The UK is deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. More than 22 million people—over three quarters of the population—are in need of humanitarian assistance. The UN estimates that 17.8 million people in Yemen do not have reliable access to food and that 8.4 million face extreme food shortages. Last year, the country suffered the worst cholera outbreak ever recorded in any country in a single year.
At the Yemen pledging conference in Geneva earlier this month, the Minister of State for the Middle East announced £170 million of support to Yemen this year from the UK. That funding will meet the food needs of 2.5 million Yemenis. Last year, the UK was the second largest donor to the UN’s humanitarian appeal for Yemen. Our funding provided more than 5.8 million people with at least a month’s supply of food, nutrition support for 1.7 million and clean water and sanitation for approximately 1.2 million people, but money alone will not be enough. We must see sustained progress on the response to this year’s cholera outbreak; we must see payment of public salaries to millions of civil servants and their dependants; and we must see unhindered humanitarian access into Yemen. The UK has led the way here, too, lobbying and advising all parties to take the life-saving steps to prevent further deterioration of the crisis.
We are aware of reports over the weekend of significant civilian casualties resulting from coalition airstrikes. We take those reports extremely seriously. The Saudi-led coalition has confirmed that it will carry out an investigation. It is essential that that happens without delay, that the results are published and that the lessons learned are acted upon. Our hearts go out to the families of those killed. We call on all parties to comply with international humanitarian law. A political settlement is the only way to bring long-term stability to Yemen and to address the worsening humanitarian crisis. The Yemeni parties must engage constructively and in good faith to overcome obstacles and to find a political solution to end the conflict.
I thank the Minister for her response.
Last week, the UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, briefed the Security Council on reports of a sizeable military offensive. He said:
“the prospect of intensive military operations in Al-Hodeidah, long heralded, may soon be forthcoming.”
He went on:
“Our concern is that any of these”—
“developments may, in a stroke, take peace off the table.
There have been a number of missile attacks on Riyadh by the Houthis, many of which have been intercepted, but one last weekend resulted in a Saudi casualty. Saudi Arabia has the right to protect its territory and its people from these attacks. However, Hodeidah is one of the two major entry points for aid into Yemen. Any military offensive would cause an already catastrophic situation to deteriorate further. Will the Minister assure the House today that the UK is doing everything it can to prevent such an offensive by the Saudi-led coalition from taking place? Surely, if an attack on Hodeidah goes ahead, the UK would have to suspend arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition.
The UK has been supporting the coalition by providing targeting training for its air force. By the Ministry of Defence’s own figures, 42 potential violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition were recorded in just three months at the beginning of this year, compared with 66 incidents over the whole of the past year. Will the Minister set out what the value of our training is when the rate of civilian casualties is increasing, not decreasing?
Finally, as the Minister rightly says, what Yemen needs is peace and a political settlement. This conflict will not be solved by further violence. May I implore the Government to bring a resolution to the UN Security Council as a matter of urgency? Eight million people in Yemen are on the brink of starvation. Surely the United Kingdom has a responsibility to lead the international community to put peace on the table.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing today’s urgent question and finding time to discuss these important issues on the Floor of the House. He is absolutely right to pay tribute to the work of Martin Griffiths. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the UK holds the pen on this matter at the United Nations, and it is really important that Martin Griffiths has been appointed as a United Nations special envoy. As colleagues will know, he brought the debate to the floor at the United Nations last month. The UK strongly backs his work, and his outline of the process that will lead to a political solution and peace in Yemen. In fact, I am glad to have the opportunity to reiterate a point that he made: we urge all parties to the conflict to exercise restraint and continue to facilitate access for essential imports of food, fuel and medical supplies into the country, including through Hodeidah and Saleef ports. I agree that further military action is not the way forward. The way forward towards peace is around the negotiating table.
