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House of Lords Hansard
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Yemen: Humanitarian and Political Situation
20 November 2017
Volume 787

Statement

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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement delivered in another place by my right honourable friend Alistair Burt, the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement to the House on the humanitarian and political situation in Yemen and the implications of the conflict for regional security.

Her Majesty’s Government remain deeply concerned by the humanitarian situation in Yemen and the impact recent restrictions are having on what was already the worst humanitarian crisis in the world and largest ever cholera outbreak. We recognise the risk of a severe deterioration of the humanitarian situation if restrictions are not quickly removed, and call on all parties to ensure immediate access for commercial and humanitarian supplies through all Yemen’s land, air and sea ports.

But we should be clear about the reality of the conflict in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition launched a military intervention after a rebel insurgency took the capital by force and overthrew the legitimate Government of Yemen as recognised by the UN Security Council. Ungoverned spaces in Yemen are being used by non-state actors and terrorist groups to launch attacks against regional countries, international shipping lanes and the Yemeni people. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has made clear, we strongly condemn the attempted missile attack against Riyadh on 4 November. This attack, which has been claimed by the Houthis, deliberately targeted a civilian area and was intercepted over an international airport.

The United Kingdom remains committed to supporting Saudi Arabia to address its legitimate security needs. We are therefore deeply concerned by reports that Iran has provided the Houthis with ballistic missiles. This is contrary to the arms embargo established by UN Security Council Resolution 2216 and serves to threaten regional security and prolong the conflict.

I understand that a UN team is currently visiting Riyadh to investigate these reports. It is essential that the UN conduct a thorough investigation. The UK stands ready to share its expertise to support this process, but we recognise that those who suffer most from this conflict are the people of Yemen. We understand why the Saudi-led coalition felt obliged temporarily to close Yemen’s ports and airports in order to strengthen enforcement of the UN-mandated arms embargo. It is critical that international efforts to disrupt illicit weapons flows are strengthened.

At the same time, it is vital that commercial and humanitarian supplies of food, fuel and medicine are able to reach vulnerable Yemeni people, particularly in the north, where 70% of those in need live. Even before the current restrictions, 21 million people were already in need of humanitarian assistance, and 7 million people were only a single step away from famine. Some 90% of food in Yemen is imported, and three-quarters of that comes via the ports of Hodeidah and Salif. No other ports in Yemen have the capacity to make up that shortfall. Our NGO partners in Yemen are already reporting that water and sewerage systems in major cities have stopped operating because of a lack of fuel. This means that millions no longer have access to clean water and sanitation, in a country already suffering from the worst cholera outbreak in modern times.

The current restrictions on access for both commercial and humanitarian shipments risk making an already dire situation immeasurably worse for the Yemeni people. We have heard the UN’s stark warnings about the risk of famine. So again I say that we call on all parties to ensure immediate access for commercial and humanitarian supplies to avert the threat of starvation and disease faced by millions of civilians.

We also call for the immediate reopening of Hodeidah port and the resumption of UN flights into Sanaa and Aden airports, as the Foreign Office statement on 15 November made clear. Restrictions on humanitarian flights are causing problems for humanitarian workers, including British nationals, who wish to enter or exit the country.

We have been urgently and proactively seeking a resolution of this situation. Our ambassador in Riyadh has been in frequent contact with the Saudi Foreign Minister. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has discussed the situation in Yemen with the Crown Prince, with whom we have emphasised the urgency of addressing the worsening humanitarian crisis. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development, since her appointment on 9 November, has spoken to both the UN Secretary-General and the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs about the situation in Yemen.

We are also continuing to work closely with other regional and international partners, including the UN. On 18 November, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to the UN Secretary-General. Central to this discussion was how the security concerns of Saudi Arabia can be addressed to enable these restrictions to be lifted. It is vital that the UN and Saudi Arabia enter into a meaningful and constructive dialogue on this.

More broadly, we will continue to support the people of Yemen through the provision of life-saving humanitarian supplies. The UK is the fourth largest humanitarian donor to Yemen and the second largest to the UN appeal, committing £155 million to Yemen for 2017-18. UK aid has already provided food to almost 2 million people and clean water to more than 1 million more.

