[Relevant documents: e-petition 326932, Broker a ceasefire for all sides in Yemen to carry out humanitarian aid; oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee of Session 2017-19, on 8 October 2019, on Follow-up on Yemen, Syria, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, HC 2682; oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee, on 15 September 2020, on Humanitarian crises monitoring: impact of Coronavirus, HC 292; written evidence to the International Development Committee, on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, reported to the House on 27 March 2020; and written evidence to the International Development Committee, on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, reported to the House on 21 April 2020.]
Before I call Tim Loughton to move the motion, I should point out to colleagues that the Backbench Business debates are very well subscribed, so there will be a time limit—it will probably start at either four or five minutes for Back Benchers—to ensure we can get everybody in during the two debates.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the situation in Yemen.
I am delighted to move the motion, and I am aware of the very great interest in this debate, so I will make my comments as quickly as possible. If people would not intervene, that would be helpful, and I do not propose to take the few minutes at the end to respond to give as many Members as possible the opportunity to come in. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate. We have tried many times—it was aborted some six months ago because of lockdown—but now, at last, we are able to debate this situation.
The trouble is that the situation has not got any better. I am not surprised that there is so much interest in Yemen today, because it has become the victim of the most lethal and complex cocktail: an extended and ostensibly insoluble civil war with international ramifications; various other man-made disasters; numerous natural disasters and potentially catastrophic environmental ones; an economic meltdown; and now, on top of it all, a deadly pandemic that Yemen was least prepared and equipped to deal with.
There is also great interest beyond Parliament; I gather that more than 210,000 people have signed a petition calling for a ceasefire, and that that petition has been tagged to this debate. Alas, in the six months spent trying to secure this debate, the situation has deteriorated yet further on multiple fronts. It is vital that, despite all the distractions at home and across the world in dealing with the pandemic, we neither forget nor neglect the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, which Yemen remains.
I chair the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen, and I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), who I am glad to see will be participating in the debate, and to the secretariat provided by Jack Patterson, who has kept members updated and arranged briefings, including just this Tuesday with the British deputy ambassador in Yemen, Simon Smart, the military attaché and representatives from Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières, which, with many other agencies, are doing such an amazing job in almost impossible conditions in Yemen. I pay tribute to all those agencies and workers
To deal with the political and military situation first, 2020 marks five years of a devastating conflict in Yemen and almost 10 years of chaos since the Arab spring in that country. Yemen desperately needs an effective and lasting ceasefire. Out of a total population of some 30 million, 24 million people rely wholly or partly on aid, and they desperately need protection now.
Yet ceasefires and peace agreements in Yemen have a reputation for being broken almost as soon as they are brokered. The comprehensive Stockholm agreement, brokered in December 2018, set out a comprehensive peace plan. It was backed in January 2019 by the United Nations’ unanimously adopting the UK-drafted resolution 2452, which established a special political mission and special envoy, Martin Griffiths, who has worked tirelessly to secure a settlement.
The agreement promised the withdrawal of Houthi and Government-led forces from Hodeidah, a large-scale prisoner transfer, UN observers and various other urgently needed measures. The United Arab Emirates, which had been very involved with the conflict, ostensibly stepped back and withdrew its troops from Yemen. The position has been complicated, though, by the emergence of the Southern Transitional Council, who have taken control of Aden, fragmenting the Government position in trying to present a united resistance to the Houthis.
Great importance has been placed on the Riyadh agreement, signed in December 2019 between the Yemeni Government and the STC, outlining a series of measures to bring peace to the south of Yemen; but the agreement broke after just eight months, although Martin Griffiths and others work hard to revive it. The fragile pause in the conflict in 2019 broke down in 2020 after an attack in northern Yemen. A unilateral ceasefire by the Saudi-led coalition in April 2020 in the light of covid-19 expired in May, but The Guardian reported that the Houthis had broken a truce no fewer than 241 times in the space of just two days.
