Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the current situation in Yemen.
I am extremely grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate. There is rapidly rising concern in Britain about what is happening in Yemen and the part that Britain is playing in this crisis. There is deep concern that an almighty catastrophe of biblical proportions is unfolding in Yemen before our eyes, and a considerable fear that Britain is dangerously complicit in it.
I had the opportunity, thanks to Oxfam and the United Nations, to visit Yemen early this year, and I am most grateful to the Saudi Arabian authorities for facilitating that visit. I think I remain the only European politician to have visited Sana’a and the northern part of Yemen in the past three years. I want to pay tribute to the extraordinary work that the humanitarian agencies and the UN are carrying out, particularly the work that Jamie McGoldrick and his team at the UN are so brilliantly doing in almost impossible circumstances.
I returned from Yemen deeply concerned at what I had learned and seen, and I expressed my concern to both the Foreign Office and the British Government privately, and to the Saudi authorities, courtesy of His Excellency the Saudi Arabian ambassador. I regard myself as a friend of Saudi Arabia, albeit a candid one. Like many, I have great respect for the domestic reforms and modernisation currently in progress in the kingdom, which are being led by the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
My visit to Yemen enabled me both to spend time with the humanitarian agencies and to meet the Houthi leadership, the former President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh and those currently leading what is the largest political party in Yemeni politics, the General People’s Congress.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, and I join him, as I am sure the whole House does, in offering our thanks to the humanitarian workers. Does he agree that although the roots of this terrible war are deep and complex, there is absolutely no justification whatsoever for repeated blockades of the ports and the airports? The blockades are denying the long-suffering people of Yemen the food and medicine that they require, and as a result they are suffering grievously. There is a threat of famine, and people are dying of diseases, including cholera.
The right hon. Gentleman is right in every syllable of every word that he has just said. I hope to set out both the extent of the problems that he has identified and what I think the British Government can do to assist in their resolution.
I was talking about those I met when I was in Yemen and about the Houthis. There is an idea that persists that Yemen has been captured by a few thousand terrorists of Houthi origin who have stolen the country. This analysis is not only wrong; it is an extremely dangerous fiction. The Houthis are in complete control of large parts of the country, and together with their allies, the GPC, have established a strong and orderly Government in the north, particularly throughout the capital city of Yemen, Sana’a. They will not be easily shifted. The Houthis commit grave violations against the civilian population too, including forced disappearances and siphoning vital resources from public services to fund violence. But for most people in Sana’a, the only violence and disorder that they experience is that which rains down on them from the skies night after night from Saudi aircraft.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and for giving way.
A recent BBC documentary showed the Houthis in Sana’a putting posters up everywhere, sacking all the Sunni clerics from the mosques and putting Shia clerics in. The poster slogans and the chants in the mosques were “Death to America”, “Death to Israel” and “Curse on the Jews”. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that is right and progressive and that the Houthis represent a peaceful way forward?
The point I have just been making is that the Houthis are responsible for violence and for disappearances. In the few sentences before I gave way to him, I was making clear precisely what the position is in respect of the Houthis. The fact is that they are in control of large parts of Yemen and they will not be easily shifted.
During my visit, I was also able to travel to Sa’ada in the north, which has been largely destroyed. Posters in the city in Arabic and English say that Yemeni children are being killed by the British and Americans. No fewer than 25 humanitarian agencies wrote to the Foreign Secretary on 13 November. In my many years of working with humanitarian organisations, I have seldom seen such a clear, convincing and utterly united approach from so many of our world-leading NGOs and charities.
I want to be clear about the situation on the ground as of last night. The position is as follows. Some humanitarian flights into Sana’a resumed on 26 November following the intensification of the blockade imposed on 5 November. Some limited shipments are coming into Hodeidah, Yemen’s principal port, and Saleef, but very small amounts. Two initial shipments to those ports have brought just 30,000 metric tonnes of commercial wheat—less than 10% of what Yemen needs a month to keep its population alive—and 300,000 metric tonnes of wheat was turned away in the first two weeks of the blockade. This morning three vessels loaded with food are outside Hodeidah awaiting permission from the Saudi authorities to enter.
One humanitarian air cargo flight landed last weekend with 1.9 million doses of diphtheria vaccine. These vaccines will help contain the current outbreak of diphtheria— a disease known as the strangling angel of children; a disease that we no longer see in Britain and Europe and which since August has produced more than 170 suspected cases and at least 14 deaths so far.
There has been no access for fuel. Fuel is critical to the milling and trucking of food to vulnerable people in need as well as the ongoing operation of health, water and sewerage systems. Humanitarian agencies need at a minimum 1,000,000 litres of fuel each month. Without fuel, hospitals are shutting down due to lack of power and water. At least seven whole cities have run out of clean water and sanitation and aid agencies are unable to get food to starving families. The destruction of clean water and sanitation facilities is directly responsible for the outbreak earlier this year of cholera affecting nearly 1 million people.
To summarise, the effect and impact of the blockade could not be graver. Yemen is a country ravaged by medieval diseases and on the precipice of famine. With rapidly dwindling food and fuel stocks and the dire humanitarian situation pushing at least 7 million people into famine, it is now vital that there is unimpeded access for both humanitarian and commercial cargo to enter Hodeidah and Saleef, including those carrying fuel. Approximately 21 million Yemenis today stand in need of humanitarian assistance, but to be clear, humanitarian aid alone is not enough to meet the needs of the entire country. Without access for critical commercial goods, the likelihood of famine and a renewed spike of cholera remain. The international humanitarian agencies are doing their best to support around 7 million people, but the rest of the population rely on the commercial sector and the lack of food and fuel is causing desperate problems, with price hikes over 100% in costs for essential commodities.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for drawing breath and giving way. He is right to identify and highlight the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. He does that cause no service by glossing over the causes of the situation, particularly the Iranian-backed Houthi rebellion, with the violence that has accompanied it. Many of my constituents whose families are still in Aden are terrified by the prospect of the Houthis taking over. Does he acknowledge that the Government of Yemen are internationally recognised and are being supported by the Saudi-led coalition? Can we have a bit of balance on the causes of this event?
If we are able to detain the right hon. Gentleman for the rest of my remarks, I will directly address many of the points that he has made.
The Saudi pledge to open some ports for urgent humanitarian supplies does not come close to feeding a population reliant on commercial imports for 80% of its food. The best analogy for Hodeidah is the equivalent of the port of London; 80% of all that Yemeni’s eat is imported and 70% comes through Hodeidah Port. As the UN Secretary General said last week:
"the flour milling capacity of Hodeida and Saleef Ports and their proximity to 70% of people in need makes them indispensable to the survival of Yemen. … Unless the blockade on these Ports is lifted famine throughout Yemen is a very real threat including on the southern border of Saudi Arabia".
So the recent Saudi proposal in respect of opening other ports completely misses the point. No one should accept the Saudis’ minor concessions on humanitarian access as a victory. Allowing some UN flights to land and ships to dock does not constitute the unhindered humanitarian access that Saudi Arabia is required to provide under international humanitarian law. Humanitarian cargo alone will not avert a famine in Yemen. All it will do is slow the inevitable descent into disease and starvation for millions of Yemenis.
I was under the impression that the Government had opened the ports, including Hodeidah, but that the rebels still have not opened ports. Obviously, we want all the ports in Yemen to be opened as fast as possible. Right now, my understanding is that the Government and the Saudis have opened up the ports that they control. Am I wrong?
My hon. Friend is partially wrong. The two critical ports are Hodeidah and Saleef, for the reasons that I have explained. Shipping is not being allowed to enter those ports in an unfettered way.
I want to be very clear about this. Humanitarian support without commercial imports coming into the country—especially food, fuel and medicine—will condemn millions of Yemenis to certain death. So what does this mean on the ground? Every hour 27 children are diagnosed as acutely malnourished. That is 600 more starving children every day. According to the World Food Programme, as things stand, 150,000 malnourished children could starve to death in the coming months and 17 million people do not know from where their next meal is coming. As of today, at least 400,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition, as medically defined.
When children have severe malnutrition, they reach a critical point at which they are no longer able to eat for themselves and need to be fed by naso-gastric tubes. Prior to that point, we can assist them: we can revive them quickly with nutritional biscuits such as Plumpy’Nut at a cost of a few pence per child. But once they are so starved of nutrition that they require medical assistance and their organs begin to fail, they cannot play and they cannot smile. Parents have to be told that their children still love them, but they are just too weak to show it.
I repeat that malnutrition in Yemen today is threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. The imagery on our television screens, captured by only the most intrepid of journalists due to Saudi restrictions on media access, seem to be from a bygone era—emaciated children and tiny babies in incubators, their tenuous hold on life dependent on fuel for hospital generators that is fast running out. Nawal al-Maghafi’s award-winning reporting for the BBC showed shocking and heart-breaking images of famine and shattering health systems, even before the current blockade.
The right hon. Gentleman says that there are limitations on journalism, but actually al-Jazeera has a lot of access and does not report the Saudi position favourably to the world. We have only to go on YouTube to see an awful lot of modern media from inside north Yemen and Sana’a—and from Saudi Arabia, where Houthis regularly kill Saudi people.
The hon. Gentleman will, however, accept that where a blockade specifically targets journalists to stop them from coming in, it is reasonable to assume that the regime in control has something to hide, which it does not want journalists to see. After all, if there were nothing to hide, presumably journalists would be allowed access.
The 25 humanitarian agencies that wrote to the Foreign Secretary on 13 November did so because Britain is part of a coalition that is blockading and attacking Yemen. As the pen holder on Yemen at the United Nations, we are responsible for leading action at the Security Council. We bear a special responsibility—physical, as well as moral—to lead the international response to end this conflict. Yet our Government have declined to call this what it is: an illegal blockade. Saudi Arabia is in direct violation of humanitarian law and specifically in breach of Security Council resolution 2216, which
“urges all parties to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance, as well as rapid, safe and unhindered access for humanitarian actors to reach people in need of humanitarian assistance, including medical assistance”.
That is what the resolution says—it could hardly be clearer. The Security Council resolution was initiated and drafted by the UK in 2015. The British Government were right to condemn the attempted Houthi missile attack on Riyadh airport, as the Minister for the Middle East did in the House last week, but where is the British condemnation of the 1,000 days of intensive Saudi bombing of Yemen?
On each of the three nights I spent in Sana’a earlier this year, there were six bombing runs by the Saudi airforce attacking the city. I was in no danger whatever, as I was safe with the United Nations, but imagine the fear and horror of families and children who night after night are the subject of crude bombing attacks, which most usually destroy civilian and non-military targets. Throughout this conflict our “quiet diplomacy” has failed to curb outrage after outrage perpetrated by our allies as they destroy bridges, roads and hospitals. No wonder the UN Secretary-General has called this a “stupid” war.
Despite holding the pen at the UN Security Council, the UK has so far failed to take any steps whatever to use it to respond to the recent escalation. We have not condemned the illegal restrictions on humanitarian aid and vital imports of food, fuel and medicines. We have not called for parties to end violations against civilians or to set out a revitalised peace process given the political stalemate and the widespread recognition that resolution 2216 constitutes a barrier to a realistic political process. The UK did not even dissent from a draft UN Security Council statement, circulated by Egypt, that failed entirely to mention the dire impact of the blockade. This silence is shameful: it not only lets down the Yemenis, but threatens our position on the UN Security Council as other nations fill the void left by our abdication of leadership.
The senseless death of millions is not the only risk. By tightening the noose around a starving nation, Saudi Arabia is fuelling the propaganda machines of the very opponents it wishes to vanquish. More than collective punishment of the Yemenis, this is self-harm on a grand scale.