The only way to bring long-term stability to Yemen is through a political solution. That is why peace talks remain the top priority. The Houthis must abandon preconditions and engage with the UN special envoy’s proposals. The UK has played, and continues to play, a leading role in the diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful solution. This includes bringing together key international actors, including the US, Saudi Arabia, and Emirati and Omani allies, through the Quad and Quint process. We intend to convene another such meeting shortly. It is vital that we work together to refocus the political track.

The UK will also continue to play a leading role on Yemen through the UN. In June, we proposed and supported the UN Security Council presidential statement, which expressed deep concern about the humanitarian situation in Yemen. The statement called for an end to fighting and a return to UN-led peace talks, and stressed the importance of unhindered humanitarian access. It is vital that the words of the text be converted into action. The international community’s unified and clear demands must be respected. I commend this statement to the House”.

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I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Just under two weeks ago now, the noble Lord, Lord Bates, described the situation in Yemen to your Lordships’ House as,

“the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”.—[Official Report, 7/11/17; col. 1788.]

Some 21 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Nearly 10 million are in need of immediate help to support or sustain life. As we have heard, the UN’s top humanitarian official, Mark Lowcock, whom we all know from DfID, warned that unless the blockade was lifted Yemen would face,

“the largest famine the world has seen for many decades”.

The Minster and the Minister in other place have acknowledged that the level of fuel required to supply food is at crisis point—enough left to last literally a matter of days. We know the situation is developing and changing daily. I welcome the Government’s efforts, certainly the humanitarian efforts, but we know that action is needed immediately. We cannot let this continue.

I share the Minister’s view that the Houthi missile strike was totally unacceptable. He and the Minister in the other place said that we need to address the Saudis’ security concerns while addressing the humanitarian crisis. We have been told that the Foreign Secretary spoke two days ago to the Secretary-General, but what is the Minister’s assessment of how to address those security concerns through the United Nations? What are we doing specifically within the UN to ensure that action is taken to allow the immediate start of supplies to Yemen? We are told that the Government are urging the Saudis to open up access, but at what point are we going to say that that strategy is not working? At what point do we tell the Saudis that Britain will withdraw support if they carry on with this blockade? At what point do we say that keeping licences for arms supplies under review will not just be a matter of review, but that we may start to challenge each one as supplies from this country continue, as the US has done?

This is a matter of international humanitarian law, and it is clear that Britain needs to act. We will be keen to hear about the immediate steps the Government have taken, but we acknowledge that even if the blockade is lifted tomorrow, the civilian population of Yemen will continue to suffer as long as this conflict carries on. We know that a lasting ceasefire will be sustainable only if there is political agreement on all sides. It is exactly a year and one month since Matthew Rycroft circulated a draft resolution to other members of the UN Security Council. How much longer do we have to wait? Will the Government finally bring forward that resolution and give the UN the opportunity to intervene to end this terrible conflict?

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My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Yemen now faces an intensified blockade. As he indicated, the UN estimates that 7 million are at risk of dying from starvation. As he has said, Yemen imports up to 90% of its daily needs, including fuel. The situation is therefore appalling. What is the upshot of the recent discussions, which the Minister mentioned, that Ministers have had with their Saudi counterparts regarding humanitarian access to Yemen’s population?

Criticism has been made of the UK because we assist with humanitarian help but also sell arms to Saudi Arabia. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Secretary of State for Defence regarding UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia?

What hopes does the Minister have for the efficacy of working with international partners to restart the peace process in Yemen, which again he mentioned? What recent assessment have the Government made of the need for an independent investigation of possible war crimes committed by both sides of the conflict in Yemen? In terms of the humanitarian situation, how will fuel shortages be immediately addressed? Is it recognised that this has an impact on the availability of drinkable water and that hospitals cannot be kept open without power? Does he note that refrigeration units for essential medicines are being turned off for periods of time to save fuel? What is being done to address the lack of medicines? Is he concerned that cholera and diphtheria are among some of the diseases that are currently spreading?

Does the Minister agree that food distribution systems are now under severe threat? Does he agree—it sounds as if he does—that the reopening of Aden port is simply not enough in this situation? Does he agree with those who say that what is happening amounts to collective punishment—holding a civilian population accountable? Does he agree that Saudi Arabia must lift or at least ease the blockade, and that if this does not happen we will see images of man-made famine within days?

