I beg to move,
That this House notes that 22 May 2019 is the 28th anniversary of the unification of Yemen, when that country emerged from a long and painful civil war; further notes that today Yemen is once again in a deep and pitiful state of conflict, having entered the fifth year of its current, tragic war; acknowledges that the most recent estimate places the death toll in excess of 70,000, of which 10,000 have died in the last five months alone; notes that Yemen remains in the midst of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, in which at least 85,000 children have starved to death and almost 200,000 have contracted cholera in 2019 alone; commends the work of the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, who brought opposing sides together for agreements including on a ceasefire in the Al-Hodeidah Governate; regrets that the implementation of those agreements has been slow or non-existent; and calls on the Government to take every possible measure to support an immediate ceasefire, the flow of humanitarian aid and further peace talks in Yemen.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee and its excellent Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), for granting time in the Chamber for this important debate. I am pleased to see so many Members in the Chamber despite this being election day.
I congratulate the Minister for the Middle East, the right hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), on his appointment. He knows this area well, and I wish him well. I hope he can continue the diligent work of his predecessor, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). I am glad to see the shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), and the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), whom, of course, I met many years ago in Yemen—she was born in Yemen.
Yesterday was a special day for many Yemenis. It was Yemen Day, their national unity day: 22 May, the day on which the country’s unification took place in 1990, is a national holiday in Yemen and should have been a day of festivity, yet no one was celebrating in that troubled land. And why should they have been when their country is being destroyed and fragmented, town by town, street by street and house by house? We are in the midst of a terrible war in Yemen, and in March we passed the grim milestone of the war’s fourth anniversary.
Yemenis are losing their lives every single day. According to the Foreign Secretary, a hundred children die every day. So far, at least 70,000 children have been killed in the fighting since the war began. This will rise to 100,000 if the war ends this year, according to the United Nations. We can add to that 130,000 more who will die from starvation and disease.
Women and children are suffering and bearing the brunt of this war. A child dies every 12 minutes in Yemen, and at least 85,000 have succumbed to starvation. The all-party parliamentary group on Yemen has heard time and again from aid agencies and Yemeni organisations about the episodes of brutality, which range from the indiscriminate detonation of landmines laid by the Houthi militias to the aerial bombing of the hospital in Kitaf, northern Yemen, by coalition forces. Yemenis are literally being blown apart from the skies above and from the ground below. This must end.
An agreement was made in Stockholm in December 2018. It included three key proposals: first, the deployment of forces from Hodeidah; secondly, the exchange of prisoners; and, thirdly, humanitarian access to Taiz. In each of those areas, there has been little progress. Prisoners have not been exchanged, and talks broke down in February this year. Taiz remains in the grips of a humanitarian disaster. It is likely to have shrunk to a city of just 200,000 people, which is one third of its pre-war population of 600,000. It is as though the city of Sheffield had lost two-thirds of its population. The Taiz-Aden highway, along which much-need aid can travel, remains cut off by the fighting. The redeployment of forces from Hodeidah has been dragged out. The original deadline for troops to leave was 1 January 2019, almost half a year ago. The implementation process was only agreed in principle on 17 February, and the detailed plan of how this would take place only accepted on 15 April. This is painfully slow, while people continue to die. Finally, on 10 May, just 13 days ago, Houthi forces finally began their redeployment.
The Houthis withdrew from the key ports of Ras Isa, Hodeidah and Salif. That of course has to be welcomed by this House, and we hope it is an indication of a path to peace that both sides will travel along. Around Salif and Ras Isa, there are minefields that can now be cleared—these minefields have cost so many lives, including those of aid workers The House will be aware that about 80% of Yemen’s humanitarian and other goods are imported through the port of Hodeidah. We are now at a critical juncture. There have been reports of rising violence away from Hodeidah. In the al-Dhale governorate in southern Yemen, there has been a sevenfold increase in air raids in recent months. In Hajjah, in northern Yemen, fighting near the border with Saudi Arabia has caused the displacement of 100,000 people. If the agreement is not implemented in full, and if these recent developments break down, it is likely that the peace process will irretrievably falter and come to an end, with catastrophic consequences. For the sake of the people of Yemen—for humanity—we cannot let this take place. Before it is too late, this Government and the international community must grasp this chance for peace.
On 26 February 2019, the United Nations, and the Governments of Sweden and Switzerland, hosted its annual high-level pledging conference in Geneva. Donor states pledged a total of $2.6 billion in aid to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian supplies to the people of Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates each donated $750 million. We donated £200 million, bringing the UK financial contribution since the war began to £770 million. This support is most welcome. However, Sir Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs—OCHA—told Members of this House recently that it has received very little of this promised funding, with only 7% of the $4.1 billion required delivered by 24 April. From Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it has received less than $240 million of that promised. Saudi Arabia’s impressive Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, assured hon. Members in a robust exchange at the Saudi embassy recently that they were ready to transfer the rest of the funding. Will the Minister confirm that the rest of that funding has been transferred?
The UN reports that it has received only £30 million from the UK; will the Minister explain why we have not delivered exactly what we promised? The pledging of aid is one thing, but the promises have to be delivered on. Delays in payments are costing lives.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his engagement with Yemen. In particular, his visit to Aden, the city of my birth, on 3 March this year showed that he cares for the people of Yemen and that he wants to see a solution to the conflict. He met members of the all-party group on Yemen on 4 February this year and hosted a meeting of the Yemen Quad in London on 27 April. All that is by marked contrast to the engagement of his predecessor, but, as he knows, much more needs to be done.
I welcome the new Secretary of State for International Development, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), with whom the all-party group worked during his previous period at the Department. These ministerial changes show that we have two friends of Yemen in key Front-Bench positions, and I hope we will hear from a third when the Minister responds to the debate.
Our message to our friends is that they need to tell our partners to stop the bombing, and to do so now. We need seriously to consider the issue of arms sales to our coalition partners. The United Kingdom has sold at least £4.7 billion-worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and a further £860 million to its coalition partners since the war began. The issue must be addressed.
We need to talk to other regional powers. We know that the Government are not friendly with Iran—they have made that clear—but they need to talk to the Iranians. Of course, Iran denies involvement in Yemen, but only last week the Houthis, backed by Iran, struck Saudi oil pipelines. This violent act had to be, and was, condemned. But just three days later, exactly a week ago, the coalition retaliated with an air strike that hit central Sana’a, killing six people, four of whom were children. This is the never-ending cycle of death that happens whenever there is an act of violence and whenever we do not engage in the peace talks. That is why we must have an immediate ceasefire.
I commend the work of Congressman Ro Khanna of the 17th congressional district of California, and Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Mike Lee of Utah and Chris Murphy of Connecticut for their passion on and commitment to this issue. The US Congress has been more active on the Yemen peace process than we have been—to be frank, in some areas it has been more active than our Government. On 4 April this year, Congress passed a resolution, which was previously passed in the Senate, calling for an end to US involvement in the Yemen war. Regrettably, the measure was vetoed by President Trump, who, as we have heard, is making a state visit to the United Kingdom from the 3 June to 5 June. The House will expect the Yemen conflict to be on the agenda for his meeting with the Prime Minister; will the Minister confirm that that will be the case?
We owe a debt of gratitude to the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, for all that he has done. He has brought the parties in the war together and has initiated the trust-building measures that led to last week’s troop withdrawal. We know how busy he is, but we hope he will meet members of the all-party group when he comes to London. Members of the group have been diligent in raising awareness of the Yemen peace process both inside and outside the House. In particular, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who sends her apologies for not being able to attend this debate, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) and the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), who I see is in his place, have all worked tirelessly on this issue.
The humanitarian impacts of the peace process have been the focus of the Chairman of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who is in his place, and of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). Other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), have considered Yemen because of the plight of constituents with family members caught up in the conflict. I am so delighted to see the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) in his place. He is the only senior politician in Europe to have visited Sana’a during the conflict. From his time as one of the great International Development Secretaries, he has shown himself to be a great friend of Yemen.
Yesterday afternoon, the all-party group hosted its annual Yemen Day event. We heard from charity representatives about their work in Yemen and the devastation they encounter. International humanitarian organisations continue to do so much to help the people of Yemen. These include Oxfam, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee, Human Rights Watch, Médecins sans Frontières, CARE International and Save the Children. I have presented the Foreign Secretary with a letter signed by 86 hon. Members from both sides of the House, as well as Members of the other place, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. It calls on him to use every tool at his disposal to push for peace in Yemen. We urge him to use our considerable influence—that great soft power that Great Britain is so good at wielding—in the region to stop the bombing. It has to remain at the top of his agenda.
On the 20th of next month, the all-party group will host an international conference on Yemen. Parliamentarians from across the world will join us in Edinburgh and Glasgow for the conference being hosted by the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) and for Glasgow Central. This follows the first international parliamentary conference for peace in Yemen held in Paris in November last year and hosted by Sébastien Nadot, a Member of the French Assembly. I extend an invitation to the Minister, who has not yet been to a Yemen event—he has just been appointed, so I forgive him—to come to Edinburgh and take part in that meeting.
Here are our key asks. The Stockholm agreement was a vital staging post, but it did not go far enough. We should have had an immediate nationwide ceasefire in Yemen. We have played an important role in the peace process. We secured the passing of UN resolution 2451 on 21 December 2018 and resolution 2452 on 16 January 2019. Just last month here in London there was a meeting of the Quad. The US was represented by David Satterfield; Saudi Arabia, by Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir; and the United Arab Emirates, by Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed.
As we all know, the UK is the penholder at the Security Council, but we need to do much more. I have an idea for the Minister. Why do the Government not host a peace conference in London in the next eight weeks? Why do they not use their position on the Quad, as the penholder, to organise such a conference, as we have done in the past, to keep this right at the top of the agenda? Key parts of the agenda should be the facilitation of the unimpeded access for food, fuel and medicines through the key port of Hodeidah and through Taiz and implementing the demand for an immediate nationwide ceasefire. What better way to show a commitment to peace?