When I went to Sa’dah, I visited a school that had been bombed by the Saudi air force. Children were being taught in tents and with textbooks largely financed by the British taxpayer. On my arrival, the children started chanting in much the same way as children in our primary schools declaim nursery rhymes. On inquiring of the translator what they were saying, I was told they were chanting, “Death to the Saudis and Americans!” In deference to my visit, they had omitted from their chanting the third country on their list.
Far from helping to make Saudi Arabia’s borders safer and diminishing the threat of international terrorism, we are radicalising an entire generation of Yemeni young people, whose hatred of us for what we are doing to them and their country may well translate into a potent recruitment tool for international terrorists. Every action of the Saudis currently bolsters and serves the narrative of Saudi Arabia’s enemies, who want Saudi Arabia to be seen as the aggressor so that they win the support of the general population.
I give way to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who leads the all-party group on Yemen.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He was present at the meeting earlier this week when we heard from the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister, who said that the Saudi Arabian Government do not believe that this war can be won. What is the point of continuing with a war that cannot be won?
Well, I will now turn directly to the position of Saudi Arabia, whose impressive Foreign Minister, Ahmed al-Jubeir, generously came to the House of Commons on Tuesday this week to speak to the all-party group, as the right hon. Gentleman has just said. During the course of the conversation, during which the right hon. Gentleman and I were pretty forthright, he asked for advice, making it clear that Saudi Arabia had not fought a war of this nature before.
My advice is as follows: there must be an immediate end to this appalling blockade. Of course, working with the UN, the Saudis are within their rights to search shipping and other transport for illicit weapons, but they cannot impound or obstruct vessels carrying vital food and medical supplies. Currently, the Saudis are refusing to allow 26 ships that have been cleared by the UN to be offloaded. If the Saudis have doubts about the effectiveness of UN inspection, they must of course be part of it.
There must be an immediate ceasefire and a return to reinvigorated, inclusive peace talks. A new Security Council resolution is long overdue. It is widely recognised that resolution 2216 is an anachronism that constitutes a barrier to any peace process. There can be no preconditions from either side. The Houthis and the General People’s Congress are in control of Sana’a; they will not be easily shifted—certainly not by an air campaign that day after day consolidates support for them on the ground and directs the hatred of the local population to those who are dropping the bombs.
The Houthis did not start out as allies of the Iranians; the Houthis are Zaidis, not Shi’a. But of course in a region where “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, it is not hard to understand why the Houthis look to Iran, although, given the blockade, it is not easy for Iran to arm the Houthis in any significant way. The prolonging of the conflict and the resulting cost to Saudi Arabia in regional instability is a gift to Iran.
My right hon. Friend is making an extremely powerful point about the nature of Iran’s arming of the Houthis. Does he not, however, accept the research by Conflict Armament Research that clearly points out that weapons from Iran have come through Yemen and are now being used against Saudi Arabia? He makes the absolutely valid point that Saudi action is only further encouraging such violence, but does he not also accept that Tehran is wilfully undermining and destroying an Arab state to use it as a proxy against Saudi Arabia?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that blockading weapons—from any country, but certainly from Iran—is the right thing to do, but I am condemning without reservation a blockade that is likely to lead to the famine and death of very large numbers of people.
The price for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia of continuing on its current path will be certain failure and utter humiliation, both in the region and more widely. The clock is ticking. Already in Yemen a child dies every 10 minutes. Yemen is a time bomb threatening international peace and security. Our failure to denounce these crimes and use our leverage to stop them condemns millions of Yemenis to death in the future. Shying away from demanding compliance, by all, with the international rules-based order that we in Britain helped to take root also weakens a strained system that keeps British citizens safe.
Britain’s policy is riddled with internal inconsistencies. While one limb of the British Government is desperately trying to secure entry into the port of Hodeidah for vital food, medicine and fuel, another limb is assisting with the blockade and, indeed, the targeting of attacks. One limb supports the erection of seven new cranes that are vital for unloading essential supplies, while another supports the destruction of those same cranes.
My right hon. Friend is doing an excellent job in explaining some of the background to the conflict, but I will not have him stand in the House of Commons and say that the British Government are involved in the targeting of weaponry being used by the coalition. That is just not true, and I would like him to withdraw it.
If my right hon. Friend will give me an undertaking that it is totally untrue that any serving British officer has been engaged with the targeting centre in Riyadh, or in any other part of Saudi Arabia, to try to assist in ensuring that the targeting is better, I will of course withdraw my remark.
British personnel are there to observe what is happening in relation to international humanitarian law, so that they can be part of the process of ensuring that it is adhered to. They are not part of the operational process. They are not under command to do that or anything else. They are not taking part in the targeting or anything like it, and have not been so.
I want to be absolutely clear about what my right hon. Friend is telling the House of Commons today. There is no question of any serving British officer being engaged in instructing and assisting —certainly to ensure that international humanitarian law is observed—with the programme of targeting that is being carried out by the Saudi air force?
If my right hon. Friend gives me such an undertaking, I am happy to withdraw that very specific point.
I have never called for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia, because the kingdom is surrounded by enemies and is wealthy. Saudi Arabia is absolutely entitled to defend itself, and we as its friend and ally are entitled to sell it weapons as long as we do so in accordance with one of the strictest licensing regimes in the world. We may also have some influence that we could exercise to ensure that weapons are used in accordance with the rules of war. I cannot help observing, however, that British munitions are causing destruction and misery in Yemen that the other limb of the British Government, to which I referred earlier, is seeking to staunch through aid and assistance paid for by the British taxpayer.
I have no doubt that, during her current visit to the middle east, the Prime Minister will use every political, economic and security argument available to her to persuade the Saudis of the moral and strategic failure that they are pursuing in Yemen. I profoundly hope that the lifting of the blockade on Yemen will be the No. 1 priority on her visit. We must use every inch of our leverage—diplomatic, political and economic—to demonstrate to our allies that they have more to gain from peace than from a fruitless military strategy that is exacerbating the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe and undermining the international rules-based order that keeps us all safe.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again, On the question of arms sales, given that the final report of the United Nations panel of experts on Yemen found that the coalition had conducted airstrikes in violation of international humanitarian law, and given the consolidated criteria—the rules governing arms sales from the United Kingdom—is there not a bit of a problem if the UK Government do not pause their sales, which is what I called for, along with the Leader of the Opposition, when I was shadow Foreign Secretary, since we have an obligation to see those claims investigated? Otherwise, is there not a risk that the sales will be in breach of our own law?
I agree that it is important for these incidents to be investigated, and investigated impartially, because otherwise the investigation will carry no credence.
I have completed the speech that I intended to make, but I think it worth adding that I have steered away from a debate on an arms embargo, because I think it would have taken our eye off the critical ball. We must see an end to this blockade, for humanitarian reasons and for reasons of international humanitarian law.
I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting the debate, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) on securing it. His speech was nothing less than a tour de force, and I congratulate him on that as well—and I mean it.
We are talking about what has been widely recognised to be the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, and it is threatening to become one of the worst such crises for decades. In those circumstances, an emergency debate is more than appropriate. It is regrettable in many ways that the House is not packed today. On too many occasions the war in Yemen has been described as a forgotten war, and indeed it is. The role that we play in it is important, and needs to be more widely acknowledged.
It is welcome that, since the Minister’s statement on the crisis 10 days ago. we have seen a partial easing of the blockade of Yemen’s ports and airports to allow some consignments of food and medical supplies to be brought into rebel-held areas, but, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said, it is not nearly enough to address the scale of the humanitarian needs. Hundreds of thousands of entirely innocent children still face death over the coming weeks owing to malnutrition and disease. If they do not receive the food, clean water and medical supplies that they need in order to survive, and receive them in the long-term quantities that are required, we know what will happen.
If those children are to obtain the relief that they need, all parties must be willing to do whatever it takes, including the complete cessation of violence, the full lifting of the blockades, the opening of humanitarian corridors over land, and a guarantee of safe passage for aid convoys. I hope that the Minister will be able to update us today on what is being done to achieve those ends.
We all understand the backdrop to the current crisis. We understand the anger of the Saudi Government at the firing of a ballistic missile at their own country by the Houthi rebels on 4 November. That was an act that all Opposition Members unequivocally condemn, just as we condemn the Saudi airstrike on 1 November which killed 31 people, including six children, at a market in the Sahar district of Sa’ada. Both sides are guilty of attacking civilians, both sides should be equally condemned for doing so, and, in due course, both sides should be held to account for any violations of international humanitarian law.
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 were choked off for at least three weeks, and remain just an inadequate trickle today. The damage that will have been done to millions of children who were already facing severe malnutrition, a cholera epidemic and an outbreak of diphtheria, will, as the UN has said, be measured in the lives that are lost. As the World Health Organisation, the World Food Programme and UNICEF have stated, the tightening of the blockade has made
“an already catastrophic situation far worse. “
“To deprive this many from the basic means of survival is an unconscionable act and a violation of humanitarian principles and law.”
In that context, I must go back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) 10 days ago: how do the Government view this month’s blockade as compatible with international humanitarian law, a body of law that clearly states that starvation of civilian populations cannot be used as a weapon of war and any blockades established for military purposes must allow civilian populations access to the food and other essential supplies that they need to live?
The situation in Yemen is of course terrible and catastrophic, but does my right hon. Friend not agree that the main reason for that is the collapse of the economic system within Yemen?
However we got here, it cannot be made better by there being a blockade and millions of starving children. It is my view—and I believe the view of this House—that the blockade should be lifted and that we must find a peace process and a way of moving the sides apart to allow these children to survive over the winter.
When a tactic of surrender or survive was used by President Assad in Syria, the Foreign Secretary was happy to condemn it, but he has uttered not a single word of criticism when the same tactic has been used by his friend Crown Prince Salman of Saudi Arabia, the architect of the Yemen conflict, or, as the Foreign Secretary likes to call him, “a remarkable young man.” So let me ask the Minister this specifically: while the blockade was fully in place over the past three weeks, apparently in clear breach of international humanitarian law, were any export licences granted for the sale of arms from the UK to the Saudi-led coalition?
When my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East raised this issue last week, the Minister seemed to suggest that the blockade was justified from a military point of view because of the alleged smuggling of missiles from Iran to the Houthi rebels. But I ask him again why he disagrees with the confidential briefing prepared by the panel of experts appointed by the UN Security Council and circulated on 10 November. That briefing has been referred to already, but let me quote from it:
“The panel finds that imposition of access restrictions is another attempt by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to use…resolution 2216 as justification for obstructing the delivery of commodities that are essentially civilian in nature.”
It goes on to say that, while the Houthis undoubtedly possess some ballistic missile capacity:
“The panel has seen no evidence to support claims of”
“having been transferred to the Houthi-Saleh alliance from external sources”.
If the Minister disagrees with that assessment, which I understand he does, can he state the evidence on which he does so, and will he undertake to share that evidence with the UN panel of experts? However, if there is no such evidence, I ask him again: how can the blockade be justified from the perspective of international humanitarian law, and how can the Government justify selling Saudi Arabia the arms that were used to enforce that blockade?
We know that, even if the blockade of Yemen’s ports is permanently lifted, the civilian population of Yemen will continue to suffer as long as this conflict carries on, and the only way that suffering will finally end is through a lasting ceasefire and political agreement. As the whole House knows, it is the UK’s ordained role to act as the penholder for a UN ceasefire resolution on Yemen. That is a matter I have raised many times in this House, and I raise it again today. It has now been one year and one month since Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, Matthew Rycroft, circulated Britain’s draft resolution to other members of the UN Security Council, and this is what he said back then:
“We have decided…to put forward a draft Security Council resolution…calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities and a resumption of the political process.”
