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Volume 655: debated on Thursday 28 February 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Iain Stewart.)

I am most grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate. I am glad to see the Minister for the Middle East, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), present today, for he is a person of great knowledge and experience regarding this matter. I am also glad to see other colleagues in attendance.

In a world beset by multiple crises, Yemen continues to exhaust all comparisons as a political and humanitarian crisis. There has never been a conflict quite like it. In 26 days’ time, we will be approaching the fourth anniversary of this gruesome and tragic war, when the first bombs fell near the city of my birth, Aden. By the minute, by the hour and by the day, Yemenis continue to die. Whether by air raids, landmines, starvation or illness, Yemenis from the north and the south are suffering unimaginable trauma, and are being killed.

Yemen holds that bleak title of the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. The scorecard of shame brings tears to my eyes. Eighty-five thousand children have starved to death, 24 million people need humanitarian assistance, 3.1 million have been displaced and 60,000 have been killed since conflict began in March 2015. That is 294 each week, and 42 every single day.

Yemen is still suffering because, despite recent discussions and negotiations, in Yemen itself nothing has changed. When I meet and speak to Yemenis, they are crying out for peace. But they are asking searching questions of this Parliament and our Government: “Why is this still going on? How much more suffering can we take? And why is the world appearing to do nothing about it?”

This humanitarian situation is a tragedy. For six months, until only last week, there was absolutely no access to the Red Sea mills in the port of Hodeidah, which can feed up to 3.7 million people in a month. A UN report published just 14 days ago on 14 February reported that 14.3 million Yemenis are now in acute need. BBC News on 4 February revealed harrowing images of children starving; 10.3 million children do not know where their next meal will come from. Yet the war continues. Bombing runs—155 in January this year—are terrorising people, and destroying buildings and 1,000 years of Yemeni heritage.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for doing so much to highlight this cause; he is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that the bombing of medical facilities—five medical facilities run by Médecins sans Frontières have been bombed since 2015—is a criminal act, and that medical facilities should never be a target in such a conflict?

I absolutely agree and I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for all the work that she has done on Yemen, keeping this issue very much alive in this Parliament and elsewhere. She is right that there is no excuse for bombing medical facilities.

In fact, 19,200 airstrikes have hit since those first raids in 2015. Violence is being perpetrated on all sides. A total of 267 civilians have died because of landmines that are now hidden in the landscape of western Yemen. In January 2019, five charity workers were killed while trying to de-mine. There is no point in the UK Government generously pledging funds if the aid cannot actually reach the people of Yemen.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for yet again bringing this subject to this House and for his tenacious pursuit of justice for the country of his birth. In addition to the extraordinary litany of human tragedy, just some of which he has reeled off, and the fact that, incredibly, it seems that no fewer than 80% of Yemeni people are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance, does he agree that there has also been a particularly worrying increase in gender-based violence in a country not best known for its women’s rights? Aid agencies estimate that there has been a 63% increase in gender-based violence, including rape and sexual assault, during this conflict—just to add to the woes of the bombs, the famine, the disease and the warfare that is going on as well.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I pay tribute to him for his work in the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen. The last time I was in Sana’a, it was with him; he took some beautiful pictures of the wonderful heritage there. He is right: these figures on assaults are even more worrying. In the middle of all this war, there are still these assaults going on. They need to be addressed and they need to be contained.

Following the failure of the Geneva talks, the sides convened in Stockholm in December 2018. Two bodies were established, one to oversee the exchange of prisoners —the Redeployment Co-ordination Committee—and the other to monitor the agreement: the UN Mission to Monitor the Hodeidah Agreement. Critical was the establishment of a ceasefire in the governorate of Hodeidah; that would free a vital port and allow much-needed humanitarian aid into the country. But the peace talks appear to have stalled. The original deadline for troop withdrawals was 1 January 2019, yet agreement as to how to implement the first phase was made only on 17 February. Despite Stockholm, the most up-to-date figures suggest that 568 incidents of violence occurred in Hodeidah alone, along with six coalition airstrikes. I ask the Minister: on what date will the peace talks reconvene, and why do bombs continue to fall on Yemen during the peace process?

I thank the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for their efforts to support the peace process. The Foreign Secretary himself travelled to Stockholm—an indication of where his and the Government’s priorities lie. I am also grateful to the Foreign Secretary for, earlier this month, meeting me and other members of the APPG: the hon. Members for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who are in their places; the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman); my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg); and the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt).

A meeting of the Yemen Quad of the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates took place in Warsaw on 13 February. When is the next meeting of the Quad going to take place? There have been only five meetings since 2015. They must meet every month until we have peace. These high-level meetings must be followed with action on the ground. We need to ensure that the Yemen Government and Houthi rebels implement the agreements made in Warsaw and in Stockholm.

