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Volume 664: debated on Tuesday 1 October 2019

Well, it is not the Foreign Secretary but a substitute for said Minister. He will do his level best, we feel sure.

The UK is deeply concerned by the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. We fully support the peace process, led by the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, and urge all parties to engage constructively with that process. A political settlement is the only way to bring long-term stability to Yemen and to address the worsening humanitarian crisis. A nationwide ceasefire will have effect on the ground only if it is underpinned by a political deal between the conflict parties.

The UK has been at the forefront of international efforts to bring a peaceful solution to the appalling conflict in Yemen. On 26 September, the UK co-hosted a political event at the UN General Assembly to co-ordinate the international community’s support for the UN-led peace process and to endorse UN special envoy Martin Griffiths’ plan to begin wider political discussion. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa visited the region from 25 to 29 August, in support of the United Nations’ efforts to make political progress and alleviate the humanitarian situation.

Yemen remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with nearly 80% of the entire population—more than 24 million people—requiring some form of humanitarian assistance. The UK has shown extensive leadership in responding to the crisis, committing £770 million of support to Yemen since the conflict began in 2015. Our funding for this financial year is providing food for more than 1 million Yemenis each month and more than 1 million people with improved water supply and sanitation.

We have been very concerned by the UN’s funding situation and the fact that it has been forced to stop delivering some of its life-saving support in Yemen. In response, the UK brought forward funding from our £200 million pledge and has already released 87% of the funding that we have pledged to UN agencies this year. We thank Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait for providing approximately $800 million in September and urge all donors rapidly to distribute their humanitarian pledges.

I thank the Minister for that response. As he says, the humanitarian consequences of the Yemen conflict are devastating. The United Nations has estimated that, by the end of this year, the combined death toll from the fighting and disease will be 230,000. I pay tribute to the Department for International Development for its response, which, as he rightly reminded us, has been one of the most generous in the world, but, as he said, humanitarian efforts remain critically underfunded. The United Nations programmes on vaccination, cholera prevention and malnutrition have been forced to close. We are now looking to the 2020 humanitarian response plan. May I ask that the UK works with other donors to ensure that these life-saving programmes are restored? The previous Foreign Secretary provided real leadership on Yemen, and there is a concern that Yemen is no longer the Government priority that it was before July. Did the Prime Minister raise Yemen in his meeting with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani last week? What is the United Kingdom doing to engage coalition members to move towards a full ceasefire? The Minister welcomed the very positive meeting that was held at the UN General Assembly, but will he update the House on the outcomes of that meeting?

I welcome the decision at the UN Human Rights Council last week to extend the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen. Those experts have found evidence of grave violations of international humanitarian law by all sides in the conflict. Does the Minister agree that all alleged violations of international law, by whichever side commits them, must be independently investigated and the perpetrators held fully to account? There can be no peace if we do not have justice.

Finally, there are reports of ceasefire discussions from both Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. These are encouraging reports, but the reports that I hear are about a partial ceasefire. Surely a ceasefire must cover the whole of the country. As we have seen since the Stockholm agreement last year, a ceasefire in one part of the country can simply result in increased fighting and civilian suffering elsewhere. Will the Government do everything in their power to bring about a full nation- wide ceasefire in Yemen?

Let me start by thanking the hon. Gentleman for his tireless efforts as Chair of the International Development Committee in raising awareness of the humanitarian crisis that is going on following the conflict in Yemen. I am grateful for his sustained work supporting the UN-led peace process and the work of the UN special envoy. Yemen, as he rightly said, is the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, and it is crucial that we continue to do everything we can to enable a peaceful solution to end the cycles of violence, and I share his statement about the chronic underfunding of the humanitarian relief at the moment. The British Government, our new Prime Minister and our new Foreign Secretary remain committed to keeping Britain at the forefront of efforts to find a political solution to this conflict. We are committed to using our resources to address the humanitarian crisis.