That was a year and a month ago, and still no resolution has been presented. That is one year and one month when no progress has been made towards peace, and when the conflict has continued to escalate and the humanitarian crisis has become the worst in the world.
I thank my right hon. Friend very much for what she is saying, and she is absolutely right. Twelve months have elapsed since the promise that there would be a resolution before the UN. The Quint met last night in London, and the Foreign Secretary tweeted a photograph of himself with the participants, but there is no timetable. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these meetings are meaningless without a timetable for peace with all the parties at the table at the same time?
My right hon. Friend is right: warm words butter no parsnips, as my grandmother used to say. Matthew Rycroft says now that
“the political track…is at a dead-end. There is no meaningful political process going on”.
If we are wrong about that, we would be very grateful for some reassurance from the Minister, but we have been waiting and waiting, and children are dying, and we have to do something about it.
We are bound to ask, for example, what has happened to that draft resolution: why has it been killed off—indeed, has it been killed off? Is the situation as the Saudi ambassador to the UN said when first asked about the UK’s draft resolution this time last year:
“There is a continuous and joint agreement with Britain concerning the draft resolution, and whether there is a need for it or not”?
We must ask this Minister: is that “continuous and joint agreement” with Saudi Arabia still in place? If so, why has it never been disclosed to the House?
The fear is that Saudi Arabia does not want a ceasefire and that it sees no value in negotiating a peace—not when Crown Prince Salman believes that the rebellion can still be crushed, whatever the humanitarian cost. If he does believe that, are we really to accept that the UK Government are going along with that judgment?
The Minister will, of course, point to the so-called peace forum chaired by the Foreign Secretary this week—the Quint—and say that that is evidence that the UK is doing its job to move the political process forward, but when the only participants in the peace forum are Saudi Arabia, two of its allies, and two of the countries supplying most of its arms, that is not a “peace forum.” I respectfully suggest that far from being a peace forum, it is a council of war. What we really need—what we urgently need and have needed for more than a year and a month—is the moral and political force which comes from a UN Security Council resolution obliging all parties to cease hostilities, obliging all parties to allow humanitarian relief, and obliging all parties to work towards a political solution.
I ask the Minister: how much longer do we have to wait? When will the Government finally bring forward the resolution? If the answer is that, because of opposition from the Saudis and the Americans, they will never present that resolution, do they not at least owe it to fellow members of the UN Security Council, and to Members of this House—and, indeed, to the children of Yemen—to admit that the role of penholder on Yemen is no longer a position they can in good conscience occupy and that they should pass on that role of drafting a resolution to another country which is less joined at the hip to Crown Prince Salman and President Donald Trump?
Let me close by quoting my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in his last letter to the Prime Minister on the subject of Yemen:
“Whilst the immediate priority should be humanitarian assistance…it is time the Government takes immediate steps to play its part in ending the suffering of the Yemeni people, ends its support of the Saudi coalition’s conduct in the war and take appropriate action”
through the UN
“to bring the conflict to a peaceful, negotiated resolution.”
Those are the three tests of whether the Government are willing to take action today, and I hope that by the end of this emergency debate we will have some indication of whether they are going to take that action, or whether it is just going to be more of the same.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for securing this opportunity to discuss what we all understand to be a significant humanitarian crisis in Yemen. I appreciate the fact that he visited Yemen earlier this year, and he clearly has a deep and passionate knowledge of the situation there. A number of questions have come up, but I would like to start with the issue that tends to be the most neglected—namely, the origins of the conflict. We seem to start these debates partway through. I will get to the questions that have been raised, but it is important to set out the background because it explains the complexity with which a number of Members have approached the issue. It is not as clear cut as some might suggest.
The causes of the conflict are numerous and complex. Since unification in 1990, Yemen has suffered internal power struggles, unrest and terrorist attacks. After a year of protests in 2011, the 33-year rule of President Saleh transferred to President Hadi as part of a unity Government brokered with regional support. A national dialogue process began, which offered an opportunity for a democratic future. Tragically, that opportunity was lost when the Houthi insurgency movement, which claimed to have been excluded from the national dialogue process, sought to take power through violence.
In September 2014, Houthi rebels took the capital by force, prompting President Hadi to flee to the southern city of Aden. The Houthis then began advancing on the south of the country. President Hadi, as the internationally recognised leader of the legitimate Government of Yemen, requested military help from the Saudi-led coalition. The conflict between the Government of Yemen, backed by the coalition, and the Houthis and their allies, backed by former President Saleh, has so far lasted 1,000 days. Let us also remember the attacks carried out by al-Qaeda, Daesh and non-state groups against the Yemeni people, other countries in the region and international shipping lanes. Those groups use ungoverned space, which Yemen has been in the past and threatens to become again.
The impact of conflict and terrorism on the Yemeni people has been devastating. Let me read a letter that has been sent to the House today from the ambassador of the Republic of Yemen to the United Kingdom. He says:
“I represent the Government of Yemen, which came to power after the popular overthrow of former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. This government is elected, UN- mandated and constitutionally legitimate. It was driven from the capital Sana’a by force, by the Houthi militias in alliance with Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Arab Coalition is in Yemen at our request, to restore constitutional government and reverse the Houthi coup. Actions that undermine that Coalition also undermine us.
In the last two weeks the Houthis added extra taxes and customs checkpoints that increased the prices in areas under their control by more than 100%. As an example the Yemeni government sells a gallon of petrol at the cost of 850 Yemeni Ryals in cities like Aden and Mareb which are under the government’s control while in Houthi controlled areas it costs 1700 Yemeni Ryals. The prices of wheat and flour face a similar increase.
The Houthis continue to place the city of Taiz, in central Yemen, under siege preventing any aid from going in. People living in Taiz are forced to smuggle in food, medicine and even water. Last week an entire family were executed in Taiz under the hands of Houthi armed men, we have an obligation as a government to protect our citizens.”
I start there because, all too often, that side of the discussion is just not raised at all. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield for making it clear that, contrary to a lot of media reports, there are two sides to this. It is important to understand what is going on there and what the coalition—which, as the ambassador says, is acting in support of a legitimate UN-mandated Government—is attempting to prevent and stop. That brings us to our role and to what is happening at present.
The Minister is making a valid point. Is not the validity of it reinforced by the fact that this House should be upholding international law and a democratic Government, as well as trying to bring peace and alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen?
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. The role of the United Kingdom is to do what it can in the circumstances, first, to address the urgent humanitarian situation and also to address an international governance point that is often missed. The legitimate Government, fighting against an insurgency, have been joined by others, and that is the basis of the conflict.
The part of the debate that I have found most difficult up to now is what has been said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield and the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) about the United Kingdom’s role and what we have been trying to do. I am well aware, from the time I have been back in the office in the summer and from what was done before, of the significant efforts made by the United Kingdom at the UN, and principally through the negotiation process with the parties most involved, to try to bring things to a conclusion and to do all we can in relation to the humanitarian situation.
Let me now address the UK’s role, which will lead me to talk about some of the allegations made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield and to make clear what it is we do and do not do. I shall then address the humanitarian situation, if I may. President Hadi asked the international community for support
“to protect Yemen, and deter Houthi aggression”.
The Saudi-led coalition responded to that call. The United Kingdom is not a party to that conflict, nor a member of the military coalition. The UK is not involved in carrying out strikes, or in directing or conducting operations in Yemen. Let me fill that out a bit more.
Royal Air Force and Royal Navy liaison officers monitor Saudi-led coalition operations in Yemen and provide information to the UK Ministry of Defence. The liaison officers are not embedded personnel taking part in Saudi-led operations, they are not involved in carrying out strikes and they do not direct or conduct operations in Yemen. They are not involved in the Saudi-led coalition targeting decision-making process. They remain under UK command and control. Sensitive information provided by the liaison officers is used by the Permanent Joint Headquarters and MOD officials when providing advice on Saudi-led coalition capability and when conducting analysis of incidents of potential concern which result from the Saudi-led coalition air operations in Yemen. The operations directorate maintains a database, referred to as the tracker, which records incidents and subsequent analysis. We have been tracking 318 incidents of potential concern since 2015, and this is used to inform the MOD’s advice to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
I have visited the command and control centre in Riyadh. It is true that Royal Air Force personnel are present, but they are not involved in the targeting. When I spoke to them, part of their role seemed to be to help the Saudis and their allies to ensure that the rules of engagement resulted in minimum casualties. Their intention was to try to get the rules of engagement to be as good as our own, and they seemed to be doing that quite successfully while I was there.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his personal observations.
The question of arms control has been raised. We have a rigorous legal and parliamentary process, and ensuring that international humanitarian law is not breached is clearly a vital part of that. The information supplied by those liaison officers is crucial to ensuring that our international obligations are observed. That is why they are there.
This debate is, above all, about the humanitarian consequences, and the UN Secretary-General has said that Saudi Arabia is, through the blockade, in breach not only of resolution 2216 but of international humanitarian law. I say to my right hon. Friend, who is a long-standing personal friend of more than 30 years, that I think he may be in danger of having misled the House earlier in his response to me about the role of British servicemen. Would he like to correct the record and use this opportunity to make this very clear? Otherwise, what he said may be open to misinterpretation.
I do not quite know what bit of what I have said my right hon. Friend is referring to. I have read out the details in relation to the work of our liaison officers on international humanitarian law, and I cannot say anything different. If I have said anything that he thinks is wrong, he can correct me either now or at the end of the debate when he has an opportunity to say something else. I have put on record what our situation is. If he thinks that that is misleading, I am here to be corrected, but I am reading out what I believe is the Government’s position very clearly.
I wonder whether the Minister could clarify something that has always genuinely confused me about the role of the military in Saudi Arabia. Is there just one targeting centre, or is it correct that there is another in the south? Are military personnel involved in the south of the country? Indeed, are people from British companies, BAE Systems in particular, involved in the south of the country? If they are supposed to be there to ensure that international humanitarian law is not breached, what are they doing? Are they ensuring that targeting is better or that things are not targeted? If they are ensuring that targeting is better, how is it that so many civilian targets seem to get hit?
The answer to the last part of the right hon. Lady’s question comes from the investigations into incidents where there is legitimate concern that there may have been civilian casualties. That process was started by the coalition; it was not in place at the beginning. We have provided advice not only so that information can be given to us, but to assist in the process of ensuring that the coalition targets legitimate military targets. I understand that thousands of places have been deemed not to be targets. As in any conflict—this is one of the reasons why my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield was safe—there are indications of where attacks should not happen, and I believe that we have been part of the process of ensuring that the coalition understands the international rules of engagement.
I cannot directly answer the question about BAE Systems personnel being elsewhere as I just do not know the answer, but I have noted what the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury said, and I will come back to that.
I want to move on to discuss the humanitarian situation, but I am of course happy to give way to right hon. Gentleman.
I am grateful to the Minister. Since the House understands the Government’s position to be that they do not feel there have been breaches of international humanitarian law, because they would otherwise have had to invoke the arms control criteria, and given that the UN panel of experts that I quoted earlier was of the view that breaches of international humanitarian law had taken place, will the Minister tell the House what other sources of information the Government have drawn upon in reaching their conclusion? Do they include the views of the military officers who are offering the advice that he has just described to the House?
The observations of those whose role it is to see what is happening in order to report on potential breaches of international humanitarian law are clearly a vital part of that process. There is other, more sensitive information that I will not go into, but there is a clearly a process that has been designed to try to give reassurance to all of us. This is a difficult situation, and we have continued to support an ally that is under attack from external sources and engaged in an effort to restore a legitimate Government. In supporting that effort, we have done what is right to ensure that international humanitarian law is observed. We have used all the information made available to us, so that we are sure of the circumstances. Should that be challenged—it is possible to challenge it through both the House and the courts—the circumstances would change.