In successive debates in this House, I have lamented the fact that Yemen is bleeding to death, while all we do is make speeches in this House. One cannot look at the pictures of what is happening to our fellow citizens of the world and not be overcome with emotion. As I have said many times before, I want one day to return to the country of my birth to show my children where I was born and where I spent the happiest days of my life. I want to live long enough to see Yemen peaceful, prosperous and united, free from violence and free from hate. We have reached a critical juncture in the peace process that will be of historic significance if we seize the moment. From the bottom of my heart, I beg the Minister to save the children of Yemen. I beg him to stop the bombing and the killing. I beg him to stop this war. This is in our Government’s hands.
It is right to congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on securing this debate, and on his powerful and compelling contribution. He and I have known each other for very many years, and there are not many political issues on which we agree. On the question of Yemen and Britain’s role, however, you cannot get a cigarette paper between his opinion and mine. He set out clearly for the House the profound jeopardy of what is going on in Yemen, and Britain’s complicity in it. He spoke of the tens of thousands of young Yemenis who are being radicalised, and who know where the death and destruction that rains down from the skies night after night comes from.
I welcome the new Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), to his position. He will cast a fresh pair of eyes on the problems of Yemen and Britain’s role in tackling them. I hope that he will speak out in the Government if his fresh view suggests that there are other ways of handling those problems. The purpose of my speech is to pose four questions to him, although I do not expect him to answer them from the Dispatch Box. I must apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I have already done to him, for the fact that I may not be able to stay until the end of the debate, because I have a very important engagement in my constituency.
I hope that the Minister will consider what he hears today. Britain is a beacon of light in some very dark places in the world, standing up for values that really matter to us and around the globe. On Yemen, however, I believe that Britain has lost its moral compass, and I say that with deep regret. I praise the new Foreign Secretary—he is not that new—who, immediately on taking office, went to Riyadh and Tehran. He has made it very clear that Britain’s contribution to solving the problem is right at the top of the agenda. That was made rather easier by the profound change of sentiment towards the war after the murder of the journalist Mr Khashoggi in Turkey. The values that were displayed in that despicable act led to considerable rethinking.
I also praise Martin Griffiths, a distinguished international civil servant. As the UN special representative, he is clearly giving everything he can to finding a solution, and his energy and endeavours on the ground are helping. I pay tribute to Sir Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and former DFID permanent secretary, who has been equally tireless in his efforts to help. Above all, this debate is a good opportunity for the House of Commons to pay tribute to the bravery and effectiveness of humanitarian workers. Many in the sector are very young, and they often put themselves in harm’s way to assist their fellow human beings who are caught up in such jeopardy.
I went to Sana’a and Sa’dah, as the right hon. Member for Leicester East mentioned. I think I remain the only European politician who has been into Sana’a and Sa’dah. Many have been into the comparative peace of Aden in the south, but you have to go to the north, Madam Deputy Speaker, and see for yourself the extraordinary damage that the bombing has caused to infrastructure and people’s lives. When I was there, I met British aid and humanitarian workers from Oxfam, in particular, who were doing brilliant work for some of the most dispossessed and miserable people in the world.
My purpose today is to encourage the Government in their apparent change of emphasis, and to urge them to move away from their former position of complicity in what is happening in Yemen. The blockade of the country by land, sea and air with British support has effectively created a famine, which is on Britain’s conscience. It is incredibly important that the Government move away from a partisan position and towards a neutral one by seeking to achieve a ceasefire, a negotiated settlement and an end to the violence.
I echo the urgent concern that the World Food Programme raised yesterday about corrupt Houthi leaders blocking humanitarian access to civilians. The arbitrary denial of humanitarian access is an unconscionable violation of international humanitarian law, and everyone should condemn it. It is no less concerning to see an intensification of violence in Yemen, including aerial attacks by the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition. When I recently asked a Yemeni human rights defender about the well-being of her family in Sana’a, she replied that
“in Yemen we are only safe by accident”.
That reflects the position of millions of men, women and children on the ground who suffer these air attacks, which I heard and saw for myself when I was in Sana’a, night after night.
Last week, on Thursday 16 May—I think the right hon. Member for Leicester East also referred to this incident—at least five children were killed and 33 civilians, including 15 children, were injured by coalition airstrikes in Sana’a. That attack was on a residential area with no military targets anywhere near—another clear violation of international humanitarian law. One of the houses belonged to journalist and writer Abdullah Al-Sabri, who lost two of his children. He and his parents are now in hospital in a critical condition. My first question to the Minister is: what conversations has the Foreign Secretary had with his Emirati and Saudi counterparts about potential violations of international humanitarian law, specifically during the airstrikes in Sana’a on 16 May?
I approach this matter more as a humanitarian than as a politician. In spite of the discomfort of this position, I have never called for an arms embargo. That is because, first, I do not think it is for politicians individually to make judgments about the sales of arms. It is for the Committees on Arms Export Controls to reach judgments in accordance with the laws that are made by this House. Secondly, quite apart from the undesirability of politicians waving their moral consciences around at the expense of high-quality jobs in the north-west of England, I think it is likely that the Saudis will continue to procure weaponry from some in Europe. Saudi Arabia is a rich country surrounded by opponents and enemies, and it will be able to secure such weapons. When it comes to protecting the people on the ground—the children in the school I saw in Sa’dah—an arms embargo from Britain will not have a direct effect, and it may not even have an indirect one.
I know exactly what the hon. Gentleman is going to say, and I fully accept that my position is an uncomfortable one. The point I make to the Government is that those of us who have resisted the lure of calls for an arms embargo have done so in the hope that the Government will change their policy, as I have suggested, and make an arms embargo unnecessary. The longer the situation goes on, the more likely it is that an arms embargo will follow.
For SNP Members, the question of an arms embargo, or stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia, is more about messaging. I know that there are jobs at stake, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that we have to give a special message to the people in the region? Arms sales are part of the problem, and we should be trying our very best to ensure that they do not contribute further to the existing heartache and humanitarian crisis.
Well, I am going to come back to some aspects of that point, but I think we can agree that the case for an arms embargo is going to get stronger and stronger unless Britain moves to a position of neutrality in this dreadful conflict.
It has been just over two years since I stood in a funeral parlour in Sana’a where more than 100 people were killed by a Saudi airstrike. It is shameful—a profound political and moral failure—that Britain has been unable to convince our Saudi and Emirati allies to end the bombing of innocent Yemeni civilians. On that occasion, the aircraft that killed the mourners in the parlour came around again for a second attack after the devastation of its first strike. In my view, the Government continue to take an imbalanced approach, rightly criticising Houthi transgressions but wrongly remaining silent when our Saudi and Emirati allies commit violations. There has been no response by the British Government to the strikes on Sana’a last Thursday that killed five children—not even an expression of concern.
Quiet diplomacy with the Saudis is clearly the Government’s preferred approach, but the continued bombing of civilian areas demonstrates that this approach is simply not working. That brings me to my second question to the Minister. Does he not agree that incidents in which innocent children are killed warrant a public expression of concern and condemnation by the United Kingdom? An imbalanced approach to the conflict in Yemen risks undermining efforts to bring parties to peace negotiations. The idea that the Hadi Government hold true democratic legitimacy in Yemen is clearly fundamentally flawed. President Hadi was elected on a ballot paper with only one name on it, his term has long expired and he spends most of his time in Saudi Arabia, so I do not think that the British Government should camp on the legitimacy of President Hadi’s Government.
It is high time for the UK to correct this imbalanced approach—not just in our public statements, but in our capacity as penholders on the UN Security Council. Resolution 2216 is widely seen as imbalanced and unhelpful, yet it still underpins efforts towards a peace process. The United Kingdom should demonstrate strong leadership to unite the United Nations Security Council and ensure that Yemeni civilians do not pay the price for increased tension between the US and Iran, which threatens to undermine Security Council unity on Yemen.
Let me be clear: I am no apologist for the Houthis. Violations are being committed by all parties to the conflict and all violations should be condemned, but it is the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led coalition that the UK is backing, and this is where we can yield serious influence in order to prevent needless civilian casualties and push for revitalised peace negotiations. That brings me to my third question. Does the Minister agree that the UK should urgently lead action at the UN Security Council to call for a nationwide ceasefire and a swift move to inclusive peace negotiations?
The United Kingdom can play an important role supporting impartial investigations of violations by all sides in Yemen, and promoting accountability for perpetrators. Relying on the Saudi-led coalition’s Joint Incidents Assessment Team to conduct credible investigations into incidents is like trusting children to mark their own homework, and it simply will not carry any international credibility. That brings me to my fourth and—the Minister will be relieved to hear—final question. Does he agree that we need a strengthened UN mechanism for investigating human rights violations in Yemen, and that the UK should support the creation of a commission of inquiry in September’s session of the Human Rights Council at the UN, so that a truly independent body is established with a strong mandate to collect and preserve evidence of possible war crimes and other violations of international law?
As I said at the outset, Britain needs to be seen at the United Nations as a force for the constructive conclusion of these dreadful events in Yemen, moving to a comprehensive ceasefire on the ground and meaningful peace negotiations at all levels in Yemeni society. Britain’s reputation at the United Nations is challenged at the moment, and this situation is one part of that. The Minister will have noticed that only six countries supported Britain on last night’s vote in respect of the Chagos Islands, which was a very significant change of tone by the UN. He will also be aware that Britain was unable to procure, for the first time since 1947, the election of a judge to the International Court of Justice—a position formerly held by the highly respected jurist Sir Christopher Greenwood.
In spite of the quite outstanding work that the current British permanent representative to the UN, Dame Karen Pierce, undoubtedly carries out, our reputation is damaged. If we are to hold the role of penholder on Yemen, we owe it to the United Nations and the international community to be in a far more a neutral position. It is unsatisfactory that the Russians and the Scandinavian countries had to amend the British-drafted presidential statement on these matters. For as long as we are maintaining the planes that are used for the bombing runs, supplying the armaments and advising the targeting cell in Riyadh, Britain’s complicity is unavoidable. Britain’s role is also still quite extraordinarily confused. When I was in Sa’dah, I had the opportunity to meet the very brave unit that was demining and defusing armaments, some of which were British. The unit was largely paid for by British taxpayers’ money and led by a former British major. That seems to put the confusion of the matter in very clear sight indeed.
