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Volume 642: debated on Monday 11 June 2018

I note in passing that today is the 31st anniversary of the election to the House of a number of right hon. and hon. Members still serving, including—there is a piquancy about mentioning this—the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). I call Mr Keith Vaz to ask the urgent question.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the reports of an imminent attack by the Saudi-Emirati-led coalition on the port of Hodeidah and the humanitarian impact of such an attack.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on both his length of service and his question. Last Thursday, it was 35 years since I was first elected to the House—so there are a few of us old ones knocking around.

On these occasions, I am grateful that you have such a gift for words, Mr Speaker.

On a serious matter, reports have been circulating for some time of a possible assault on either Hodeidah or Hodeidah port. Information at the beginning of last weekend, including from troop movements, suggested that such an attack might be imminent. In view of our responsibilities to aid agencies, the Department for International Development issued a statement based on that information. It read:

“We are doing everything we can through diplomatic channels to discourage an assault on Hodeidah. However despite these actions, a military assault now looks imminent. The Emiratis have informed us today that they will now give a 3-day grace period for the UN [and their partners] to leave the city. Please take all precautions necessary to prepare for this and let us know if there is anything we can do to assist you in any way. We are thinking of you and your staff at this very difficult time.”

That is the email that was reprinted in The Guardian today.

The Government are and have been concerned about the potential impact of any assault on the city and port of Hodeidah for some time and have made their concerns clear to the Saudi and Emirati Governments. The UN assesses that an attack on Hodeidah could displace up to 350,000 people and leave hundreds of thousands of Yemenis without access to basic goods or healthcare. The Foreign Secretary spoke to his Saudi and Emirati counterparts over the weekend, and we are in close touch with the UN humanitarian co-ordinator and the UN special envoy.

The majority of Yemen’s food and fuel imports enter through Hodeidah and Saleef ports and it is crucial that humanitarian and commercial imports continue to flow through the port. We urge all parties to facilitate access for essential imports of food, fuel and medical supplies into the country, including through Hodeidah. As with all aspects of the conflict, all parties must respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians.

No attack has yet taken place. Accordingly, we continue to urge all sides to de-escalate as a matter of urgency and to engage in the political process in good faith. The UN special envoy has previously expressed concern that conflicts in Hodeidah could take peace off the table “in a single stroke”. It is essential for him to be given the time that he needs to facilitate a negotiated solution that avoids conflict in the city and we support his efforts to do so.

It is important to recall the wider conflict. The conflict in Yemen is now in its fourth year. Houthi rebels took the capital by force in 2014 and displaced the legitimate Government of Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition action is designed to facilitate the restoration of effective governance. The Houthis have consistently failed to adhere to UN Security Council resolutions: they have, for instance, launched missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, prevented access to humanitarian supplies—which has led to significant damage to civilians—and prevented vital vaccinations.

We have been clear about the fact that there can be no military solution to the conflict. We continue to encourage all parties to show restraint, to return to negotiations and to engage in the UN-led political process in good faith, to work towards a comprehensive political settlement.

Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, and for your kind words. I also thank the Minister for what he has said.

The port of Hodeidah accounts for the entry of between 70% and 80% of humanitarian aid. As we have just heard, it is at risk of an imminent military assault by forces supported by the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition—a coalition strongly supported by this Government, who, of course, supply it with arms.

The three-day period that has been given to the aid agencies is simply not enough. Hodeidah has been the last lifeline to Yemen’s civilians since the conflict began —2.2 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance—and an attack on the port would be a catastrophe. The United Nations estimates that it could lead directly to the deaths of a quarter of a million people, roughly the population of the city of Leicester. It would devastate the peace process. As we heard from the Minister, Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy to Yemen, who has just taken up his post, has said that such an assault

“would, in a single stroke, take peace off the table.”

