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Situation in the Red Sea

Volume 836: debated on Thursday 29 February 2024


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 26 February.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the recent response to Houthi aggression in the Red Sea. Thirty years ago, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea came into force. That agreement was ratified by 168 nations and it states explicitly in Article 17 that

‘ships of all States, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea’.

Since 19 October, the Houthis, aided and abetted by Iran, have launched a ruthless and reckless campaign of attacks against commercial shipping. These attacks are not solely limited to commerce; our military vessels are also in the Houthi crosshairs. The Royal Navy, the US Navy and most recently the French navy have also been targets. Vessels owned by Chinese and Bulgarian companies and crews from India, Sri Lanka and Syria have been targeted indiscriminately, making a mockery of Houthi claims that this is all about Israel.

From the outset we have been clear that this cannot carry on. Freedom of navigation underpins not only our security but our prosperity. Around 80% of traded goods are carried over the seas, as are about 90% of the goods arriving in the United Kingdom. These necessities on which we depend arrive through a small number of critical waterways, so upholding these precious freedoms is essential for the preservation of life. This Government are determined to help restore the tranquillity of the Red Sea. That is why the UK was one of the first members to join the US-led taskforce, Operation Prosperity Guardian, with HMS ‘Richmond’ now taking over from HMS ‘Diamond’ to patrol in the Red Sea to help protect commercial shipping. It is why we are working in tandem with the US and other allies to reduce the Houthis’ capacity to harm our security and economic interest, to limit their impact on the flow of humanitarian aid, to prevent further regional escalation, and to show Iran in no uncertain terms that we will push back against its destabilising behaviour.

On occasion, in response to specific threats and in line with international law and the principle of self-defence, we have tackled the Houthi threat head on. Since 11 January, we have conducted a number of precision strikes against Houthi targets. In these previous rounds of strikes, RAF aircraft successfully struck some 32 targets at six different locations, including drone ground control stations as well as other facilities directly involved in the Houthis’ drone and missile attacks on shipping. I am pleased to say that it remains the case that, to date, we have seen no evidence at all to indicate that the RAF strikes caused civilian casualties, and the UN has noted that it has observed no civilian impact arising from the RAF strikes.

Although we have eroded the Houthis’ capacity, their intent to prosecute indiscriminate attacks against innocent vessels remains undiminished. Just last week, MV ‘Rubymar’—a Belize-flagged, British-registered cargo vessel—was targeted in the Gulf of Aden near the Bab al-Mandab Strait. Hit by missiles, the crew were forced to abandon ship. An oil slick, caused entirely by damage sustained in the Houthi attack, now stretches many miles from the vessel. On Thursday, the British-registered MV ‘Islander’ was similarly targeted. It was struck by two missiles, resulting in a fire on board. Fortunately, there was no loss of life.

This all comes not long after two US-registered bulk carriers, MV ‘Navis Fortuna’ and MV ‘Sea Champion’, suffered minor damage from Houthi strikes. The attack on ‘Sea Champion’ highlights the Houthis’ recklessness and near-sightedness, considering that ‘Sea Champion’ has delivered humanitarian aid to Yemen 11 times in the past five years and was due to unload thousands of tonnes of much needed aid to the Yemeni people through the ports of Aden and Hodeidah. The Houthis’ attack was, quite simply, callous. As near-sighted as these attacks are, they continue to have serious and potentially long-term consequences across the region, as they cut off vital aid to civilians in Yemen and Syria, restrict crucial food imports to Djibouti and threaten significant impacts in Egypt.

Last time I spoke on this issue, I told the House that we will not hesitate to act again in self-defence. We have given the Houthis ample opportunity to de-escalate, but once again, the Houthi zealots have ignored our repeated warnings. As a result, we have once again taken action to defend ourselves against these intolerable attacks. On Saturday night, a Royal Air Force package of four Typhoons, supported by two Voyager tankers, joined US forces in a deliberate strike against Houthi military facilities in Yemen that have been conducting missile and drone attacks on commercial shipping and coalition naval forces in the Bab al-Mandab Strait, the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. As the House knows, it was the fourth such operation to degrade the Houthi capabilities that are being used to threaten global trade in the Red Sea.

Intelligence analysis indicates that the strikes were successful, and that the sites we attacked were being used by the long-range drones that the Houthis use for both reconnaissance and attack missions, including at a former surface-to-air missile battery site several miles north-east of Sanaa. Our aircraft used Paveway IV precision-guided munitions against the drones and their launchers. Assessment continues at this still early stage, but the analysis so far indicates that all eight RAF targets were successfully struck. Three buildings were hit at the Bani military site, and five one-way attack drones are assessed to have been destroyed at the Sanaa military site.