I want to end with the words of the chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights, Radhya Al-Mutwakel, who visited Britain recently and met the Foreign Secretary and the Chair of the International Development Committee. She is a very powerful and independent Yemeni voice on what is happening, and she said:
“Since March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates…have led a coalition of countries in a military campaign against…rebels in Yemen. As documented by multiple human rights organizations as well as the UN, the Saudi/UAE-led Coalition has consistently attacked civilians and critical civilian infrastructure—including hospitals, schools, school children, weddings, farms, and water wells—in violation of the laws of war…Four years into the conflict, around 20,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed or wounded and half the population—14 million people—are at risk of famine, according to the UN. Other estimates, however, range much higher: ACLED”—
the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project—
“has recorded over 50,000 reported deaths as a direct result of the fighting, and according to Save the Children, 85,000 children may have died of hunger and preventable disease.”
That is the situation. Britain’s position needs to move and intensify, away from what it was, to a new place.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who has shown great leadership in speaking up on the Yemen issue. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)—my good friend—who led the debate for his very long-standing work on Yemen and for his role, with others, in the all-party parliamentary group. I echo his thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate. I also welcome the new Minister to his post, as Minister both in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in the Department for International Development, and I look forward to working closely with him in that capacity—on Yemen specifically, on the broader responsibilities he has for the middle east and north Africa, and on his important work on global health.
The scale of the humanitarian catastrophe has been well described already and is thankfully now widely known about. I echo what my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East said about the pledging conference that was held in February. The head of OCHA, the UN humanitarian relief agency, Mark Lowcock—to whom I also pay tribute—has pointed out that we face an 80% gap in terms of the funds that were pledged in February. I support the question that my right hon. Friend put to the Minister. It is important that the House is updated today on what the United Kingdom is doing to press the donors who pledged funds to deliver those funds, to assist the humanitarian relief effort.
We know that millions in Yemen face malnutrition. Save the Children, in its excellent briefing for the debate, estimates that 85,000 children under the age of five may have already died from extreme hunger or disease during this conflict—85,000 children under the age of five. We know about the scourge of preventable diseases. We have seen a recent increase in cases of cholera—it is estimated that around 1,000 children a day are contracting cholera—and the emergence for the first time in this crisis of swine flu in Yemen.
We also know that the breakdown of public services in general, and health services in particular, has a major and disproportionate effect on women, and in particular their access to maternal healthcare and family planning services. I want to talk a little bit about restrictions on access for humanitarian aid, because it lies at the heart of the humanitarian crisis that Yemen faces.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. What is happening in Yemen is truly heartbreaking, and it has rightly been described by many as the largest humanitarian crisis on our planet. In his highly considered and expert opinion, what key event should occur to allow aid to pass through the port of Hodeidah?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He has anticipated something that I am about to say, so I will say it now. If implemented, the Stockholm agreement, about which I will say a little more later, is crucial to achieving that. While we have seen fragile progress in that regard, were that agreement to collapse, the consequences could be disastrous. The International Rescue Committee’s country director in Yemen, Frank McManus, says that the cost of the deal collapsing “cannot be overstated”, that almost 10 million people are “on the brink” of starvation in Yemen and that fighting in Hodeidah and disruptions to imports through the port
“could propel the country into a full-fledge famine.”
That is why implementation of the Stockholm agreement is so important.
The focus on Hodeidah is understandable, but there are challenges elsewhere in Yemen. The International Rescue Committee tells us that in Aden port, cargo is being delayed for months due to five different departments of the authorities there having to approve customs clearance, and in the north—the Houthi-controlled area—there are delays in getting the Houthis to agree to aid operations and increasing efforts by the Houthis to influence where aid is delivered to.
Stockholm is a hugely welcome development, but as both my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield pointed out, progress is fragile. As we have heard, last week we saw Houthi attacks on the oil export pipeline linking eastern and western Saudi Arabia, then a retaliatory strike by the Saudi-led coalition in Sana’a and further clashes in Hodeidah. The Yemen Data Project points out that the latest figures from April marked a record monthly low in the number of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes. Despite that, the number of civilian casualties from airstrikes in April was 131, which was up from the previous month.
I want to emphasise, as the two previous speakers have, the vital role of the UN special envoy and to welcome the diplomatic leadership of the United Kingdom, which I have no doubt has contributed to the progress we have seen in recent days, with the Houthis finally agreeing to redeployment from Hodeidah, Ras Isa and Salif.
Let me comment briefly on the wider regional context. We are seeing greater tension between the United States and Iran. Iranian links to the Houthis are well documented, but this rising tension makes it even more important for the United Kingdom, in our role as pen-holder, to retain an absolute focus on Yemen and its people. It would be a further risk to the prospects of peace if Yemen were simply seen through the lens of Iran versus the west. That is why, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield rightly said, we should be clear in calling out both sides for any alleged violations of international humanitarian law. I endorse his call for an independent commission of inquiry to be established through the UN Human Rights Council, and I hope the UK Government will support that.
Last year, the UN group of experts on Yemen said:
“There is little evidence of any attempt by parties to the conflict to minimize civilian casualties.”
We have heard about the Houthis’ appalling and widespread use of landmines, which are laid right up the western coast of Yemen, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries and inhibiting access for humanitarian aid. I thank Human Rights Watch for the excellent work it has done in exposing the Houthis for their use of landmines.
Looking at the other side in the conflict, the Yemen Data Project points out that there have been almost 19,000 air raids by the Saudi-led coalition during the conflict. That is one air raid every 102 minutes. In March this year, five children were killed in a Saudi-led coalition attack on a hospital in Kitaf supported by Save the Children. At the time, the Government said that the UK had
“raised this matter with the Saudi-led Coalition, who have announced an investigation.”
My understanding is that no public statement has yet been made by the coalition about an investigation, and neither the hospital nor the families have been contacted. Can the Minister update the House—ideally in responding to the debate, but if necessary after it—on any progress towards a genuine investigation into that attack, which resulted in the deaths of five children in March at a Save the Children-supported hospital?
Let me comment briefly on the issue of child soldiers. There is huge concern about the number of children who have been recruited into this conflict, mostly by the Houthis. It is well documented and must be condemned, but there are also reports that children have been recruited by the Saudi-led coalition. Can the Minister comment on that? Yesterday I had the opportunity, as others did, to meet the Yemeni Minister of Information. He raised with me the Houthis’ use of child soldiers, and I agreed with him entirely in his condemnation. I asked him about allegations of there being child soldiers on the Government side, and he said there were none. I would be interested to hear the UK Government’s assessment of whether that is actually the case.
Let me say a little more about what needs to happen with the peace process, and in particular the importance of peace-building efforts that engage Yemeni society, empower women, give a voice to young people and reach local community organisations. As we have heard, women and children have borne the brunt of this crisis. We have a responsibility to put women and children at the heart of efforts to build peace in Yemen. In the financial year that just finished, £7 million of the conflict, stability and security fund was spent on stabilisation and peace building in Yemen. What plans do the Government have to scale up support for peace building and to include as part of that engaging with Yemeni civil society, and especially women, young people and marginalised groups?
Let me comment briefly on the issue of UK arms, because I very much agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East that we need to see a major rethink. This is the only issue in the speech of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield with which I disagree. I respect his point of view, but I do disagree, not least because our sale of arms has contributed to the issue that he so eloquently described as our not being seen as a neutral player diplomatically. I also feel that the example of the arms that are being used in Yemen has undermined the claim, which is still made by the British Government, that we have the most rigorous arms export control regime in the world. I think it is now, sadly, very difficult to justify that claim, so I urge the Government to think again. They should follow the example of a number of European countries, including Germany, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East rightly said, the resolutions that were passed with cross-party support—bipartisan support—both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate in the United States.
An important element in our debates on Yemen is the Yemeni diaspora here in our own country. It has been an honour for me over the last three or four years to get to know the Liverpool Yemeni community, and we formed the Liverpool Friends of Yemen to enable people across the city to show solidarity with the people of Yemen. I was pleased to join the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), at an excellent event in Birmingham in March, which engaged with the Yemeni diaspora from across the country but particularly from the west midlands. I am very pleased that we have formed the Labour Friends of Yemen, of which I am the chair. May I ask the Minister to give an undertaking when he responds that when Martin Griffiths is next available in the United Kingdom, he could meet representatives of the Yemeni diaspora so that their voice can be heard as part of his efforts to build peace in that country?
Let me finish by joining in the tributes paid by both my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield to the amazing, brave work that is done by human rights organisations and humanitarian organisations on the ground in these dangerous circumstances in Yemen. I welcome the leadership the Foreign Secretary has shown since he took the post, and in particular the support of the United Kingdom for the efforts at the UN of the special envoy, Martin Griffiths.
As the motion sets out very clearly and very powerfully, what is needed now for Yemen is a nationwide ceasefire. The whole country needs a ceasefire. We then need a peace process that, yes of course engages the combatants, but also engages civilians and civil society. We need a sense that there will be justice for victims on all sides in this conflict. Perhaps most importantly of all—I hope the Minister can give this commitment today—we need to demonstrate that the United Kingdom’s commitment to Yemen is not just during this conflict, but will be a long-term commitment to rebuild a country that was always poor and always faced many challenges, but one that has come close to destruction because of this conflict.
Let me start by saying how pleased I am that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) has brought forward this debate, and how pleased I am to participate in it and follow what he has said. I think we all agreed with his feelings, which he set out very clearly and quite emotionally in his speech, for the people of Yemen, who have suffered so tremendously. I thought his description of that was very powerful indeed. I may be only the fourth speaker in this debate, but the three speeches before mine have covered so much of the ground and so many of the points that there are only a few additional points I want to comment on.