I could talk about abuses on all sides: the 42 airstrikes in July alone, which particularly impacted and killed civilians; drones dropping grenades on civilian targets; and Houthi missile strikes on Riyadh in Saudi Arabia just earlier this month. The catalogue of abuse, devastation, destruction and mistrust on all sides goes on. As a result, 10 new frontlines have emerged since the beginning of 2020, with particularly intense fighting in the past four months, especially around the strategically important areas of Ma’rib, which controls access to the oilfields, Taiz and in the Hodeidah governate on the west coast.
Peace is as elusive as ever, yet death and suffering are worse than ever. More than 250,000 Yemenis, at least, have died since 2015, including 100,000 as a result of combat and 130,000 from hunger and disease. That is probably a very conservative estimate. It includes an estimated 1,000 civilians killed or seriously injured in the conflict in the first six months of this year, including 100 children. There are more than 2 million internally displaced people, with a majority in and around Ma’rib, which is currently under siege from the Houthis, who are throwing everything at that city, despite suffering very high casualties. Clearly they view the lives of their troops as cheap.
Some 24.3 million people need humanitarian aid—24.3 million out of a population of 30 million. That includes 12.2 million children. A total of 20.1 million people are food-insecure, and 20.5 million people lack clean water or sanitation. There have been more than 2.3 million cholera cases since 2017, as a collapsed health system has been woefully inadequate even before covid hit.
The exact impact of covid is unknown; the 1,000 cases reported in Sana’a is surely a woeful underestimate of the reality. We all saw the images on the news of mass graves being dug in the capital. The International Rescue Committee projects that the most likely scenario is that covid could infect nearly 16 million people and kill more than 42,000, making the fatality rate in Yemen one of the highest in the world. There is little chance of testing. We might think we have a problem with testing in the United Kingdom, but there are just 118 tests for every 1 million people in Yemen, compared with 41,500 in the UK. Just 0.01% of the population stands a chance of being tested, and there is no clue about how they will cope if they are hit by a second wave.
Since 2015, air raids have hit water and health facilities more than 200 times. Oxfam reports that those remaining often lack electricity and fresh water, and even if a hospital is operating, fuel is so expensive that people in remoter areas cannot get transport to hospital, and their conditions worsen untreated. Médecins sans Frontières, whose volunteers have done incredible work under fire, reports that many medical staff—if not most—have not been paid for years, and they struggle to survive and carry on their jobs in the most extraordinary circumstances.
The water shortage has brought big challenges for food supply, as farmers cannot irrigate their crops, and more than 90% of Yemen’s food is now imported. With a collapsing currency and an economy that has shrunk by 45% since 2015, UNICEF forecasts that the number of malnourished children under the age of five will grow by 20% over the next six months, to reach 2.4 million—2.4 million malnourished children.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for leading the debate; he is making it clear just how heartbreaking the situation is for the people on the ground in Yemen. Does he agree that that is why we should stand proud and firm by the 0.7% of gross national income that this country gives in aid to other countries? It is so sorely needed, especially during this pandemic.
I agree with the hon. Lady, and I will finish on the figures about the United Kingdom. We have been the third largest donor and are one of the most important donors at the moment. The reasons are obvious, and the results are so important.
To cap it all, ironically, recent floods in Hajjah and Amran have destroyed crops, and they have now been hit by swarms of locusts—truly a human tragedy of biblical proportions. Added to that, the Red sea faces a potential environmental catastrophe from the FSO Safer, a 45-year-old oil tanker loaded with more than 1 million barrels of crude oil, anchored 60 km off the rebel-held port of Hodeidah and left to decay for the last five years, with no agreement over access for engineers.
So we can see why the country is almost totally dependent on aid from the international community and the heroic efforts of aid organisations and their staff, who are working in extremely dangerous conditions as a result of conflict and disease, with the added challenge of getting aid in through blockaded ports under fire or via the main airport, which has now closed again, as well as the everyday problems of corruption and bureaucracy on all sides using access to aid as a military weapon. Indeed, the Houthis tried to impose a tax on aid supplies coming in. NGO buildings have been looted and aid workers arrested.