On planning these strikes, as is normal practice for the RAF, operations were carried out meticulously, and consideration was given to minimising any risk of causing civilian casualties. Assessments so far indicate that, across the four sets of airstrikes, some 40 military targets have been hit at seven different Houthi facilities. I pay tribute to the immense skill and tireless dedication of the men and women who made that possible.

Once again, I would like to make it clear that military action is only one aspect of our approach to the crisis in the Red Sea. The whole international community has an interest in stopping these attacks, and we continue to work with it to turn that intent into action. The Prime Minister has engaged regional leaders, including the Sultan of Oman, as well as G7 partners. The Foreign Secretary and I have travelled repeatedly to the region in recent weeks to discuss regional security. We are determined to end the illegal flow of arms to the Houthis, using whatever levers are available, including enduring diplomatic engagement, and determined to continue to intercept illegal weapons and the shipping that helps to feed that supply. We are cutting off the Houthis’ financial resources, to further degrade their capacity to conduct attacks; for example, jointly with the US, we are sanctioning four Houthi leaders, and we will continue to work with the US to cut the flow of Houthi funds.

Despite the best efforts of the Houthis, we also continue to provide humanitarian help to people in the Middle East. This year, we will send some £88 million of humanitarian support to Yemen, which will feed 100,000 Yeminis every month. The UK has recently worked closely with our Jordanian partners to air-drop life-saving supplies directly to the Tal al-Hawa hospital in northern Gaza.

The Houthis could stop this barbaric behaviour any time they want. Instead, they callously choose to continue their reckless acts of aggression, causing harm not just to innocents, but to their own people in Yemen. Until they stop, we will continue to act, but consensus continues to grow that the Houthis’ violations simply cannot continue. That is why, recently, the European Union officially launched its Operation Aspides; Members will know that ‘aspides’ meant ‘shield’ in ancient Greek. We very much welcome the commitment of our EU partners to joining in the work that has been going on, because no nation should ever be able to threaten the arteries of global commerce.

Thirty years ago, nations of the world all came together to protect innocent passage on our high seas. Thirty years on, the House should be in no doubt whatever that we will continue to stand up for those rights, and do all that we can to defend life and limb of sailors everywhere, and to preserve their precious trading routes, on which we all depend. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I remind your Lordships’ House of my interests in the register, specifically my roles with the Royal Navy. I thank the Government for their Statement and want to make it clear—as my friend, the right honourable John Healey, did in the other place—that His Majesty’s Opposition accept that the weekend’s airstrikes were legal, limited and targeted to minimise the risk of civilian casualties. Before we move on to the substantive part of the Statement, I pay tribute to the total professionalism of all forces personnel involved in the operations, currently numbering in excess of 2,500. As ever, military deployments do not come without risk; I thank those serving and their families for the personal sacrifices that they make every day to keep us safe.

Research from the British Chambers of Commerce this week showed that 55% of UK exporters have now been impacted by the disruption of shipping to the Red Sea. Among UK firms more broadly, 37% have seen the effects of Houthi strikes, with manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers more likely to be affected. This is having a direct impact on our economy and cannot be tolerated. The Houthis are threatening international trade and maritime security, and are putting civilian and military lives in serious danger. We accept that the military action over the weekend was justified and necessary but, as the shadow Secretary of State asked in the other place, was it effective?

Deterrence does not feature in the weekend’s eight-nation joint statement in support of the strikes, and the Defence Secretary said on Monday that the Houthi intent remains undiminished, so can the Minister clarify exactly what our specific objectives are for this UK action? Is it deterrence or are we seeking to degrade Houthi capabilities? If it is both, as I hope it is, what will success look like? How successful have the four missions that we have been party to been in achieving these objectives?

Of course, the Labour Party continues to back the Royal Navy’s role in the defence of shipping from all nations through Operation Prosperity Guardian. Although we are a key partner in Operation Prosperity Guardian, we are now not the only ones seeking to secure freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and to tackle the Houthi threat. Can the Minister update your Lordships’ House on the current co-ordination efforts with our allies?

The EU has launched Operation Aspides with similar objectives to Operation Prosperity Guardian. How is the US-led task force co-ordinating with Operation Aspides and what plans are there for combined action? The Saudi-led intervention into the Yemeni civil war against the Houthis began nine years ago, almost to the day. Can the Minister update your Lordships’ House on the current discussions with the Saudis and the intersection between these efforts and the recent airstrikes? Military action against the Houthis must be reinforced by a diplomatic drive in the region aimed at stopping the flow of Iranian weapons, cutting off Houthi finances and settling the civil war in Yemen. A limited update was shared in the other place about these diplomatic efforts. What additional information can the Minister give us about these efforts, specifically the diplomatic plan accompanying the strikes to manage escalation risks? Can he inform your Lordships’ House what other partners and allies we are engaging with to stop the escalation of these Iranian-backed Houthi strikes?