First, I think it is a cause for celebration that we do have the outlines of a truce. We should take great comfort from that. I know it is just the outlines and that it could always go further than that, but in this sort of conflict one has to grab whatever one can to try to keep some sanity in the whole process. The peace process is now more akin to a mediation than to a conference set up to tell the Yemenis what to do. In any mediation, the system only works if there are two people who are genuinely prepared to sit down and talk to each other. Only then can the essence of a mediation, which is for the participants to agree and to bring out themselves the solution to the problem, actually come through. That is a very important point to bear in mind, including for the role the UK may want to play.
A lot more work needs to be done on the triggers that can bring two warring sides to the realisation that they need to come together to agree a peace. I do not think we have done enough work on that internationally. We have done a lot of work on conferences that can take place to cover these issues, but I do not think that they are as important as trying to get the people themselves to agree. The triggers may be very different for different conflicts. The trigger may be the crisis of hunger in the country. The triggers may be external, such as stopping arms sales, in which case we need to stop arms sales to both parties. There may be a whole range of things that we need to look at to make sure that we can really get to grips with this.
It is worth remembering that this whole war started as a result of a Houthi rebel insurgency. I know that some speakers have particularly said that they need to condemn and we all need to condemn the faults on both sides. However, the Houthis are a very unsavoury group of people. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) raised the issue of boy soldiers. Whether the Saudis are also generating boy soldiers is a separate issue, but we know that the Houthis are employing boy soldiers, and that has to stop because it is a great attack on everything that we all believe in. We must bear in mind that they killed Saleh, the former Prime Minister, and the hon. Gentleman has already mentioned landmines as well.
Part of trying to move the Government to a better place is to accept that there are no good people in this conflict. My hon. Friend mentions the murder by the Houthis of Ali Abdullah Saleh, but the Saudis murdered al-Sammad, who was the President of the Houthis. I had met him, and he was a dove who wanted to negotiate. Part of moving the Government’s mindset is just to accept that there are no good people in this, and that includes the Houthis and the Saudis.
I have a great deal of sympathy with that statement, but I am trying to make sure that we achieve some sort of balance from our perspective when we look at the situation there. It should not be seen solely as a Saudi exercise in the bombing and intimidation of the Yemeni people; it started as a result of a particularly unsavoury group of people among the Houthis. I cannot remember who mentioned it, but I think the drone attack on the Riyadh pumping stations is very important because sources from the region state very clearly—very clearly—that this was inspired and paid for by Iran and Hezbollah. I think that is really unchallengeable and we would be unable to go against it, and I want to come back to that in a minute.
First, however, let me comment on the scale of the humanitarian crisis, which I think could be a trigger for getting the sides to agree. Some 71% of the population are living in extreme poverty—an enormous number— and 84% are malnourished. The loss in economic output from the country is enormous at something close to $700 billion, which is a phenomenal amount. UNICEF has estimated that more than 12 million children are in desperate need, and the number of internally displaced people is also large and must be considered.
I completely agree that in this case it is not good enough just to pledge aid, although the almost three quarters of billion pounds that we have pledged should not be sneezed at. We must, however, keep the pressure on and ensure that that money is paid, and used in a good way, in particular to help children in that area. The British Government are helping with the creation of the UN civilian co-ordinator in the area, which is a good thing for us to be involved with.
Let me return to my earlier point about Iran. It is true that we do not have the sort of relationship with Iran that we have with Saudi Arabia, but we are not the United States. We have a better relationship with Iran than the United States does—it would be impossible to have a worse one—and we should use that to talk to the Iranians about the geopolitical situation. In addition to what is happening in Yemen, a geopolitical discussion between Iran and Saudi Arabia is being played out, and I view this as a proxy war that is taking place against Iran. As I said, the attacks on the Riyadh pumping stations appear to have come from drones that were supplied by Iran through Hezbollah.
Will the Minister redouble his efforts in negotiating with Iran, so as to take this forward in a positive way? We must ensure that as part of the complicated discussions that must now take place between the Houthis and the internationally backed Yemeni Government, and between Saudi Arabia and Iran, we try to find a trigger point that could solve this conflict.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). He raised important points about the Houthis, which I will come to in a moment. I am also grateful to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for securing this debate. Even though we in this country are obsessed with Brexit, and with who might be Prime Minister in three days’ time, other important issues deserve our attention. The ongoing failed state that is Yemen is a major threat not just to its neighbouring countries but to the whole world, and it could be the powder keg that sparks a wider conflagration.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because a year ago I went to Saudi Arabia and visited Najran. I saw buildings, a school, and a power plant that had suffered extensive damage from missiles fired into Saudi Arabia from Yemen by the Houthis. For those in Saudi Arabia, this conflict is seen as a threat to their state.
Let me add a little history to this debate. First, this conflict is not just between the internationally recognised and living in exile President Hadi and the Houthis, because Yemen has other conflicts within it. Since 2009, there has been an insurgency by the Southern Movement—its Arabic name is al-Hirak—and an area in the south of Yemen is controlled by tribal groups and militias, and has a transitional council that is supported, ironically, by the United Arab Emirates. Everybody talks about Saudi Arabia, but the UAE is also a key player within the internationally supported and recognised coalition that is led by Saudi Arabia. The UAE also has strong views about resisting all forms of influence in the Arab world from Iran and what it perceives to be its proxies.
Secondly, elements in the south of Yemen are linked to al-Qaeda, and there are real dangers to that happening in any failed state. We have seen in Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya that if there is no state with power, the vacuum is filled by non-state actors, including extremists who are prepared to act totally ruthlessly, and who have no principles or regard for international law or what their international partners think. That is what we could have in Yemen—indeed, we already have it, but it could be much worse.
The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) spoke about having a new approach to whether we should continue to recognise President Hadi, given that he does not have any real locus within Yemen. That is a big issue and a fundamental question, because if there are to be talks, and if any real progress following the Stockholm agreement is to be made, the voices from the south of Yemen must also be heard. Such talks would not involve just the backers of President Hadi and of the Houthis, but other voices from within Yemen.
Yemen is a complicated country with a complicated history. There were once two Yemens, and with the end of the cold war they became one. Now we seem to have more than two, as there are several disparate groupings. Since last year there has been some hope—the efforts of Martin Griffiths have been referred to so I will not repeat them. There was an agreement to remove forces from Hodeidah and to have a neutral policing operation in the city, but we have not had that. The unilateral claim of withdrawal by the Houthis has been disputed by some people. We have also seen that even if the problem of the port of Hodeidah is somehow solved, that does not necessarily mean that the starving people in Yemen will be any better off.
The World Food Programme, which supplies food aid to 12 million people in Yemen, stated on Monday that it is thinking of suspending its operations in certain areas that are controlled by the Houthis. Of those 12 million people, 9 million are in Houthi-controlled areas, and the World Food Programme referred to a series of problems, including intimidation, corruption, extortion, insecurity and fighting, that are presenting great difficulties in getting that aid through. The Houthis are effectively taxing and extorting. Food and other aid is not getting through to the poor people, because these organisations are using their power to prevent it. That absolute scandal deserves wider publicity.
The hon. Gentleman is very experienced. He is a distinguished former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and his presence for this debate is extremely important. I remain puzzled, however, so perhaps he can help me with his vast knowledge of international affairs. The coalition admits that it cannot win the bombing war and the Houthis cannot win the war. People are starving. From looking at this problem from the outside, with a lot of knowledge about the tribal nature of Yemen, what does he think is stopping everyone saying that this has to end?
In short, it is because the conflict has become a proxy. The Houthis are perceived by a large number of countries in the Arab world to be either proxies or puppets of the Iranian regime. I do not think that that is absolutely an accurate description, but it is clear that the Iranians are arming the Houthis. I have seen the remains of missiles with Iranian markings on, which were on display in Najran, and the Saudis have a lot of such material. Nevertheless, the reality is that this is an internal conflict that outside countries are exploiting.
The problem we have is that in the past few days the United States has decided to send a carrier group into the region. The US has always had aircraft carriers in the region. In 2000, flying with the Defence Committee, I landed on the deck of the USS John C Stennis, named after the Chairman of the US Senate Defence select committee. Bruce George, the then Chairman of our Defence Committee, was hoping that the Ministry of Defence would do the same, but that never transpired. We landed, with the wire, on the deck. This aircraft carrier was in the Gulf of Hormuz. We could see all the aircraft movements in Iran up to the horizon from the bridge of the vessel. The US is reinforcing its military capability with carriers in the region because of its tensions with Iran. I do not want to be diverted on to issues relating to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iranian nuclear programme and so on, but there is the potential for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to get America into a regional conflict with Iran.
There are good reasons to be critical of Iran: internally, it has the highest number of executions of any country in the whole world apart from China—much more than Saudi Arabia, actually—its bad behaviour in Syria; its support for Hezbollah; its consistent attempts over decades to undermine any prospect of a middle east peace process; and what it is doing in Yemen. At the same time, the Arab League has just sent an invitation from the Saudi Government to an emergency Arab summit on 30 May in Mecca. The terms of the invitation refer to “recent aggression”, which refers to the attacks on the two Saudi oil tankers off the UAE coast. No one has claimed responsibility. Blame has not yet been attributed, but the assumption is that that was done by either Houthis, people from Iraq or, potentially, those from Iran as part of the proxy regional conflict.
A year ago, as our plane was flying back from Najran and was about to land in Riyadh, there was an alert. We could see, from a distance of probably just a few miles away, an incoming missile fired into Riyadh airport. When attacks start on oil tankers and pipelines, and missiles are fired into airports as planes are landing, that gets into the mind-set of the Saudis. If we are to get peace and to get the Saudis out of this conflict that the then Defence Minister, now the Crown Prince, got them into in 2015—I am sure they never thought that four years later they would be sucked into it in such a manner, and I am sure they would like a way out—the problem, as has been said, is that the Houthis also have to want a way out. However, they are doing very well out of taxing the aid that comes in, controlling the ports and all the rest of it. They are not a big group. As a percentage of Yemen’s total population they are a very small group, but they have maximum power and leverage at this time.
