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Volume 794: debated on Wednesday 19 December 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, with permission I will make a Statement on the quest for a political settlement to the war in Yemen. Last week, the Houthi rebels and the Government of Yemen held their first direct peace talks since 2016. The negotiations in Stockholm reached agreement on a ceasefire in the port city of Hodeidah and a mutual redeployment of forces, monitored by the United Nations.

As we look forward to Christmas, the people of Yemen are enduring one of the gravest humanitarian crises in the world. Hunger and disease are ravaging large areas of the country: 420,000 children have been treated for malnutrition, and as many as 85,000 have starved to death. Today, 24 million Yemenis, more than 85% of the population, need help. Behind these stark, impersonal numbers lie real people: individual men, women and children with hopes and aspirations no different from our own. Their ordeal is not the result of natural disaster or misfortune: this is a man-made calamity, imposed by a war that has torn the country apart and reduced its people to appalling poverty—hence the imperative need to resolve this conflict as rapidly as possible.

From the beginning, Britain has made every effort to promote a political solution. Last month, I travelled to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which lead the coalition fighting to restore Yemen’s legitimate Government. I later visited Iran, which supports the Houthi rebels. In every capital I urged my counterparts to use all their influence to help bring the parties to the negotiating table. After my visit to the region, agreement was reached for 50 wounded Houthis to be evacuated from Yemen to Oman—a confidence-building measure intended to pave the way for peace talks. On 19 November I instructed our mission at the United Nations to circulate a draft resolution to the Security Council, reinforcing the need for a political settlement and demanding the unhindered flow of food and medicine throughout Yemen.

On 6 December the peace talks began in Stockholm, mediated by Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy. Last Wednesday I went to Stockholm myself, and the following day I met leaders of both delegations. I was the first British Minister to meet representatives of the Houthis. I urged the parties to seize the opportunity to reach agreements that would ease the suffering of the Yemeni people and move closer towards the goal of ending the war. Last Thursday the talks concluded with an agreement for the parties to meet again in January and to build trust by releasing thousands of prisoners. Honourable Members will note the importance of the agreement on a ceasefire and redeployment in Hodeidah, because this port is the lifeline for Yemen, the channel for at least 70% of the country’s food imports.

The ceasefire in Hodeidah port and city came into effect at midnight yesterday and the UN special envoy has reported that it seems to be working. If the ceasefire continues to hold and the UN succeeds in increasing the volume of traffic through the port, this should reduce the level of suffering. I have urged all parties to stick to the terms agreed last week in Stockholm so that we can find a lasting political solution to this devastating conflict.

After the talks, I spoke about the next steps to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, and the Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Earlier, I discussed the situation with Secretary Pompeo of the United States. Based on these consultations—and the success of the peace talks—I have instructed our mission in New York to resume working on a draft resolution with Security Council partners, with a view to adopting it later this week. We will ask the Security Council to vote on the draft within the next 48 hours.

The UK text aims to build on the momentum generated in Stockholm by endorsing the agreements reached between the parties, authorising the United Nations to monitor their implementation, and setting out urgent steps to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Our aim is to mobilise the collective weight of the United Nations behind the progress that has been made.

I am grateful to Martin Griffiths for his dogged efforts, which are nothing short of heroic. I acknowledge the seriousness of the delegations—on both sides—I met in Stockholm last week. I offer my thanks to the British diplomats, both in the region and in the Foreign Office, who have worked assiduously behind the scenes to bring the parties together. Britain has been able to play this role because of our network of friendships, including our partnerships with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and because we are a country that will always step up to its responsibilities in the world.

The House can draw encouragement from recent events, but I do not wish to give false hope. The positive steps that we have seen could easily be reversed. The ceasefire in Hodeidah is fragile. Many complex and difficult problems have yet to be addressed, let alone resolved. The people of Yemen still carry an immense burden of suffering. In the last few days, light has appeared at the end of the tunnel, but we should be in no doubt that Yemen is still in a tunnel. For as long as necessary, this country will continue to use all the diplomatic and humanitarian tools at our command to help settle this terrible conflict. Our values demand no less and I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Like my right honourable friend in the other place, I pay tribute to the Foreign Secretary for the time and effort he has put into addressing the terrible situation in Yemen. I also join in the tributes to Martin Griffiths and Mark Lowcock, who have, as the Minister said, worked tirelessly for both the peace talks and the humanitarian relief that is so necessary.