The hon. Gentleman made some points about the important role that the UK can play in the peace process, in addition to the role as penholder at the United Nations. Clearly our role is also to be a candid friend to those involved in the Saudi-led coalition; to encourage the process of the investigative joint incident assessment team and the publication of its reports, 55 of which have been published so far; to recognise that the UK is not involved in any way in the targeting chain; and to reiterate the importance of the UK having the most rigorous export controls, which involves the observation of international humanitarian law.
I will not fall into the temptation of commenting on any of the individual players concerned. Clearly, President Hadi needs to be involved in the discussions about the way forward. The United Nations special envoy, after publishing his outline and road map towards peace in Yemen, will need to engage a wide range of counterparties.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for asking the urgent question, and the Minister for responding.
The situation in Yemen is as dire as ever, with millions at risk of famine, the worst cholera outbreak in human history and the alarming prospect that Hodeidah port may soon become a conflict zone. The Houthi political leader, Saleh al-Sammad, was reportedly killed in a bombing last week. What impact does the Minister think that this will have, and what steps is she now taking to reopen dialogue on a ceasefire with the new Houthi leadership and Saudi Arabia?
Last week in this Chamber, the Minister for the Middle East admitted that the level of humanitarian access was not as great as he would wish. Fuel and food imports are not enough and port access remains unpredictable for traders and aid agencies. Just yesterday, appalling images emerged of an airstrike hitting a wedding party. Twenty people were tragically killed and 45 more were wounded. The bride was killed and the groom taken to hospital.
Time and again, the Government imply that this suffering will happen with or without the UK. Well, surely now is the time to make it very clear that Britain will not be complicit. Will the Minister tell us whether the UK Government insisted on full, permanent, humanitarian access in Yemen and an end to the bombing of civilian areas before signing the £100 million aid partnership with Saudi Arabia last month? In the light of the weekend’s appalling airstrike on the wedding party, will the Government now finally suspend their arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions, which allow me to reiterate some of the points that I made to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby. Yes, I do think the UK has an important role to play, particularly as the pen-holder at the United Nations. That is why we are strongly backing Martin Griffiths, the new special envoy for the peace process in Yemen. We believe that that is the most constructive route whereby the UK can engage all the participants in this conflict and send a common message to all of them that the way forward is not through bombs or missiles but through peace discussions, and very much in the way that he has outlined in his reports to the United Nations. The UK is proud to support his office and the tools that he needs to help with this.
As the hon. Lady will know, we are very involved with the United Nations’ role in inspecting ships going into Hodeidah port and reassuring participants that they are purely for humanitarian aid. The UK is also playing a role through the United Nations team that is trying to prevent access for the missiles that are being used to shoot from Yemeni territory into Saudi Arabia, risking the lives of civilians within Saudi Arabia as well. I do think that the UK is playing a constructive role in all these matters. That includes the Secretary of State travelling to Riyadh in December to take practical steps in terms of access to the port for humanitarian aid.
Could the Minister describe the mechanism or system by which our aid gets taken from where it arrives in-country to the people who most need it, presumably by convoy? How do we ensure that this aid actually gets to the people towards whom we have targeted it?
This is an opportunity to pay tribute to all the humanitarian workers in all the conflict areas of the world who very often take such risks in delivering humanitarian assistance to some of the most conflict-affected parts of the world. My hon. Friend will be aware that in all areas where humanitarian aid is delivered, it can sometimes be caught up with different players in the conflict. Obviously we take every kind of precautionary measure through the United Nations to prevent this from happening, but it is still too often shockingly the case that some of this humanitarian assistance gets taken into situations where it is used as part of the conflict. That is one of the very many dangers that we highlight, and it is why we want to ensure that humanitarian workers around the world have safe access to provide their life-saving aid.
Many of us woke up this morning to see the horrific images of yet another airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition that has targeted innocent people, this time a wedding party in northern Yemen killing at least 20 people, including the bride. Of course, this is not new. Shockingly, of the 17,000 airstrikes since the war started, one third have hit non-military targets. The whole House should quite rightly condemn Saudi Arabia and its coalition for targeting innocent people.