I do not have a message of easy solutions. I know it is fashionable for some people to say, “Well, if we stop supplying arms to Saudi Arabia, there would be no conflict in Yemen.” No one who has spoken in this debate has said that, but I have seen leaflets going out from groups such as the Stop the War Coalition that seem to imply that that is the reality. The reality is that we must use our position in the United Nations, as we have been. We must back up Martin Griffiths and his efforts. We must try, even though it is difficult, to talk to the Iranians and say, “This pattern of bad behaviour is not helpful to you if you want us to stop the pressure for more sanctions.” We also need to find ways to get support internally in Yemen for a dialogue between all groups. I flag up the fact that it is not just about the Houthis and Hadi’s Government. There are other factors in Yemen and they all have to be brought together.
It is a great pleasure to follow so many distinguished gentlemen who are very knowledgeable about Yemen, led of course by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is originally from Yemen. I do not pretend to be an expert on Yemen, but for the reasons that have been very ably set out, I have become increasingly interested in Yemen following my original interest in the Syrian area. I do feel, as the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) just told us, that the powder keg worry is very real, which was why I wanted to take part in the debate. I will, however, confine my remarks to the plight of civilians in Yemen, especially children. It is important that we focus on what it is really like to be a child in Yemen today.
As we have heard, it is now four years since hostilities escalated in Yemen, and the suffering of millions of children and their families has grown worse and worse. Millions of Yemenis are malnourished, with an estimated 85,000 children under five—that is as many people as I represent in my constituency—who may already have died from hunger or famine. About 360,000 children under five are currently suffering from severe acute malnutrition for which they require treatment. Those are eye-watering numbers and it is important that we stop and try to imagine the level of suffering, which has been exacerbated by the denial of access to humanitarian and commercial goods, the destruction and shut-down of much of the country’s medical and educational facilities, mass cholera and diphtheria outbreaks, and almost four years of still-escalating conflict.
The situation is estimated to be causing a child to die every 10 minutes—that was what I read, although the right hon. Member for Leicester East said it was every 12 minutes—from a completely preventable cause. It should be said that because there is so little infrastructure and because, in certain areas, so little notice is taken of who is dying and what is happening to them, the figure could be much higher. More than half of all health facilities are closed or only partially functioning. Preventable diseases are flourishing, with cholera cases increasing in recent weeks. About 1,000 children are being infected with cholera every day. In the last two weeks of March, 40,000 children contracted cholera.
Yemen has seen the emergence of swine flu for the first time. That is not something to be dismissed, because those of us who got swine flu when we had the outbreak in Britain know just how difficult that disease can be, particularly for the young. My daughter was desperately ill with swine flu. We need to think back only to what happened to a weakened population after a serious conflict of our own, the first world war, to know what flu in its worst state can do widely across weakened populations.
Long-term conflict has other implications. In the worst-affected areas of Hodeidah, only one in three children go to school and less than a quarter of the teachers that are needed are still in post. The closure of schools creates an exploitation crisis as child marriage, child labour and military recruitment—several hon. Members have mentioned this—fill the void that schools should be taking up in children’s lives. It also stores up a very real problem for the future, as we will not have educated a whole generation of Yemenis.
In 2018, a fifth of all armed violence casualties were children and nearly half those casualties were from airstrikes. Several hon. Members have mentioned that two months ago, a hospital in Kitaf was bombed. Five children were killed; the youngest was eight. This was almost certainly an airstrike and it was not an isolated incident. It is comprehensively estimated that a fifth of all armed casualties are child casualties.
Since the escalation of the conflict in March 2015, the Yemen data project has counted around 19,000 air raids—one every 102 minutes for almost four years. Approximately half the known targets have been against non-military sites, which usually include places where civilians are, such as hospitals, schools, markets, factories and farms. While the ceasefire in the port means that the situation is perhaps better than it was, there has been an increase in violence in other parts of the country. Last week, four more children were killed by an airstrike in Sana’a. Across the country, children continue to be killed and maimed by shelling and mines.
We must make sure that there is humanitarian access into Yemen so that aid and commercial goods, including food, medicine and fuel, get into the country and to everyone who needs it. Children do not ask to be involved in these conflicts, and we should do everything we can to ensure that they get the protection that they need. It is our obligation to protect them.
The Stockholm agreement was the first diplomatic breakthrough and the first real source of hope. Of course, the agreement needs to be implemented, as many people have said across the House, so that the UN can continue to conduct its role in monitoring and facilitating it. I praise the Secretary of State and the new Minister for the interest that they are taking in this region and for the work that they are doing. I look forward to hearing about the Minister’s plans later this afternoon.
It is simply not acceptable that children face these risks. Charities and doctors do their best to pick up the pieces, but it is incumbent on Governments around the world to prevent the atrocities from happening in the first place. The UK Government have taken a welcome first step by promising to review our protection of civilians strategy—something that has been widely called for across Parliament and by the UN. Updating the strategy and urging our allies to follow suit presents an opportunity to consider the changing nature of warfare. As conflict inevitably becomes more complex and more urban, we must update our policies, practice and global norms to protect civilians. Of course, terrorists may not read that review, but we still must continue to take the lead on it and to encourage our allies to follow suit. We can start by introducing new measures to protect children, such as ending the indiscriminate use of explosive weapons in populated areas. More than that, we must champion the protection of children globally, demanding that the UN and our allies do more to uphold the international rules-based system.
The debate on Yemen seems to focus very much on arms sales, and it is an important debate that raises many ethical problems, some of which are rather complex. However, like the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), I think that denying sales to Saudi may not achieve a great deal because it will simply buy the bombs from elsewhere. I would rather have our people in there targeting cells to minimise casualties.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). She makes a very important point about ensuring that targeting in built-up areas is given an intense priority because of the potential for civilian casualties. As I am sure she knows, when we were running the ISIS campaign, if there were any civilian casualties, even in ISIS territory, we simply could not drop a bomb. For Saudi, it may be that those restrictions on battle damage assessment—BDA, as it is known in the military world—are somewhat looser or perhaps they justify it by going after particular individuals. There is an issue over BDA and the levels of BDA allowed by Saudi as opposed to other people.
I do not intend to talk for long, but I want to raise a few issues about the internal dynamics in Yemen and to ask questions of the Minister, in part because I am curious about the subject and covered it a bit in a previous employment. For me, the most concerning issue is the proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman in the south and east of Yemen. All three countries are important allies of ours. I fear that those proxy dynamics are being played out through tribal forces in Hadhramaut and Mahra. A worsening conflict between those major states will increase civilian casualties in formerly more peaceful parts of the country, such as Mukalla, Hadhramaut and Mahra. It will also worsen the dynamic between our allies—the Saudis, the UAE and especially the Omanis—and Iran. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) was absolutely right when he said that we should not just see this through the prism of a proxy war. Unfortunately, that is an important part of great power politics. Clearly, that proxy battle, as we are seeing with the Houthi, and the dynamic between the Houthi and the Saudis in other parts of the country—around Sana’a and in the major ports—is driving the civilian casualties. Solving the civilian crisis and solving the great power politics around Yemen are very much one and the same thing.
I am concerned about the Iranian dynamic and abut the Saudi desire to put a pipeline through parts of Yemen when there is no central Government to negotiate on behalf of the tribes in Hadhramaut and Mahra provinces. I would like to hear what the Minister thinks we can do to use our limited influence—we should remind ourselves that our influence is limited—in certain parts of the country for stabilisation. I ask that for a specific reason: about five years ago, we had a plan—not for all of Yemen, but the MOD and other bits of Government put together a plan for the south and east of Yemen. I vaguely know about it because I was very vaguely involved in it. It was a good plan, which looked at linking up a bit of military support with peace-building measures, a bit of development, a bit of media work, education work and with a clean-up along the coastline, because the place was a bit messy. All these things were designed to stabilise south and east Yemen to prevent the Iranian smuggling routes of drugs and weapons into Yemen that were fuelling the conflict, especially from Mukalla. I cannot quite remember when, but about 15 or 18 months ago, the UAE special forces cleared out Mukalla—the Saudis came in as well—with the local tribes. I understand from my contacts with the local tribes, especially in the Mahra tribal federations, that they have, to a certain extent, welcomed outside forces, because they have helped to clean out al-Qaeda. Yemenis fear UAE attempts to cut off Aden from the rest of the country. The tribes fear that the Saudis are simply going to put a pipeline through eastern Yemen and not ask too many questions. The Omanis, who may not be our most powerful ally in that part of the world, but are one of our best allies, fear that they are being dragged into a proxy conflict with Saudi tribal federation groups and the UAE.
I am very keen to hear from the Minister how our influence is being played out, either locally or in our diplomatic relationships here and elsewhere, to ensure that our allies do not come to blows, and that they and we can be part of a solution that seeks to stabilise. Specifically in Hadhramaut and Mahra, that would look like engaging a broader tribal federation or tribal council—I think in Afghanistan it is called a Loya Jirga, but I cannot remember what the Yemeni version is called. There should be a wider tribal federation plan than the one that exists at the moment, whereby some tribes accept Omani support and some accept Saudi support. I know that I am asking some detailed questions, but very often the devil is in the detail with these things. If the Government could say what they are doing as an honest broker between our allies, I would really appreciate it.
Will the Minister also say whether there is a new joined-up strategy to replace the at least partial joined-up strategy that was attempted a few years ago, which for various internal governmental and agency reasons sadly never saw the light of day. I regret that because it was a decent plan. Are the Government concerned about the posture of the UAE in Aden? Are they concerned about the posture of Saudi in other parts of the country and about whether it wants a more permanent presence in Yemen? If it does, what would that mean for the delicate internal dynamics in that country?
I thank the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) and other experienced Members around the Chamber for their comments. There is obviously a huge amount of knowledge about Yemen in the House. I hope the Minister is in a position to listen to the comments that have been made today and to act on the good suggestions that we have heard.
