things are worth mentioning. One of the problems in the region has been the non-payment of public health workers. I have had three conversations with the current President of Yemen in which I have urged the Yemeni Government to make finance available to pay the workers whose job is to try to assist those who may be likely to get cholera. I know that some of the aid agencies have stepped into the breach and paid people to do the same, which has been magnificent. However, the United Kingdom has played its part. We have given £27 million to UNICEF to treat children with severe acute malnutrition, provide safe water supplies and critical hygiene items and support mobile health clinics, and £6 million has been specifically allocated to cholera response. We have been supporting the vaccination programme to try to make a difference. Of course access is vital, but we work through partners, and that is the way to help tackle the cholera epidemic.
May I, like my hon. Friends, condemn in the strongest possible terms the missile attack on a civilian target in Riyadh? There have also been many attacks on civilian targets in Yemen. What plans have the Government to apply the arms trade treaty to Saudi Arabia in future licensing decisions?
As has been mentioned before, arms licences in the United Kingdom are subject to strict controls. Everything is done on a case-by-case basis. I stress that we regularly raise the importance of compliance with international humanitarian law with the Saudi Arabian Government and other members of the coalition. Saudi Arabia has publicly stated that it is investigating reports of alleged violations of international humanitarian law, and that lessons will be acted on. The coalition’s Joint Incidents Assessment Team has announced the findings of a total of 36 investigations, and the most recent were released on 12 September 2017. It is all being taken very seriously. However, the hon. Gentleman was right to condemn that missile attack.
The efforts to bring all parties together have pursued a number of different lines from the summer onwards, and, indeed, for months before that. At the New York General Assembly I hosted a meeting of the so-called Quad, which consists of the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and the United Nations, to see what could be achieved. There is shortly to be another meeting of the Quad, and also a meeting of the Quint, which includes the Omanis, because we believe that they are key to the mediation in the area.
We are working to support the UN special representative, who has been tireless in his efforts to seek a solution, and working with all those who are using back channels and direct contacts to try to make all parties see that there is no future in the conflict. However—I must be clear about this—there are people in the region who make money out of the conflict, and numerous Yemenis have said that at present too many people who are involved in the conflict are comfortable about its going on. It is hard for us to understand how dreadful that is, but it is true. We must ensure that achieving peace is more beneficial for more people than those who wish to perpetrate war.
The firing of short-range ballistic missiles by Houthis towards Riyadh is designed to be provocative. I am worried that there are some reports that the Houthis are now able to manufacture a short-range ballistic missile, perhaps a Qaher 1, but I cannot believe they have that level of sophistication. What is my right hon. Friend’s opinion?
There are some matters on which I am unqualified and on which the backgrounds of my hon. Friend and others in the House is rather greater. I have no comment to make on the detail of the sophistication of the weaponry being used in the conflict, except to say that some very sophisticated weaponry appears to be coming in. That is a threat to the region as a whole and, through that, to all of us.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and comments so far in recognition of the humanitarian disaster, which is almost of biblical proportions. Can he say a bit more about the work we will be doing as a member of the Security Council to help the UN get the aid that is so desperately needed into Yemen?
The UK holds the pen at the UN, which means we have the primary responsibility among Security Council members for efforts to secure support for a negotiated peace, and the UK sponsored a presidential statement agreed on 15 June. That was an important signal of international concern, particularly about the deteriorating humanitarian situation. Our focus at the UN remains on encouraging all parties to convert the words of the text into action, and that work is going on in the UN all the time.
I am grateful to the Minister for coming to the House today yet again to make a statement and to continue to keep us updated. What efforts are the Government and diplomatic staff undertaking to unlock the political deadlock of this terrible situation?
Part of the problem, as I alluded a moment ago, is that some parties have become comfortable with the conflict, and some parties in Yemen have been able to make a living with the conflict going on. There have to be incentives to people to make sure that a peace can be reached. To most of us, it is horrendous that anyone should be in that position, but the realities after a couple of years of conflict in the region have to be understood, and we only have to talk to Yemenis themselves to understand their despair and frustration. Accordingly, that is where the will of states must come in, in order to make sure that they can enforce a negotiated peace, but above all to make sure that those responsible for others realise that the only future for the people of Yemen is not in a continual state of conflict, but is in having government with the consent of the people, which can take a wonderful country, which is full of culture, music, architecture and all the good things we rarely talk about, and give its people the chance of the future they richly deserve.
UNICEF has praised the UK for the aid it has already contributed to the country. Will the Minister say a little more about what pressure he feels can be brought on Iran to end its supply to the Houthis, who are still indulging in things like forced marriage and the use of children as soldiers?
Our relationship with Iran is changing: since going to the inauguration of President Rouhani we have made it clear that, although there are many differences between us—not least Iran’s support for what we consider to be insurgencies and terrorist action—it sees the world differently from others in the region, but the logical consequence of that not being addressed is dire. Accordingly, if there are pathways to encourage people to see their region differently and to try to create relationships that at present seem difficult, the UK’s role these days is to encourage that. There are already relationships between certain states in the region that 50 years ago we would not have expected, so who knows what can happen in the future, but we will continue to work with those in the region, including Iran, to encourage them towards a regional situation that no longer relies on confrontation, but relies instead on consensual support for their peoples.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Considering the awful humanitarian situation, and despite the missile being smuggled into Yemen and fired into Saudi, does my right hon. Friend believe that it is possible to get more aid, perhaps trusted UK aid, to the Yemeni people?
Although there is some access through some of the southern ports, the quality of access is not yet good enough and does not cover enough areas. We are looking to use any means we can—with our partners the World Food Programme, UNICEF and others—to get aid in, but more access is needed, which is why we want to ensure that the ports are safe for those who fear weapons coming in and are also open to the humanitarian access that is so badly needed.
Following the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), does he share my concern that there appears to have been a serious breach of United Nations Security Council resolution 2216, at the ultimate cost of a worsening of the conditions of the people of Yemen and of greater regional instability? Alongside supporting humanitarian efforts, what can the UK do to assist the UN in the ongoing investigation to which he has referred?
My hon. Friend is right to say that a UN investigation is taking place into the circumstances surrounding the missile. We are certainly concerned about where the parts for that missile might have come from, and that could indeed involve a breach of the arms embargo. We have offered the UN all our technical expertise because it is essential that the incident is fully investigated, and it is unfair to cast aspersions if they are not correct. It is also essential to get to the root of this and, above all, to stop the smuggling getting in. That is part of the key to improving humanitarian access.