Does the Minister agree that the UK Government’s selling 48 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia only last month, bringing total arms sales to £4.6 billion since the beginning of the war, makes the UK complicit in these atrocities and undermines the Government’s international development spend in Yemen? At the very least, will the UK Government commit today to fully and finally halt all arms sales to Saudi Arabia? Will she set out how the UK Government will influence Saudi Arabia to bring about a meaningful political solution to the war in Yemen?
Clearly, the UK is saying to all sides in this conflict that the way to secure peace is through political dialogue, including on the side of the Houthis, from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, but also through ensuring that international humanitarian law is respected in this conflict. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this matter went to the UK High Court in 2017, and the High Court ruled in favour of the UK’s conclusion that Saudi Arabia does have processes in place to secure respectful compliance with international humanitarian law. He will also be aware of United Nations resolution 2216. We say to all the parties in this conflict that the way forward is not through bombing and missiles; it is through the political process that the United Nations special envoy has set out.
My hon. Friend mentioned the largest cholera outbreak since records began, but the aid community is also struggling to cope with the largest diphtheria outbreak since 1989, with over 1,000 cases of this highly infectious disease. Young children are enduring the brunt of this outbreak: 90% of fatalities are under the age of 15. In an environment where more than half of all health facilities are closed or partially functioning, there has been a surge in child mortality driven by communicable diseases and chronic malnutrition. What more can this country and others do to make sure that medicines and nutrition get to the people who need them?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The UK welcomes the approval by the Yemeni authorities in Aden allowing the import of oral cholera vaccines, which should allow 400,000 doses to be administered in southern Yemen. Discussions on vaccinations in the rest of the country are continuing. The partnership with UNICEF in Yemen is allowing UK aid to be spent on vital immunisations against other outbreaks, including diphtheria, as well as helping to train staff on the ground on how to deal with new cases.
First, I join calls from the Opposition Benches for arms sales to Saudi Arabia to be suspended, and echo the condolences to those killed in the wedding party.
The Ministry of Defence has previously confirmed that British forces are in the Saudi-led coalition operations room to provide training and advice
“on best practice targeting techniques to help ensure continued compliance with International Humanitarian Law.”
What went wrong? Was this latest strike in compliance with international humanitarian law, and what are its humanitarian consequences?
Of course, we welcome the fact that the Saudi-led coalition has acknowledged that a full investigation needs to take place to answer the questions that the right hon. Gentleman has asked. We urge that that investigation happen as quickly as possible. It does need to be published so that lessons can be learned.
My hon. Friend rightly refers to the outbreaks of cholera and other diseases. The United Kingdom can be rightly proud of the aid that we are giving. What plans does she have to ensure that there is a supply of clean water to people who are suffering so that the diseases are not spread and people are not forced to drink dirty water?
My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important way in which UK aid is used—to provide clean water on the ground. We would reiterate the same access requests that we have made previously, because it is vital that the relevant water purification tablets find their way to people so that they can be reassured that the water they are drinking is not going to make them ill.
The Minister keeps talking about political dialogue, but who are we having the political dialogue with? We have debated this many times in the Chamber over the last three years, and things have just got worse in Yemen. Today, 22 million people need humanitarian and protection assistance, including more than 11 million children—that is 4 million more people than was the case six months ago. A child is dying every 10 minutes in Yemen from preventable diseases, and yet the blocking of the ports and airports continues. What exactly is the Minister doing and who is she talking to?
It is vital that the discussions include all the people who can move this situation from one where we are observing a conflict to one where we have a peace process under way. My understanding is that the United Nations Security Council presidential statement adopted on 15 March was unanimously supported by all involved. It calls on all parties to the conflict to comply with their obligations and for the solution to be fully inclusive.
The current situation in Yemen is not just a civil war or a sectarian conflict; it is also in many ways a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In addition to diplomatic pressure being brought to bear on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, what pressure is being brought to bear on the allies of Tehran and that side of the conflict?