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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments. I agree with the content and the sentiments that they have expressed. Not only have we all been appalled by the horrors that we have seen unfolding on our screens but the situation is, in its utmost sense, really impacting the people who have suffered the most—the Yemeni people.

Picking up some of the specific questions, I assure all noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, that the United Kingdom continues to work at all levels. I alluded in the Statement to our work in the Quint and the Quad. We believe that those regional partners are essential in bringing peace to Yemen. I will be very open, and I have said this before about the situation in Yemen, that there are proxy wars fought within that country and it is important that all parties now call a halt to allow for humanitarian access. We maintain that a political solution and peace talks are the top priority and that a political solution is the best way to bring long-term stability. In that regard, the UK continues to support the efforts of the UN special envoy and—again, as I alluded to in the Statement—we are looking to call a meeting of the Quint and the Quad in the near future.

I mentioned, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, picked up, recent meetings with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. I was present in a meeting with the Foreign Secretary when this matter was discussed in great detail. We continue to make representations at the UN Security Council—I am sure that we all acknowledge the efforts of Ambassador Rycroft in this regard—but there are challenges to achieve the consensus required in the Security Council to get the traction that we saw from the presidential statement made in June this year.

The noble Baroness asked about the spiralling cholera crisis and the specific issue of diseases which are impacting the local Yemeni population. In that regard, I assure her that our response continues to be about prioritising life-saving food for 1.8 million people for at least a month, nutrition support for 1.7 million people and water and sanitation, which is acutely required, for 1.2 million people.

As well as providing this aid, the UK continues to play a leading role in lobbying all parties to allow safe, rapid and unhindered humanitarian access. To ensure that, of course we make representations at the highest level to the Saudi authorities, who continue to assure us that their intent is not to cause starvation but to ensure that missiles do not enter Yemen. However, we have once again stressed to them that any security concerns must also address the deeply harrowing scenes that we see of a deteriorating humanitarian crisis. We continue to lobby very hard in this respect.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness also raised the issue of arms support to Saudi Arabia. I assure all noble Lords that the key test for our continued arms support to Saudi Arabia in relation to international humanitarian law is whether there is a clear risk that those items subject to the licence might be used in a serious violation. The situation, as the noble Lord acknowledged, is kept under review. When it was tested in the summer, the particular Divisional Court statement dismissed the claim that these arms may be used in the conflict in Yemen, but we continue to stress to all authorities and all parties that the first and primary aim must be to secure humanitarian access and that to do so requires the opening up of both ports and the airport. In doing so, we will continue to work with international partners to ensure that that can be done safely to allow the access which is so desperately required.

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My Lords, was Her Majesty’s Government in a position to warn Prince Mohammed bin Salman, then defence Minister, now Crown Prince, how unwise it would be to intervene in this military conflict, for several reasons? The obvious one is that using sophisticated western weapons on their own would never win that war. The only way, as we have seen in Iraq and Syria, is boots on the ground, and the last time there was a major boots-on-the-ground intervention in Yemen was in 1964-66, when Egypt suffered 28,000 casualties.

Secondly, does he realise how undesirable it has been to extend the Sunni-Shia conflict in this way? Thirdly, it is very clear that the humanitarian results have been a disaster. Fourthly, the Statement referred to the ungoverned spaces. Those of us who have been to Yemen know that a large of the interior of Yemen is ungoverned. The Sanaa Government had control only over the main highways. Finally, does he realise how dangerous it has been for Saudi Arabia itself? It is not unconnected with the recent purge of princes in Saudi Arabia, under the pretext of fighting corruption.

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My noble friend makes a number of important points. I can assure him on one of the central points that he makes, when he gets to the heart or crux of the challenge and the issue on the ground in Yemen—the protracted dispute and regional rivalries being played out in Yemen. In recent history, the current crisis was exacerbated when the then legitimate Government, who had support, was removed by the rebel Houthis, supported again by other regional players in the area. It is important to recognise, as he says, that, as we have made clear to all parties, including the Saudis, protracted conflict through use of military actions and the restrictions that are being applied will not result in the long-term solution required on the ground, which can be achieved only by all parties coming together. That is what we are emphasising not just through the political solution that we seek through the United Nations but through the work that we are doing with key regional players, including the Emiratis—yes, the Saudis as well—but also the Omanis, in ensuring that through the Quint and the Quad we bring all relevant parties forward towards that political solution.