There is no excuse for the current attacks by the Houthi rebels on international maritime activity. There is an onus on us to protect freedom of navigation, which is why we support the efforts of the UK Government and, as always, thank our service personnel for their bravery, professionalism and dedication.

My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to His Majesty’s Armed Forces for always acting very effectively and professionally. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson, we on these Benches support the limited strikes that we have seen so far. It is clearly right that, in line with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the United Kingdom supports rights of navigation—in particular the right of innocent passage, which is enshrined in Article 17.

That said, can the Minister tell the House at what point His Majesty’s Government would feel it appropriate to come to this Chamber or, more likely, the other place to talk more fully about engagement in the Red Sea and attacks on Houthi targets? There are questions about parliamentary scrutiny of military intervention. For limited strikes, it is clearly right that the Government say, “This happened two nights ago”, but at what point does the number of limited strikes cumulatively become something that Parliament really should be addressing and able to scrutinise more fully?

Beyond that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson, pointed out, what we are seeing from the Houthis is action that is impacting on trade and navigability. It impacts not only the United Kingdom or our conventional western allies; these attacks are affecting global trade. There have been attacks on Chinese-registered companies’ ships and on crews from India, Sri Lanka and Syria. Although we clearly need to be talking with our conventional partners and allies, what discussions are we also having with China, India and other countries about more global ways of tackling this situation? In defending the Red Sea and keeping it open for trade, we are not only acting for the West but looking more globally. Is there scope within the United Nations to be talking much more broadly with a variety of countries that are, perhaps, not our normal partners and which even the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, may not yet have reached in his travels around the world in his first 100 days as Foreign Secretary? There may be opportunities that we could think about.

It is clearly welcome that the attacks so far appear to have been targeted, precise and proportionate. They have taken out Houthi targets, Houthi drone bases and so on but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson, asked, what is the Government’s intent? Is it to degrade the Houthi capabilities, which is clearly welcome, or is it to deter? If it is trying to degrade, which the Government are saying has been successful, is that going to be a long-term degradation or are the Houthis simply going to look to their Iranian backers for further military support? In other words, can the Minister tell the House to what extent these limited attacks will remain limited and to what extent we are going to be able to work with partners to try to ensure that the reckless and opportunistic Houthi attacks stop? What is the endgame for the Government? Is it to ensure that there is full deterrence of the Houthis?

My Lords, let me start by making it absolutely clear that the Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden are illegal and intolerable. Their reckless and dangerous actions threaten freedom of navigation and global trade, let alone the risk to innocent lives. That is why the UK, alongside the United States and with the support of our international partners, has carried out additional strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen in line with international law and in self-defence.

We continue to take action that is necessary, limited, legal and proportionate in terms of self-defence, freedom of navigation and protecting lives. Our aim remains to disrupt and degrade Houthi capabilities to put an end to this persistent threat, and we will not hesitate to take further appropriate action to deliver this purpose.

I turn to the specific questions raised by the noble Baronesses, which I hope will go a long way to explaining this. First, on behalf of the Government, I continue to appreciate the support from all Benches in the House; it is extremely valuable and very helpful in reaching these decisions, and, of course, we appreciate the immense professionalism of all the Armed Forces and their support who are involved in this continuing and extremely tricky situation.

The effect on commerce goes without saying. As the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson, pointed out, it is really starting to have an impact on European markets and, by definition, it must be having an impact on the manufacturing and supply bases in the Far East that ship towards Europe. On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, about China and its silence so far on this entire issue, one can only hope that the diplomatic efforts in that direction, when tinged with a little bit of economic reality, may have a slightly more impressive effect.

As for the actual effect of the specific attacks that we have undertaken, it may be helpful to run through exactly what we are trying to do, and to delineate these specific attacks in relation to a more general approach. These carefully targeted sites—and they really are carefully targeted—are attacking deeply buried weapons storage, launch sites, ground-control systems and radars, which are the four things that will stop these attacks. The intention to deter and degrade is absolutely present, and Prosperity Guardian is all about deterrence. These three things are intricately linked. In the attack last weekend, we hit three buildings, destroyed five drones that were ready to be launched, and, as far as we are aware, no civilian casualties were caused. To date, we have had four strikes on seven facilities and 40 targets. The information is that all four have been successful in support of Prosperity Guardian and our American, and other, allies—it is the Americans, of course, who are leading.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anderson, quite rightly raises the question of Aspides, which is the EU stepping up to the plate, to some extent. To put a scale on that, it consists of four frigates and a single aerial asset. It is a defensive maritime security operation, and it will protect commercial shipping from attacks at sea or by air, but it will not involve itself in strikes on land. It started on 19 February 2024, it is based in Greece and it has an Italian force commander. It provides a valuable defensive role, but we do not see it being involved in any degrading or deterring.