The aid itself is now seriously in question. So far this year, only 37% of the requested funding in the humanitarian response plan has been met, as some of the most generous donors previously—including the US, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—have reduced or withdrawn their funding at the worst possible time. As the International Rescue Committee points out, it was that funding that narrowly prevented famine two years ago, but now more than 9 million Yemenis have seen their aid cut, driving them to the brink of starvation; 12 of the UN’s 30 major programmes have already been scaled back; and a further 20 programmes could be reduced or closed completely if funding fails to emerge urgently.
Yemen is facing a perfect storm of a crumbling economy, reducing aid, restrictions placed on humanitarian access by warring parties, the continuing impact of an intractable conflict and now the additional pressures of covid. Amid all this, the support and financial aid from United Kingdom has been a rare, but desperately needed, constant. We are the third largest donor behind the US and Saudi Arabia. The UK has committed nearly £8 billion of assistance since the conflict began, including £160 million at the recent pledging conference. UK support has met the immediate food needs of more than 1 million Yemenis every month. It has treated 70,000 children for malnutrition and provided more than 1 million people with improved water and basic sanitation. The new money in the latest round will provide medical consultations, train 12,000 healthcare workers, boost 4,000 crumbling health centres and help in the fight against covid. The Education Cannot Wait campaign has helped girls, especially, who are missing out on education and helped programmes against the rise in violence against women and girls in particular, and against child labour. These are all problems affecting Yemen, as if it did not have enough problems already.
As the penholder on Yemen at the UN Security Council, the UK is in a crucial position. It is leading the international community to do more to respond to the Yemen crisis, and Martin Griffiths is doing an extraordinary job. We have a proud record of support and I hope that when the Minister speaks, he will confirm that that support will continue. However, there can be no real progress without a sustainable ceasefire leading to peace talks that are broad and inclusive, not just with Government forces, the STC and the Houthis but with all aspects of civil society and with the support of the regional powers, who will hopefully return to the donor table. Again, I hope the Minister can update the House about the UK continuing to play a leading and proactive role to help to bring this about.
Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, and the world’s preoccupation with fighting covid at the moment cannot be an excuse for sidelining the unfolding tragedy that continues to engulf the Arab world’s poorest nation. It is difficult to think of a more tragic combination of circumstances affecting a nation and its people quite as toxically and systematically as is happening now in Yemen, and it has been going on for far too long. It is time for peace. It is time for the world to put pressure on the warring factions and their backers, and time to rally around the people of Yemen to regroup, recover and rebuild. I am sure that the whole House will want to show its support for that.
It is a great pleasure and a great honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) in this debate. This is not the first debate on Yemen that I have spoken in, and Members present who were in the previous Parliament will recall the eloquent contributions that our former colleague, Keith Vaz, made to those debates, having been born in Yemen himself.
There are two issues that we are trying to gather together today. The first is the petition, which my hon. Friend has already described. At present, it sets out to put pressure on all groups to halt their attacks in order to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered. I will say more on that in a moment. The second issue is the letters I have been receiving that originated with Oxfam. They are one-sided in their approach and put pressure on the Government to try to prevent arms from being sold to Saudi Arabia. I will deal with these two issues in turn.
We must all agree with the sentiment of the petition. I am glad to say that the UK has taken a great lead in making available just under £1 billion to provide assistance in what has been described as an absolutely terrible situation. I am pleased that the UK is among the top donors. As my hon. Friend has already pointed out, the coronavirus is making the situation considerably worse. We have to couple that with our diplomatic efforts to bring fighting in Yemen to an end.
As we have heard, 80% of the population is in humanitarian need. My hon. Friend said that there were 2 million displaced people; I think that the figure is actually closer to 4 million. We have heard about the big impact on children and their access to schools. We should also note that humanitarian access is constrained—and many people delivering humanitarian aid have been threatened or detained—in the Houthi-controlled areas.