I had to leave the UN General Assembly early because of the recall of Parliament, so I am not fully briefed on what the Prime Minister discussed with the Iranians, but I am more than happy to take that away and find out whether Yemen was discussed with the Iranian Government.

The hon. Gentleman raises the Human Rights Council and the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen. He will be aware that the UK voted in favour of the UN Human Rights Council resolution to renew the mandate of the UN Group of Eminent Experts. Although we welcome the renewal of that mandate, it is disappointing that a single consensus resolution was not possible. We continue to support investigations into allegations and incidents that have happened in this conflict and we continue to push for a ceasefire. It is important, as the hon. Gentleman said, that that covers all parts of the country and that we get as much buy-in as possible. There is no military solution to this conflict; there has to be a political solution. For that to work, everybody must sit round the table and discuss the best way forward.

My hon. Friend is making a very expert defence of the Government’s policy in Yemen, but I wonder whether he could perhaps go even further in celebrating the work that Martin Griffiths has done as the special representative there. Will he also tell us a little bit about the work that his Department and other Departments in Government have done with Governor David Beasley of the World Food Programme? The work of the United Kingdom and others in opening up the port of Hodeidah to ensure that food aid is getting in, and the work that is being done with the Emirates and the Saudis in various other areas, is incredibly important in making sure that we have a coalition that works to relieve suffering in that country. Perhaps the Minister can say what more he and his colleagues will do to ensure that the UK’s voice is indeed the voice of reason and peace in the area.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his support for the UN special envoy and his work. We all need to support Martin Griffiths, and to ensure that everybody gets behind the UN-led peace process. In my own portfolio of sub-Saharan Africa, I have been impressed—really impressed—by the World Food Programme’s ability to deliver aid to some of the most conflict-afflicted countries. I have seen at first hand its work in South Sudan and Somalia since my appointment and I am more than happy to look further into what it is doing in Yemen. I know that it is doing an incredible amount of work there. At this point, I should add my apologies for the fact that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa is not in his place. He is undertaking some of his duties as an army reservist, and that is the only reason he is not taking this urgent question.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the Chair of the International Development Committee, for securing it and for being one of Yemen’s great champions.

I am sorry that the Foreign Secretary himself has not seen fit to answer this question, but then again this is a Foreign Secretary who made a 1,300-word speech in Manchester this weekend and chose not to mention Yemen once, yet on his watch the cycle of indiscriminate violence in Yemen and the scale of the humanitarian crisis are growing worse every day. This weekend, we had unconfirmed reports of a major Houthi strike against Saudi forces inside Saudi Arabia. On this day a month ago, we had the attack by Saudi planes on a Houthi detention centre in Dhamar, killing at least 100 innocent captives. In Aden, we had the ridiculous situation of forces supported by the UAE fighting soldiers loyal to the Hadi Government, which the UAE is supposed to be trying to reinstall, and all the while the toll of innocent children killed by malnutrition and cholera continues to mount. As things stand, there is no end in sight to the conflict and no end in sight to the suffering of the Yemeni people.

This is not only a humanitarian disaster, but a failure of politics. The UK really must pull its finger out and do its duty in the Security Council. As the penholder at the Security Council, it is supposed to table a UN resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire by all parties everywhere in the country. We on the Labour Benches have been calling for that resolution for three and a half years. Can the Minister of State tell us how many more months and years we will have to wait?

Finally, tomorrow will mark exactly one year since Jamal Khashoggi was butchered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, in large part for his criticism of the war in Yemen. A full 12 months on, this House has still not been presented with the results of the Government’s investigation into who ordered his murder, let alone “the serious consequences” that we were promised from that Dispatch Box would follow. Again, can the Minister tell us how many more months, and now how many more years, we will have to wait?