My starting point is that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is one of the greatest tragedies of our time. Can the UK do more to alleviate the dreadful humanitarian situation in that country and that region?
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for supporting this debate in Yemen week. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on securing the debate and on the assiduous way in which he has pursued such a complex issue through the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen, which he chairs with the support of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who sadly cannot be with us as she is on manoeuvres elsewhere. All Members share their passion for peace and prosperity in Yemen, both in the short term and in respect of its long-term success.
The pressure that the APPG has brought to bear over the past four years has been something to behold, particularly the number of parliamentary questions that have been put down by our members and the number of early-day motions that have detailed every twist and turn of the process. As the bombs have rained down on the people of Yemen; as food, water and medicines have been in exceptionally short supply; as the humanitarian crisis has deepened; and as the Government have blatantly ignored our calls to stop UK-built weapons being exported to Saudi Arabia, the APPG has been there, influencing, making the case and highlighting the deficiencies of the Government. We have praised the good work that has been done where we can, but overall we have been hugely frustrated by the slow progress that has been made over recent times. The APPG has worked assiduously with the non-governmental organisations that have a presence in the country. We keep ourselves as well informed as we can. We keep in contact with Yemeni groups here in the UK and those who work every day to bring some sense of normality within the country itself.
The biggest thing for the APPG has been to support the work of the UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, and the peace process that he has put in place. Despite some setbacks, we wish him well in all his efforts, because the only solution in this dreadfully war-torn country will be a political solution. I look forward to those issues being discussed in Edinburgh and Glasgow at the inter-parliamentary conference on 20 June, which follows a similar event at the French National Assembly in Paris last November. Most of all, I look forward to Martin Griffiths’ efforts being successful. I doubt there is even one Member of this House who does not want that peace to be won for the people of Yemen and the security of the region.
I will say a bit more on the peace process later, but I will begin by looking at an issue that some other hon. Members have veered away from: the sale to Saudi Arabia of arms that are subsequently deployed in Yemen. I believe that those exports still play a significant negative role in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. By continuing with this policy, the UK is now “out of step” with the rest of the EU member states and its position is
“becoming ever more absurd, to the point where Jeremy Hunt claimed at the end of March that it would be ‘morally bankrupt’ not to sell weapons to the Saudis.”
So wrote Anna Stavrianakis in a recent article for The Guardian.
Agreeing licences for arms sales is not the good news the Foreign Secretary thinks it is; it is a blot on our reputation. When Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Rights Watch UK are supporting a legal appeal brought by the Campaign Against Arms Trade, and when we know that many of our European counter- parts have not fallen into the arms trade trap, it is clear that a serious message on arms sales is not getting through to the most senior levels of our Government—a Government who have the power to stop or suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia until Yemen is firmly on a path to peace and stability.
There is an even stronger warning from Amnesty International’s extensive and credible report, which has
“demonstrated that British-made weapons have been repeatedly used—and continue to be used—to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law, including possible war crimes.”
That is a dreadful legacy for any Foreign Secretary and, indeed, any Government to leave to those who come after them. Someone, someday will have to be around to clear up the mess that has been left behind.
The Netherlands, the Flemish part of Belgium and Greece have all suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and Austria, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland have put restrictive measures on exports to Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, several EU states announced that they would suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including Germany, Norway, Finland and Denmark. I hope that the Minister accepts in his response that many of the countries I have just mentioned are our friends and allies. Why have they seen the light, and why is the UK out of step with them?
The Government have said many times that they are friends with the Saudi regime and that they have influence in the region. In a good friendship, sometimes one has to be a critical friend. I therefore hope that the Minister will listen to the views that have been expressed in this House and explain to his Saudi counterparts that many Members of the House are unhappy with the arms sales and the way in which British arms are being deployed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
Many hon. Members have highlighted the dreadful humanitarian crisis affecting Yemen. Women and children are on the frontline of that crisis. Their difficulties have been well documented by UNICEF, Oxfam, Save the Children, Islamic Relief and the Red Cross. Some of the statistics that we read are chilling: 80% of Yemenis are in need of humanitarian aid; 50% of children between six months and five years old are chronically malnourished; half the population, or 16 million people, wake up every day hungry; there have been, to date, 17,000 UN- documented civilian casualties, 10,000 of which are attributed to Saudi-led coalition assaults; 85,000 children have died of starvation; and 20 million people do not know where their food will come from in the next week.
Those are just numbers, and it is easy for them to trip off our tongues as Members of Parliament, but the House must recognise the lives, the families, the education and the wellbeing of those who lie behind them. While we are the fifth-largest contributor to aid to Yemen, which is to be welcomed, we are the second-biggest arms exporter to Saudi Arabia. It might be a start if the those two areas were transposed and we started putting more into aid and much less into arms sales—if, indeed, we are to have arms sales at all.
The peace process is of course where much of our hope for the future lies. As I said, I think the whole House is united in our support for the work of Martin Griffiths and Sir Mark Lowcock, whom many hon. Members have met in recent months. The UK is the penholder for Yemen in the UN, which means that we have a special role—a significant responsibility to the people of Yemen to help to lead them to a situation where they live in a peaceful and prosperous country. We support UN resolutions 2451 and 2452. I thank the Foreign Secretary for travelling to Stockholm to engage in these peace talks, but we need to do more. I also thank the previous Minister, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), for everything that he did in this area and the way that he kept Members informed. I hope that the new Minister will step seamlessly into his shoes and do an equally good job.
There are five areas critical to peace where the UK could do more. We need to do much more to apply pressure to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to bring about an end to this conflict and to secure peace and a lasting ceasefire. The special relationship must be made to work towards peace and stability. I would like to hear the Minister’s views on how he is working towards that. We ask that the UK stops, or at least suspends, arms sales to give a really strong signal that we are serious about a ceasefire and bringing peace to the region. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) made a good point about allowing us to find some space to rethink what our position is on arms sales. We should send a message that we want to bring peace and stability to the region. This is not a long-term position that the Government need to adopt; we just need to provide a bit of space to make sure that progress can be made.
Having a diplomatic presence in Sana’a would give a clear message that we are serious about the long-term future of the country and help to focus the international efforts to bring about an immediate and lasting ceasefire. I do not know if there are any plans to do that or if it has already been done, but it would send a very strong message to people on the ground that the UK was playing a major part and respecting our penholder status.
I hope that we can listen a lot more to the people of Yemen on the ground—particularly women—who have a crucial role to play in the future of their own country. The solutions must be found by the people of Yemen and not just done to the people of Yemen. I hope to hear from the Minister about how he would hope to encourage that sense of inclusion across communities and groups that currently operate in Yemen. I look forward his response.
Order. I recognise that the Front Benchers usually speak for about 10 minutes, but as this is such an important debate and we do not have time pressure, I suggest 15 minutes for both sides.
First, I welcome my opposite number, the Minister, to his place. He has big shoes to fill but I know he will do it effectively and efficiently.
I thank my right hon. Friend—my good friend; my dear friend—the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for bringing this debate to the House today. He is a fine, fearless and forthright advocate for Yemen. For as long as I have known him, he has provided that advocacy, but never more so than in these past four years when it has been more necessary than ever before. He opened our debate by talking about the unification of Yemen in 1990, when it was a country that was being destroyed and fragmented, to use his words, after four years of appalling conflict, echoes of which we have heard from many hon. and right hon. Members. We know that 100 children die every single day and 70,000 have been killed or have died since the war started. This is the largest humanitarian disaster since the second world war and a shocking testament to our inability to stop this needless slaughter of innocents. A child dies every 12 minutes, he told us, and many have echoed that.
My right hon. Friend referred to the Houthis’ indiscriminate use of landmines, which we have condemned over and over again. He mentioned the Stockholm agreement that was agreed in December 2018, but the implementation process of which has been sadly and woefully slow. On 10 May—at last—Houthi forces began their redeployment. We hope, like him, that that is a path to peace. As we know, 80% of goods come in via Hodeidah, and they are much needed—more needed than ever before. There has been $2.6 billion pledged in aid, but only $770 million in aid has been received. Sir Mark Lowcock says that much more must be done to try to ensure that those pledges turn into reality. The most important message that he gave us was, “Stop the bombing now”—something echoed by every hon. and right hon. Member who spoke.
We then heard from somebody who has really shown his mettle over the past few years and has acted where many others just speak—the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). He is somebody we should always listen to. I agreed with everything he said, bar one thing that I will come to in a moment. He posed four pertinent questions to the Minister, and I know the Minister will do his best to answer them. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has visited Sana’a, Sa’dah and many other towns and cities in Yemen, and has shown his knowledge and understanding from those visits. He said something very important—that the United Kingdom has been complicit in this war. He mentioned the corrupt Houthi leaders blocking food aid, and the aerial attacks by the Royal Saudi Air Force and the United Arab Emirates, which I will say a little more about later.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the Chairman of the International Development Committee, has also taken up the cause of Yemen and spoken again and again, with passion and with feeling, to try to make sure that we play our part in this country to stop the slaughter. He said that the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe has been widely described. He emphasised the 80% gap between the funds pledged and the funds actually paid, and asked what the United Kingdom is going to do to ensure that the push for the pledges to come forward is made. Like every other Member, he mentioned the effect on children, especially those under five, and the 1,000 children a day—a day—who are contracting cholera. He welcomed, of course, the diplomatic leadership by the United Kingdom. Importantly, he agreed that there should be a major rethink on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He said that although we do have rigorous arms sales licensing, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned, our sales of arms to Saudi Arabia undermine that rigorous set of rules. He said that a nationwide ceasefire is of course vital, but, more than that, we must have a long-term commitment by this country to rebuild Yemen. We would all agree with that, I hope.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) said that it is a cause for celebration that the truce outlines are there, and that the peace process is akin to a mediation, but much more needs to be done to build peace. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned peace building, a role close to my heart as our shadow Minister for peace.