Will the Minister ask the Prime Minister today, after her statement to the House, to speak to Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, and tell them that they must immediately stop the military preparations for the offensive? Will he instruct our UN ambassador, Karen Pierce, to convene an emergency meeting of the Security Council to discuss this matter? At that meeting or before it, will the Government make a statement directly condemning an attack on Hodeidah and calling for a ceasefire as a matter of urgency?

Will the Minister convene, as a matter of urgency, a meeting of the Quint nations on Yemen this week? That was promised several months ago. Finally, if an attack on the port does take place—against the wishes of our Government—will we reconsider our support for the coalition, or in what way will we ensure that the peace process succeeds?

I know that the eyes of the world are on Singapore at this moment, but they should be on Hodeidah. Failure to take this action will lead to more slaughter of innocent Yemenis, and will be a stain on the conscience of Ministers, the Government and the House.

Obviously, we share much of the concern expressed by the right hon. Member for Leicester East. That is why we have consistently made the case to the coalition that an attack on Hodeidah could have very serious displacement effects, and we have expressed our concern over a lengthy period. We will continue to do so. The Foreign Secretary did so over the weekend and those conversations will continue. I stress that no attack has yet happened and, even as we speak, the UN special envoy is engaged with both sides to see whether anything in the imminence of circumstances might move the negotiations along.

I have made the case to the House before that this is not a one-sided conflict. Areas under Houthi control have prevented humanitarian access. Abuses of international humanitarian law have occurred. The Houthis stop vaccinations and steal medical supplies.

The coalition came into effect to restore legitimate government to the people of Yemen. We have expressed our concern about any action taken by the coalition that might be in breach of international humanitarian law. We will continue to do so. The Foreign Secretary is in contact with other members of the Quint and those who are concerned about potential action. However, it remains the case that a negotiated solution could still be found. We are continuing to urge that the UN special envoy has the space to be able to do that. That has been our consistent approach over a lengthy period and we will continue to do that.

Order. A good many colleagues are seeking to catch my eye and this matter is urgent, which is why I granted the question, but there are two important ministerial statements to follow and, unusually, today it may not be possible to accommodate all who wish to take part. However, participation will be maximised if questions and answers are brief. To be blunt, there is no time for preamble.

Is Iran involved on one side in this conflict and is that a complication in the wish to find not only a brokered peace in Yemen but a solution to the Iranian situation?

My right hon. Friend is right: Iran does have a relevance to this conflict. It is engaged in supplying weaponry and support to the Houthis and we have consistently called on Iran to recognise the damage and danger done through its actions. It is still possible that Iran can be part of the solution and part of the answer to the conflict, as many parties that take part in conflicts clearly are.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the chair of the all-party group on Yemen, on securing it.

There is a bitter sadness in the fact that, less than three weeks ago, we were welcoming the publication of the all-party group’s latest report, a blueprint for bringing about a peaceful political solution to this terrible conflict and an end to the humanitarian crisis, yet here we are, 20 days later, facing the exact opposite—an attack on Hodeidah by the UAE, which according to the UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, will

“in a stroke, take peace off the table. ”

And not just that but, as has already been observed by Members on both sides and by every aid agency working on the ground, this planned attack will not just threaten the lives of the hundreds of thousands of civilians living in Hodeidah, but turn the humanitarian crisis facing the rest of Yemen into a full-blown humanitarian disaster. Why is this happening? After all, we are used to hearing the mantra in these debates that “There is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen.” However, let us be clear what that actually means. What it means is that we take it on trust that the Saudis and the Emiratis have the good sense and humanity to understand that any conceivable military solution would cause such catastrophic loss of life that both politically and morally it would be impossible to pursue. But that, I am afraid, is exactly what we now face in Hodeidah.

Trusting to the good sense and humanity of the UAE and the Saudis is therefore clearly no longer a viable option, so may I ask the Minister today whether, at the emergency session of the Security Council due to take place in a matter of minutes, the UK will take action and table an immediate resolution demanding that the UAE stop this assault on Hodeidah before it is too late, and will he immediately suspend the sale of arms for use in this conflict?