I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for her comments. The UK continues to call on all parties to the conflict in Yemen to exercise restraint and to engage constructively with the peace process led by the UN special envoy. We are monitoring claims of attacks in Saudi Arabia and are in contact with our partners to understand exactly what has happened there. We are also deeply concerned about reports of civilian deaths, following recent air strikes—our thoughts are with those who have been affected—and we are working with our partners to try to establish exactly what has happened. We welcome the coalition’s referral of both recent incidents to be investigated by the Joint Incidents Assessment Team. The UK continues to call on all parties to the conflict in Yemen to exercise restraint, to comply fully with international humanitarian law and to engage constructively with the peace process led by the UN special envoy, which is the only way to end this cycle of violence.

I thank the Minister and his Department for their work in helping to alleviate this appalling humanitarian crisis. They have set a superb example to other countries.

What does the Minister make of the recent clashes between the Yemeni Government and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council, which recently seized control of Aden? Surely everything possible must be done to prevent a civil war emerging within a much bigger civil war.

Does the Minister also agree that the Gulf initiative is probably now no longer valid? May I push him a bit on the need for another UN Security Council resolution, which I think is imperative? Will he comment on the recent outreach by his opposite number, US Assistant Secretary David Schenker, who is trying to speak to the Houthi rebels to bring them into a wide-ranging peace process?

We are working closely with the US as a member of the Quad, and we work well with a number of our international partners. To go back to my original point, I urge restraint on all sides. I read, as I am sure my hon. Friend did, the in-depth article in The Guardian this morning about factional fighting in Yemen, which is obviously of concern. We are trying to establish the facts of these situations. The most important thing, however, is to realise that there is no military solution to the conflict. We urge restraint on all sides. Everyone has to follow the UN peace process.

I, too, thank the Chair of the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for securing this urgent and important question.

As the Minister and others have pointed out, this is one of the great humanitarian crises of our age, and one that is not only having a particularly detrimental effect on children but is man-made. I pay tribute, as I am sure we all do, to the extraordinary work of humanitarian organisations in Yemen, in some of the most difficult circumstances. The Minister was right to point to the humanitarian aid from the UK, but it has been eclipsed by the money coming in from arms sales since the start of the war. Surely that should be the other way around. I ask the Minister to address that. In particular since the Secretary of State for International Trade was forced to apologise, what additional measures have been put in place by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, because there were allusions to the failures of the Minister’s Department? Also, will the Minister update us on whether there is anything else of which this House should know or be made aware? Will he suspend any existing licences? We have asked about independent investigations—it was right to bring that up—and will the Minister investigate the alleged bombings of Oxfam water projects? That is incredibly important.

Finally, the UK is the penholder. As the penholder, the UK must be seen as an honest broker. Selling arms to one side while being seen as an honest broker just does not cut it. Will the Minister respond to that?

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the UK contribution to humanitarian assistance. The UK is one of the biggest donors to reconstruction in Yemen and in helping to deal with the immediate humanitarian concerns. Since the Yemen conflict began in 2015, our partners have reported two incidents to us in which UK-funded assets incurred damage as a result of the conflict. We urge all air strikes in which there are civilian casualties, in particular those that hit NGOs, to be fully investigated. We work with our partners to ensure that there are investigations into such matters.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade said in her statement to the House last week, the Government unreservedly apologise for the export licences that were issued in error. She has taken immediate action, including informing the Court of Appeal and Parliament, putting in place immediate interim procedures to ensure that the errors do not happen again, and instigating a full internal review of all licences granted to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners since 20 June.

My role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief involves engaging with international partners multilaterally and bilaterally to promote freedom of religion and belief. The UN has said that Baha’is living in rebel-held territory in Yemen have faced a persistent pattern of persecution, including harassment and arbitrary detention. Will the Minister ensure that freedom of religion is a key priority in all our discussions internationally?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment. This is something that he has long championed, and I look forward to working with him on this in the coming weeks and months. Freedom of religion and belief in all countries around the world is very important to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In particular, I am keen to see how we can work together on the situation in Yemen.