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My Lords, will the Government accept that their one-sided approach to this whole crisis is prolonging it? The Minister made criticisms of Iran, and rightly so, but he made no criticisms at all of the Saudis, although their strategy is acting as a recruiting sergeant for militant rebels and encouraging Iranian influence in the region. Surely, there should be an even-handed attitude between Iran and Saudi Arabia to get both to accept their responsibilities for this conflict, or we will see a disaster on the kind of scale that we have seen in Syria—and I say that as a former UK Middle East Minister.

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Of course, the noble Lord speaks with experience in this regard. I assure him that, as I have said already from this Dispatch Box, not just today but previously as well, regional conflicts are being played out not just in Yemen but in other parts of the Middle East, which tragically go back to a core conflict that exists in the schism, tragically, in the Islamic faith. However, that should not detract from the fact that the United Kingdom, as I assure him and all noble Lords, makes the strongest representations to the Saudis. I assure him that we have tried to ensure that the Saudis and all regional partners bring to an end this conflict, which has gone on for far too long.

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My Lords, I endorse entirely what the noble Lord, Lord Hain, has just said, but I would really want a further commitment. The Statement said:

“The United Kingdom remains committed to supporting Saudi Arabia to address its legitimate security”,

concerns, which of course are complex. Does that mean that we apply pressure on the Saudis as well to lift the blockade? We know that there are other agendas running in Saudi Arabia and that its policy is stuck in Yemen—it has got into a position that it did not want to be in. But the sheer volume of arms sales that we make to Saudi Arabia surely gives us some clout in exerting considerable pressure.

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I agree with the right reverend Prelate. That is why we have done that, not only through bilateral representations but in international fora as well—indeed, as the Human Rights Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the Human Rights Council in September, I made specific reference to the situation on the ground in Yemen. Of course, whether they are our allies or friends, we have leverage over them in influencing their policies and decisions and we continue to make representations to the Saudi Government. I assure him that we take our arms export licence responsibilities very seriously and operate one of the most robust arms and export control regimes. In doing so, we seek to ensure that all elements of international humanitarian law are respected—a point that we have repeatedly made to the Saudi Arabian Government and other members of the military coalition as well.

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My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord is aware that, even at the height of the tension between the international community and Iraq, food and medicine were never cut off. Surely this point should be made forcefully to the Saudi Government. It is no good saying that they are cutting it off in order to make sure that no missiles are shipped in. Frankly, that is not very convincing. Will the Minister look again at the recommendation that the International Relations Committee of this House made in its report in April: namely, that it might be necessary to tell the Saudi Government very quietly—not noisily, but quietly—that if they do not play a more helpful role in this conflict, we will have to consider cutting off some of the licences we currently have? Could he please take that back and look at it again? It was a very serious recommendation; it was not a recommendation to stop all arms sales to Saudi, which would be quite unrealistic. Could he look at that again, because I think the circumstances are such that we cannot just go on wringing our hands? The Statement made all the right remarks—but none of it is happening.

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I assure the noble Lord, who speaks from great international experience in this regard, that I agree with him that we need to ensure that all levers and influences are brought into play to ensure that all parties, including the Saudis, make all the necessary efforts to ensure that all life-saving aid—and not just life-saving aid but humanitarian aid—is delivered unrestricted. He pointed to the International Relations Committee report and I will, of course, look at it again.

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My Lords, given his role as a human rights Minister, does the noble Lord accept that Saudi Arabia’s presence on the Human Rights Council is deeply unhelpful? Is he aware of the UN’s own report, issued today, which states that the highest number of human rights-violating states have now been elected to the UN Human Rights Council? Does he think it is good enough for the Human Rights Council to have asked for a review of the situation in Yemen, which will give an oral report back in March and a written report only in September next year? Why do Her Majesty’s Government not convene an extraordinary meeting of the Human Rights Council? You only need a third of members: 16 states. That is all the noble Lord has to do. He talks about working with other allies; he could start with the EU.

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I assure the noble Baroness that I take a very robust approach to ensuring that we call out human rights violations through our membership of the Human Rights Council, as I am sure she well knows. The other members of the Human Rights Council are, of course, democratically voted for. I reassure her that we raise all issues connected with any kind of human rights violations regularly and consistently—and not just at the Human Rights Council. On this particular issue we have pressed very hard to reach the consensus that is required in the context of the UN Security Council. British pressure was brought to bear. That is one of the key areas where we will see traction at political level. The noble Baroness knows the area very well, and the different players involved and the different influences on the different parties to this conflict. Therefore, concerted political will is required at an international level—at the highest level—to get the peace settlement to this conflict that we all seek.