The United Kingdom will continue to do what it has done for a lengthy period, which is to seek to discourage any attack on Hodeidah or on the port. The Foreign Secretary has been engaged in this over the weekend, we will continue to be so and that same case will be made through the United Nations.

In relation to arms sales and the like, I remind the House again that this is covered by international humanitarian law. Any suggestion of breaches of that will be subject to the law, as always, and the UK will continue to consider any possible risk of that in any future arms sales.

I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend joined on the Front Bench by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood); they demonstrate the joined-up effort that needs to go on here. However, has my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East had time to urge our defence attachés in the region to emphasise to the Emiratis that taking a city of 400,000 is not an easy task? Having served in the operation that captured Basra 15 or so years ago, I can assure him that the invasion is the easy bit; it is the governing it afterwards that makes life incredibly hard.

My hon. and gallant Friend speaks from experience. I can assure him that everyone who has been in contact with the coalition in relation to this has done exactly what he and everyone else in the House would expect in terms of expressing concern about how any assault might be carried out and the dangers involved. That is why we have sought to discourage an attack. The port and the city are separate—they may be separate targets—but our advice has been consistently the same in that we seek to discourage such an attack.

The United Kingdom Government must decide which side of history they want to be on. The imminent Saudi-led attack on Yemen’s largest port, Hodeidah, is set to cut off essential food, fuel and medical supplies, and the United Nations has estimated that

“as many as 250,000 people will lose everything—even their lives.”

Can the UK Government therefore unequivocally assure the House that no UK personnel will assist in this attack and that no UK-made weapons or equipment will be used? Do the UK Government agree that they must take the side of Yemeni civilians over Saudi Arabia and that this attack will be a line in the sand for the UK’s support for the coalition campaign? Given the imminent threat of major loss of life and starvation to an entire nation, will this Government finally and immediately cease all arms sales to Saudi Arabia? This is not in our name. Will the UK Government do the right thing, or will they go down in history as having blood on their hands?

In this House, mention is hardly ever made of the humanitarian abuses by the Houthi forces, with which the coalition is engaged, after the insurgents sought to remove a legitimate Government. There have been violations such as attacks on civilians in Aden and Taiz, intimidation of UN ships attempting to dock in Aden, the use of schools and hospitals for military purposes, the use of child soldiers, the targeting of aid workers and the imposition of restrictions on humanitarian access. We are on the side of Yemeni civilians—[Interruption.] We are on the side of the Yemeni civilians who face those things in Houthi areas every day. I repeat what I said earlier: we will continue to use our influence to discourage any attack on Hodeidah port. It would be nice to hear something about the Houthis every now and again from different sources.

Along with the rest of the UN Security Council, we are unanimously on the side of the Saudi-led coalition, which is trying to bring order to Yemen in the face of the Houthi rebellion. As we have heard from the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the port accounts for 70% to 80% of the imports into Yemen. Surely, our policy should be to aid the coalition we are supporting to take control of the port and the access into Yemen.

Order. We are short of time, and I have tried to make the point that if people asked short questions and got short answers, we would get through everybody.

My hon. Friend makes a serious point about the tactics being used to try to bring this conflict to a conclusion. Only a conclusion and a peace settlement will truly serve the interests of the people of Yemen. It is not for the United Kingdom to get involved in those tactics, but my hon. Friend makes a point about access to the port and how that can be used to benefit civilians.

Surely, though, unconditional support for the Saudi-Emirati coalition will never bring us to a point at which we can legitimately and credibly say that there is no military solution to this conflict.

What estimate has the Minister made of the amount of rockets and other munitions that have been fired by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia during the four years of the Yemeni conflict?

It is difficult to say. A recent rocket attack killed three Saudi civilians, and there have been a number of different attacks. Attacks on the airport and the royal palace in Saudi have been prevented. Should one of these missiles land on such a target, the whole circumstance in the middle east would change radically.