Unless there is an immediate ceasefire, by the end of this year 233,000 people will have died in Yemen, including 150,000 children under the age of five. What are we doing to try to get a ceasefire through a UN resolution? What are we actually doing? Tell us.

There were conversations about that at the UN General Assembly, which was attended by a number of Ministers. Unfortunately, we all had to cut our programmes short to return to the United Kingdom, but we will continue through the United Nations Security Council and other forums to ensure that the needs of Yemen are always discussed. We will see what we can do. We are leading efforts in support of the UN peace process in this area.

I congratulate the Government on the amount of humanitarian aid that they have given to Yemen. Many NGOs and other organisations are trying to get food to the people in Yemen who desperately need it. Women who are pregnant desperately need that food, because if their children are born stunted—which they will be if they have malnutrition—they will never catch up, impoverishing the whole future of Yemen. Will the Minister please persuade other countries to do their bit just as Britain is doing?

I thank my hon. Friend for her pertinent question. So far this year in Yemen UK aid has helped to admit 250,000 children to health facilities and mobile clinics for malnutrition. UK aid supported 900,000 children to gain access to primary care in Yemen in the past year but, unfortunately, 2.5 million children in Yemen have irreversible stunted growth. We need to continue to work with international partners to ensure that more money is dedicated to that, because it is irreversible when it happens.

Does the Minister share my horror at the air strike that took place last week on a civilian area in Qataba, which killed 15 people, five of them children, and injured 13, seven of them children? Does he know that Save the Children has been calling for an independent investigation into that attack, so that the perpetrators can be held accountable? Will he support the call for an independent investigation and, if so, how will he help to bring it about?

We remain deeply concerned about reports of civilian deaths from any air strikes, in particular the case that he cited. Our thoughts are of course with all those affected. We are working with our partners to establish exactly what happened—that is the most important thing for us to do as a first step—and we welcome the coalition’s referral of two recent incidents for investigation by the Joint Incidents Assessment Team. The UK continues to call on all parties to the conflict in Yemen to exercise restraint, to comply fully with international humanitarian law and to engage constructively with the UN peace process.

Hezbollah has been involved in Yemen since the start of the conflict, providing training and weapons for the Houthis. When this Government decided to proscribe Hezbollah as an organisation, Opposition Members did not support them. Will the Minister condemn the role of Hezbollah in prolonging the conflict, and what words does he have for the Opposition?

The situation in Yemen is complex. There are a range of different actors in different parts of the country. All I would say is that we need restraint on all sides. There is no military solution to this conflict. A lasting solution can only be achieved through the UN-led peace process.

Would the Minister agree that the UK has earned eight times more from sales of arms to Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition in Yemen than it has spent on aid to help civilians? Right now, 10 million people are on the brink of famine. Some £770 million has been spent on aid to the region, and we are grateful for that, but there has also been £6.2 billion of arms sales to the coalition. We do not want thoughts or words; we want action to stop the war in Yemen and people dying.

As the hon. Lady will know, the UK has some of the most stringent arms exports licences in the world. [Interruption.] I know that some Members across this House would be happy to sacrifice our defence industry and jobs, but we work with countries around the world. We ensure that we are exporting defence equipment only to countries that are in compliance with international humanitarian law and, as has been so shown by the recent Court case, we are immediately stopping a supply of new licences and are investigating incidents where licences have been granted contrary to the Court judgment.

I welcome the appearance of the Minister of State at the Dispatch Box, Mr Speaker, even if you do not.

As the Chair of the Select Committee has mentioned, the humanitarian situation in Yemen remains horrendous, but the impact falls disproportionately on women and girls. Since the beginning of the conflict, there has been an increase of more than two thirds in reported incidents of gender-based violence. Maternal death rates have also doubled in the past four years, as only a third of maternal and early years health services remain intact. What more can we do to help the most affected part of the Yemeni population for future generations, for the perfectly good reasons mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham)?