Will the Minister give way?
I will, but I do want to move on to the humanitarian situation.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for indulging me one more time. I understand that some of the information may be sensitive, but are the British Government in a position to share the information that makes them so confident that there have been no breaches of international humanitarian law? The UN panel of experts seems to have come to a different conclusion.
The initial responsibility to investigate any incidents lies with the state involved, and Saudi Arabia has been doing that with its investigations. I genuinely do not know the process of transferring that information to the UN should the UN request to see it, but I will have an answer for the right hon. Lady.
I know that there has been an instruction to be mindful of the time, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I will be as tight on time as I can, but I want to talk about both the blockade and the humanitarian response before moving on to the negotiations. As for the restrictions brought in after the missile attack of 4 November, I will deal first with where the missile came from. The right hon. Lady asked me whether we disagree with the UN’s assessment, and yes we do. That draft assessment was written some time ago, and there is the possibility that a different assessment by the UN has not been made public. The United Kingdom is quite confident that there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the missile came from an external source. If it did not, the right hon. Lady and others can answer the question of where such a missile came from in Yemen, but it is quite clear to us that it came from an external source. We therefore disagree with the UN’s initial draft report, and the evidence will come through in due course when a further report is published. That is all I can say.
The coalition’s response to a direct attack on Riyadh airport was sharp and severe. It wanted to be able to protect itself and, in doing so, placed restrictions on the ports in order to control what was coming in. Now, we do not disagree with what was said either by the right hon. Lady or my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, and the UK’s clear position is that it is imperative that those restrictions are relieved. I am not going to dance on the head of a pin here; if Members want to call it a blockade, it is a blockade. There is no point in dancing around that. However, humanitarian and commercial supplies must be allowed in in order to feed the people.
As my right hon. Friend said, and as the House knows well, the vast bulk of food, water and fuel that comes into Yemen to keep the people alive is not humanitarian aid; it is ordinary commercial stuff. We have been clear right from the beginning of the restrictions that the UK’s view is that they should be lifted, and we have maintained that, so to be told that we have not done enough is just wrong. As evidence of some degree of success, there was some easing of the restrictions last week, but not enough. I have an update that I am happy to share with the House. It states:
“Humanitarian and commercial vessels are beginning to enter Hodeidah and Saleef ports. Since Sunday, three vessels have arrived and are being unloaded. This includes 2 commercial vessels into Hodeidah carrying respectively 5,500 metric tonnes and 29,520 metric tonnes of wheat flour. One humanitarian vessel has arrived into Saleef with supplies to support 1.8 million people for a month (and 25,000 metric tonnes of food). In addition, approximately 23 vessels have been cleared by UN Verification Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM) although not yet permitted to unload.”
It is essential that they are permitted to unload, and we are making representations to that effect. However, the fact that there has been some movement in response to representations made by, among others, the highest levels of the British Government indicates that the urgency of relieving the humanitarian situation is being heard. At the same time, we recognise the security needs of those who are threatened by missiles targeted at their commercial airports and civilian areas.
I welcome the fact that the Minister has described the situation as a blockade. If the blockade is not lifted completely, what is his estimate of how close Yemen is to famine—days or weeks?
Reports differ depending on the area. Five cities have already run out of fuel, meaning that power supplies, sanitation and other things cannot be maintained. On average, food supplies appear to be better and may be measured in months, but that will not apply to every individual area because some will be worse than others. A Minister will not stand here and say that because things can be measured by a few more days, the situation is less urgent; it is not. It is absolutely top of our priorities. In a variety of different ways, the UK has sought to make clear the importance of responding not only to the security needs of the coalition, but to the humanitarian situation.
I want to put the following on the record. On 5 November, there was a Foreign and Commonwealth Office statement condemning the attempted missile attack. On 13 November, my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State for International Development spoke to Mark Lowcock of the UN about the humanitarian situation. On 15 November, an FCO statement stressed the need for immediate humanitarian and commercial access. On 16 November, I spoke to the UAE’s Minister of State. On 18 November, the Foreign Secretary made a call to the UN Secretary-General. On 20 November, I spoke to the House. On 21 November, I spoke to the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister. On 23 November, the Foreign Secretary spoke to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. On 29 November, as we speak, the Prime Minister is visiting Riyadh, where she said:
“I am also clear that the flow of commercial supplies, on which the country depends, must be resumed if we are to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. During my discussions with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh last night, we agreed that steps needed to be taken as a matter of urgency to address this, and that we would take forward more detailed discussions on how this could be achieved.”
The Foreign Secretary hosted talks in London this week, after which we will intensify efforts with all parties to reach a settlement that will sustain security for Saudi Arabia, the coalition and Yemen.
For the House to feel in any way that there is not a serious response to the catastrophic situation that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield set out with passion and determination is not correct. We are doing everything we can, at the highest level, to deal with the humanitarian crisis and the security situation.
I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s powerful words in Riyadh last night, which my right hon. Friend has just read out. Those words will be welcomed on both sides of the House. This is the nub of the argument he is trying to address: I am sure the House feels that the extent of the crisis and the Government’s response are not equal. I have no prescription for the political answer to the humanitarian crisis we have described today, but the breaches of international humanitarian law are so egregious that they call for a tougher and firmer response from Her Majesty’s Government.
We are getting to the nub of it now. We are all agreed on this, and we know how serious it is. I have set out what we have been trying to do. If there was another lever to pull that would deal with the situation—my right hon. Friend has just said that he does not know the political answer—we would pull it, but that is not the case. The best lever to pull is in the negotiations process that we have discussed. We do not think this can be done through the UN. It is much better to deal with the parties, on both sides, who have the opportunity and the responsibility to get something done around the table.
The other day, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) rightly mentioned the Quint talks, in which a number of states are involved. It is unfair, on reflection, to call it a war council. The Omanis, for example, would be deeply upset with that reference. The talks involve those who have the capacity not only to make decisions on one side—the coalition side—but to make sure that the other side, the side of the Houthis and their Yemeni allies who have been estranged from the UN process by their own decisions for many months, re-engages in the negotiations. We need to have parties there who can do it, including the UN. That is the purpose of the talks, which the United Kingdom has led.
As colleagues have recognised, the only way to end both the humanitarian suffering in the longer term and the conflict is for the parties to agree on it. It is not a military solution; it is a political solution. That is what the United Kingdom has been doing for some months and will continue to do until we get the answer.
I thank the Minister for updating the House so regularly and for engaging with the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen and its officers, the hon. Members for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Charnwood (Edward Argar) and me, on these issues.
The meeting of the Quint was yesterday. What is the timetable to mandate the Omanis to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table so that we can conclude this matter? That is the issue, is it not?
Again, if we could have a timetable we would have one, but we cannot because we are dealing with people who are not yet parties to this process. They have been and need to be brought back into the process. The only words that can adequately describe it, as the House would wish, are, “As soon as possible.” The Houthis should be re-engaged with the UN in a process to start the descaling that will lead to the end of the conflict. That is what we have been seeking, and that is what we are continuing to do.
I will conclude, because the House has been generous in giving me a great deal of time. I have not, although I could have, said a lot about the direct humanitarian aid that is being delivered by the United Kingdom—that aid is significant and important. We have been working consistently, and £155 million has gone in to support the people of Yemen, and it has been used through indirect agencies, the UN and various non-governmental organisations. I entirely concur with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield said about the bravery of those who are engaged, and it would help if the Yemeni Government would pay public health workers in particular. Some of the work that is needed to prevent the return of cholera could then be done, and it would assist food distribution. The aid agencies have worked extremely hard in the circumstances, but the only thing that would allow their work to be effective is an end to the conflict, which we are working so hard to achieve through the negotiations.
Although it has taken some time, and although it is clear how strongly Members present and people outside the House feel about the issue, to believe that there is more the United Kingdom could do is, to a degree, unfair, but it does not matter. We are the Government, and we must do all we can on delivering humanitarian aid, on engaging with the parties who can do something about it and on ensuring that we are on the right side of the law.
Should there be anything in the record that needs correcting, I assure my right hon. Friend that I will correct it. I am confident about what I read out earlier but, if there is anything I need to correct, I will do so. We seek to do what we can in this dreadful situation. The most important thing is that there is a continued release of the restrictions on the ports, which is what we are working towards at the highest level, as Members can tell from the Prime Minister’s speech. If we do not achieve our aims, I know the House will bring us back again.
I thank the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for securing the debate. I agree with much of what he said —his expertise on the matter is valuable. I also agree with much that the shadow Foreign Secretary said. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is steadfast in his work with the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen, and to the aid agencies that are working in circumstances that are incredibly difficult both for their staff and for the people they are working with in Yemen.
The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned the difficulties in reporting from Yemen, and I rely heavily on some of the first-hand testimony coming through from Twitter, which seems a reasonable way of getting information out of the country. I mentioned the case of Hisham al-Omeisy in a letter to the Government. He was taken by the Houthis on 12 August 2017 and has yet to be seen again. I ask the Government to do all they can to try to secure the safety of journalists in Yemen.
Today I am missing the opening of the new Silverdale nursery in Dalmarnock. The nursery has 140 places for children under five and, while thinking about Yemen, it struck me that if 140 children in Dalmarnock were to die today, we would do something about it. If they were to die tomorrow, we would do something about it. Some 130 under-fives are dying every day in Yemen. If that were happening in this country, we would do something about it urgently and seriously. We would not have our own children dying from the very preventable cause of extreme malnutrition and disease, which take hold so easily when children do not have the food and resilience they need.
One child is dying every 10 minutes in Yemen. It is shocking even to think of the number who have died since the start of this debate. We cannot accept that any longer; it has been going on for far, far too long, and we have a global responsibility to children, wherever they are, to make sure that they are safe, that they are fed and that they will live a happy and healthy life. Anything we can do to that end we must do urgently.
For the children who survive, the impact will be lasting. Millions of children are, and have been, out of school. They do not have a nursery to go to. They are living with stunting, a lifelong condition that will affect their growth and development, including their cognitive development, throughout the rest of their lives. In 2012, UNICEF was already warning of stunting, saying that 58% of children under five were stunted, and that was before this latest conflict. That is a generation being left with a life-limiting condition that we could do more to prevent.
The International Committee of the Red Cross reported yesterday that it had purchased 750,000 litres of fuel to ensure that the water pumps in Hodeidah and Taiz can operate. Those pumps will last only a month on that fuel. The ICRC also reports that nine other cities do not have sufficient fuel to run their water supplies, which is a critical situation given that Yemen has already experienced one of the largest cholera epidemics in history, which has already left about 2,000 people dead. Although the outbreak seems to be on the wane, without water and access to appropriate sanitation it will almost certainly come back. As the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned, diphtheria, a very preventable disease that we do not even see here, is also taking hold. So I ask the Minister—I know he will do his best on this—to tell us what the Government are doing to ensure that fuel gets into the country, because without it the petrol pumps will run dry, which will have a knock-on effect on food prices.
Aid very much needs to get in, and aid agencies say so, but all agencies are also stressing the absolute necessity of getting commercial goods in. The scarcity and fuel prices mean that prices are high, and even where there is food people cannot afford to feed themselves. They do not know where their next meal is coming from. It must be incredibly heartbreaking for people to be able to see food on a shelf but not be able to afford to buy it to feed their family. We must bear in mind that many employees in Yemen have not been paid for some time—over a year in some cases at least. Médecins sans Frontières reported in October that 1.2 million Yemeni civil servants have received little to no salary for more than a year. MSF pays the salaries of 1,200 public health staff that it is using in its clinics, but clearly that is not enough by any manner of means. If the doctors trying to treat the people who are starving have no money to feed themselves either, the situation is a disaster. I urge Ministers to consider what else they can do to get more money in to allow staff to be paid, to get the economy restarted and to make sure people have something to live on.