I greatly welcome the confirmation that a resolution is to be tabled this week at the Security Council. From what the Foreign Secretary said in the other place, it seems that on this occasion it will have the support of the United States, which of course is extremely welcome. As we have heard, initially the ceasefire agreement will apply only to Hodeidah. We all understand the reasons for this: the most urgent priority is to get the humanitarian support in. But can the Minister tell us a little more about the next steps? How do we broker a wider ceasefire? How are we brokering a wider political settlement for the country as a whole?

Obviously, the immediate priority is to foster the hope of peace and to get that urgent humanitarian support in, but we must not forget the issue of accountability, particularly for some of the terrible crimes that have been committed. Therefore, I very much welcome the fact that, as the Foreign Secretary said in the other place, the resolution will contain a reference to the obligation to act in accordance with humanitarian law, there will be timely investigations, and those responsible will be held to account.

No one could have been left unmoved by the harrowing investigation last week by the Associated Press into the use of child soldiers by the Houthi rebels. It is alleged that they have forced 18,000 children aged as young as 10 into service in the conflict. I hope that the Minister will share my concern that, if those authorities do not hold people to account, we should ensure that the United Nations conducts a fully independent investigation so that those who commit these crimes are fully held to account.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Of course, the United Kingdom has a responsibility here. It is the penholder at the Security Council, responsible for drafting and tabling resolutions and statements. There has been pressure on the United Kingdom to take action in relation to Yemen, and I am extremely glad that this is now happening.

As the Minister laid out, this is an absolutely desperate situation. Like the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I too pay tribute to Martin Griffiths and Mark Lowcock for their extraordinary efforts. It is encouraging to hear that both the Houthis and the Saudis have now reached a point where they want a solution. That obviously helps enormously. What progress is being made towards enshrining this agreement in a Security Council resolution? The noble Lord referred to that, but is he optimistic that it will be agreed? How then will the agreement be built upon, so that it can be extended to the rest of the country in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned?

Both parties are meant to withdraw from Hodeidah within 21 days. What signs are there that they are preparing to withdraw? I realise that the key players who were in Stockholm do not necessarily have control over those on the ground, which further complicates matters. Will the United Kingdom supply members to the UN monitoring and verification teams? The Houthis have agreed to hand over maps of landmines in Hodeidah. Will the United Kingdom support any landmine clearance programme, as we have done in other parts of the world?

Does the Minister agree that the implementation of the detainee agreement is a vital confidence-building measure, affecting potentially thousands of families? Will the Government call upon all sides to stop the abuse, torture and disappearing of prisoners? Will the Minister update the House on any progress made on the issue of child soldiers, to which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred? Will he also explain what efforts will be made to ensure that women are actively included in the peace talks? I am sure he will agree that that is vital.

On Sunday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that if Yemen’s humanitarian situation did not improve, at least 14 million people would need food aid in 2019, which would be 6 million more than this year. With that number needing food aid and the 24 million whom the noble Lord referred to as needing humanitarian assistance generally, what prospects are there of good access to these people, most of whom are civilians? I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their remarks and support. I align myself with them in commending once again the efforts of British diplomats, but also the Brits involved as representatives at a UN level. Mark Lowcock was mentioned, as was Mr Griffiths. Having met both individuals to discuss this issue, I have seen their efforts directly and they are pretty much exemplary. I think we all join together in commending the crucial role they have played. We have worked closely with them both, particularly Mr Griffiths, in tabling the resolution and ensuring that we reflected the outcome of the talks in Stockholm, so that there was real momentum behind the resolution.

On the specific questions raised, there will be some on which I can give specific details because the Stockholm talks have just concluded. As I said in the Statement, the situation is fragile. There is a degree of optimism because it is the first time for a long period that both sides have sat down. They have had discussions and there have been some detailed outcomes. For the benefit of the House and in answer to some of the questions, I shall put what the parties have agreed into four distinct categories. They include that there will be a governorate-wide ceasefire in Hodeidah. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked whether this relates to the port of Hodeidah only. As mentioned in previous Questions and debates, the ports of Salif and Ras Isa will be included in that. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, referred to the prisoner exchange and the importance of adhering to it. My right honourable friend has conducted shuttle diplomacy in the region and one of the outcomes I alluded to in the Statement is that we hope to see families beginning—I stress “beginning”—to rebuild their lives. We are expecting a prisoner exchange agreement covering between 2,000 and 4,000 people during that time.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, there was a statement of understanding on the war-torn city of Taiz, including the establishment of a de-escalation committee. There is an agreement to have further talks in January 2019. The noble Lord and the noble Baroness pointed to the importance of accountability. I assure the House that that is a key focus of Her Majesty’s Government as penholders and as interlocutors in the role we are playing between both parties to ensure that, as peace is sustained and strengthened, the perpetrators of crimes on both sides are held to account.

