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Volume 791: debated on Monday 11 June 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question asked in the other place on the reports of an imminent attack on Hodeidah port in Yemen. The Statement is as follows:

“Reports have circulated for some time of a possible assault on either Hodeidah or Hodeidah port. Information at the beginning of last weekend, including from troop movements, suggested that such an attack might be imminent. In view of our responsibilities to aid agencies, DfID issued the following statement based on that information:

‘We are doing everything we can through diplomatic channels to discourage an assault on Hodeidah. However despite these actions, a military assault now looks imminent. The Emiratis have informed us today that they will now give a 3-day grace period for the UN [and their partners] to leave the city. Please take all precautions necessary to prepare for this and let us know if there is anything we can do to assist you in any way. We are thinking of you and your staff at this very difficult time’.

That is the email that was reprinted in the Guardian today.

The Government are and have been concerned for some time about the potential impact of any assault on the city and port of Hodeidah, and have made their concerns clear to the Saudi and Emirati Governments. The UN assesses that an attack on Hodeidah could displace up to 350,000 people and leave hundreds of thousands of Yemenis without access to basic goods or healthcare. The Foreign Secretary spoke to his Saudi and Emirati counterparts over the weekend, and we are in close touch with the UN humanitarian co-ordinator and the UN special envoy.

The majority of Yemen’s food and fuel imports enter through Hodeidah and Saleef ports, and it is crucial that humanitarian and commercial imports continue to flow through the port. We urge all parties to facilitate access for essential imports of food, fuel and medical supplies into the country, including through Hodeidah. As with all aspects of the conflict, all parties must respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians.

No attack has yet taken place. Accordingly, we encourage all sides urgently to de-escalate and engage in good faith in the political process. The UN special envoy has previously expressed concern that conflicts in Hodeidah could take peace off the table ‘in a single stroke’. It is essential that the UN special envoy be given the time he needs to facilitate a negotiated solution that avoids conflict in the city, and we support his efforts to do so.

It is important to recall the wider conflict. The conflict in Yemen is now in its fourth year. Houthi rebels took the capital by force in 2014 and displaced the legitimate Government of Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition action is designed to facilitate the restoration of effective governance. The Houthis have consistently failed to adhere to UN Security Council resolutions, including by launching missile attacks against Saudi Arabia. They have prevented access to humanitarian supplies, which has led to significant damage to civilians, and have acted to prevent vital vaccinations.

We have been clear that there can be no military solution to the conflict. We continue to encourage all parties to show restraint, to return to negotiations and to engage in the UN-led political process in good faith, to work towards a comprehensive political settlement”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the response to this Urgent Question. Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy, has been holding talks with all sides to try to broker a peace settlement, and was expected to report to the Security Council on his efforts on 18 June. As the Statement says, he says that any attack on Hodeidah by the UAE would,

“in a stroke, take peace off the table”.

Does the Minister agree with Martin Griffiths’ assessment, and if so, what action did the Government take to prepare for the emergency session of the Security Council taking place as we speak? If the Government did prepare, what did they expect to come out of the Security Council meeting with regard to stopping the planned UAE assault and keeping peace on track?

First, I assure the noble Lord and the House that we continue to support UN special envoy Martin Griffiths. As the noble Lord may be aware, the he met with Emirati officials on 10 June and pressed again for prioritising the political track. In this regard, the noble Lord is also correct that the UN Security Council is in session—but, as he will be aware, it is a closed session. On the efforts that the United Kingdom Government have taken to avert any kind of action on Hodeidah, we remain convinced that a political solution is required. That is why my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spent this weekend directly contacting his counterparts in both the Emirati and UAE Governments, as well as in the Government of Saudi Arabia.

I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I am pleased to hear that the Government are doing all they can to avoid such an attack—which, as we have heard, would be catastrophic. However, what assessment have the Government made of the likely impact on civilians, including displacement and civilian casualties? Is the Foreign Secretary aware of the UN’s assessment on civilian deaths? I believe the Minister said 250,000. In addition, will the UK review its support—including arms sales and political support—to the coalition led by the Saudis and the UAE, if an attack on the port goes ahead that has a disproportionate effect on civilians?