I also urge, as I have urged following previous statements, that we need to see aid getting into the country in the first place, so the blockade must be removed as soon as possible. But that aid also needs to be able to travel around Yemen, and the border posts, the visas and the difficulties the aid agencies are facing in getting around the country are preventing that flow of aid. It is also clear that the different factions in the conflict are using the system as a means of diverting aid to their own people, so that aid that might be intended to go to one place of desperate need is being diverted. That is not to say that people there might not need it, because I am sure they do, but it is being diverted from the people who need to get it. We need to make sure that it can get through to those who need it and that it is appropriately used when it gets there. I urge Ministers to do anything they can to make sure that aid convoys going through the country can actually get to where they need to be.
Finally, I wish to touch on the issue of arms sales, because they are a crucial part of the influence and leverage our country has in this conflict. Sadly, the communiqué that came out of the Quint meeting concentrated far, far more on weapons and the security situation, which I know and appreciate is difficult, than on the humanitarian situation and the need to get goods in through the ports. I am sure the 25 aid agencies that contacted the Foreign Secretary in their open letter will feel very let down by that, and I echo the shadow Foreign Secretary’s comments about how the attendance list of that meeting could have been broader. Efforts need to be made to get more people from Yemen—from civil society and from organisations working there on the ground—involved in such things. In addition, if we look at the picture from the meeting, we note that there may be one woman at the back of the photograph, but women are not being included in this process. We need women as part of the process to help make the peace and make it sustainable.
When the national dialogue process was going on—I was out in Yemen for that—we spoke to women and young people who had not been part of the governance process. The national dialogue was giving them an opportunity, but the Houthi involvement and the conflict killed that opportunity. Otherwise, there would have been more women involved—that, I think, is what some of the people are fighting for.
I absolutely appreciate that, and the testimony I heard from some of the aid agencies and women’s organisations that came to visit, meeting the right hon. Member for Leicester East and I some time ago, reflected that. They want to be part of the process. Those organisations do exist, and the Government must keep reaching out to them and keep involving them in that process. If we are to get a lasting peace, it must be a lasting peace for all the people of Yemen; it must be as wide as possible, and the attendance must include those organisations.
We lose a huge amount of credibility in this whole discussion, and we cannot be a broker for peace, while we are involved in arming a side in the conflict. We are complicit in what happens. The Minister mentioned 318 incidents of concern, and he may wish to clarify that. How many more incidents are acceptable to the Government, given that 318 incidents of concern have been picked up by the people involved and the armed forces on the ground in Yemen? That is a huge amount of “concern” to have. The amount of aid that has gone in is welcome, and it is good. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe we have put in £202 million in aid since 2015, which is dwarfed by the £4.6 billion in arms sales. A huge amount of money is going into producing absolute brutality and desperation on the ground. If we want the country to be a success, we should be putting all the money and all the effort into rebuilding it, not into destroying what little is still there.
The hon. Lady talks about arms sales, and I accept that we should care about people, but we need to look at the current situation. Is she aware that some 80 rockets have been fired into Saudi Arabia? What is preventing those rockets from killing people is the US Patriot defence missile system. That is defence equipment sold by the US to Saudi Arabia to prevent 80 rockets from landing on ordinary people and killing them. Does she agree with those defence sales?
What I agree with is that we are putting more arms into the situation, which is continuing to escalate it, not—
The hon. Gentleman will have his time later on, as I am sure he will wish to contribute. Adding more weapons to the situation is not going to help.
You will be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, that my daughter has been sent home from nursery sick today. She will be picked up from her nursery by my husband, and she will get medicine, treatment and access to a doctor if she needs it. Unlike parents in Yemen, I will not have to choose which child to save and which child to let die. That is a situation parents in Yemen are facing every single day. Every 10 minutes a child there will die, and parents will have that for the rest of their lives; they will have seen children die before them. We must be committed to finding peace. We must secure, first and foremost, a ceasefire, in order to let aid in. We have had plenty of words, commitments and talk, but Yemen cannot wait. We need action now.
If you will forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will talk about this country for which I hold a deep affection, having studied Arabic there just over 20 years ago. It is a country of great richness and great culture. In many ways, it is absolutely the heart of Arabia. It is there that the camel was domesticated, which allowed the colonisation of the rest of Arabia. So it is, for most Arabs, very much seen as the heart of the culture; indeed, Yemeni Arabic is seen as the purest—the closest to Koranic Arabic that is currently spoken. So to see the country so ruined, so destroyed is a matter of great sadness for all of us who love Arabian culture, the Arabic language and the Arab people.
We have to be clear about what is causing that destruction. It is absolutely right to say that the blockade on Yemen is wrong—there is no doubt in my mind that Saudi Arabia has a particular responsibility to address the humanitarian concerns facing the Yemeni people today—but it would be wrong to point solely at Riyadh. The decisions being made in Tehran today are having an effect that is being felt throughout the region. It would be wrong to be silent in the face of such aggression, and it would be wrong to ignore the roots of it.
When we look at Zaidi Islam, which as we all know descends from the fifth branch of Shi’a Islam—from the son of the son-in-law of the Prophet, Ali Husayn—it is worth remembering that Iranian involvement in Yemen is nothing new. Indeed, it is said that the Prophet himself was born in the year of the elephant, which is so named because it is the year in which the Shahanshah, the King of Persia, landed elephants in Yemen in order to invade what was then called “Arabia Felix”—happy Arabia.
Since then, Iranian involvement in the region has been frequent, and it is so again today, when the Iranians are landing not war elephants but missiles, small arms and rifles. They are equally poisonous to the politics of that region of Arabia today as they have been for nearly two millennia. Just because it is true that Saudi Arabia’s treatment of the Yemeni people today is not acceptable, that does not mean that we should ignore the crimes being committed by Iran.
I urge the Minister, who has done so much for the region—he has done so much not only for the countries and our relationships with them, but for the people themselves—and who understands so well the countries that make up this beautiful and important part of the world, to remember the history that is playing out. I urge him to remember that we have real friends in the region. We have real friends in Yemen whom, of course, we must help. We have real friends in Saudi Arabia, whom we must help to defend themselves. We have real friends in Oman and in the Emirates who are also fighting against Iranian aggression. As we stand up for our friends, we must urge them to remember that they, too, have a responsibility.
I am grateful to my friend, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, for giving way. He referred to the role Iran is playing in Yemen, but are not the Iranians also trying to influence and destabilise other countries on the Arabian peninsula and even trying to increase their influence in Oman?
The hon. Gentleman, who certainly is a friend, is of course absolutely right. The actions of the Iranian Government over the past few years of the Khomeini-ite dictatorship have been taken to destabilise many areas of the middle east. If one looks at Oman today, one can see the actions of Iranian-backed insurgencies. If one looks at Bahrain today, one can see violent insurgencies, rather than just the political groups that one sees in Oman. Look at the eastern seaboard of Saudi Arabia. I am not going to praise the Saudis for their treatment of the Shi’as in eastern Saudi Arabia, around Dhahran, because frankly it is not great, but bearing in mind the way the Iranian Government are seeking to radicalise Shi’a groups in eastern Saudi Arabia, it is right of the Government in Riyadh to see threats coming from the east. They are right, because that is what is happening.
All that does not excuse the human rights abuses of the blockade. It does not excuse the famine and punishment that is being made collective against the whole people of Yemen, and I will not excuse it, but we must remember that this is a war being fought against an aggressive regime that has several times now fired missiles at Riyadh and at civilian populations in Saudi Arabia. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) is absolutely right that the death of the children in Yemen is a crime that cries out for justice, but we must also remember that if Iranian weapons were being landed in Glasgow, we would take action. If Iranian weapons were being fired from France into London, we would take action. I understand that the Saudis are right to take action about it.
Of course, we would not practice collective punishment, we would not blockade and we would not abuse human rights to defend ourselves. We must understand that although there is a legitimacy of Saudi action, as friends of Saudi Arabia and supporters of the welcome changes that are happening in that country today, we have a role and a right to speak out. I welcome the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to Mohammad Bin Salman only a few hours ago. She is absolutely right, and she speaks for the United Kingdom with passion and honour when she calls on him to act, and to act now.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) not only on securing this debate but on his powerful speech. I associate myself with his remarks. I shall resist the temptation to address some of the broader political questions that have come up during the debate so far and focus on the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis, and particularly the impact of the blockade. I join the right hon. Gentleman and other speakers, including the Minister, in paying tribute to all those who are working on the ground to try to make a difference in this terrible situation, including the United Nations, aid agencies, the Department for International Development and, above all of course, the long-suffering people of Yemen.
The scale of the crisis is enormous. As we have heard, Yemen could be just weeks away from a once-in-a-generation famine. The UN estimates that 85% of Yemen’s population is in immediate need of humanitarian assistance. That has increased over just the past 12 months by 2 million people. Some 10 million people are at immediate risk of death, and our own Department for International Development says that they
“may not survive if they do not receive humanitarian assistance”
in some form or another.
It is difficult to get fully accurate figures from sources on the ground, or elsewhere, of the precise human cost of this tragic conflict. It would be very useful if the Minister was able to give us an estimate of how many civilian lives have already been lost since the conflict in Yemen began. As the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield reminded us, Yemen has long been reliant on imports for its food. Even before the war, nearly 90% of Yemen’s food was imported. Yemen requires monthly food imports of 350,000 metric tonnes, of which 80% comes through the two ports of Hodeidah and Saleef. While the ports were fully blockaded, no goods were coming in at all, leaving a dangerous and deadly backlog.
Since the full blockade began three weeks ago, the situation has got even worse. Cholera is widespread, with a suspected 1 million cases and at least 2,000 deaths. As well as having one of the largest recorded cholera outbreaks since records began, Yemen is facing the threat of diphtheria, an extremely contagious and deadly disease the symptoms of which include high temperatures, difficulty breathing and a sore throat. Around one in 10 adults who contract diphtheria will die; for children, the proportion is closer to one in five.
In this country, we have almost eradicated diphtheria. Since 2010, the UK has recorded 20 cases, with one tragic recorded fatality. That is in the past seven years; in the past two months, Yemen has reported 120 cases, with 14 fatalities, and the numbers are rising. Given how contagious the disease is, it is surely only a matter of time, unless something changes dramatically, before hundreds, if not thousands, of Yemeni people contract diphtheria, with devastating consequences for that country.
The life-saving medication and humanitarian aid that is used to treat these diseases has been withheld from innocent civilians as a direct consequence of the Saudi blockade. Even with the modest easing over the past week, about which we heard from the Minister, lives remain at risk. As has been said, before the blockade, 17 million Yemenis—more than 60% of the population—were food insecure, with an estimated 7 million at immediate risk of famine. That represents a 20% increase over the last year. Half a million children were suffering from severe, acute malnutrition. Last week, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network released an alert saying that
“famine is likely in Yemen if key ports remain closed.”
That is why this issue of the blockade is so important. The report went on to say that
“if the ports remain closed or if the ports are unable to handle large quantities of food, famine is likely with thousands of deaths each day due to lack of food and the outbreak of disease.”
Four governorates in Yemen have malnutrition rates above the emergency threshold and seven others exceed the threshold of “serious”.
My hon. Friend is passionately outlining the current humanitarian crisis and the need to remove the Saudi blockade. I absolutely agree. Does he not also agree that the problem with Yemen is that it was already the poorest country in the middle east and that it attracted far too little attention from the international community? The UK had always been generous through the Department for International Development, but it was, none the less, one of the poorest countries, and this conflict and this crisis have come on top of already shocking statistics.