Turning to children in armed conflict, in my first year as a Minister for the UN, I have worked very closely with the United Nations, particularly with Virginia Gamba, who leads on this as Under-Secretary-General. We have supported her work and office. Earlier this week, I met Carey Mulligan and others associated with War Child. This is a priority and a focus. It is a travesty that in conflicts—not just in Yemen but in other parts of the world—we see very young children put on the front line. We will certainly focus on that in the resolutions we reach on this issue.

We continue to work on the UN resolution. It is a live issue with our representatives. Our ambassador and permanent representative in New York is working with other partners to ensure that we can finalise it. That is why I have given the timeline of 48 hours in this respect.

The noble Baroness also mentioned the role of women in conflict resolution. It is a travesty that past resolutions of conflicts around the world have excluded women. There is no doubt in my mind about the statistics. We often ask for an evidence base and the evidence is there. When women are involved in conflict resolution, the peace holds for 15 years longer, on average, because women are pivotal and central to ensuring that conflicts can be resolved and peace can be sustained.

Land mine clearance is an area that the United Kingdom has worked on. At this time, it is too early to judge the extent of the issue, but we will look at it in the continuing discussions in which we will be involved.

My Lords, the Minister has focused on the progress made following the talks in Stockholm. There has been a lot of progress since this House last discussed the conflict in Yemen in a debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Luce. Will the Minister answer slightly more clearly the question asked by my noble friend Lord Collins of Highbury about when there will be a national ceasefire? I am sure the Minister will agree that heavy fighting continues to take place outside Hodeidah with serious effects on the population. While a political solution is vital in any conflict of this sort, it seems to me that it will be rather hard to get that political solution while there is continuing fighting elsewhere in the country.

The noble Baroness raises a very important point. However, what has been agreed at this time is a focus on Hodeidah port for obvious strategic reasons: it is the main port through which humanitarian and medical supplies come and it was important that we reached agreement. This is an incremental process. As I alluded to in response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, there has been a statement of understanding to look in the next stage of the peace talks at the war-torn city of Taiz, and we will look at incremental steps towards building the objective that I know all noble Lords share: a ceasefire across the whole country. However, it is important that we approach this in a systematic, structured fashion. I add a word of caution that this is a very fragile peace with, for the moment, a focus just on Hodeidah. Of course I share the ultimate objective to which the noble Baroness aspires. However, at this time, we need to focus on what has been achieved thus far, and I shall of course keep the House updated on progress in this respect.

My Lords, I offer my congratulations to the Minister, his department and all those involved in getting this far, while continuing to regret that there was such a long period in which the UN Security Council was pretty passive. Will he ensure that from now on, now that the UN has come back into the centre of the efforts being made, it will remain there; that Martin Griffiths will continue to have the full support of the Security Council; and that, if necessary, more action will be taken by it if one or the other side to this dispute breaks the arrangements so far made?

Secondly, he referred to monitoring in the port of Hodeidah. Is that monitoring the supply of humanitarian resources, or is it also monitoring the ceasefire in and around Hodeidah? If so, what contribution will the United Nations make to that monitoring and what contribution will we make to help the United Nations play its role in that matter?

My Lords, first, I appreciate the noble Lord’s expert insight, particularly into the UN. There are many critics of the United Nations, but the role that it and, particularly, Martin Griffiths, has played in this respect has demonstrated that role’s importance in conflict resolution. I take up the challenge when people say that the UN is ineffective. It has its challenges, but it also brings incredible benefits when countries come together to resolve challenges and conflicts such as that in Yemen.

In answer to the noble Lord’s question, and in support of Martin Griffiths, I point to recent evidence. When we were looking to table the resolution, we spoke closely to Mr Griffiths. The alignment of the resolution with the outcome of the Stockholm talks demonstrates British support for his position. We continue to work with him and support his efforts in this respect.

