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Volume 810: debated on Wednesday 10 February 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 8 February.

“I thank my right honourable friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for asking a question on this important matter. The ongoing conflict and humanitarian situation in Yemen remain a challenge for the international community. The new Houthi offensive in Marib has only made our efforts to bring peace and stability even more difficult. Nevertheless, we continue to work with the international community to find a peaceful resolution, with an emphasis on the political process.

The UK is playing a leading role in responding to the crisis in Yemen through both our humanitarian response and our diplomatic influence. We actively support the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, in his work to reach a political solution, and we pay tribute to his tireless efforts to bring about peace. The UK has pledged over £1 billion in aid to the humanitarian response since the conflict began.

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and I have regular calls with partners on Yemen. Recently, the Foreign Secretary spoke to Secretary Blinken in the new United States Administration and to the Saudi Foreign Minister. Last month, I spoke with the Yemeni Foreign Minister to offer my condolences after the attacks at Aden airport. The UK has also used its role as the penholder at the UN Security Council to help move the Yemen peace process forward, working with our partners and allies at the United Nations to ensure that Yemen continues to be a top priority for the international community.

We welcome the recent statement by President Biden to instigate a review of US foreign policy towards Yemen. Our ambassador in Washington has already spoken with the new US envoy to Yemen. I also welcome reports that the US may reverse the previous Administration’s designation of the Houthis as foreign terrorist fighters. The UK has engaged closely with the US Administration on that very matter.

However, we cannot—we must not—ignore the Houthi actions. Those include the use of children and sexual violence as tools of war, the persecution of religious minorities and attacks on civilians. On 30 December, the Houthis attacked Aden airport, killing 27 civilians and injuring more than 100 others. We must address the Houthi sense of impunity, to make the peace process meaningful, and that must extend to other actors in the region, notably Iran. I note the US decision to pause its arms exports while it reviews its policy towards Yemen. I reassure the House that the Government take their own export responsibilities extremely seriously and assess all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria.

The political settlement is the only way to bring about long-term peace and stability in Yemen and to address the worsening humanitarian situation. The Government remain committed to bringing an end to the conflict.”

My Lords, the Biden Administration have reversed Trump’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organisation, appointed a special envoy for Yemen, curtailed support for offensive operations by the Saudi-led coalition in the conflict and are supporting the UN-led peace process. On this last point, what are we doing to align ourselves with the United States to bring an end to this conflict, which the UN has described as the worst humanitarian disaster? Will last year’s licensing of £1.4 billion of arms sales be the bigger consideration?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, is right to raise the US Administration reversing the previous Administration’s designation of the Houthis, which we welcome. The UK is engaging very closely with the US Administration on this matter and over the past months we have shared our concerns about the designation and the humanitarian situation. Our ambassador to Washington has also met with the new special envoy to co-ordinate our efforts. As the noble Lord knows, we continue to provide humanitarian support. We will initiate further debate on this during our presidency of the UN Security Council and we continue to adopt a very tight regime on arms exports.

My Lords, why yet again have the Government failed to provide a credible explanation for their decision not to join their closest ally and its much welcome new President in suspending arms sales? This war has lasted seven years. The citizens of Yemen have suffered misery, famine and death. What is wrong with assisting the President in the endeavours to break the logjam by giving him unqualified support?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we are working very closely with the United States on this. We agree that it is important to bring this crisis of humanitarian suffering to an end and work very closely in this respect. On arms sales and export licences, I assure the noble Lord, as I have done previously, that we will not issue any export licence where there is a clear risk of serious violation of international humanitarian law.

The claim that the United Kingdom and other countries providing arms to Saudi Arabia were potentially “aiding and assisting” war crimes by the country’s forces in Yemen is a heavy charge to be laid on our country. The Government have indicated that they do not intend to mirror the actions taken by the United States and suspend defence exports to Saudi Arabia. Will they reconsider their decision not to mirror the actions taken by our closest ally, the United States, and suspend defence exports to Saudi Arabia as part of an attempt to end the Yemen conflict?