My hon. Friend has been a consistent and powerful advocate on behalf of the Yemeni people, including the diaspora living in his own constituency. I absolutely agree with him and take the opportunity of his intervention to pay tribute to DFID, both for its longer-term involvement in Yemen, which pre-dates the conflict, and for the work that it has sought to do during the current crisis.
As of Monday, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 29 vessels carrying food and fuel had been denied entry. As the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said, over the weekend, the Saudi coalition did allow a single ship into the port of Hodeidah. That ship was carrying 6,000 tonnes of flour, which roughly equates to 10 million loaves of bread for the nearly 21 million people on the brink of starvation. Clearly, it is not enough, and the people who are being punished are the innocent civilians of Yemen.
A number of ships are now in the holding area off the Red sea ports, carrying crucial supplies, including ships with nearly 170,000 metric tonnes of desperately needed food. Last night, a vessel carrying 30,000 metric tonnes of wheat was able to berth. However, four vessels carrying fuel and three carrying food are still waiting for permission to dock. I urge the Government to use their good offices to ensure that those vessels carrying desperately needed supplies are able to berth in Hodeidah as soon as possible.
As others have said during the debate, fuel remains at the centre of the ongoing crisis in Yemen. Only two of the ships currently off Yemen are carrying petrol. Farmers in Yemen are reporting that they simply do not have enough fuel to run the agricultural equipment, which further compounds the risk of famine. What little fuel is left in Yemen is being sold at extortionate prices. Humanitarian organisations carried out an assessment, which suggested that a minimum of l million litres of fuel are needed for non-governmental organisations to operate at their pre-blockade level.
The two ships with fuel have enough petrol to last just 16 days. Estimates from Sana’a suggest that, unless something changes, petrol will run out in six days and diesel in 17 days. If that happens, the people will suffer even more, with hospitals and waste treatment facilities not being able to function properly. Without fuel, many of the humanitarian supplies waiting off Yemen will not have the opportunity, even if they can dock, to be moved around the country.
It is estimated that, within days, 8 million people will be without running water as the fuel required to pump the water runs out. Safe water and sanitation are vital to combating the outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria. Yemen’s three largest cities have had to shut down their water and sewage treatment facilities and a further five cities will do so within days. In Hodeidah, untreated water and sewage has been washing up into the streets for several days now.
As the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) said in her excellent speech, the International Committee of the Red Cross took the very unusual step this week of buying fuel stocks to help to restart the water and sewage treatment facilities in Yemen’s second and third largest cities—Hodeidah and Taiz. However, given the extortionate price of fuel, they were able to buy only enough supplies to last a month. May I praise the ICRC for doing that? It acknowledges that it was an unusual but necessary step to help the people of Yemen. I now implore the Government to do all they can to work with NGOs and others on the ground to ensure that much-needed fuel gets into and around Yemen as soon as possible.
As we have heard, health facilities have been destroyed during the conflict: one in six has been completely destroyed and barely half are functional at all. Many have had to close because of the lack of access to clean water. Only 30% of the required medical supplies are getting into Yemen. As a result, many diseases go untreated, compounding an already horrific situation. Although vaccines are slowly making their way back into Yemen through aid flights, much, much more needs to be done to ensure that the entire population is protected against diseases that are both preventable and curable.
On Saturday, I will be taking part in a vigil for Yemen in Liverpool. I am delighted that my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), is here, and I know that he will be joining that vigil with members of the Yemeni diaspora in Liverpool. It is so important that we send a clear message that this conflict is not forgotten. When I speak to the Yemeni diaspora in Liverpool, it is clear that the one thing that they want is peace in Yemen. They recognise that that will be achieved through diplomatic means.
I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister is in the region. It is vital that she presses loudly and clearly for the full lifting of this blockade. This debate today is timely and important. The message is clear that the blockade must be lifted immediately, but we recognise that even the lifting of the blockade, vital as that is, is far from sufficient. We need to keep coming back in this House to the issue of Yemen until we see a ceasefire, a political solution and an end to the bloodshed.
It is an honour to follow the Chairman of the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who has spoken powerfully on this matter not only today, but on several previous occasions. His commitment is wholehearted, as is that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), whom I congratulate on securing this debate today and who I know takes a huge personal interest in the matter. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Minister, because I know just how hard he works on this issue, and how close it is to his heart. He brings to his work a passion, which, if not unique, is certainly hugely important in Government.
I wish to use the words of other people in my speech, as I do not know a huge amount about the area. International development is something of great concern to me, as is foreign affairs. I thought that I would write to somebody I know who has much more experience of the situation in Yemen and who has been working with the World Food Programme. He has sent me a couple of emails this week, and I will quote from them and from a couple of other things that he has sent me. He writes:
“From a food perspective, the situation is ‘beyond bleak’. It is a catastrophe beyond anything that I have ever seen before. We are talking of 17 million food insecure people. The World Food Programme is giving food and vouchers to around 6.5 million people across most of the country. Obviously this has been hampered over the last three weeks due to the blockade. Thankfully, that horror is now over and ships are docking. Remember that even pre-crisis Yemen was almost entirely dependent on food imports.”
He goes on:
“The blockade only served to make food a weapon of war. The World Food Programme expects that 3 million of the 17 million will be pushed into a deeper level of food insecurity as a result of the blockade. Market availability is acceptable but remains inaccessible due to inflation”—
hence the high prices.
He goes on:
“Cholera I believe is stabilising but still at around 800,000 people. It is the largest outbreak in modern history and utterly shameful.”
I will not go into the statistics, because the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby has done so already.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I have had letters from constituents voicing grave concerns about the situation in Yemen, particularly the blockade, food shortages and lack of medical supplies, so I agree wholeheartedly that something has to be done.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There is a huge lack of critical medical supplies, including vaccines and treatments to control the spread of cholera, and now of course that deadly disease, diphtheria.
I come to the second of my quotations from an eyewitness—Mark Lowcock, the emergency relief co-ordinator, whom the Chairman of the International Development Committee, I and several other colleagues met a couple of weeks ago. After a visit earlier this month, he said:
“Everywhere I went, I saw roads, bridges, factories, hotels, and houses that had been destroyed by bombing or shelling… I visited hospitals… Both had barely any electricity or water… I met seven-year-old Nora. She weighs 11 kg – the average weight for a two-year-old, not a seven-year-old. Dr. Khaled, the manager of Al Thawra hospital, where she is being treated, said staff there regularly turn away gravely ill malnourished children because they cannot accommodate them.”
There is, of course, a solution. I believe that a political solution is the only way forward: a lifting of the blockade, a cessation of hostilities. Without that, we will indeed face the worst humanitarian disaster in decades. The numbers sometimes seem almost too vast. There are other consequences as well.
I will quote again, finally, from the OCHA report, about a widow and mother of six—five daughters and a son—who
“had to abandon her home in….At Taiziah district in Taizz governorate, fleeing airstrikes and fighting in the area. The family left their village with only the clothes they were wearing, and settled in a nearby, somewhat more peaceful village. Uloom rented a small shop, but the business is struggling and cannot sustain the family’s basic needs such as food, water and medicines. To ease the burden, Uloom decided to marry off her three young daughters. ‘I didn’t have money and couldn’t feed all of the children’, she said. ‘I didn’t want to marry off my daughters so young, but I couldn’t stand them crying and starving. I regret what I did very much’”.
That is one of the desperate individual human consequences of what we are seeing now.
Yesterday, I had the honour of chairing in Speaker’s House a meeting at which we discussed the tremendous progress made on countering malaria over the last 17 years. Millions of lives, including children’s lives, have been saved. Here we have an entirely preventable disaster looming. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of lives, perhaps even more, mainly of children and women, are at risk. We have the opportunity to act globally. I ask that the coalition, the Government of Saudi Arabia and their allies lift the blockade immediately to ensure that those lives can be saved. I thank the Prime Minister for what she said yesterday and today, and I urge the Government to continue in their efforts, day in, day out, until the crisis is resolved.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy). He did himself a huge injustice in saying that he did not know much about the subject; he knows a great deal, and his passion was evident in what he said. I thank him for his remarks. I also commend the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), not only for calling this debate but for his incredible work as International Development Secretary. I think that he will go down as one of the best we have ever had. While he occupied that post, he did so much for Yemen and gave it so much of his time, for which we were very grateful. He gave a brilliant speech today.
It is important that we discuss Yemen on the Floor of the House. We do not get the opportunity to do so often enough. As chair of the all-party group on Yemen, and as one of two Members born in Aden, I believe that this has become a forgotten war, as the Foreign Secretary said. Allowing us to discuss this in prime parliamentary time means that it is forgotten no more.
I thank the hon. Members for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Charnwood (Edward Argar) for being such excellent officers of the all-party group. Yemen has very many friends in the House. This is a Thursday afternoon, but the House is packed. I also thank the young and swashbuckling Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who learned about Yemen when he went to live there to learn Arabic, and who spoke beautifully about its contribution to the history of the Arab world, and of course my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who has made this a priority in his role as Chair of the International Development Select Committee. I miss Flick Drummond and Angus Robertson. Both, whenever they spoke about Yemen, made sure the House listened, and I am glad that the shadow Foreign Secretary, who is extremely busy, came to speak today. It shows that she is very concerned.
As we approach 20 December and the 1,000th day of Yemen’s war, it is clear that the conflict is still no closer to being resolved, and the United Kingdom is sadly no nearer to developing a coherent policy on Yemen. Time and again, I and others have stood in the Chamber calling for our Government to utilise all their immense diplomatic skills, talent and muscle to bring an end to the conflict, but it has not happened, and we are here again asking for the same thing. This debate demonstrates the cross-party consensus in Parliament for an end to this awful war.
As we stand here today, Yemen continues to bleed to death. Yemenis face death from cholera, malnutrition, bombing and starvation. The cloud of death hangs over Yemen: 10,000 dead from the fighting, 40,000 mutilated; each day, 130 Yemeni children dying from preventable causes. As the hon. Member for Glasgow Central said, by the time this debate ends, another 17 Yemeni children will have died. Some 20 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian aid. By the end of the year, 1 million people will be suffering from cholera, which is more than the entire populations of Edinburgh, Newcastle and Hull combined.
The war has destroyed Yemen’s civilian infrastructure. Its hospitals—including the one where I and my sisters were born—and water sanitation facilities have been decimated by the fighting and bombing. As we have heard, state sector workers have not been paid for well over a year, and aid agencies have been asked to fulfil all major functions of the state. It is an impossible task.
The all-party parliamentary group on Yemen will be launching its inquiry into UK policy towards Yemen on 13 December—on Yemen day, to be held here in Parliament. We will hear contributions from all the agencies that have been taking part in this action of mercy: Médecins sans Frontières, Oxfam, Islamic Relief, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Rescue Committee. I hope that many Members of the House, especially those representing the diaspora in Cardiff, Liverpool, Sheffield and elsewhere will come to Yemen day because it will allow us not just to grieve but to press for the action that, I am afraid, is still lacking.
The conflict in Yemen has raged for the past two and a half years, but there has been a sharp escalation this month. On 4 November, an Iranian-supplied missile was fired at Saudi Arabia from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen, landing near Riyadh airport. We condemn this missile attack in the strongest possible terms. One death is not a justification for another, and targeting civilians at an airport is a cowardly act. The response by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to this attack has been quick and deadly, increasing bombing raids in Yemen and issuing a full blockade of the country. Despite an outcry from humanitarian groups and the United Nations, the full blockade lasted for three weeks. We have heard the passionate arguments that this is in breach of article 33 of the Geneva convention.