Monitoring has focused on the supply of humanitarian aid, but it will also look at ensuring that the peace that has currently been reached—I caution that there were recent reports of outbreaks of minor violence around Hodeidah—continues to be monitored by the United Nations. Specific numbers and how any future deployment may work in the region will, I am sure, be a subject for future discussion.

My Lords, these developments are obviously to be welcomed and those responsible are certainly entitled to congratulations, but looking through the Statement, I see no reference to Iran. Iran is playing a significant role in these affairs in Yemen. What exchange has there been involving Her Majesty’s Government—either between the Foreign Secretary and his Iranian equivalent or at the United Nations, between Karen Pierce, our high representative, and her equivalent?

Secondly, resolutions of this kind have previously fallen foul of the objection of both Russia and China. What efforts are being made to ensure that in this instance they will be on side?

My Lords, in answer to the second question I can assure the noble Lord that we are working tirelessly on this, in particular Karen Pierce, our permanent representative to the UN. I pay tribute to her efforts; anyone who knows her will know that she is a formidable ambassador and an experienced diplomat. As I speak, she continues to work to ensure the kind of support that is required for such a resolution, and we are working with partners in this respect.

On the first question on Iran, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has engaged directly with Foreign Minister Zarif, and we continue to work with Iran on important issues. As I also said in the Statement, after the Foreign Secretary had visited the UAE and Saudi Arabia, he paid a visit to Iran.

Will the Minister cast any further light on a point arising from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay? As the Minister said, in Stockholm it was clear that there were questions about the command structure, communications and the delivery mechanism between what was agreed at Stockholm and on whose authority, and what happens on the ground. To take this a step further from what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, in other examples like this—Bosnia springs to mind, but there are many others—I assume that there needs to be monitoring by UN personnel, but not wearing blue berets. The Minister mentioned the delicacy of the situation, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, mentioned China. To what extent is there an issue about making sure that the UN has some ability to be in the chain of command in the context of implementation, or is there a blockage in the area?

If I understand the noble Lord correctly, I have already alluded to the fact that China is an important partner, not just on this issue but as a P5 member of the Security Council, and as I said, we are working tirelessly through our team in New York to ensure full support for the resolution. That is why I said that this will be tabled and voted on within the next 48 hours. As I said in the Statement, we have circulated the resolution, and China and other members of the Security Council have been cited. We look towards what I believe will be successful support by all members of the Security Council of a first step in resolving a conflict that we all recognise has gone on for far too long.

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I welcome the Statement and the commitments within it. The depth of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is clear from the Statement and everything we hear. Two-thirds of the population have no food security at all, and nearly a quarter of a million Yemenis are on the brink of starvation. I declare my interest as a trustee of the Disasters Emergency Committee, to which the British public gave £30 million for its 2016 Yemen appeal. Will the Minister confirm that despite all the difficulties, UK agencies are still working on the ground in Yemen, mainly with Yemeni staff, to deliver aid, even in those desperately difficult circumstances? Will he also confirm that the effort needs to be increased many times if we are to meet the depth and the scale of the humanitarian disaster there, and that that can happen only if and when political and military progress means that there is access on the ground?

I recognise the points the noble Baroness raises. If we reflect on the history of this conflict, it is incredible when we see people who still persevere, notwithstanding the lack of a political settlement, a peace agreement and access. While we are right to pay tribute to the likes of Mark Lowcock and Martin Griffiths, when we see the courage and bravery in these conflict zones it is also appropriate to acknowledge and commend the work of NGOs, not just from the United Kingdom but internationally. By doing the right thing and supporting humanitarian efforts these volunteers often put themselves on the front line, at great risk to their own lives.

I agree with the point made by the noble Baroness about the generosity of the British people in crises. Yemen has been no different. On 3 April, as she will be aware, we announced an additional £170 million for the current financial year in response to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, As I was preparing for this Statement I saw that my noble friend Lady Warsi had written an article that, I believe, appeared in the Independent today, reminding us all that this is just the current support we can offer. In view of the famine, and cholera spreading among a young population, I agree with the noble Baroness that, as this peace holds, we should, and will, be looking to increase our efforts to ensure that the humanitarian needs of the country are fully met, so that people can start rebuilding a future.