I understand that the Foreign Secretary is visiting Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates over the next few days. I welcome his efforts to keep pressure on and maintain dialogue with those key countries in the region. I urge him to go to Yemen during that time. What better message could we send our allies and the Yemeni people than to have the British Foreign Secretary himself present in the country and, subject to security considerations, opening a diplomatic presence in Sana’a and Hodeidah? The work of the Yemeni ambassador to the United Kingdom, His Excellency Dr Yassin Saeed Noman, has been important in maintaining our dialogue with the Government in Yemen and President Hadi, who is in Riyadh. I hope that those strong links will continue.

The United Kingdom has long been one of the greatest financial backers of Yemen’s relief effort. That includes £175 million in 2018-19 and £2.5 million for the functioning of the United Nations civilian coordinator’s office, including to assist in de-mining efforts. The £200 million funding announced by the Prime Minister on Sunday 24 February in Sharm el-Sheikh with the Minister for the Middle East, who was in Egypt with her, brings the total amount that the United Kingdom has pledged to £770 million.

But pledges of financial support alone will not feed the victims of this conflict, nor provide the medical help they need, unless the money is spent. We are horrified to hear reports of executions. The Lords International Relations Committee has published a devastating report suggesting that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia may have been used in Yemen. If that is true, it is a negation of our international obligations.

I commend again the work of the United Nations, the Security Council and special envoy Martin Griffiths for bringing forward resolution 2451 on 21 December 2018 and resolution 2452 on 16 January 2019. Earlier this week, the UN raised $2.6 billion in Geneva at its annual high-level pledging conference, but to the people of Yemen—those who are starving and dying—that is Monopoly money. Around $8 billion has been raised over the past decade, since Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s first pledging conference, but where has the money gone? Where has it been spent, and where is it being held? Since this week’s pledging event, 126 people have died in Yemen.

I am glad that the pledging conference has brought attention to this crisis. Daily, we see individuals and celebrities appealing for financial support on behalf of the Yemeni people. I want particularly to thank Eddie Izzard—who, like me, was born in Yemen—as well as Michael Sheen and our recent Oscar winner Olivia Colman, who have made appeals for Yemen over the last few weeks and who speak in their campaigns for the silent of Yemen.

At last, parliamentarians in other countries seem to be paying attention to Yemen. The US Congress passed House joint resolution 37 on 14 February, calling for an end to American involvement in the Yemen conflict. Congressman Ro Khanna from California, in particular, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont have been instrumental in maintaining pressure in the United States. It would be good if President Trump could follow their lead and personally participate in these peace discussions.

In Paris in November 2018, at the first inter-parliamentary conference on Yemen, along with Sébastien Nadot, the Assemblée Nationale Member for Haute-Garonne, the APPG and the Assemblée Nationale brought together MPs and activists from across Europe. Following our conference in Paris, a petition was put forward calling for an end to the war in Yemen, which has been signed by 7,600 people.

The next inter-parliamentary conference on Yemen will take place in May in Edinburgh, hosted by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central, who is the secretary of the all-party group. I extend an invitation to the Minister of State to attend that meeting in Edinburgh and join parliamentarians from Europe and all over the world.

Today, we will send a letter, co-signed by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), to the Foreign Secretary, urging him to keep Yemen as his top priority and to maintain pressure on our allies for immediate peace. I hope others will sign it. The all-party group is having a meeting next week on the rule of law in Yemen, and on 19 March, just a week before the bloody war’s anniversary, a meeting on the humanitarian situation.

This is what we want the Minister to commit to tonight: we need an immediate ceasefire—the bloodshed has gone on for too long—and we need a date for the next peace talks. Stockholm was a breakthrough, but it was only the beginning, and it needs to be implemented. When will the next round of talks take place? They need to happen now.

I commend the aid agencies, such as Oxfam, the International Rescue Committee, Médecins sans Frontières, CARE International, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Save the Children, which have provided food and medicines. They have food and medicines waiting at the border, but they cannot access the country while there is fighting around the vital entry points. They are coming to Parliament in 10 days’ time. Without them, so many more Yemenis would have died. The United Kingdom Government must work unceasingly with international partners to allow immediate and comprehensive access for the aid agencies to ensure that humanitarian support can reach those most in need. This Parliament, this Government, our country must lead the world movement for peace in Yemen. There is no point holding the pen for Yemen if we do not use it.

I want to end by quoting Amani, a young Yemeni woman currently living in Yemen who wrote this poem:

“Three years have passed and

an English newsreader told

me home was only

a lost young man holding

his Ak47, with no shoes.