I enjoyed the hon. Gentleman’s question. However, as colleagues will know, I always welcome Ministers to the Dispatch Box to answer urgent questions that I have granted. That point is so blindingly obvious that only a very, very, very clever person could fail to grasp it.

The UK has supported 1,700 survivors of gender-based violence since 2017 through our £13 million of funding to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration. My hon. Friend is correct, though, to raise this issue as one of the most pressing in the conflict, with the number of incidents of gender-based violence reported to have risen by more than 60% since the start of the conflict.

One action that the Government could take immediately would be to tell the Government of Sudan to withdraw their Rapid Support Forces from Yemen and to tell the Saudis to stop paying them.

We call for restraint on all sides in this conflict. As I said in my opening response to the urgent question, there is no military solution. The only solution is to follow the UN-led peace process.

Given Iran’s involvement in the conflict, what actions are the United Kingdom Government taking to try to get an agreed effective policy towards Iran between the United States and other NATO allies?

The Government have long-standing concerns about the Iranian involvement in Yemen which we have raised with the Iranian Government. Iran’s provision of weapons to the Houthis contravenes UN Security Council resolution 2216 and the Security Council’s embargo on exports of weapons to Iran. We are deeply concerned by the findings of the UN panel of experts on Yemen that missiles and related military equipment of Iranian origin were introduced into Yemen after the imposition of the targeted arms embargo.

The UK Government’s multiple breaches of the Court order preventing the issuing of new licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia has made a mockery of the UK Government’s claims that they have a rigorous and robust control of arms export controls. These arms are being used to cause untold suffering in Yemen. Does the Minister not agree that it really is time for the UK to do the right thing and stop all arms sales to Saudi Arabia for good, as it is a brutal regime with scant regard for international law, or will the UK Government continue to be complicit in the atrocities in Yemen?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade said in her statement to the House last week, the Government unreservedly apologise for the export licences that were issued in error. She has taken immediate steps, including informing the Court and Parliament, and has put in place further steps and interim procedures to ensure that these errors do not happen again.

Is not the truth of the matter that the conflict in Yemen is not going to end until Iran stops using the conflict as a proxy for its conflict with Saudi Arabia? Rather than engaging in a direct assault on Saudi Arabia, Iran prefers to use and fund the Houthi rebels to do just that. Other Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah are directly involved in providing the Houthis with missile technology. I know that the Minister says there is no military solution to this conflict. If that is right, the Iranians have to be persuaded to withdraw.

We encourage Iran to demonstrate that it can be a constructive part of the solution through promoting stability and showing commitment to the unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Yemen. We hope that Iran can use its influence with the Houthis to encourage de-escalation of the current crisis, end their attacks on coalition countries and support a return to a political dialogue.

In his speech at the United Nations General Assembly two days ago, Yemen Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdullah Al-Hadhrami attacked and criticised Iran for its support of the Houthis, but also strongly criticised the United Arab Emirates for its support for the Southern Transitional Council in Aden. What is the position of the British Government as regards the positions taken by the UAE, and what contact have we had with the Southern Transitional Council?

We are in regular dialogue with representatives of the UAE. I referenced in one of my previous responses the rather concerning report in The Guardian today about some of the incidents that have happened. I am in regular discussion with the UAE, but I will more than happily write to the hon. Gentleman on this specific matter.

Considering that the Saudi National Guard has been militarily active in Yemen, what can the Minister tell us about Sangcom, the 10-year £2 billion Saudi Arabia National Guard Communications Project that is a collaboration between the Saudi regime and the British Government and is reportedly led by the Ministry of Defence?

I may also have to write to the hon. Gentleman in response to that question. We do have a defence relationship with Saudi Arabia and work closely with the country on a number of projects, but I am not fully abreast of the details of that specific programme.

In answering my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), the Minister spoke about the need to investigate the shocking attacks on aid facilities in Yemen, yet Oxfam says that it has never so much as been interviewed about bombings of its water projects and water warehouses there. Are those investigations really happening, and why should we take them seriously if even those interviews have not occurred?

