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Middle East and Yemen

Volume 655: debated on Thursday 7 March 2019

The United Nations describes the situation in Yemen as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Of a population of less than 30 million people, 24 million depend on aid for their food and medicines. The number of children treated for malnutrition exceeds 420,000. The number who have died from starvation is estimated to be in excess of 85,000. Behind these stark numbers are individual men, women and children. Their suffering is caused not by natural disaster but by man-made conflict. I will update the House on my visit to the region and my judgment about the prospects for the Stockholm peace process. I want to start by commending the extraordinary efforts of UN special envoy Martin Griffiths, without whom Stockholm would not have happened.

My message on this trip to all parties was simple: the ceasefire in Hodeidah, the first sustained ceasefire since the conflict began four years ago, is in peril. It will not last unless what was agreed is implemented in full—and time is running out.

On Sunday, I was the first western Foreign Minister to visit Yemen since the war began. I travelled to Aden where I met the Deputy Prime Minister of the legitimate Government of Yemen, along with the Foreign Minister and the Interior Minister. Our talks were in the presidential palace where the scars of battle were visible. I emphasised how all sides must redeploy their forces away from the port of Hodeidah. The Stockholm agreement requires them to hand over control to neutral local security forces “in accordance with Yemeni law and answering to local state institutions”. That matters because Hodeidah is the entry point for about 70% of Yemen’s food imports. Over 50,000 metric tonnes of grain from the world food programme are stored in the port. Unless the withdrawal happens they cannot be distributed to the rest of the country. I ask the House to reflect on the obscenity of people starving to death in a country where food is just sitting idly in a port because warring parties will not allow it to be released. But a ceasefire in Hodeidah was also meant to be the first step to a nationwide ceasefire. If trust can be established there, it has the potential to be a bridge to the lasting political settlement sought by all sides. But if it cannot, and Stockholm is not implemented rapidly, the ceasefire will end and the prospects for humanitarian relief evaporate.

After meeting Government of Yemen representatives, I travelled by helicopter to Aden’s port where a United Nations official described the unique challenges of distributing aid in a country torn by conflict.

I also met Mohammed Abdulsalam, spokesman for the Houthis, in Oman. I listened carefully to their concern but also delivered a candid message about the need to act quickly to save the Stockholm agreement. I also requested humanitarian access for UN helicopters and NGOs, which is currently either impeded or prevented. I also travelled to Saudi Arabia where I met President Hadi of Yemen and his Foreign Minister as well as my Saudi counterparts, Adel al-Jubeir and Ibrahim al-Assaf.

Finally, I visited the United Arab Emirates, where I held talks with my counterpart, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed. I welcomed the restraint shown by the Saudi-led coalition in Hodeidah since the Stockholm agreement but also reiterated my judgment that no side in this conflict can achieve outright military victory. The only way ahead is a negotiated political settlement. In the meantime, Britain and our allies are doing everything possible to alleviate the human suffering. Last month, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced another £200 million of British aid for Yemen, enough to treat 20,000 children for malnutrition and provide food for 3.8 million people for a month.

This year, the UN has asked for over £3.2 billion to cope with the emergency in Yemen—the largest humanitarian appeal ever. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have each pledged over £570 million. But the people of Yemen cannot be left to depend on outside aid forever. From my meetings in the region, I concluded that all parties genuinely want Stockholm to succeed, but there is a profound lack of trust and a deep reluctance to take the necessary steps in case they are not reciprocated. But in any successful peace process, all sides must take risks that are deeply uncomfortable. The Government of Yemen are understandably worried that without military pressure, the Houthis will not negotiate seriously. The Houthis, meanwhile, do not wish to hand over Hodeidah to any force that might be under Government control.

I told all sides that the only way to truly build confidence is for all parties to do precisely what they promised in Sweden, including not just leaving Hodeidah but also prisoner exchanges, paying salaries to Government employees, and allowing full humanitarian access to UN agencies. We then need to move rapidly on to discuss a long term political settlement, including the creation of a Government of national unity in which all sides are represented. The Stockholm peace process is our best chance yet to end this war. But the window for implementing it is closing. In the critical weeks that lie ahead, Britain will use every diplomatic and humanitarian lever we have to ensure this opportunity does not slip away.