But the shackled arms,

malnourished hips stare

into the distance and arcs

of bones screech waiting

for food parcels to arrive

and slouching shoulders

sitting with an empty

stomach it growls, hoping

war could speak, it would

chop it’s tongue, loose it’s

limbs and hide under the

rubble shattered in regret.

Three have passed and counting

You watch your home

collapse to its ground,

the same ground your

fathers fed this soil with

their blistered hands.

The same ground that

raised you, fed you and

taught you to stand

up straight.

Three years have passed and counting

You ask yourself, ‘Do they know

who suffers the most?’

The people in-between.

The ordinary lives.

The survivors.

The forgotten people,

The forgotten Yemen.”

I beg the Minister to spend every working moment in the Foreign Office keeping Yemen at the top of his agenda. I yearn to return to the country of my birth, to the happy times I spent with my parents and sisters, and to take my son and daughter and wife with me. To do this, we need to stop the bombing, save the children and prevent this beautiful country from bleeding to death. It is in our hands.

I thank the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for securing this debate. I am very grateful to him and to all the members of the all-party group on Yemen for their ongoing work and commitment to ending this devastating conflict.

The right hon. Gentleman accurately and emotionally describes the horror of the background to this war. While he is here, while the all-party group is here and while Foreign Office Ministers are here, Yemen will not be a forgotten conflict. I do not think anyone can articulate it any better than the right hon. Gentleman, who speaks both from practical political knowledge and a relationship with Yemen that few others in this House have. It is beyond desperation to recognise that the complexities of this conflict, with all the agonies of the people whom the right hon. Gentleman described, do not allow for external actions and concerns to be, on their own, definitive in bringing this conflict to an end. Would that it were up to us to end it, and that we could.

Let me demonstrate what we are trying to do and update colleagues on developments in the political and humanitarian situation and on all UK Government actions to support the UN-led peace process, help the Yemeni people and bring about lasting peace. As the conflict approaches its fifth year, millions of Yemenis are being subjected to appalling suffering. Today, more than 24 million Yemenis—a staggering 80% of the population—are in need of humanitarian assistance. The threat of famine remains, with almost 10 million people at risk of starvation, and that dire situation must be brought to an end.

The Government are clear that the only way to end the suffering of the Yemeni people is for the parties to the conflict to agree a political settlement. That has been difficult because of the lack of trust between them and the complexities of the conflict, about which the House has spoken a number of times. The UN-led talks in Stockholm were a great achievement, and they brought the parties to the conflict together for the first time in more than two years. However, time is running out for the people of Yemen, and that progress must now be mirrored on the ground. It is crucial that the parties implement the agreements to move us closer to the end of this crisis.

We have seen some progress. Since 18 December, the fragile ceasefire in Hodeidah has continued to hold, and there has been a general de-escalation by both sides around the city. Although imperfect, that ceasefire in Yemen is the longest since the conflict began in 2015. A nationwide ceasefire would have an effect on the ground only if it is underpinned by a political deal between the conflict parties, as we saw in Hodeidah. During the last meeting of the Redeployment Co-ordination Committee, the parties also agreed to an initial redeployment of troops away from the ports of Hodeidah, Ras Isa and As-Salif and from critical humanitarian sites around the city of Hodeidah.

Although there have been delays, the UN was able to access the Red Sea mills on Tuesday for the first time in more than six months. Those mills contain enough grain to feed more than 3 million people for a month, although some of it may be spoiled and the UN is assessing the damage. Why was that not done before? It was not done because the Houthis mined the area substantially and regularly, to prevent humanitarian workers from getting there. Some of the stuff has probably also been stolen, but that will be discovered only once the UN gets to those mills. We should be in no doubt about how some of the parties to this conflict have behaved, and the Houthis and Houthi-controlled areas have been the worst for that.

I commend the work of UN agencies—particularly the World Food Programme and its director, David Beasley, whom I met a couple of weeks ago in London—for the work they do, and the risk that all humanitarian workers in Yemen take in doing that work.

The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) mentioned a financial commitment of more than £700 million by the British taxpayer, which is phenomenal and generous. How much of that money has been spent, and how much has not been, simply because of some of the obstacles to aid going in that the Minister has described? What more can we do to speed up that aid getting to places where it is most needed?