My hon. Friend is correct to point out that it is thought that the missiles being fired into Saudi Arabia from Yemeni territory are predominantly being supplied by Iran. I reiterate that the UK is trying to work with the United Nations to prevent that and to prevent use of the routes that might be being used to supply those weapons. It is important that all parties call on those supplying the arms to cease.
The Minister referred to the fact that Saudi Arabia is going to conduct an inquiry into the tragic events of the weekend, but surely the British Government should now support a fully independent United Nations-led investigation into violations of human rights on both sides in Yemen?
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) was right to highlight that the immediate and most pressing priority is the alleviation of humanitarian suffering in Yemen, and the Department for International Development should be proud of its work in that area. He also highlighted that, alongside Saudi Arabia’s legitimate right to defend itself and support the legitimate Government of Yemen, it must, like all parties to the conflict, show restraint in its actions. Can the Minister reaffirm the UK Government’s strong position that what we need alongside humanitarian aid is a multilateral ceasefire to which all parties to the conflict simultaneously sign up?
The Minister acknowledges that Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, so why are the UK Government via their arms sales choosing to make that awful situation even worse? How can we have any moral standing on the world stage while we continue to sell arms to the head-chopping, war-mongering Saudi Government? Of course we need to have diplomatic relationships, even with countries we do not agree with, but surely to continue selling arms to a Government who are essentially committing war crimes is beyond the pale, even for our own Government.
The hon. Lady will know that under United Nations resolution 2216, there is a legitimate reason for Saudi Arabia to be concerned about the fact that missiles are being fired on a regular basis into its territory. But she is right that the way forward is for all parties to engage in the political process, and that there is no military solution to the current conflict in Yemen.
I commend the commitment that the Government have already given to humanitarian aid in Yemen, but heavy rains will hit Yemen shortly, and the cholera crisis will get worse, together with the other awful diseases that are a consequence of having not enough water and unsafe water. Can the Minister expand on when extra aid will get there and exactly how it will get to the people who need it? Getting into the right places is extremely difficult.
My hon. Friend is right that this is not just about the money. This month’s pledging conference attracted a wide range of people who were prepared to contribute to funding the humanitarian effort, but it is also essential to ensure that the improvement in access does not slip back. We are concerned to maintain the role we have played both through the United Nations and bilaterally in ensuring that humanitarian access is as good as it can be.
The recent ghastly attack on the wedding party is not the first atrocity on civilians. Markets, schools and hospitals have been hit by coalition airstrikes in a civil war that has already claimed 10,000 civilian lives. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) said, that has created a humanitarian crisis in which a child is dying from a preventable disease every 10 minutes. Can the Minister answer the question put to her by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg): is it not time for the UK as penholder to call for a new United Nations Security Council resolution to ensure unimpeded access to Hodeidah and other ports?
The hon. Gentleman is right to reiterate the important role that the UK can play as penholder, which is why we so strongly support Martin Griffiths’ recent appointment as the UN special envoy on this situation. There was a United Nations Security Council meeting in March on this very subject. He is outlining the way forward in terms of engaging all parties to this conflict in discussions, and that has the wholehearted support of the UK at the United Nations.
I welcome the UK’s support for the UN verification and inspection mechanism, which is helping to speed up the inspection of ships delivering vital supplies to Yemen. However, does the Minister agree that that process needs to be speeded up even more if the people of Yemen are to get the supplies they so desperately need?
My hon. Friend raises a very important detail. The UK has great expertise in maritime matters, and we have deployed experts to Djibouti to help with that inspection process. In fact, UK support has helped to increase the proportion of ships that have been physically inspected by almost 10 times, from 8% to 77%.
May I press the Minister a little further? She gave a long answer a moment ago to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) about a UN Security Council resolution. Exactly when can we expect to see one?
