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Volume 785: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2017


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question on Yemen given by my right honourable friend Alistair Burt in another place earlier this afternoon.

“Yemen is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Some 21 million people in Yemen are in need of humanitarian assistance. Nearly 10 million are in need of immediate help to support or sustain life. As the third-largest humanitarian donor to Yemen and the second-largest donor to the UN appeal, the UK is already leading the world’s response to the crisis in Yemen. Our funding of £155 million this year will provide enough food for 1.8 million people for at least a month, nutrition support for 1.7 million people, and clean water and sanitation for an expected 1.2 million people. As penholder on Yemen at the UN Security Council, the UK was responsible for a presidential statement earlier this year that called on all parties to provide safe, rapid and unhindered access for humanitarian supplies and personnel to all affected governorates in Yemen. We continue to call on all parties to the conflict to respect the statement and take action accordingly.

As the Foreign Secretary set out in his statement of Sunday 5 November, the UK condemns the attempted missile strike on Riyadh last Saturday in the strongest terms. The ongoing ballistic missile attacks by Houthi-Saleh forces against Saudi Arabia threaten regional security and prolong the conflict. This latest attack deliberately targeted a civilian area. We recognise the coalition’s concern about illicit flows of weapons to the Houthis, which is a direct contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 2216.

We recognise that following Saturday night’s attack, Saudi Arabia needs to take urgent measures to stem the flow of weapons into Yemen. At the same time, it is vital that the country remains open to commercial and humanitarian access. The Saudi-led coalition has confirmed that it will take into account the provision of humanitarian supplies. We are encouraging it to ensure that humanitarian and commercial supplies and access can continue. Our ambassador is actively making this case directly to the Saudi authorities on these points.

There remains a desperate need for a political solution to the Yemen conflict to help end the suffering of the Yemeni people, to counter the destabilising influence and interference there, and to end attacks on neighbouring countries. It is vital this situation does not escalate further. The UK will continue to work towards a political settlement that supports regional stability and calls on all countries in the region to support that goal. We will also continue to support our partners in the region to protect themselves against security threats”.

My Lords, I welcome the repeat of the Statement. Everyone would agree that the Houthi missile strike was totally unacceptable, but we also now face a blockade affecting hundreds of thousands of people. Some 800,000 people now suffer from cholera in Yemen. It is the biggest humanitarian crisis we face. Does the Minister agree that the blockade is unlawful and that it is some form of collective punishment against innocent people? In these circumstances, will the Government reconsider their position of arms sales to the Saudis until this matter is brought to a peaceful conclusion?

I thank the noble Lord for his questions. He is right about the situation on the ground in Yemen. It is horrendous. The cholera outbreak he referred to is the worst on record. It is appalling. Nearly 6.8 million people face extreme food shortages. Some 400,000 children aged under five suffer severe acute malnutrition and may die without treatment. This is a man-made catastrophe and it requires a man-made solution.

On working towards a solution, as I said in the Statement, we hold the pen on this at the UN Security Council. There is a quad meeting made up of the US, the UK, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They met under the chairmanship of my right honourable friend Alistair Burt in New York and a couple of weeks ago in London. We believe that that pursuit of a peaceful settlement is the best solution.

The UK Government take their arms export licensing responsibilities very seriously and operate one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. All export licences are assessed on a case-by-case basis against a consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criterion. That said, we recognise that we need a solution. We need talks to recommence between the parties because, as in all conflicts, the parties to the conflict need to be the parties to the peace.

The extent of the crisis is clear from the sentence in the Statement stating that,

“funding of £155 million this year will provide enough food for 1.8 million people for at least a month”—

which on one view makes a necessary contribution perhaps not very great. What other countries are contributing and to what extent are they matching the level of funds that the United Kingdom has provided? Secondly, who is providing the Houthi with ballistic missiles?

The second question from the noble Lord is slightly easier to answer in terms of the fact that the missiles being fired were Iranian. Clearly, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a right to express concern about that and to seek to stop supplies of those ballistic missiles coming into the region. On the appeal, we know that the UK is either the second or third largest bilateral donor into the region—but, sadly, there is a funding gap of $1 billion from the UN appeal. We will use our position at the UN and in the quad to call on all countries to step up to what is one of the greatest humanitarian crises not just at the moment but in recent history.

My Lords, it is almost exactly a year since the Disasters Emergency Committee —I declare my interest as a trustee—launched its Yemen crisis appeal. That raised £24 million and was aid-matched by £5 million from the Minister’s department. UK agencies and their partners have worked unstintingly and reached more than 1 million people, but they have done so against extraordinary operational difficulties and access and security challenges. I wonder whether the Minister can tell me how in the current situation he assesses the safety, the security and the ability to operate of UK agencies, and will pay tribute to the courage and commitment of people doing this humanitarian work on the ground.

I am happy to do that, and to pay tribute to the work of the Disasters Emergency Committee in raising such an amazing sum from the generosity of the British people in response to this humanitarian crisis. The support that we have been operating on the ground has been provided to UNICEF to address malnutrition. Oxfam, Save the Children, ACTED and CARE are also based there to tackle food insecurity. The Yemeni Humanitarian Pooled Fund is operating there, as is the World Food Programme and the UNHCR. It is worth reminding ourselves of the number of humanitarian workers who have lost their lives in serving their fellow citizens. Yemen is one of the most dangerous places for them to operate in, but people are putting their lives on the line to save their fellow human beings. That should give us some hope if it can be extended to the warring parties.

My Lords, amid the horrors in the Yemen—or we think of the unfolding and continuing tragedy of the Rohingya being displaced in Burma, or the mass displacement of millions of people in Sudan and various places around the world where extraordinary conflict leads to a vast amount of human suffering—where are international agencies such as the United Nations in trying to broker some kind of peace? The Minister referred earlier to discussions in the Security Council, but what is the Secretary-General doing and what role are we playing there in trying to find long-term solutions to this kind of conflict? Otherwise, all we do is end up firefighting.

Yes, I am afraid that we are still in the territory of firefighting. These movements place great strain on neighbouring countries. As we have seen in the case of South Sudan, they can also lead to the spreading of conflict. Instability can be seen also in Syria and elsewhere in the region. The only solution lies in the international institutions and the parties to the conflict coming together with a united resolve to deal with this. I think that we can take some pride in the fact that the British taxpayer, through UK aid, is at the forefront of that international humanitarian effort.

House adjourned at 6.13 pm.