The Minister is of course right to condemn the Houthis; I have never heard any Member of this House defend them. The reason for the focus on the Saudis and the Emiratis is that we are allied with them. Can I press him to answer the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) about clearly condemning this proposed attack, and will the Prime Minister speak to the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as a matter of urgency?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about the other side of this conflict, because it refers to why the coalition is engaged in the first place and why the UK should recognise its right to act to defend Yemeni civilians. We will continue to discourage action, and I will of course take the requests of the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) to the Prime Minister.

Some 22 million people in the Yemen are in need of humanitarian aid. How can we deliver that aid when we are in the middle of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

It is difficult, but we have remarkable people who seek to deliver UK aid. On 3 April, we pledged an additional £170 million to Yemen to cover the financial year 2018-19, and we are the fourth largest donor to the UN appeal, but we should all remember the courage and bravery of the aid agencies that are working to deliver aid in difficult circumstances.

Is there any prospect of the UN special envoy’s proposal to deal with the problem, which is to hand over control of the city and/or the port to the international community, making any progress?

The right hon. Gentleman asks a good question. There are several different possibilities for resolving the situation peacefully, but that possibility is certainly being discussed by various parties. Anything that allows a negotiated end to circumstances that cannot provide an answer for one party or the other should be encouraged.

The sooner this port is out of the control of the Iranian-backed Houthis, the more aid will get to civilians in Yemen. Why did the UN refuse to accept the requests from the Saudi-led coalition in March last year and April this year for the UN to take over supervision of the port? If the UN will not do that, surely there is no alternative but for the Saudi-led coalition to do it.

My hon. Friend makes the point that various offers have been made to bring the situation to a conclusion and for a peaceful solution to Hodeidah port, which requires the Houthis to do something in response to the entreaties made, but that has not happened so far. If the Houthis were to do so in the next 48 hours, that would make a significant difference.

It is fair to say that there are few Saudi forces on this battlefront and that it is largely an Emirati-run operation, with Emirati troops, but led by 25,000 Yemeni soldiers. The Houthis are currently laying mines at the airport, and they are escalating the conflict in Hodeidah. They have mined the port, which has significantly reduced the amount of aid that can get in, and if they destroy it, that will adversely affect Yemen. If the Houthis blow the port up, would that constitute a war crime?

The hon. Gentleman’s knowledge is extensive. The Houthis might do just that, which is a demonstration of the dangers that have been caused by Houthi control of the port and other areas and one of the reasons why the coalition is engaged.

What assessment have the UK Government made of the number of people who will be killed or become refugees if the attack takes place? In what way is that influencing UK policy?

The UN has made various calculations. I referred in my statement to the fact that some 350,000 people might be displaced. It is not necessarily a question of numbers, however. Should an attack take place and people become displaced, we are all aware that the impact would be considerable. That is why we have sought to discourage the attack and to encourage a negotiated end to the conflict for the benefit of the Yemeni people.

A negotiated settlement is clearly the only way forward, but what more pressure can be put on Iran, which is fuelling the conflict by supplying missiles and other armaments to the Houthis? If pressure was put on the Iranians, surely we could get some movement towards a settlement.

Iran is aware of the international concern about the role it is playing and about some of the areas where it is alleged to be playing a role. That pressure is being applied, and Iran has an opportunity here to demonstrate that it wishes to play a less disruptive role in the region.

Following on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones), if the port were taken out of action by an attack, would that be a breach of international humanitarian law?

It depends entirely on the circumstances. If deliberate starvation is caused as an act of policy, that is a breach of international humanitarian law. Should the Houthis decide to destroy the port, which they are being driven away from, purely to cause such action, that would probably be such a breach.