On the question of the conversations with wider allies and other countries in the area, the whole purpose of the diplomatic effort is to put pressure on Iran, to try to stop the supply of weaponry to its acolytes. By taking military action—which is a final resort—as well as the diplomatic effort, we are doing all we can to restrict weapons and finance. It is consistent with our whole approach; it is appropriate and backed up with force.

My final point goes back to the question of global trade and the point that was well made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that it is not just the allied shipping that is under attack. The idea that the Houthis are attacking only ships that are proving to be in support of something going on in Gaza is completely spurious. They attack whatever they like, including, as I am sure your Lordships are fully aware, the one ship that brings aid to Yemen, to support the UK and international partners. So that claim is just complete nonsense.

Finally, I will respond to the question of when these individual strikes become something more of a sustained campaign. It is a very difficult question to answer and it is not an easy one to grasp, because we do not quite know what level of effect these strikes are having on the overall capability of the Houthis. These are limited and deliberate strikes in direct response to the Houthi attacks on commercial shipping, our Navy and coalition ships in the region. There is no doubt that we have degraded the Houthi capability and we will continue to urge the Houthis, and those who enable them, to stop the illegal and unacceptable attacks on UK commercial and military vessels, and on those of our partners in the Red Sea and the wider region. Beyond that, it is very difficult to see how a broadening of this action may evolve.

Would my noble friend agree that it is highly desirable that other countries that have substantial military assets should use them to participate with the United States and the United Kingdom in the relevant military action against the Houthis? There is no reason why we should be confined to doing it by ourselves with the United States; other countries should play their part.

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend’s point. However, it is the decision of each individual sovereign state to decide at what level they wish to become involved.

Is the Minister aware that HMS “Diamond” is replenishing with missiles in Gibraltar—which, I have to say, confirms the strategic importance of Gibraltar? I have a question for the Minister, and if he does not know the answer, perhaps he could write to me. The future fleet solid support ships must have the ability to replenish vertical launch missiles at sea. As I understand it, that is not in the spec at the moment; could the Minister please check that, because obviously the whole point is that we could have replenished Diamond out on station, rather than having to send her 1,500 miles home?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. I do not know the precise situation of where we are, but I know that there is great flexibility in transitioning to the new fleet. I will find out and respond.

My Lords, the Minister will remember that, at an early stage in the crisis, the UN Security Council called on the Houthis to desist. What consideration are the Government giving to further action at the United Nations? Are they, for example, seeking to put together a majority in the UN Security Council, calling on all member states to stop supplying weapons to the Houthis and stop helping them in their illegal actions? If the first resolution went through, is there not a chance of getting something a little stronger by building on that?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an extremely good point. Yes, there is quite some activity, but I am sure I need not point out to your Lordships that the Houthis pay scant regard to anything that the United Nations says.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a serving member of the Armed Forces. The noble Lord, Lord West, makes an interesting point, but it also exposes a slightly uncomfortable truth: we are using multi-million-pound missiles to defeat drones which are a fraction of the cost. This is ultimately unsustainable. What is the plan? Are we going to learn lessons from Ukraine, where there is a rather more layered approach to defeating drones? Ultimately, are we going to find some other way of defeating these weapon systems?

I admit that I look at this from a slightly different perspective. We are launching a missile in self-defence at an incoming attack vehicle, which is attempting to hit something behind us, which is probably worth half a billion pounds and well in excess of 100 lives. Having moved into position, there is no question that we are doing absolutely the right thing in deterring, degrading and reducing the Houthis’ effectiveness. On lessons from Ukraine, I assure the House that there is an enormous amount of activity going on in precisely that area, about what action can be taken to update and diversify all the weaponry at our disposal.

My Lords, the noble Earl mentioned the intention to disrupt the Houthis’ ability to make these attacks. What steps are being taken, if any, to stop the shipment to Yemen, from Iran or elsewhere, of offensive weapons for use by the Houthis?

The noble and gallant Lord makes an interesting point. As part of the international force dedicated to degrading the Houthis’ effectiveness, our partners are diverting and searching vehicles, both at sea and elsewhere, to ensure that as much as possible can be stopped from arriving in Yemen. At the same time, we are looking at disrupting the manufacturing capability behind this, which of course is based in Iran.