A large number of investigations have taken place. The Saudi Foreign Minister has been to this House in the past and has answered questions from Members about some of those investigations, and I know that more than 100 have now been brought to a conclusion. Of course we want damage or incidents involving civilian casualties to be investigated very thoroughly, particularly when NGOs or partner organisations are involved, and we ask searching questions about what has gone on in such incidents.

What the Minister says about the UK calling on all sides to cease the fighting would be more convincing if he was able to tell us whether the Prime Minister mentioned Yemen in his meeting with President Rouhani. I appreciate that the Minister has stepped into the breach somewhat, but that would have been rather a key piece of information to bring to a statement about this conflict. I expect our Government to have relatively limited power with the Houthis and with the Iranians, but we should expect more from the Minister and from this Government in terms of our relationship with the Saudi Arabians. Given that the UK is continuing to trade weapons with the Saudis, can the Minister tell us a little bit more about what success we have had in terms of getting these investigations into breaches of humanitarian law and what actual influence we are having?

There is a range of questions there. I am sure that our Prime Minister raised this in his UN discussions, although I will have to come back to the House on the details. I know that the Foreign Secretary also met his Iranian counterpart at the UN. Between those discussions, I am sure that the situation in Yemen was of course discussed. The UK hosts regular meetings on this between Foreign Ministers in the Quad. We are taking a lead in ensuring that the needs in Yemen are never off the agenda.

The Houthi rebels have been, quite rightly, roundly condemned for their use of child soldiers. Is the Minister as concerned as I am by reports that it now seems that the Saudi-led coalition might be trying to use child soldiers originally from Sudan? What more can the Government do to stop this terrible use of children in conflict?

The UK is committed to ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers and protecting all children from armed conflict. We condemn in the strongest terms all grave violations and abuses committed against children in Yemen and urge all parties to the conflict to immediately cease all violations of applicable international law, including these grave violations.

I was glad to see that the International Committee of the Red Cross had facilitated the release of 290 detainees yesterday. They are among many people in Yemen who have been arbitrarily detained and whose families do not know where they have gone. What more is the Minister doing and his Government doing, because it was one of the planks of the Stockholm agreement that prisoners would be released? What more can be done?

The UK offers full support to Martin Griffiths’ UN-led process as well as the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross. In April, the Yemen Quad reaffirmed its endorsement of the agreement reached in Stockholm by Yemeni parties in December 2018. We have previously seconded an individual to the UN to support the work of the executive mechanism for agreement on prisoner exchange. Obviously we welcome the very welcome news of the release of prisoners that we have seen in the past few days, but there is clearly more that needs to be done on all sides.

I have lost count of the number of times in the four years that I have been here when we have discussed Yemen in this Chamber, yet little or nothing has changed, so let me ask again a question I first asked in 2016 and is sadly still relevant: what does a regime have to do—how many breaches of humanitarian international law does it have to commit—before this Government deem it an unacceptable partner with which to deal arms?

The UK takes its exporting licence obligations extremely seriously. We operate one of the most robust export control regimes in the world.

The Guardian report yesterday that the Minister mentioned reveals that motor parts made in the Goodrich factory in Wolverhampton were found in fragments of illegal cluster bombs dropped by the Saudi coalition in Yemen. Can he please explain how UK components found their way into a bomb that is banned under international law, why on earth our allies—supposedly—are using such deadly weapons in Yemen, and what the Government are going to do about it?

I cannot comment on the specifics of what the hon. Gentleman has said, but in terms of recent licences we very much regret the licences that were issued in error. The International Trade Secretary commissioned a full and urgent investigation into those breaches as soon as they were discovered. Throughout the investigation, all decisions made on export licences to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners will be subject to additional compliance checks, including closer collaboration between Departments so that no further licences are issued in error.