My Lords, I have already in part stated the Government’s position in answer to the previous question. Yes, we have an ongoing defence relationship with Saudi Arabia, but it is not just about exports; we also provide valuable training courses, advice and guidance. We have a strong relationship. I assure my noble friend that the issue of international humanitarian law is at the forefront in any exports to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or any other country.

My Lords, not achieving objectives is failing. It follows that the war in Yemen is doomed, with the return of Mr Hadi unrealistic and the Houthis not only controlling the areas with the largest proportion of the population but exercising control over Saudi border regions. Would not the best immediate course be external disentanglement in all perceived forms, including cessation of arms to Saudi Arabia—bar supply of critical humanitarian necessities—and, to the extent that Tehran can extend influence on the Houthis, constructive engagement with that country while encouraging Saudi Arabia to come to the table and negotiate its way out of this mess?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about ensuring that all regional players play their part in bringing about peace in this conflict. We are also very much guided by and integrated into the work, which I am sure all noble Lords acknowledge, of UN special envoy Martin Griffiths; we urge parties to engage with him constructively. The UK has also made available £1.6 million to the UN to run the peace support facility that works with the special envoy and all parties on peace initiatives supported by both sides.

My Lords, the United Nations predicts that the number of Yemenis experiencing famine-like conditions will reach 47,000 by June, nearly triple that of December. In the light of the signals that US policy towards Yemen is changing, as we have heard, and the upcoming aid review, will the Government commit to at least maintaining their current aid commitments to Yemen? Further to earlier questions, does the Minister agree that the public find it hard to understand how the Government intend to reconcile their role of being both arms seller to Saudi Arabia and peacemaker and aid-giver in Yemen?

My Lords, on the right reverend Prelate’s first point, we remain very much committed, through the challenging exercise of the reduced total spending, to playing a leading and active role in combating hunger in Yemen. For example, in the financial year 2020-21, we spent £214 million. On his final point on our relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as I alluded to earlier, we have strict criteria on which we agree to exports of arms sales.

The Minister will be aware that arms sales to Saudi Arabia amount to approximately 40% of the volume of all UK arms sales. Does he agree that UK arms sales and technical support are sustaining the war in Yemen and that we should use the US decision to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia as an opportunity to pursue peace talks?

My Lords, I have already given the Government’s position on arms sales, but I agree with the noble Baroness; we will work very closely with the US and other allies, and through the UN, to ensure that we can bring about peace in Yemen. However, that requires the participation of all parties to the conflict.

Will the Minister consider whether it is right and proper for outside parties to continue to pressurise the warring north and south of Yemen to remain together? Would it not be desirable for the Southern Movement, which is highly competent and full of professionals, to be left alone to restore the former living standards of south Yemen and the huge prosperity of the port of Aden?

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point about southern Yemen, but I am sure she will agree that it is a question for the Yemeni people. The position of the United Kingdom and the Security Council remains that we support the unity, sovereignty and independence of Yemen. That is why the UK supports an inclusive peace process in this respect.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that calls for the suspension of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia are misplaced? This would not help the search for peace; it would simply encourage the Houthis to dig their heels in still further. It would also be extremely damaging to our very important relationship with Saudi Arabia, a country in which I have served twice. Finally, does he agree that the key lies in Tehran and that American diplomatic muscle will be essential?

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with experience of that region. I agree that it requires Tehran, the United States, the UN and all parties to come together to finally bring peace to Yemen.

My Lords, at a time when the United States and President Biden have shown such a magnificent stand on the principles on which foreign policy should be based, in their reversal of the existing policy on arms to Yemen, is the obstinacy of the British Government, refusing to budge on this, really the hallmark of what they want to be seen as global Britain?

My Lords, the objective of Her Majesty’s Government is to bring about peace in Yemen. As I have already indicated, this engages us on several fronts. We are second only to the US in the humanitarian support we provide to Yemen. We have engaged quite directly as penholders at the UN Security Council and will continue to do so. I believe I have made our position on arms control and exports very clear on a number of occasions, and again today. However, I assure the noble Lord that we will work very closely with the new Administration in the United States, who have clearly signalled the importance and priority they attach to this issue, in pursuit of the objective—peace in Yemen.

Sitting suspended.