I cannot give a precise figure, and the current UN pledging conference held in Geneva this week—the right hon. Gentleman referred to that—was seeking a further $4 billion. A lot of money has been spent, but the figure is imprecise—I will provide an exact figure in due course. We give funding to the agencies, but they cannot always get through and sometimes the grain is not available. Money has to be pooled to be used, but practical difficulties on the ground mean that straightforward easy accountability, and providing a profit and loss account on a regular basis, is more difficult. It is important to ensure that resources are there. The tragedy is that although, as Mr Beasley tells me, food resources have been there, we must keep up the interest in Yemen to ensure that resources exist to provide for more, and the difficulty is in getting it into Yemen.

I will put my brief to one side because I do not have time, but let me get to the practicalities of this issue. The right hon. Gentleman asked about process and when the next conference will take place. Martin Griffiths, the special envoy, has described a process of trying to encourage confidence between the parties, because confidence is extremely low.

I will be blunt about something else. There are people who want to keep the war going. Everyone in this place and in our country assumes that people want to end the conflict. Would it were so. People make money out of the conflict on the ground. If someone can secure a position of power and control the flow of goods, they can do well out of it. We have to make sure that it is no longer profitable for people to continue to wage war, and that requires people to have the confidence that others will not take advantage of them and that there are benefits to peace.

That is what Martin Griffiths is patiently working at. There is no easy timetable. It is not possible to say, “In three weeks, you must meet again and decide” so and so, because they will not. We have to work on a process to get people together and know that, when they do meet, they are prepared to make an agreement and stick to it, and that takes time. It takes much too long, but if it was a process in which we demanded people do things, we would not be where we are today.

What is the key blockage? I know that it is very complicated and there are lots of different factors, but is there one key issue? It was prisoner swaps before. Is there something else holding this up?

I do not think so. Actually, the parties are still discussing prisoners, but the fact that they are talking—through the UN envoy—is an advance on where we were. It is difficult, even impossible, to urge patience on the people about whom the right hon. Gentleman spoke so eloquently, but this will be brought to an end only by that gradual development of confidence between the parties—confidence that is so delicate at the moment.

We do what we can. The right hon. Gentleman rightly says that the Foreign Secretary is there this week with those involved in the coalition. I was there just last week. I spoke to the Government of Yemen in Riyadh, to the Saudi Government, to the UAE and to Bahrain. Ministers are constantly engaged in what we can do. We speak to those who have some opportunity to influence the Houthi as well—we do not speak directly, but we try to influence them. We raise all the issues that he did about the misery and the suffering of people. There is no part of this conflict that justifies the suffering of people, but we are constantly trying to do this, and we work through agencies to do so.

The right hon. Gentleman and the House can be sure that our political efforts will always be designed to support the work of the UN special envoy and to encourage progress. In conflict, as we know, there is weariness. It must be clear to all the parties that there is no military solution, but people who have established positions, including those involved in the coalition, want to make sure that Yemen does not become ungoverned space—a Beirut in Sana’a with Hezbollah available in empty space to conduct actions against Saudi Arabia—and we want to make sure that the Yemeni people can bring forward a political process. We are working on all this while also providing the economic and humanitarian aid he described. We will continue to do so.

I thank the Minister for his efforts in this space. I am aware that Mark Lowcock, the UN relief co-ordinator, prior to the pledging conference, met women’s groups in Yemen. Can he tell me any more about what is being done to reach women in Yemen?

I remember some years ago—the right hon. Gentleman may remember as well—when we had that interlude after Ali Abdullah Saleh, and we looked at the national dialogue and at women’s opportunities in Yemen. It is a shorthand, but it is true: men cause wars and women finish them. The engagement of the women of Yemen will be particularly helpful. I have no doubt that when the political process gets going, they will be a key part.

I have one more minute and, with apologies to the House, will conclude simply by saying that the House can be assured that, as far as the Foreign Secretary and I are concerned, this issue is a top priority—the top priority—in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, and it will remain so. We will continue to apply ourselves as much as possible.

With the House’s indulgence and just a few seconds left, I want to refer to the fact that this is Sir David Natzler’s last day in office. [Interruption.] I am sorry, David—you look as if you do not want to hear it all again, but allow me. We go back a long way. Sir David refereed me a number of times in an all-party parliamentary group. We have known each other well over many years. The plaudits he received in the House from those much more eminent than I am a few weeks ago said it all about his devotion to the House of Commons and the work he has done on the public’s behalf. Speaking personally, I will miss him, and I am sure that the House will miss him and the work that he has done. We know that, both through him and those he represents in giving the best service to the House of Commons, we have been richly and well served. We wish him well in the future. Thank you, David.

In adjourning the House, I will have one last word from the Chair as a final farewell to Sir David, who is sitting in his accustomed place for a final few moments. David, we know that you do not want to hear all this yet again, but it is because we will miss you very much. We wish you and Hilary all the very best.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.