We then heard from the former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), a close friend. I served under him on the Committee when he was Chair. His knowledge, understanding, interest and passion came through very strongly. He is a Member we should always listen to, especially on this subject—especially with his lifelong knowledge and expertise of the middle east and of the conflicts. Not only does he talk about these things, but, as he made clear to all of us this afternoon, he acts, too; he visits the regions—he is fearless in doing that.
The hon. Gentleman made some important points. The UAE is also a big player in the coalition against the Houthis, and of course Iran’s role in this proxy war is extremely important and we need to tackle the Iranians on it. He also said something I would certainly agree with: while we listen to what the Americans say about Iran we need to play a much stronger role because we have a warmer relationship with the Iranians. In that regard, I hope I will be having some contact myself with the Iranian ambassador, as I am sure the Minister does regularly. The final point the hon. Gentleman made was that there are more than just two Yemens; this is a multifaceted country and we have to make sure all parties, all tribal groups and all the groups playing a role in this terrible conflict are brought into the peace talks, not just the main contenders.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) again talked about the plight of children. I know that she is concerned and always passionate about trying to stop conflict. She mentioned the increase in violence in other parts of Yemen now that there is a relative ceasefire in Hodeidah.
Finally, we heard from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), who also clearly has a great deal of knowledge about the region. He said, again backing up comments of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, that this is not just about weapon sales, and stopping weapon sales will not solve the issue. He also emphasised once again that this is a proxy war.
The Houthi rebels have started to comply with a UN-led agreement to withdraw their forces from the key port of Hodeidah. Before talking about that, however, I want to mention a “Dispatches” documentary by journalist Sue Turton shown on Channel 4 recently. It underlined the role our country is playing and that many personnel, both military and non-military civilian staff, are playing in ensuring the Royal Saudi Air Force is able to operate. They do not touch the bombs—that would be against the law—but they do make sure the aircraft are airworthy and able to go on bombing missions. That is why Labour pledges absolutely to push as hard as we can on this, and if in government to stop all arms sales to Saudi Arabia while we ensure there is a UN investigation into the role those arms sales have played. I accept that, as some Members have said this afternoon, it will not stop the war necessarily, but I urge everybody who has not seen that documentary to watch it; that journalist’s credentials are excellent and her sources impeccable, so it is worth watching because it might change Members’ views about this.
While UN figures estimate over 10,000 people have been killed in the last two years, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project claims that the figure is closer to 60,223, many of these being children as we have heard so often today. Save the Children claims 85,000 may have died from starvation since 2016. I know that figure of 85,000 has been mentioned a few times this afternoon, but we need to remember it. These are children; not only are they the innocent victims of war, but they have no say in trying to stop this war. They were never consulted, and nor were most of the civilian population for that matter.
While we on this side of the House welcome—as I am sure we all do—the progress finally being made under the auspices of the Stockholm accord and the Houthi decision to withdraw from the port of Hodeidah, it is now vital that all sides adhere to the terms of the peace plan. Over 80% of humanitarian aid enters Yemen through the port of Hodeidah. The Yemeni people have suffered enough, and the chair of the Redeployment Coordination Committee, Lieutenant General Michael Lollesgaard, is right to say that the unilateral withdrawal of the Houthi rebels must be followed by
“the committed, transparent and sustained actions of the parties to fully deliver on their obligations”.
We believe that there must be a full investigation into why there are reports, such as in the documentary I have just mentioned, of British weapons and even SAS soldiers being used in Yemen—it may not be true, but there have been reports. The fact that British weapons may have been used to kill innocent civilians, including many children, is extremely sickening, but we want to make peace in Yemen possible.
I do not say the hon. Gentleman is wrong to argue the point he is making, but does he understand that insurgency theory specifically suggests that insurgents put their kit and their people where, if attacked from the air, there will be civilian casualties? This has been practised as long as insurgency wars have been going on. So the insurgents are deliberately trying to induce the Saudis to bomb them where civilian casualties will be an outcome. Therefore this is not a black-and-white scenario, but is a very complex one about risk versus reward on targets. I am not saying the Saudis are not getting it wrong sometimes, but it is not a black-and-white situation as they are trying to target a justifiable target that specifically goes into civilian areas.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, and I hope I have not suggested for one minute that there is a simple solution to this conflict and it is simply a matter of stopping UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the whole thing stops, although I would recommend that, if the hon. Gentleman has not seen it, he watches that “Dispatches” documentary because there is certainly a hint in it—although I do not necessarily agree with it. Of course this is a complex situation, but, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield hinted, there may come a time when we all call for the withdrawal of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia as a way of trying to stop the conflict escalating further or of trying to bring about a peace deal. But Labour thinks those arms sales should stop immediately.
We think that in order to make peace in Yemen possible we must end those arms exports to Saudi Arabia immediately. Following in the footsteps of our European allies—Germany, Spain, Italy and Denmark—we think that that will give the Stockholm agreement and the United Nations the best chances of achieving peace, although I do accept that there are the complexities that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight legitimately raised in his intervention. We on this side of the House have consistently called for that immediate cessation of arms sales and of the conflict—of course we all want to see that. We feel that, as other Members have mentioned this afternoon, we are complicit unless we act more neutrally and diplomatically in the conflict in Yemen.
We have also called for an independent UN-led investigation into allegations of war crimes in this terrible conflict. An open letter to the Government sent a few weeks ago by colleagues of mine in the shadow Cabinet and other opposition parties states that
“it is morally reprehensible that the UK government is not only not considering changing its policy”
on arms sales
“but is actively lobbying other foreign governments, as it did with Germany, to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia.”
I also want to briefly refer to the House of Lords International Relations Committee recent report that stated that the UK was
“narrowly on the wrong side”
of the law by allowing arms exports to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen. The report noted that it was concerned that the Saudi-led coalition’s misuse of weaponry bought from the UK has been deliberately or accidentally causing civilian casualties. The report stated:
“Relying on assurances by Saudi Arabia and Saudi-led review processes is not an adequate way of implementing the obligations for a risk-based assessment set out in the Arms Trade Treaty.”
My colleague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, claimed in The Guardian earlier this year that as many as 40% of the soldiers in the Saudi coalition and the Houthi rebel army were children, and the United Nations has documented 1,702 cases of child recruitment for which it has clear evidence. As we have heard, Saudi forces have bombed vital infrastructure and innocent civilians, and starvation has been used as a weapon of war through the blockading of ports. A UN human rights investigation in August 2018 noted that Saudi coalition airstrikes might constitute war crimes. I have posed a number of questions to add to the list that the Minister already has, and I will end my remarks here to allow him the chance to answer the questions that have been put to him this afternoon.
The unfolding crisis in Yemen reminds us, as we struggle with our own domestic issues, that they are as nothing compared with the disaster that is unfolding in that country. It gives us a sense of perspective. Set against that, of course we can never do enough. I have been in this job for two weeks, and I am already enfolded by a sense of frustration and inadequacy. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), who speaks for the Scottish National party, hopes that we might have an embassy again in Sana’a, and so do I. That would be a litmus test of real progress in Yemen, but we are a long way from there at the moment. I thank the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for bringing this matter forward. I am sorry that the turnout has not been greater, but what we lack in numbers, we have made up for in quality today. No one in this House knows more about Yemen than he does. He is a tremendous advocate for the people of that country, the place of his birth, and I salute him for a really high-quality speech.
As right hon. and hon. Members have said today, there has been some progress. It is always a good thing in debates of this sort to try to find something positive to say. The Stockholm peace process has progressed, in baby steps, over the past several weeks, and General Lollesgaard, the head of the UN mission to support the Hodeidah agreement, confirmed on 14 May that Houthi forces had redeployed away from those vital ports that have been cited in the debate. Progress is painfully and disappointingly slow. Nevertheless, the United Nations has rightly described Hodeidah and Salif as a lifeline. Last month, they were the entry points for well over half of all the food imported into Yemen. Given that more than one in three Yemenis rely on aid as their only source of food, those ports are truly vital.
As I have said, there is still a lot to be done. Our country is one among many, but we do punch above our weight. I have only been doing this job for two weeks, but I have been struck by how much effort this Government have put into trying to make a difference in Yemen. Hon. Members have generously mentioned the contribution made by the Foreign Secretary, who has been to Yemen very recently. He has assembled the Quad, and we are the penholder at the United Nations in this matter. I am proud of that fact. I am also proud of the amount of aid that the United Kingdom has given to Yemen, and I will come back to that if I may. A number of Members have asked questions about aid, and I should like to describe and enumerate that issue a little more.
Central to all this is the work of the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, who I spoke to yesterday. I am grateful for the support for him that has been expressed today by a number of contributors to the debate, not least the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife.
Let us be clear that only a political solution can end this situation. It is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It might not seem that way to the general public, because it does not get the kind of coverage in our media that I think it deserves, but that remains the case nevertheless. Millions of Yemenis are experiencing the most appalling suffering. I am not keen on statistics, because they can sometimes betray and let down the sheer scale of some of these ghastly tragedies, but 24 million people—a staggering 80% of the population—are now in need of humanitarian assistance. UN Security Council resolutions 2451 and 2452, proposed by the UK, were unanimously adopted in December 2018 and 2019. It is important to understand that the UK has been right at the heart of trying to resolve this desperate situation—with the assistance of others, of course.
As the right hon. Member for Leicester East and others mentioned, we do not currently have a diplomatic presence in Yemen, but let me assure them that we monitor the situation on the ground closely, and this assessment is reviewed on an ongoing basis. As soon as it is safe to do so, we will ensure that we have proper diplomatic and, importantly, consular representation on the ground. I know that a number of right hon. and hon. Members are concerned about constituents who are wrapped up in this situation, and not being helped by the fact that the normal assistance that we would give to UK citizens is being hampered because we simply cannot have normal diplomatic or consular relations at this time.