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My Lords, today is Universal Children’s Day and it is appalling that we see children in Yemen in this situation. As we know, women and children bear the brunt in all war-torn areas, and this war-torn area is much worse than anything else. The Statement talks about bringing the parties together. Are local women part of that undertaking?

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First, the noble Baroness makes a pertinent point. In any conflict, tragedy or humanitarian crisis across the world, it is tragic that the most vulnerable, but particularly women and young children, suffer the most. I am acutely aware that the tragedy unfolding in Yemen is impacting on them. That is why we have stressed the importance of opening up humanitarian access. On how we move the situation forward, in terms of groups on the ground, this will require a political settlement. However, I say openly that it will require political will at a much more senior and international level to ensure that we get that engagement. However, for a final solution we will absolutely require local players, including local women’s groups, to ensure that we get not only access but sustainable humanitarian access points, not just for a week or two but during the resolution of the conflict.

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My Lords, the Minister said that Her Majesty’s Government had been assured that it was not the intention of the blockade to cause starvation. However, in a country where 7 million people are dependent on food aid, if it cannot get through, that is exactly the effect of the blockade—and because of that effect people are dying. Last week the Disasters Emergency Committee—I declare my interest as a trustee—described the humanitarian situation as “catastrophic” in terms of access to food, medicines and supplies. Will the Minister take seriously the words of my noble friend Lord Hannay and look at how we can avoid, in another fortnight’s time, having exactly the same debate in this Chamber but see some progress—if not on the eventual political solution, which we all know is necessary, then on ending this catastrophic blockade?

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I agree with the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness. We are all at one on the issue that needs to be resolved first, which is that of ensuring not just immediate but consistent access to those who need humanitarian and acute medical assistance on the ground. The Government’s Statement that I repeated earlier is clear. I assure noble Lords that we are working to ensure that the first priority is that humanitarian access. Of course, I listen carefully to the representations which are made in this House and I will certainly consider them further.

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My Lords, not many questions on this dreadful situation have a yes or no answer—but one question certainly does, and it has been alluded to by almost every speaker. I refer to arms sales. A month or so ago the Minister’s predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, answered a question from me on why we have a dog in this fight. She said that we do not and that we are even-handed—or words to that effect. If that is the case, can the Minister confirm or deny the reports, which are very persistent, that British arms are going to one side and not to the other? That is not even-handed. So my question is: is that true—yes or no?

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The noble Lord asked for a yes or no answer. If you are supporting Saudi Arabia as an ally of the United Kingdom, you are supporting an ally, and you do not resolve a conflict by providing arms to AN Other. We provide arms exports to Saudi Arabia, which we acknowledge. At all times we impress on it the need to respect international humanitarian law. However, I repeat what I said earlier. A judgment on 10 July dismissed a claim brought by the Campaign Against Arms Trade concerning arms exports to Saudi Arabia for possible use in the conflict in Yemen. The judgment recognised Her Majesty’s Government’s rigorous and robust processes to ensure that UK defence exports are licensed consistent with the consolidated EU and national arms exports licensing criteria. We are very particular about ensuring that that basis is retained and we continue our review quite robustly in that regard. The noble Lord said that this was a complex situation, and I agree. However, as I said, if you supply arms to an ally, a resolution is not to be found by ensuring that you supply to the other side as well.

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My Lords, without in any way seeking to minimise or absent the questions relating to military intervention and famine, perhaps I may ask the Minister about cholera. There have been 575,000 cases since 27 April, when the epidemic was first declared, and it is getting worse all the time. However, there cannot be any solution unless a plenitude of clean water is provided for the community. Can the Government say what priority they are giving to that crucial aspect?

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The noble Lord raises a very valid point. Obviously, the disease that has followed the conflict is down to a lack of sanitation and clean water. The noble Lord points to statistics, and it is true that the situation on the ground gets worse not just every week but every day. I assure him that our priority in humanitarian terms is to look at providing appropriate vaccines, but the focus is also very much on water and sanitation—the issue that he rightly raised.

Sitting suspended.