The UK led the drafting in March of the United Nations Security Council presidential statement, and as I understand it, that statement, which calls on all parties to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law and to facilitate humanitarian access, and emphasises the need for an inclusive political solution, was widely supported.
The fundamental cause of the misery in Yemen is the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency, which has blighted the lives of tens of millions of people. I have not yet made it to Yemen, but I made it to within a kilometre of the border in Saudi Arabia—a visit I declared in the Register—and there I learned that something like 70,000 rockets and over 50 Scud missiles have been fired from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, and 50,000 people have been evacuated. Saudi Arabia has the right to defend itself. We need to get this in perspective, because although at the moment there is no chance of any kind of political dialogue, I would rather that Hodeidah port was in the hands of the coalition, which would increase the chances of aid getting through to these benighted people, than that it remained in the hands of the Houthi insurgents.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the perspective of those people who are on the receiving end of missiles fired from within Yemen, and he allows me to reiterate that United Nations resolution 2216 speaks of that. I disagree to some extent with my hon. Friend, in that I do not think that further military conflict is the way forward. We think the way forward is through the political process, backed by the United Nations special envoy.
Liverpool is home to many of the Yemeni diaspora in the UK, and the plight of family members who are suffering in Yemen is a constant anxiety and pain to many of my constituents. I have listened closely to the Minister. In the light of the presidential statement from the UN Security Council, may I ask her specifically, as that was at least a month ago, whether she believes that a resolution is now urgently needed to permanently open all naval ports and airports to both humanitarian and commercial traffic, and if so, what is the UK going to do as penholder to achieve that?
The hon. Lady is right to say not only that these discussions are ongoing, but that they must be pursued with enormous urgency. I can assure her that the work that the special envoy is engaged upon has that urgency at its heart, and involves the UK wholeheartedly backing the way in which he is taking forward engagement with all the parties to pave the way for further steps.
I am sure I was not the only person who was struck by the Minister saying that we would be a candid friend to the Saudi-led coalition. With one third of the 16,847 air- strikes hitting non-military targets, surely we have now come to the time for a bit more candour and a bit less friendliness. Continuing to sell arms to Saudi Arabia is like giving more booze to an alcoholic; it is something that no proper, true or candid friend should be doing.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the important role that the UK can play in being able to use the strong relationship that we have to raise these difficult decisions and difficult issues more effectively. For example, most recently, in March, during the visit of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Prime Minister was able to raise exactly these serious UK concerns about Yemen.
Among the work that the UK is doing, I particularly highlight the work that we have done through Djibouti, in terms of shipping access to Hodeidah, but it is something that we are monitoring very carefully. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, only about two thirds of the humanitarian assistance that Yemen needed got through in March, and so far in April it seems to be an even lower percentage, so it is something that we are paying very close attention to.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for asking this urgent question. I think we all agree that what happened in Hajjah was absolutely shocking. It is not a first, and such killings continue in a war that has seen a lot of individuals killed. There needs to be a clear process of accountability; otherwise, the killing will simply continue. I welcome Martin Griffiths as the new special envoy. He has talked about a peace process, but let us not forget that recently Ismail Ahmed, the outgoing UN special envoy, said that the Houthis had walked away from a peace deal. My question to the Minister is how do we get a peace deal when the Houthis walked away from the Kuwait talks and the Geneva talks and Ismail Ahmed said they walked away from the talks at the back end of 2017? How do we get these people around the peace table?
As I said, negotiations and the special envoy’s work are ongoing, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for his role and the work that he is doing, but no one should underestimate the difficulty of the task that he has been asked to undertake.
One of the terrible consequences of this conflict is that there are millions of internally displaced people in Yemen. The Minister is aware that Christian Aid is campaigning very volubly on that issue. How will the UK Government’s approach to the United Nations compacts on refugees and migrants address the particular needs of internally displaced people in Yemen?