With regard to the right hon. Member for Leicester East’s question about the upcoming state visit, I should like to remind Members of the remarks that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made only yesterday at the Yemen Day meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen, where he said that he would raise Yemen with President Trump and that he had already discussed it with Secretary Pompeo. It would be remarkable if that were not the case. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his suggestion of a UK-hosted conference for peace in London. As I have said, we are just one country among many, but we are influential and we have taken a lead on Yemen. In the spirit of the soft power that he cited, I will certainly consider his suggestion very carefully indeed.
I should like to make a few remarks about the UK’s response to the humanitarian crisis. We are providing a further £200 million this financial year, bringing our total humanitarian contribution since the start of the conflict to £770 million. I have checked with officials this morning, because I know that several Members are concerned about the roll-out of that money, and I am told that more than £600 million of that sum has already been paid. I will go further and say that in my early conversations with my interlocutors over the past two weeks, I have made it clear that those who have pledged aid must give that aid. I have underscored the fact that it is not good enough simply to pledge money, and that they must hand it over.
This is slightly complicated because most of those interlocutors, including the UK, disburse most of those funds through non-governmental organisations. That is quite right and proper, and it is the best way to achieve our aims, but the process means that there could be some delay in disbursing funds. According to the programmes and schedules of the NGOs, donors must hand over the cash as soon as they possibly can, and that has been the burden of my conversations with my interlocutors over the past few days. I hope that that gives right hon. and hon. Members the reassurance that they were rightly seeking from me.
Our latest disbursement of funds will help to meet some of the immediate food needs of the people in Yemen. It will enable us to feed people, to treat them and to ensure that they get better access to water and basic sanitation, which leads me to the subject of cholera and watery diarrhoea.
Almost 300,000 suspected cases have been recorded by the World Health Organisation. Our support is saving lives, and the British public need to know that, but it goes beyond simply giving people vaccines—simple though that is in the case of cholera. It has to mean a much wider public health approach to tackling what we in this country would call an “antique disease”— a disease that should not be affecting people in the 21st century—and that means instructing people in proper hygiene. We need teams who can do that, and we must ensure that people have proper access to clean water. GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, understands that full well, which is why we are supporting it and UNICEF and other partners to help vaccinate over 2 million people in high-priority districts.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about cholera. It is a truly terrible medieval disease, and the outbreak is the largest in the world. Does he understand that the cause of the outbreak is the smashing up of the infrastructure through the nightly bombings by the Saudi and Emirati air force? If infrastructure is smashed up like that, and if sewage is mixed with clean water, cholera emerges. Will he bear that in mind as he makes progress in the Foreign Office on this difficult issue?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and I will come on to address some of his remarks in my contribution, but he is quite right that poor, broken infrastructure inevitably means cholera, particularly in a country like Yemen.
There is some good news in that the instances of cholera in Yemen have fallen for the fourth week running. That is positive and shows the difference that British and international support is making, and although it is early days, I very much hope that that positive trend continues.
Several right hon. and hon Members spoke about what we do next—what happens in the event that the conflict is resolved to the point that we can start rebuilding Yemen. I think we have actually started that. We have to look at Yemen’s economy and see what we can do to support it—even in its current desperate state and even at a time when the priority clearly has to be to stop people fighting and to resolve issues relating to the humanitarian crisis. We need to ensure that what passes for a Government in Yemen is able to disburse funds to public servants, and we have been working on that. By that, I mean disbursing funds to public servants right across the country, not just those in the parts that are controlled by the Government of Yemen. We have made it clear that the Government must pay public sector workers, some of whom have not been paid for two years.
The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) made a balanced speech. He forensically dissected the conflict in Yemen, rightly pointing out that it is not just one war, but several conflicts. The principal one that we are engaged with today is clearly the conflict between the Government of Yemen and the Houthi insurgency, but there is also the war in the south between the Government of Yemen and the so-called Southern Movement. Most worryingly for those who live some distance from the middle east, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to be active. We may not hear a great deal about that in the context of Yemen right now, but it remains there, and we must be alive to the threat that it poses, both to Yemen and to the rest of the world.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the World Food Programme. The protection of NGOs in general is a matter of the utmost importance, and they must be allowed to do what they do safely. The World Food Programme is absolutely essential to resolving the situation in Yemen right now, and its work—for example, to ensure the safety of grain in the Red Sea Mills—is vital to unlock those stores and to ensure that people have food. I salute the World Food Programme and all the NGOs that put themselves at considerable risk. Looking around the world today, there is a real risk that those people’s lives are often in peril, but they continue never the less.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about southern voices in Yemen, I am absolutely clear that any process needs to include all the people of Yemen, including those vital southern voices. Indeed, the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths reaffirmed that in his most recent briefing to the Security Council on 15 May. It is right that the UK continues to engage, so far as it possibly can, with a wide range and diverse group of Yemeni individuals, and we will continue to do that wherever we can.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) made several vital points in his important contribution. The evidence stands in relation to child soldiers. We are appalled by the presence of child soldiers, some of whom we are told are as young as eight years old on Houthi side of this conflict. The evidence is clearer for the Houthis, but the accusation stands that both sides are employing minors in this conflict. That must stop. It is a truly terrible thing, and it must stop.
I entirely agree with the need to involve women in that process, and Martin Griffiths made that clear in his remarks. It is always important to point out that conflict leads to an increase in gender-based violence, and that is certainly happening in this case. I am pleased that we continue to support the UN, particularly the Yemeni women’s pact for peace and security, which is extremely important. As far as we can, we will ensure that all groups within Yemen are involved in this process.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that our commitment to Yemen must be long standing. As he will know as Chair of the International Development Committee, the important thing is that we do not consider the job done when one way or another this conflict inevitably grinds to a halt—although may that be sooner rather than later—because we need a plan for the future. We have also heard about the dusting off old plans where they may be of assistance. He is also right to call for a ceasefire, which we of course want. Goodness me, wouldn’t that be good? We must plan for what might come in the future while doing everything we can with all our interlocutors to impress the importance of dialling down and stopping the conflict, and I will come on to why that is important not just for Yemen, but for the wider region.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) rightly concentrated on the impact that the conflict is having on the most vulnerable: the children. I am pleased that UK aid means that the screening and treating of 30,000 children for malnutrition is going ahead this year. That will always be inadequate, but these are big numbers, and it means so much at a human level for people who would otherwise be left to face their fate. Of course, that action comes from the £770 million previously cited, which puts the UK in the premier division—head and shoulders above all the other countries with which we can reasonably be compared.
People in this country are sometimes said to be parsimonious when it comes to international development. I do not believe that to be the case, but they want to know that their money is being spent properly. I do not think there will be many objections to spending money in Yemen today. Incidentally, I agree with my hon. Friend’s insistence that the UK must be a champion of the international rules-based system. It is something that goes without saying, but she is right to make that important point.
I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) has probably left, but I will nevertheless deal with his points because he is an acknowledged expert in this area. He is obviously concerned about Saudi Arabia’s purchasing of arms from the UK, and we have been around this buoy many times. The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), who speaks for the Opposition, knows pretty much what I am going to say. The Labour party, with all respect, is an expert in this matter, because it was famously involved in some of this when in office. However, this is not something that can by any means be attributed to any particular political party. We do comply with the EU consolidated criteria and with the tenets of the Export Control Act 2002, which is so important. I am absolutely clear that this country must ethically pursue whatever we do. I am prepared to argue, though this is probably neither the time nor the place—you may call me out of order, Mr Deputy Speaker—that if the United Kingdom did not sell arms in the way it does, for legitimate self-defence in accordance with international law, other countries would do so, and probably a lot less ethically.
The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield is concerned about the investigation of things that have gone wrong in the prosecution of Saudi Arabia’s operations in Yemen, and there have been some horrible examples. The UK is heavily involved in ensuring that when that happens, as it regrettably does in conflict, it is properly investigated. It is not right to dismiss the joint incident assessment team, which has produced over 100 reports on incidents during this conflict. We will clearly hold the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s feet to the fire in relation to the investigation of these matters, as we will with all our partners in the region. I hope that gives some reassurance.
I am being hurried along, and it is absolutely right that the Whip on duty should do that, but, needless to say, the speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) were superb. I agree with much of what they have to say. The latter, of course, has an extensive geopolitical understanding of the region, for which he is famed, but both speeches were balanced and highly commendable.
The Government are fully committed to ending the devastating conflict in Yemen. We believe that supporting the work of Martin Griffiths and the UN-led process is the best way to do that, for which I heard general assent in the Chamber today. It is in the interests of all parties, but especially of the Yemeni people themselves, that we work together to find a lasting solution to this appalling situation. For our part, the UK will do everything we can, both through our determined diplomatic efforts and through our generous humanitarian support, to help find the solutions about which the right hon. Member for Leicester East spoke so passionately.
This has been an excellent and passionate debate, fully justifying the decision of the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), to give us time, for which we thank him.
I thank the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), the hon. Members for Henley (John Howell), for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) and for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), and my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton). And I thank the Minister, who will always remember his first speech from the Dispatch Box as a Foreign Office Minister. He has responded very positively.
It is often said that the war in Yemen is a forgotten war, but it is not forgotten in this House. Today we have remembered Yemen, but another 12 Yemeni children have died since the start of this debate. What we want is not great speeches but great actions. A ceasefire is not a mantra but an objective. We need this ceasefire, and this country needs to make sure it happens. We need to seize the moment and bring peace to this sad, troubled but beautiful land.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes that 22 May 2019 is the 28th anniversary of the unification of Yemen, when that country emerged from a long and painful civil war; further notes that today Yemen is once again in a deep and pitiful state of conflict, having entered the fifth year of its current, tragic war; acknowledges that the most recent estimate places the death toll in excess of 70,000, of which 10,000 have died in the last five months alone; notes that Yemen remains in the midst of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, in which at least 85,000 children have starved to death and almost 200,000 have contracted cholera in 2019 alone; commends the work of the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, who brought opposing sides together for agreements including on a ceasefire in the Al-Hodeidah Governate; regrets that the implementation of those agreements has been slow or non-existent; and calls on the Government to take every possible measure to support an immediate ceasefire, the flow of humanitarian aid and further peace talks in Yemen.