Let me turn to the second matter: the letters originating with Oxfam, which puts the blame almost entirely on Saudi Arabia. There may be many reasons for doing that and there might be a justification for all those reasons, but we need to separate them out if we are to make any headway and put the blame where it belongs, which is with the Houthi rebels. I say that this is one-sided because the Houthi rebels are being funded by Iran; that has been admitted. Unless we can stop the Iranian funding of the Houthi rebels, it is useless to put all the blame, and an arms embargo, on Saudi Arabia. That simply takes one side out of the equation, but leaves the other side fully funded.
There is also a link between the Houthis, and ISIS and al-Qaeda. It is a flimsy, nebulous link, and there is a lot of double-talk in describing it, but it is there and it is making a big impact. I would therefore ensure that we double our efforts to get a good diplomatic solution.
It is the view of many constituents in Ilford South that this Government should hang their head in shame at their central role in helping to create the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by training, equipping and enabling the Saudi regime to bomb innocent Yemeni civilians. In the past five years alone, Britain has licensed more than £5 billion-worth of arms—mainly in the form of bombs and planes—to Saudi Arabia. In that same period, 60% of all civilian deaths in Yemen have been caused by the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing. Even moderate estimates put the number of deaths from Saudi air strikes at more than 12,000. Perhaps that is why the Ministry of Defence refuses to reveal whether these are UK-made weapons that the Saudi regime has dropped on civilians, despite holding that information on its tracker database.
After suspending new arms sales to the Saudi regime last year, the Government resumed their deadly support in July, once again turning a blind eye to the war crimes that it is enabling Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to commit. Saudi Arabia is being allowed to bomb Yemen without any form of accountability or investigation, which is completely unacceptable. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a penholder on Yemen, the UK is obligated to provide leadership in helping to bring about an effective political settlement and end to the ongoing conflict in Yemen.
While this Government are complicit in arming, training and deploying special forces—and all but dropping bombs ourselves—under international law Britain will be party to this conflict. At the very least, British arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be immediately suspended to restrict Saudi Arabia’s ability to carry out air strikes on Yemenis and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis. Anything less would be a continuation of the death and destruction there. Let us be clear: the Saudi air force is believed to have carried out at least 90 unlawful air strikes on civilians in the past year alone, with more than 20,000 air strikes since the war began. That is almost 12 attacks on Houthi areas every day. The fact that we are still using our RAF bases to service BAE Systems’ logistical support flights for the Saudi air force is a slap in the face to the UN-led peace process.
The Government need to move beyond gestures and apply pressure on Governments violating international law through tangible action. In addition to halting arms sales, tying humanitarian rights to trade deals could be crucial in stopping cycles of oppression and violence that, if unaddressed, will continue to worsen the deepening crisis in Yemen. Just yesterday, a declassified UK investigation revealed that the RAF is training Saudi pilots on UK soil, equipping them with the destructive skills they need to bomb, maim and murder innocent civilians. This is a dark day indeed for the RAF. I am proud of our military forces and the RAF and we celebrated the 80th anniversary of the battle of Britain, but it is a shameful use of our military to support such a repressive regime.
Our involvement in both this conflict and our relationship with the Saudi dictatorship have had a direct impact on the lives of British citizens, too. Just last month, 21-year-old Lance Corporal Ahmed al-Batati, a British soldier who protested against arms sales to Saudi Arabia, was arrested by the Royal Military Police. His whereabouts are currently unknown and it remains unclear whether he has been charged with any offence. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten the House on that at some point in the near future.