Although I welcome the ending of the blockade announced this week, acknowledge that the start of the aid has begun and welcome the update given to us by the Minister today, this is not a solution to Yemen’s problems. Aid access to the country is still far lower than is required by the 20 million people who need immediate assistance. Yemen is a country that imports 90% of its food. Restrictions on commercial imports are still present, while Yemeni citizens are starving to death. A return to the pre-November status quo is an unacceptable outcome. It is clear that the only way to stop the suffering of the Yemeni people is with a peace agreement between the parties, and I will not rest until there is peace in Yemen.
In recent months, I have been meeting some of the key interlocutors in the region. Six months ago, I went to Oman and Doha to meet Ministers there. I was on my way back to Aden, but never made it. I was told that if I landed at the airport, there was no guarantee that the plane would take off again. I have also meet the ambassador from Iran to the United Kingdom, Hamid Baeidinejad, who told me that Iran was not involved in Yemen and that Iran wanted peace. But in recent weeks, I have meet the Saudi ambassador, Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, and the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir, both of whom wanted peace and both of whom made it very clear that Iran was involved in supplying arms actively to the Houthis. I think we all have to accept that it is clear that that is the case.
The United Kingdom has the capacity to end this conflict as the penholder of the United Nations. It is good to see what the Prime Minister said in Riyadh today, and that she is there to address the Yemeni issue, but I would like her to stay in the region until she gets everyone back at the peace table. A speech is welcome, but it is not enough. We need to get people back and this is a huge opportunity. There is a clarion call for peace all over the world. Three weeks ago at the United States Congress, Democrat Ro Khanna and Republican Congressman Mark Pocan introduced a bipartisan Bill concerning arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Last week, the Leader of the Opposition wrote to the Prime Minister, calling for arms sales to Saudi Arabia to be suspended, and the Scottish National party has had this position for some time. On no other issue except Yemen would we see an alliance that brings together the United States Congress, the Leader of the Opposition and the Scottish National party.
Yesterday, after a long wait, the Foreign Ministers of the UK, the USA, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman met in the Quint meeting. But there is no timetable for peace. Unless we have a timetable, we cannot get peace. The Foreign Secretary tweeted a picture of himself after the meeting yesterday. My message to him is that we need to spend less time talking about Brexit and more time talking about Yemen. His predecessor, Lord Hague, took an active role in the peaceful transition from President Saleh to President Hadi, and I want to see this Foreign Secretary do the same.
I thank the Minister for the Middle East for his work on the issue. He is always willing to meet, engage and come to Parliament in order to update us.
There was a slight dispute between the Minister and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. The Minister has known him for 30 years, and I have known him for 40 years; he is responsible for my entering politics because he gave me my first speech at university, and I have not stopped since, so he is to blame. However, the fact is that the Saudi Foreign Minister did tell us that the British were there to help them with targeting the bombing. The Minister was not there, but that is exactly what the Foreign Minister said we were doing, and he thanked us for it. Maybe clarification is required on exactly what that means, but I must defend the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield: that is exactly what we all heard.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you will know that this is my 30th year in Parliament. Some may say that is too long, but for my remaining years in this place, I want to dedicate myself to ensuring that there is peace in Yemen. I cannot bear to think of what is happening to this once beautiful country—it fills me with such pain. The images broadcast by the BBC and al-Jazeera this week are just too harrowing to watch. My children had to turn away from the television set, it was so terrible. One day, I want to return to Aden and to have breakfast on the veranda of the Crescent Hotel, overlooking the Arabian sea, where my sisters and I spent so many happy days as children, watching the great ships on their way to the Suez canal.
This is no biblical disaster, but a disaster that has been made by men. In a recent letter to the Prime Minister, I suggested that just as parliamentarians of the 20th century were judged on their reactions to the genocides in Rwanda, Kosovo and Somalia, we will be judged on our reactions to the tragedy in Yemen. Once fabled as the land of the Queen of Sheba, Yemen is now the graveyard of the middle east, and our lack of action is an object of shame for all of us. Unless we act now, the verdict of history will be very harsh indeed.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) on securing this important debate.
It has been nearly 1,000 days since the Yemen crisis started—1,000 days of suffering for the people of Yemen. Two days ago, in an attempt to help to alleviate that suffering and to reinforce what must be an unimaginable effort of humanitarian work, a UN-chartered aid ship docked in the west Yemeni port of Hodeidah. Until this crisis is resolved and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels are defeated, we must strive to ensure that access to support humanitarian work is the norm and not the exception.
I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has met the Saudi Government to raise those very concerns. The United Kingdom is one of the five largest bilateral aid donors to Yemen. We should be proud that the UK is leading the global response, with £155 million of UK funding providing people with food, clean water, sanitation and nutritional support. A further £8 million is being allocated to tackle the spread of cholera.
The people of Yemen are facing a horrendous famine, one that we must bring to an end. With 70% of the population requiring urgent aid, the blockade must be rolled back as much as is practical to ensure that vital assistance reaches those who need it. Without unconstrained access to shipments, hospitals will be without power, leaving the sick and injured without vital medical care, and Yemeni people could experience a long and devastating famine. We cannot allow this to happen.
I welcome the fact that the UK proposed and co-ordinated the UN Security Council presidential statement calling for uninterrupted access for humanitarian assistance into Yemen, and that the Government continue to lobby for Yemen to remain open to humanitarian access.
While I accept the necessity for the UK, alongside our allies in the US and France, to provide vital logistical and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia, which continues to lead a broad international coalition of countries from across the region, that must not come at the expense of many lives, which have been, and will continue to be, lost if this blockade continues.
I am pleased that the UK Government have already taken the lead by lobbying others in the international community, including at the United Nations, to ensure that humanitarian access is granted as rapidly as possible. The UK must continue to use its influence to ensure that all parties respect these clear, unified demands from around the globe.
I continue to urge the Government to make that a priority—to act and to ensure that aid reaches those in need, and to help bring about a long-lasting solution to a long-standing crisis, so that once more the people of Yemen may live safely in their country and in their homes without fear.
I thank the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for obtaining the debate. It is important that we debate this issue, and do so frequently, such is the scale of the catastrophe. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the Chair of the International Development Committee, for his speech, which was very illuminating, very focused, and spoke to the heart of the problem.
There are two issues—today’s crisis and tomorrow’s crisis. I believe there is a consensus in the House that today’s crisis—the blockade—must end. We must help the people of Yemen right now, irrespective of all the other issues. This is about life and death and nothing else, and that is what we should be focused on. In today’s crisis, it is imperative that the UK Government, other Governments, and all our agencies, bring pressure to bear so that the blockade is lifted, allowing aid into Yemen, so that those people in Yemen can be relieved of their suffering.
Some issues transcend today’s crisis and tomorrow’s crisis, and the blame for them cannot be laid at anyone’s door—local warlords; fights over economic assets, including oil, within the country; roadblocks; illegal taxes; theft of aid. It is a complex situation, which we must understand in order to prevent tomorrow’s crisis, because we do not want a crisis tomorrow. We must try to resolve the situation in Yemen so that the country has a future and is not in eternal crisis. That requires the conditions that people have spoken about—primarily, it requires peace. In requiring peace, and if we are to find a long-term solution, we must look at the circumstances that led to what is happening now.
I will mention some important issues that have not been raised. The Gulf Co-operation Council and the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, were the largest donors to Yemen. They remain so today, and will continue to be so in the future. What dwarfs that fact is that what Yemen really needs is a better relationship with Saudi Arabia. The border is currently closed because of the Houthis; one of the biggest elements of Yemen’s economy is the remittances from the 1.5 million Yemeni workers who work in Saudi Arabia. They no longer work in Saudi Arabia because of this conflict; they are victims of it. Open trade has ended. The economy in Yemen is suffering. We need a relationship between Saudi Arabia—the principal partner of Yemen—and Yemen, and that is part of the future. That is part of the peace-building process.
But what has led to this conflict, and why has Saudi Arabia taken the action that it has? Although I do not agree with the blockade, I believe that we need to understand the motivation for it. Many speakers have referred to the rocket fired on 4 November, but that is only one rocket. I thought there were 54, but I am now told—and I stand to be corrected—that there have been 80 rockets. The original rockets, with a range of 1,000 km, were Scuds provided by North Korea, but we now understand that in the latest development, the rockets that are being provided into the area or supplied to the Houthis are Iranian-made—they are coming from Tehran.
If we are to resolve this situation, there needs to be demilitarisation. UN resolution 2216, which is at the heart of this, says that the Houthis must withdraw from all occupied areas; that they must relinquish all arms and military assets; that they must refrain from provocation; and that they must enter peace talks, and there are sanctions on individuals because of the actions that they have taken in the name of the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Let us look at what happened when resolution 2216 went through the United Nations, which has 15 voting members. We say that there is no alliance, and we talk about chaos, but the world was clear. Fourteen members voted for the resolution, and only one member—the Russian Federation—abstained, presumably on the principle of the intervention in Syria. No members voted against. The world was united in condemning the Houthis.
Incursions are among the provocations that Saudi Arabia faces. As I mentioned in an intervention, on the internet there are a plethora of videos showing Houthis engaging in extreme violence—killing Saudi Arabian citizens, attacking schools and killing Saudi Arabian armed forces personnel—inside Saudi Arabia. A violence surrounds the Houthis.
I was fortunate enough to meet the Iranians at the Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in St Petersburg, where they were asked about the arms that are currently in Yemen. Although the Iranians admitted that there were Iranian arms in Yemen, they said that those arms were being supplied by Hezbollah, not Iran. [Interruption.] I thought for a moment that the Minister was going to ask me to give way.
There is real concern about the evolving situation in north Yemen and the fact that the Houthis still will not come to the table, even after 70 accords and agreements. An empty chair is waiting for them, and they will not sit in it. They have no excuse for failing to engage with a process that would afford them peace talks and a path to the future prosperity of their people.
Why should we be concerned? In the BBC documentary that was filmed undercover in Sana’a, we see oppression, and we see the posters going up. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned children chanting “Death to America”, and said that that was some sort of reprisal. I think he omitted the remainder of the words on those posters and the chant that the schoolchildren were forced to sing. The chant is: “Death to America! Death to Israel! Curses upon the Jews!” I do not see that as a step along the pathway to peace, and I begin to understand why the Houthis’ chair at the table is empty. What has Israel to do with this conflict, and why should there be a curse on the Jews? How is that relevant to this conflict? It is not.
There are many other points I could make, but I want to wrap up and allow others to speak. The Houthis must be forced to come to the table, otherwise we will not get peace. Removing the blockade and sending in as much aid as we want may solve today’s crisis, but it will not solve tomorrow’s. Tomorrow’s crisis has to be solved by diplomacy, and that means everybody getting around the table and achieving demilitarisation. People in this House and across the world have to accept and face up to the difficulties in Yemen and start to meet the challenges.
It has been suggested today that the United States should not sell defence missile systems to Saudi Arabia. But the US Patriot missile system is a defence battery, and the 80 missiles fired by the Houthis were shot down by Patriot missile systems supplied by the United States. Is this House really saying that the United States should not have sold the missile defence systems that were used to shoot down the rockets that were fired on 4 November? I do not think so. People need to accept that the situation is very complicated. Finally, we need the Houthis to come to the table.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Although I accept that this debate on Yemen is worthy and important, the two debates that come afterwards—one of which, on RBS and the Global Restructuring Group, I am sponsoring—are also critical. A lot of people on both sides of the House want to speak in the debate that I am sponsoring, and the guillotine as it is today will leave insufficient time to give the subject the due and proper attention. With that in mind, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am prepared to pull my debate if you can speak to the Leader of the House to secure more substantial time for it.