The Minister, once again, has said there can be no military solution to this conflict, but would not an attack on Hodeidah mean a military solution is precisely what the coalition is intending to impose, irrespective of the cost in human lives? If he is not able to secure the guarantees he has been seeking on access to Hodeidah and humanitarian supplies, what action will the UK Government take to enforce international law?

In an active conflict, one side or the other often believes that, even though a military solution is not possible, military pressure may lead to a negotiated outcome more quickly. This happens in conflicts in many places. I repeat our view that no overall military solution is possible and that negotiation is best.

The Minister is of course right to condemn the jihadi Houthis, but will an attack on the port not push them into the city, causing far more deaths? Will the British Government draw a red line under this and ensure that no UK personnel service these weapons?

We will continue to discourage such an attack, and we urge the Houthis to take the opportunity for negotiations that is currently available.

Is it not right that this deeply perilous attack could be avoided if the UN took a more robust stance against the way the Houthis are deliberately squandering aid to starve their own citizens and create a worsening humanitarian crisis?

Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has knowledge of these things and is prepared to express it. Houthi conduct has been devastating to the people of Yemen. The Houthis have an opportunity to end such a conflict and take part in negotiations for a peaceful future.

Can the Minister confirm that Iranian naval vessels are supplying the Houthis? Can he also confirm that Hezbollah is also engaged in supporting the activities of the Houthis?

I have no direct information to confirm precisely the terms that the hon. Gentleman uses. These allegations have been made, and we are aware that the UN special panel did indicate that missiles used by the Houthis were of Iranian origin.

I cannot recall operations on this scale having previously been conducted by the Saudis or the Emiratis. Given that the excuse often given for civilian casualties is that they have not previously conducted air campaigns, what hope does the Minister have that we will not be in that same disastrous situation after this operation?

The hope we have expressed to the coalition is that such an attack does not take place and is discouraged. That has been the consistent position of the UK Government.

When will the Government realise they will have blood on their hands if they continue to co-operate with the Saudi-led coalition, not least by selling it the arms it is using to kill hundreds and thousands of civilians indiscriminately?

I am grateful that this afternoon there have been a number of illustrations of activities by the Houthis that have caused severe damage to the Yemeni population. The House needs to understand there are two sides to this conflict, which is why the coalition has been involved.

As the UN and other non-governmental organisations are leaving the port, how will the UK deliver humanitarian aid to alleviate the suffering in the absence of operational partners?

The hon. and learned Lady asks a perfectly fair question. If we have information in relation to an attack, our responsibility is plainly to let those who might be affected know. As soon as such a danger has passed, aid agencies will be able to move back. Again, this is another reason why we have sought to discourage such an attack.

The UAE is only one force in the Gulf that is increasing belligerence and destabilisation, but it is a very close ally of this country. Why are the Government not either using their influence with the UAE or reconsidering some of those links and co-operation? They appear to be doing neither at the moment.

As I have indicated, we have been in contact with the parties in the coalition over a lengthy period. The Foreign Secretary has been in contact with them this weekend, and it has been our consistent position to seek to discourage the attack on Hodeidah, while understanding what drove the coalition to be involved in the first place, which is to seek to defend the Yemeni people.

How many British citizens are currently working on aid programmes in Yemen, and what steps are the Government taking to protect them?

Very few UK citizens are involved in the aid programmes; my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had a meeting on that, and they have been given the same information as others on the availability of leaving. Obviously, the circumstances of UK aid workers is a matter of priority, as are those of other aid workers. That is why we issued our warning notice.

I thank the Minister for his response. What talks are taking place between all those involved in Yemen’s daily life? Coming from Northern Ireland, I recognise the importance of all sides being engaged in talk-talk, rather than war-war. Where is the peace process?

The peace process is in the hands of the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths. Since his appointment in March, he has been working hard to get through to both sides and find a way in which he can put a proposal to them. I understand that he is coming back to the UN Security Council shortly to do just that. It is possible that the events that are currently going on might concentrate minds and assist that process—we earnestly hope so.