According to Save the Children, there are now over 22 million people—that is two thirds of the population—in Yemen in need of humanitarian aid and protection. That includes more than 11 million children. That is 4 million more people than six months ago. The situation is only getting worse. Does the Minister agree that it is in part a result of the failure of this Government to pursue an end to this with the vigour required? Surely, now is the time to get together, as the penholder, another UN resolution, and to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The UK’s ability to uphold the values of a rules-based international system will be undermined unless the UK is shown to call Saudi Arabia to account for its indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen. So I ask the Minister, as so many other colleagues have today, to treat with urgency the need for a new UN Security Council resolution to make sure that all ports in Yemen are open to humanitarian aid to deal with the catastrophic situation already in place on the ground. Finally, if the Government of Saudi Arabia are not prepared to show appropriate restraint when exercising the country’s legitimate right to defend itself, I ask that the UK Government be prepared to––and will––suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
White phosphorus burns at 815 °C, and to the bone if it comes in contact with human flesh. Is its reported use as an incendiary weapon in Yemen considered by the British Government to be a chemical attack, and if not, why not?
The hon. Gentleman highlights, as did other hon. Members, the need for rigour in the process of investigating all these incidents and, in the case of those that come from the Saudi-led coalition, the importance of encouraging the joint investigative team to adopt a process that makes it possible to publish those reports very quickly.
During our visit to Saudi Arabia over the Easter recess, we were able to put the UK’s concerns about the humanitarian catastrophe to the King, and in detail to his Ministers and officials. Will the Minister update the House on the block on the funds that have been deposited by Saudi Arabia in the Central Bank of Yemen, which are much needed? May I also gently say to her that it surely did not aid the cause of peace that she did not mention Iran and its pernicious role in the conflict until she was asked by her Back Benchers?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. It allows me to welcome the fact that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pledged between them some $930 million in humanitarian assistance at the Geneva conference earlier this month. However, as many colleagues have pointed out, it is important that it gets through.
Saudi Arabia has every right to defend itself, but what it is doing in Yemen goes way beyond self-defence. When one of the world’s wealthiest, most heavily armed and most highly trained military machines kills civilians in every one in three attempts, we have to accept that this is no accident; it is deliberate, unrestrained slaughter of civilians. I understand why the Minister cannot publicly criticise arms sales to Saudi Arabia. It is very noticeable that, despite being asked by nearly every Member on the Opposition side of the House, she has not yet personally defended those arms sales. Is that because, in conscience, she knows that they cannot be defended?
I have said numerous times that the UK maintains rigorous arms export control criteria, and one of those must be that at the time of export there are no concerns that the arms will be used in contravention of international humanitarian law. Again, this is an opportunity for me to emphasise how important it is that the Saudi-led coalition publishes the joint investigative assessment team’s reports, and to welcome the fact that 55 reports have been published so far.
The UK is not meant to sell weapons to countries when there is a clear risk that they will kill innocent civilians or break international humanitarian law. We sell 50% of all our weapons to Saudi Arabia, and 61% of all the killings have been the result of Saudi and coalition airstrikes. What is the Government’s red line on breaking international humanitarian law? When will we stop licensing the killing of innocent civilians?
The hon. Gentleman might even be a member of one of the Committees involved in this, so he will know exactly what the wording is for our arms exports criteria. We have heard from other colleagues about the missiles that are being fired into Saudi Arabia, and this allows me to reiterate—perhaps in conclusion, Mr Speaker—that a political solution is the only way forward to bring long-term stability to Yemen.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Minister talks about the UK being a penholder at the United Nations, but part of the problem is that we give the pen to Saudi Arabia so that it can write us cheques in exchange for arms. I want to ask her this question not as an MP speaking to a Minister, but at a human level. When she sees images of children clinging to their dead parents, does she not realise that it is time to end the arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
What I can say is that the hon. Gentleman rightly draws to the House’s attention how this conflict is harming the lives of so many, and why it is so important that the UK backs the work of the United Nations special envoy in taking forward the discussions that can lead to a political solution that will bring peace to Yemen.