May I say that I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman? The debate in his name that we were going to come on to is very well subscribed, and I would not want to have to curtail it because I think there is a lot to be said. I think the suggestion being offered to the House is the right one, and I will of course speak to the Leader of the House about it. More to the point, however, I have already spoken to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, who has assured me that he will make bringing this debate back to the House a priority. I think everybody recognises that we would not want to curtail such an important debate, given the limited amount of time left, so we will absolutely speak to whoever we need to in order to make sure that time for the debate is provided. I thank the hon. Gentleman.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for securing this incredibly important debate. I also thank him for the work he has done in the House and elsewhere in putting Yemen squarely on our agenda, and I pay a similar tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for all the work he has done and the inquiry that he is shortly to launch.
As we have heard today, even before the conflict, Yemen was the poorest country in the region, but the war has devastated it and its infrastructure. Oxfam has reported that the ports, roads and bridges on the supply routes, along with warehouses, farms and markets have been destroyed by all sides, draining the country’s food stocks. At least 10,000 civilians have already died in the conflict, and at least 40,000 have been injured.
The Saudi blockade started on 5 November, following the firing of a ballistic missile into Saudi territory from Yemen. In response to the missile, Saudi Arabia closed all land, air and sea ports in Yemen, grounded humanitarian flights and stopped all other aid for a number of weeks. The Saudi Government may have partially lifted the blockade, but vital imports of food, fuel and medicines remain severely restricted, particularly in the rebel-held north, which is home to the majority of the population.
There has been no clearance for ships containing fuel, preventing the milling and transportation of food stocks, as well as the operation of generators for health, water and sewerage systems. Humanitarian agencies need at least 1 million litres of fuel each month. Fuel shortages have shut down hospitals, and deprived entire cities of clean water and sanitation.
Aid agencies are gravely concerned about the implications of the blockade on the existing crisis, with starvation and the outbreak of diseases, including cholera and diphtheria. The conflict has had a devastating impact on civilians both directly from the violence on both sides and from its impact on Yemen’s economy and critical services. As we have heard, the country has experienced the largest cholera outbreak in recent history, peaking at almost 900,000 suspected cases.
Let us be clear: Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The country is on the brink of the world’s largest famine, with 80% of the population—20.7 million people —in need of aid. As the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) pointed out so vividly, 130 children die every day in Yemen from hunger or disease, which is the equivalent of a child every few minutes.
These deaths are as senseless as they are preventable. That is the conclusion of Save the Children, which has been working in the country for some time. It has also pointed out the sheer scale of need, with Yemen requiring 350,000 metric tonnes of food imports every month, 80% of which must come through the two ports of Hodeidah and Saleef, which are currently closed.
We have heard a little more this afternoon about the relaxing of the blockades, but according to the information received to date, only a pathetically small amount of aid has got through, compared with the overall scale of need. The country’s stocks of wheat and sugar will not last for longer than a few months without a full lifting of the blockade.
Opposition Members acknowledge that UK aid has been vital—it is really important that it reaches the people on the ground in Yemen—and that DFID has given £155 million. We also need to take time to pay tribute to the NGOs, including Save the Children, Oxfam and Médecins sans Frontières, that are working on the frontline to provide emergency food and other supplies. We should acknowledge their work as an advocate for the region, highlighting some of the devastating consequences not only of the conflict but of the blockade.
Oxfam has described the conflict in Yemen as the forgotten war, so we must acknowledge the important work that the aid agencies are doing in this incredibly difficult situation. Humanitarian support can only meet part of the need. We need commercial shipments to be allowed to continue.
The UK Government are the second largest donor to the UN Yemen appeal, but efforts to address the humanitarian situation and push for political progress have unfortunately been inconsistent with the ongoing support for the actions of the Saudi-led coalition. The UK is the penholder for Yemen on the UN Security Council, as well as one of the largest donors of humanitarian aid. We are a major arms supplier to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, so we are uniquely placed to demonstrate the political leadership that is needed to bring an end to the crisis in Yemen. I listened closely to what the Minister said this afternoon. Many Opposition Members have a lot of respect for the Minister and the work that he does, but he needs to work harder to ensure that there is not an incoherence between foreign policy on Yemen and Saudi Arabia and DFID’s humanitarian policies.
In the last few minutes of my speech I want to say something about what needs to happen now. The UK is a member of the Quint grouping alongside the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the US and Oman, and we led on a UN Security Council presidential statement in June, which called on all parties to engage in peace talks and allow unhindered access for humanitarian supplies. We know that a meeting took place yesterday of the Quint members, and Ministers agreed that all parties had a shared responsibility to ensure safe, rapid and unhindered access for goods and humanitarian personnel. Ministers said that they would back
“a redoubling of efforts to reach a political solution which remains the only route to ending the conflict and addressing security threats to Yemen’s neighbours. Ministers recognised the need for all sides to show flexibility and abandon pre-conditions and called on the Houthis and their allies to engage the UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed on the political process. The Ministers agreed that this urgent issue would necessitate them meeting and consulting regularly to coordinate approaches and identify concrete steps leading to a political settlement.”
The difficulty we have today is that we do not know what any of that means, so I have a few asks of the Minister. Can we have a lot more information about what the statements made after the meeting yesterday will mean in practice, including a timescale? Will the Government use their considerable leverage to ensure that the Saudi blockade is lifted immediately to let humanitarian aid flow? Will they put more effort into a new UN resolution to condemn what is going on in Yemen and ensure that progress can be made? Will the Government do all they can to ensure greater transparency about what is happening in Yemen, including greater access for aid agencies and the media?
We in this House should not put Yemen on the “too difficult” pile and get bogged down in the origins of the conflict. We should concentrate our efforts on alleviating the huge distress being caused to people in that country and work towards a political solution.
“A catastrophe of biblical proportions” was the phrase used by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), a former International Development Secretary—and that was quite a statement to make. It has been adumbrated further by many right hon. and hon. Members, who have described eloquently and chillingly the miasma of despair and death that hangs over the people of Yemen.
What has alarmed me throughout this debate—I commend the right hon. Gentleman for having secured it—is that we could extract the word “Yemen” and replace it with “Syria” in so many circumstances. The two conflicts are very different, but the suffering, pain, misery and death are all too familiar in debates such as this. It is important for us not to become desensitised and that, as the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) said, we do not put Yemen into the “too difficult” box.
The other thing that alarms me—this also has parallels with Syria—is the weaponisation of food, leading to some of the most horrifying tales of hunger and deprivation, and medieval-style outbreaks of disease that are killing people in their hundreds of thousands.
I do not want to take up too much time, so I shall wind up my remarks with this point. The Prime Minister is in the region right now, as the House debates this issue. It has been said that she has raised and will raise the issue of Yemen. Of course, I would prefer she did that than otherwise—it is at least a start. But it is only a start. Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I am tired of hearing about Government Ministers raising things; I do not quite know what that means sometimes.
My first debate in the House two years ago was about the case of Raif Badawi, an imprisoned Saudi writer, and the broader issue of human rights in Saudi Arabia. I remember consulting some of the researchers from the House of Commons Library, who told me at the time that it was sometimes known for Ministers to raise issues not by verbalising their views, but by writing things on sheets of paper and holding them up so that they could be read by other people in the room.
The Minister shakes his head; I would not dream of accusing him of doing anything like that; I respect him as a thoughtful, good Minister. But it is about time we started to see some action. The Prime Minister should not return from her trip until she has secured something in respect of the blockade of Yemen.
Right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and my party leader has also raised the issue with the Prime Minister. We get billions in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which fill up the coffers of the Exchequer with tax receipts, yet we spend only millions on aid. I accept that we are one of the biggest donors—that, of course, is to be commended—but the aid is bastardised by the fact that we are facilitating the shelling of the very people whom we are trying to help with the aid. We find ourselves in the most perverse situation. Although I do not blame this Minister in particular for that, the situation seems to characterise British foreign policy in not only this conflict but many political situations in which we have been involved for a great many years.
I commend the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield for securing the debate, and for all the work that he does, along with the chair of the all-party group—the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is no longer in the Chamber—and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). How much better might it be if the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield occupied the chair of the Foreign Secretary at the Cabinet table, rather than the person who occupies it now?
With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will respond. I will take no more than the two minutes allotted to me, so that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) can make some closing remarks. I thank him again for raising the issue. I also thank other colleagues for the way in which they have dealt with the debate and the constructive way in which nearly all of them spoke.
We are agreed that we want immediate access for humanitarian and commercial aid to the ports in Yemen. I do not want to dance on the head of a pin when it comes to the word “blockade”: that is what colleagues have called it in the House, and that is what it is. There are international rules governing whether something is a blockade. International humanitarian law prevents the starvation of civilians “as a method of warfare”, and that includes blockading with the intent of causing starvation. The publicly made statement by the Saudis was that their intent is not to cause starvation but to ensure that missiles do not enter Yemen. I would be failing in my duty if I did not put that on the record, and, as we have seen, there has been an easing in recent days.
What we are all agreed on, however, is first that we want that greater access, and secondly that we want an end to the conflict. I have sought to assure colleagues that we are straining every sinew in our efforts to assist in a process of which we are not fully in control, and in which not all parties are yet engaged in the same way as the coalition parties are engaged with the UN.
Finally, let me commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, who has made securing access to humanitarian aid one of her top priorities in Yemen. We have been feeding millions of people, and we are determined to continue to do so. We are providing food for 1.8 million people for at least a month, nutritional support for 1.7 million people, and water and sanitation for 1.2 million. The country is doing what it can on the aid side. As we all know, however, commercial access has to be granted. We need more food; we need an end to the urgency of the situation. We also need to support those who are trying to ensure that a legitimate Government are protected against those from outside and from internal insurgency. We need to bend all our efforts to resolving the conflict, and the United Kingdom will do so to the very best of its ability.
I will not take up much of the House’s time, Mr Deputy Speaker.
This has been a most useful debate. I think that there is agreement across the House on two key things. First, the British Government must do everything they can to ensure that the blockade is lifted, because it is a breach of international humanitarian law. It is a collective punishment beating for the 27 million people who live in Yemen, and it must be lifted. Secondly—and here the British Government have a most important role to play—a political process that is inclusive must get going. Those are the two key messages that I hope the Minister will take back to the Foreign Office today.
In different ways, nearly every speaker on both sides of the House drew attention to the fault line in the Government’s current policy, and it was set out with exemplary clarity by the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) a few moments ago. It makes those two objectives more difficult to achieve, but they are the objectives that I hope the Minister will take away with him, and the whole House will wish him all success in achieving them.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the current situation in Yemen.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Tomorrow the House is due to debate the Second Reading of a private Member’s Bill, the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill. Unfortunately I was unable to find a copy this morning, because the Bill was being reprinted as it contained an error. The error was that Scotland had been omitted from it.
I am told that the Bill is being reprinted to include Scotland, and that it will be available at some point today. May I ask whether the House will be able to debate it tomorrow, given that printed copies have not been made available in good time? May I also ask whether you understand, Mr Deputy Speaker, that Her Majesty’s official Opposition no longer consider Scotland to be important enough to be named alongside England, Wales and Northern Ireland in important pieces of potential legislation?
The hon. Gentleman was doing all right until the end of his remarks, when he ruined a very good point of order. The Opposition are not in charge of printing, so I think the hon. Gentleman will regret the comments he added on to the end, as there was no need to make them. However, it is important that we get things right, and there has been a printing error. We will be able to hold the debate tomorrow, however; I can reassure the hon. Gentleman of that—do not book a flight, as we will be here tomorrow. The debate will take place, and Scotland is included. This was just a printing error, so we need not worry and should not try to make political points out of what was a very good point of order up until then.
One of the Backbench Business Committee debates has been withdrawn, so we will now debate the motion on mental health and suicide within the autism community.