My Lords, in lessons learned, I hope the Government are also looking back at Operation Atalanta, which the noble Lord may recall was an EU operation commanded by the UK through Northwood, dealing with the Somali threat. Indeed, I recall—I was then a Minister—that there were some informal contacts between that UK-led force and Chinese naval vessels, which were also in the area. On the question of degrading, if the Houthis are mainly using speedboats and drones, how easy is it to degrade their capability over more than a very short period? Those are cheap and easy to move and therefore able to operate through all sorts of places. Are there limits to how far we can maintain having degraded them for more than a few weeks?

My Lords, the point is extremely well made. All parties are conversing at a certain level. Degrading these small drones and unmanned boats is not just a question of physically destroying them but also of disrupting their ability to land where they are supposed to.

My Lords, further to the question of my noble friend Lord Hailsham about the help we are getting from allies, can my noble friend confirm that the two biggest economies in Europe are Germany and France, in that order, which are importing significant quantities of goods from the Far East and China through the Suez Canal and therefore have a big interest in protecting shipping in the Red Sea? What is either country doing to suppress the Houthis’ missile systems?

I thank my noble friend for that question. To be honest, I do not know precisely what they are doing; I will find out and write. They are definitely supportive of Aspides, and that is certainly a move in the right direction.

My Lords, has the FCDO sufficiently studied the people of north Yemen, who are quite different from those in the south? In the view of some experts, they are irrepressible. What is the reaction of international diplomacy to that?

The noble Lord makes a very good point—one brought out earlier by the involvement of Saudi Arabia. It is very difficult to answer. We must take action to deter the disruption going through the Suez Canal because we believe so passionately in global trade. One would hope that there comes a point when diplomatic efforts and other activity in the region may bring a halt to this very unfortunate situation.

My Lords, Maersk, which I understand is the largest container company in the world, and Hapag-Lloyd, based in Germany, have taken the decision for commercial reasons not to risk going through the Red Sea but to take the long way around. Does my noble friend agree that this is possibly one reason why Germany and other European countries have not committed their forces against the Houthis at this time, as is the increased threat seen to Denmark’s home security and the fear of repercussions at home were it to do so?

My noble friend makes a good point. These enormous shipping operations have clearly taken some commercial decisions, which are almost certainly the right thing to do for them and their customers. One can see why there may be some reticence for sovereign states to get involved in more direct action, thereby threatening some of those countries’ commercial assets.

My Lords, a clause in the Statement says:

“Intelligence analysis indicates that the strikes were successful”,—[Official Report, Commons, 26/2/24; col. 25.]

yet elsewhere, the Statement notes:

“The Houthi intent remains undiminished”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/2/24; col. 27.]

Picking up the point of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, there is little or no evidence thus far that there has been a meaningful diminishment in capacity. Is the word “successful” right, or should perhaps the Government not be saying something such as “achieved its objectives”?

I very much welcome the fact that the Statement says:

“Military action is only one aspect of our approach”,—[Official Report, Commons, 26/2/24; col. 25.]

focusing on diplomatic action but, on the countries we are working with, it talks about G7 partners, the US and the Sultan of Oman. However, many countries have been significantly impacted by this. For example, in Bangladesh, 65% of its garment exports, which are so central to its economy, go to Europe. The cost of containers is already up by about 50% and expected to go up by another 20%. Should the Government not be looking to do more to bring in countries such as Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia, with so many seafarers being put at risk? Is this not a real opportunity to look truly globally and internationally, to try to get the international community working collectively—not necessarily but possibly through the UN—acknowledging that it cannot just be about a few countries?

My Lords, I agree with much of what the noble Baroness says. The countries involved in the specific action we are taking are doing everything they can to get a situation where the Red Sea returns to being a safe passage of water. It is globally important; it is not just important for a few countries, as the noble Baroness rightly points out. That is precisely why we are acting as part of an international force to deter the Houthis and degrade their effect.

My Lords, I refer the Minister to the UK-registered merchant vessel “Rubymar”, which was hit by Houthi missiles two days ago. Mercifully, none of the crew were injured, but the vessel is drifting and sinking. It is carrying a very volatile cargo of fertiliser and there is already a fuel leak, so we could well be looking at quite a major maritime environmental disaster. What is HMG’s assessment of the situation at the moment and what efforts will be made to make sure that this injured, badly damaged vessel is towed to the nearest safe port?

My noble friend is absolutely right that it is potentially quite a severe issue. The Government and others are looking at what can be done. It is obviously unstable in an unstable environment and it is important that something is done about this relatively quickly.