There can be no military solution to this conflict. Labour supports the United Nations in its attempts to bring an end to the conflict through a nationwide ceasefire and peace talks. Britain does not merely supply the bombs that fall on Yemen, it provides personnel and expertise. That is the crucial point. That is where we need to apply pressure. Saudi Arabia is estimated to have spent about £55 billion every year on this failing war. To put that into context, that is almost four times the current GDP of Yemen and enough money to have secured the livelihoods of generations of Yemenis. It is time for the UK Government to step up and use this country’s position and influence in the world to persuade all parties in Yemen to end the fighting and usher in a more sensible, peaceful accord. It is only when there is peace in Yemen that there can be an effective response to the humanitarian and health crisis unfolding there.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing this debate. May I also take this opportunity to thank him formally in the House for so willingly and adeptly taking on the chairman role of the all-party group for Yemen earlier this year when I was made Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Department for International Development?
Members will know that Yemen is an issue very close to my heart. I was born in the former protectorate of Aden and have always felt closely connected with the country, which is beautiful, ancient and culturally rich. I was first elected in 2015 and often spoke on Yemen in that Parliament. It is truly tragic how little has changed since then. In fact, despite the efforts of the UK, the UN and many others, the political, economic and humanitarian situation has deteriorated. My hon. Friend has already laid out the humanitarian need and I know others will do so, so I would like to concentrate on the political situation, which is as difficult as ever.
I am hopeful that there are small signs of progress. The Riyadh agreement in December 2015 saw a ceasefire and a move towards a unified Government in the south. Although the Southern Transitional Council pulled out of that deal earlier this year, I am glad that that has been reversed and efforts are now moving in the right direction. This is a really important step and we must praise the efforts of the Saudis and the Emiratis to bring it about.
The other major parties are the Houthis, and I welcome rumours that the Saudi Government may be holding talks with them as well. There are many sides in this war and only by engaging with all of them can we bring about a lasting peace. With that in mind, I am glad that UN special envoy Martin Griffiths recently held talks with Iranian diplomats in Geneva. Working with Iran will be crucial in bringing the Houthis on board. The UK Government, the UN and MPs in Parliament must continue to support Martin Griffiths in his efforts to promote his joint declaration. This aims for a national ceasefire, humanitarian and economic measures, and the resumption of the comprehensive political process. It provides a framework for peace in Yemen, an olive branch that various factions must now reach out and grasp.
I would like to end by talking briefly about an ecological disaster waiting to happen off Yemen’s shores. The Safer oil tanker is anchored about 37 miles off Hodeidah in the Red sea. It has received virtually no maintenance since the start of the war in 2015. On board, there is just over 1 million barrels of crude oil and experts warn of an environmental catastrophe if the vessel breaks apart. The marine ecology of the Red sea would need over 30 years to recover. The Yemeni environmental group, Holm Akhdar, estimates that more than 126,000 people working in the fishing industry could lose their livelihoods. That would only add to the humanitarian crisis.
To make the issue all the more pressing, recent photos appear to show water entering the Safer, which could cause it to sink or explode. The Houthis absolutely must keep their promise and, without delay, allow UN teams to access the vessel and secure its cargo. Currently, the Houthis are refusing, because they want the rights to sell the oil, but that cannot be allowed to stand when the environmental stakes are so high—the oil is likely to have gone off and lost most of its value in any case. The international community must urgently press the Houthis to give the UN access. I welcome the fact that the UK Government have already done so, and I urge them to keep up the pressure.
This has all been allowed to go on for far too long. I welcome the debate as a chance to raise the profile of this issue, and I hope that by doing so we can help to move things in the right direction and start getting Yemen back on its feet.
When I served my previous term in the House, I was also deeply concerned about the situation in Yemen and the plight of the Yemeni people. Like so many others inside and outside this place, I spoke on the subject on a number of occasions because of the dire plight of the people in Yemen, and I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) have been tireless in their focus on Yemen.
Five years on, the situation is no less perilous; in fact, it would be fair to describe it as even worse, with the horror and continued risk of famine affecting millions of people and with ever-increasing dangers to the health of the population, who are now further imperilled by covid and the continuing and devastating conflict. We are all struggling here to cope with the challenges of covid, and it is hard for everyone—we worry about our older relatives, people who are more vulnerable and our children—but I cannot imagine dealing with those concerns in the midst of the hell facing people and families in Yemen.