As it is nearly Christmas, may I extend my own thanks to the Minister for all the concern that he personally has shown for human rights, as evidenced today, including in his earlier response to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Alton? It is noted all around the House. Following the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, on humanitarian aid, my only question is: to what extent has the port of Hodeidah actually reopened? There has never been much of it open, but has the Minister any idea what difference the latest ceasefire has made to the flow of humanitarian aid?

First let me thank the noble Earl for his kind remarks, but I am just doing my job. I am proud, humbled and honoured to be acting as Minister for Human Rights, among my responsibilities in Her Majesty’s Government—and this job is made all the easier by the expertise, insights and support that I receive from your Lordships’ House. I pay particular tribute to the respective Front-Bench spokesmen—the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins. It would be fair to say that there are times when we oppose each other, but it is reflective of the unity with which we act on this important principle internationally that this House, and the other place—notwithstanding the difficulties that we have—come together on important issues that unite us. There is no bigger issue than supporting and standing up for human rights and supporting humanitarian causes around the world, and I am grateful to all noble Lords for their constant support in that respect.

The noble Earl raised an important point about Hodeidah, and I can give him the latest statistics that I have, which precede the peace efforts. In November 2018 total commercial and humanitarian imports into Yemen met 68% of the country’s food needs but only 29% of its fuel needs. That second statistic is important, because fuel enables aid to reach the more remote parts of the country, so it is imperative that, as we have reached this agreement, the ports of Hodeidah and Salif remain operational. Yemen relies on imports to meet 90% of its basic needs such as food and fuel, coming through those ports. Returning to an earlier question about the incremental way in which peace can be sustained, retained and strengthened, it is important to see that all parties that have committed to maintaining peace do so around Hodeidah to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid. This is a vital key channel to ensuring that humanitarian aid—food, fuel and medicines—reaches the population of Yemen.

My Lords, given that we know that there is food available in Hodeidah and surrounding towns, are the UK Government working out a plan whereby they can buy grain locally to reduce the price? As I understand it, grain is being hoarded by merchants, which is causing a large part of the famine.

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important concern, and I will do best to write to her on that specific question, after making an assessment of the current situation on the ground. We need to look into whether individuals or groups of individuals seek to hoard supplies with a view to profiting from the humanitarian needs of their population. I hope that as talks progress, those seeking to profiteer from the conflict will be not just looked into but held to account for their actions.

My Lords, tragic though the situation in Yemen obviously is, there is also a very tragic situation in Syria, where 500,000 people have been killed and 12 million displaced, half of them outside the country. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to attempt to relieve the tremendous suffering that has occurred in that country?

My Lords, we all acknowledge the situation and the noble Lord is quite correct: the Syrian conflict and the tragedy we have seen unfolding there is not lost on any of us. The measures deployed by the regime mean that tragically we have seen Bashar al-Assad turn on his own population, not only in preventing humanitarian aid but in the use of chemical weapons, which we have universally, rightly and collectively condemned. We continue to work for a resolution to ensure that all communities of Syria will be rightly represented. We continue to support the talks in Geneva; unfortunately they have been stalled because the regime is not currently inclined to engage. However, there are important players in Syria as in all these conflicts—we call upon key players such as Russia, which can influence and help to reach a formal resolution to conflict. Similarly the Yemeni conflict has gone on for far too long and more can be done to bring different sides to the table.

I have seen through the efforts that have been made in Yemen that the importance of the United Nations cannot be underestimated. The UN Security Council, in the most challenging circumstances, brings the key world powers together. I believe very strongly that when it comes to Syria, resolution can be reached only through a political settlement, where all sides are rightly represented. The key body to provide that resolution is the United Nations.

My Lords, we hugely respect the Minister for the efforts that he makes, but does he believe that what he does makes a blind bit of difference to anything that is going on in Yemen?

My Lords, noting all the desperate tales in questions and answers today, does the Minister agree that this war is totally counterproductive to everyone in Yemen and that it behoves everyone to get together and make peace, so that we can look for a better world for all our friends in Yemen?

I agree with the noble Viscount. I said “Absolutely” in response to the previous question. I am a bit dismayed; I know the noble Lord very well—if my efforts, the efforts of our Government and the efforts of this House can make a difference to the life of one person, then do you know what? It is worth it.