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Yemen and South Sudan: Humanitarian Crises

Volume 829: debated on Thursday 20 April 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the progress towards resolving the humanitarian crises in Yemen and South Sudan; and what assistance they have provided, along with international partners, to ensure that children and families in those countries have adequate access to food, water, and medical supplies.

My Lords, I begin by referencing the devastating events in Sanaa last night. I offer the sincere condolences of the whole House to the families of those who lost their lives. The sadness of the loss of life is heightened by being so close to Eid ul Fitr. Reportedly, more than 80 lives were lost and many more were injured during a stampede at a charity event designed to provide cash and food to those most in need at Eid ul Fitr. Inna Lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un—to God we belong, to God we will return.

Resolving the dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen and South Sudan requires peace. The South Sudanese Government should implement their peace agreement and road map, end the violence and provide more of their own resources to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Similarly, the de facto truce in Yemen continues to hold. Long-term stability will come only with a Yemeni-led political settlement under the auspices of the UN, but the UK will continue to support millions of vulnerable people in both Yemen and South Sudan.

My Lords, I join my noble friend in expressing distress at the events in Sanaa. I am grateful to him for his words. The humanitarian aid allocated by the international community to Sudan and Yemen has been essential. It is also essential to ensure that it reaches those in need there. My noble friend will be aware that, over the last six months or so, there has been a dramatic surge in the level of attacks on humanitarian aid workers and in the theft of their aid. Can he tell the House what work Ministers have been doing with our colleagues in the international community, particularly the African Union, IGAD and the troika, to ensure that the combatants eventually give way to humanitarian workers instead of, as at the moment, killing them?

My noble friend speaks with great insight and experience, and I am grateful for her work in this area. I totally agree with my noble friend about the importance of humanitarian corridors. Only yesterday, during the repeat of the Statement on Sudan, we discussed the appalling and abhorrent situation where not only aid workers but also UN aid agencies and senior diplomats are being attacked in Sudan. That has a natural impact on South Sudan, in terms of humanitarian assistance, because of the routes through, and the situation remains extremely dire.

There has been some more positive development in Yemen, with this truce led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We have engaged with all relevant governments in the near neighbourhood, as well as the key UN agencies and all international organisations. We remain very committed to continuing our support for humanitarian assistance but also to opening up key corridors to allow aid to reach the most vulnerable.

My Lords, considering the level of the humanitarian crisis in both Yemen and Sudan, will the UK Government now consider reinstating the overseas aid budget, which was reduced some two years ago to 0.5% of GNI, and returning it to the original amount of 0.7%?

My Lords, I have often said from the Dispatch Box that we seek to return to the 0.7%, but notwithstanding the reduction in 2022-23, the UK Government have continued to provide emergency food aid for an estimated close to 200,000 people, including daily water and sanitation provision in South Sudan. We have continued our support and at the UN-led humanitarian pledging conference in March 2023 retained £88 million of aid to Yemen. We remain amongst some of the primary donors when it comes to bilateral support. The difficulty on the ground, as highlighted by my noble friend Lady Anelay, has impeded vital aid reaching the most vulnerable.

My Lords, it is important that we look at how we can intervene in many ways, and the Minister has mentioned the role of international organisations. Given that South Sudan has expressed an interest in joining the Commonwealth, has my noble friend spoken to his Commonwealth counterparts about perhaps providing assistance via the Commonwealth?

My Lords, I know of my noble friend’s interest in the Commonwealth, which is an organisation that I know well. During the PSVI conference back in November, there was some hope about the situation in South Sudan. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and I met with the then Defence Minister on various issues concerning how we could strengthen South Sudan, including its place in the international community. However, things have since taken a rather regressive path—indeed, the Defence Minister herself is no longer in place. First and foremost, we need unity among the different parties in South Sudan, and then I am sure we can move forward on other considerations as well.

My Lords, as the Minister alluded to, humanitarian aid and co-ordination for South Sudan and Juba is through Khartoum and Khartoum Airport. I repeat my interest that I was in Khartoum over the Easter Recess, and in my March visit I met separately with Generals Burhan and Hemedti. Last night I had an opportunity to speak to the deputy head of the doctors’ union from Khartoum, who relayed to me the sheer horror of the medical crisis in Khartoum at the moment, and the problem of getting supplies into Khartoum Airport. He asked me to make a direct appeal, at Heads of Government level, to seek a monitorable cessation of hostilities in Khartoum to secure the airport open, which would allow medical assistance in and let co-ordinators for South Sudan and Juba to continue their much-needed work.

I assure the noble Lord we are very seized of this. The discussions around the situation in Sudan took place at the G7 Foreign Ministers meeting. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has engaged with key partners, including the troika who have key responsibility in Sudan. We are also engaging directly at senior level, as my right honourable friend has with Foreign Ministers in the near regions, particularly countries such as the UAE, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which have obvious influence on the ground in South Sudan.

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned the promising discussions and the exchange of prisoners leading to a permanent ceasefire, and the lifting of the Saudi-led blockade of Yemen, but that pathway towards peace remains incredibly shaky. The noble Lord stressed the importance of a Yemeni-led political solution. As we have a special responsibility as a Security Council penholder, can the Minister tell us what we are doing to support Special Envoy Grundberg’s mediation efforts? And can he update us on our work at the Security Council to ensure that the political process delivers the peace the people of Yemen deserve?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that we all welcome what is a truce of some kind, but it is holding—that is the important thing. When I visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recently, I saw quite directly the important role being played by Saudi Arabia, particularly by their ambassador Mohammed Al-Jaber who talked me through some of the reconstruction in the government-held areas. We have seen some progress through certain talks that took place directly, both with the UAE, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which have brought progress. I have engaged directly with the Foreign Minister of Yemen, as has my right honourable friend, and we are meeting with key personnel from the United Nations to ensure that the current truce can build into something much more substantial that will stand the test of the current challenges we face. It is tragic that, as I said, where aid does get through, such events can occur very quickly—we are still getting the full details, but it appears to have been an accidental firing that then caused havoc, which shows the sense of insecurity that people, including the most vulnerable people, in Yemen feel currently.