Taking the noble Baroness’s final question, any support we provide, including support to the Saudis and Emiratis extended by the United Kingdom, is kept under review. Of course, she will also be aware that the litmus test remains that any action must be in line with international humanitarian law.

On the specific issue of whether my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is aware—of course, he is central. As I have already said, he has been talking to his counterparts in both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. I go back to the point raised in the Statement that the UN has already assessed that an attack on Hodeidah could displace up to 350,000 people and leave hundreds of thousands of Yemenis without basic requirements such as food and healthcare.

The noble Baroness will also be aware that the United Kingdom Government stand with the Yemeni people. We have been at the forefront of providing support. In April we also announced a further £170 million in support for essential healthcare and other requirements. I stress, as all noble Lords are aware, that Hodeidah is the gateway to providing much of the relief and humanitarian assistance that is required. It is the responsibility of both sides to ensure that that access continues. The Houthis, who currently control the port, are not without fault. They caused the crisis in the first instance by displacing the Government, and more recently have continued to exercise blockages of the port and have stopped certain shipments from taking place. Therefore, we implore all sides to ensure that a political settlement can prevail.

My Lords, I thank the Minister not only for repeating the Answer to the Question but for the tone and the content of the Answer. Through him I also thank his right honourable friend Alistair Burt, the Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa, for the “Dear Colleague” letter that we all received dated 8 June. It is very helpful and contains in the third-to-last paragraph some awful statistics about the scale of the humanitarian crisis in the Yemen, including the fact that more than 50% of the population of Yemen—17.8 million people —do not have reliable access to food and 8.4 million people face extreme food shortages. Is it not the case that the only traffic that passes through the port of Hodeidah at the moment is humanitarian aid—nothing else? Does the Minister agree that the use of starvation as a weapon of war is in breach of international humanitarian law? Would not an attack on this port be strong evidence of a breach of humanitarian law? If any UK-manufactured weapons and planes that we had sold to any member of the coalition were used in such an attack, how could we justify continuing to sell weapons to them?

I thank the noble Lord for his remarks, and I will of course convey to my right honourable friend the comments about his constructive letter. The noble Lord raised the dire humanitarian situation prevailing in Yemen. As I said in response to an earlier question, that is why we have been at the forefront of providing support. I share his concern, as do the UK Government, about the importance of keeping open Hodeidah port as a lifeline. Over the weekend, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary called once again for no action to be taken on Hodeidah port in order to keep open that vital channel. But let us put this in context. As I said earlier, the port is controlled by Houthi rebels, who at Hodeidah and elsewhere—including, for example, in Aden—have not missed an opportunity to intimidate UN ships. They have also used schools, hospitals and children as part of their activities in Yemen.

To answer the noble Lord’s specific question about weapons, I revert to what I said: we keep the situation under constant review and will ensure that we apply the litmus test that there are no serious violations of international humanitarian law. That point has been made to the Emiratis and the Saudis. As I am sure the noble Lord is aware, there was a judicial review of this situation. The judgment concluded that our risk-based assessments had,

“all the hallmarks of a rigorous and robust, multi-layered process of analysis carried out by numerous expert Government and military personnel, upon which the Secretary of State”—

this referred to the Secretary of State for International Trade—

“could properly rely”.

In other words, our measures were robust. However, the noble Lord raises important points about the use of such weapons. I assure him that, not just in this conflict but in conflicts elsewhere in the world, we keep the situation firmly under review.

My Lords, it would appear that the Arab coalition calculations are to strike a decisive blow against the Houthis. What discussions, if any, are being conducted with Iran in order to second-guess its reaction in regard to both Yemen and more regionally—and, if that happens to be the case, what has been the outcome of such discussions?

The noble Lord raises the important issue of Iran. He is quite right: it exerts great influence over and provides great support for the Houthi rebels. That is why we urge not just the two sides in this conflict but all regional players, including Iran, which supports the Houthis, to cease hostilities and work together towards ensuring that there is, first, a ceasefire, and then a political settlement for Yemen. We have heard the stark statistics about the unravelling humanitarian crisis. This is one of the biggest crises in the world and concerted action is required on all sides. All countries with influence over the different sides must take action now to avert a further crisis in that country.

House adjourned at 7.23 pm.