As the conflict goes into its sixth year, the humanitarian concerns are hugely pressing. It has been reported to the UN Security Council that the UN appeal has received only 30% of the funding it requires, compared with 90% two years ago. Meanwhile, covid-19 runs rampant, healthcare facilities are rendered unusable by continued violence, and further environmental catastrophe looms because of the long-stranded and decaying oil tanker in the Red sea. There are so many terrible issues affecting Yemen that what people are trying to deal with is almost beyond our comprehension.
It is also beyond my comprehension that, in July this year, the UK Government decided to resume the sales to Saudi Arabia of arms for use in the war in Yemen. The UK Government know that there is data from the Civilian Impact Monitoring Project from July, when this decision was made, showing a total of 42 airstrikes in Yemen in that month impacting on civilians. The strikes are increasing in number, they are widespread and they are causing untold harm. Why on earth the UK Government, knowing this, described them as isolated incidents is beyond me. It is unforgivably callous. However, the sales have continued, despite the questions posed by the Court of Appeal about the use of weapons to violate human rights. The Government’s persistence with these arms sales speaks volumes, and it is critical that urgent changes are made to the oversight and review of arms export licences.
As well as pressing for a ceasefire, the UK Government need to explain why they are not following the examples of Canada, Germany, Denmark, the UN, the US Congress and the European Parliament, among others, in calling for an embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, in line with international guidelines on not selling arms to those involved in conflicts that target civilians. We need to stop enabling these gross abuses of human rights and to live up to international obligations. The UK Government are currently utterly failing to do that. I therefore ask Ministers to please reflect on the plight of the people in Yemen, who are suffering so much. Will they please renew calls for an urgent and immediate nationwide ceasefire and please get a grip of their own involvement by calling a halt to these shameful arms sales?
The question we face relates to the situation in Yemen, and there is a short answer to it: it is appalling. Even before the outbreak of the current, hugely destructive three-way civil war, conditions in Yemen were terrible and getting worse. Yemen has an overwhelmingly subsistence economy, where the majority of the population relies on agriculture for their survival, but water—that most basic and fundamental of commodities—is literally running out. In the 1970s, groundwater could be found at a depth of 30 metres in the Sana’a basin—deep enough, one might think—but now it has retreated to a depth of 1,200 metres, so people have to go more than a kilometre deep before they find water. Without war, without corruption, without lawlessness and without maladministration, this is an existential crisis in its own right, but war and corruption and lawlessness and mal- administration have further exacerbated the problem, as failed-state cash crops, notably khat, have displaced domestic agriculture and are now responsible for a staggering 40% of all water use.
The current political instability was sparked by a general and popular revolt against the coercive and kleptocratic Government of President Saleh—the corruption, the state theft, the authoritarianism and the attempt to change the constitution so that he could become, effectively, president for life. It is a tragedy that the green shoots of the Arab spring that forced President Saleh from office and installed President Hadi in his place have been trampled by the factional insurgency of the Houthis in the north, with the resulting descent into civil war.
Others in this debate have highlighted the massive humanitarian crisis that has unfolded in Yemen over the last decade, together with the substantial failure of the international community in funding and then implementing a sufficient humanitarian response. There is so much need and it is immediate. For my part, while I fully endorse the urgency of the need for immediate humanitarian assistance, I want to focus on the longer-term solutions to the current devastation, since we all know that the only real way to protect the population of Yemen is by a political accommodation to the conflict.
To pretend that the conflict does not have the established characteristics of a wider proxy war would be disingenuous. The involvement of Iran in supporting the Houthi rebels and the resulting Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia in support of the Government, has intensified the conflict, and yet it would be a mistake to conclude that there is therefore an equivalence between the parties. We are members of the United Nations. We are a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and it is the United Nations that has recognised the Government of President Hadi as the legitimate Government of Yemen. That is important and it makes a difference. A state has the right—it has the obligation—to defend itself within the international rules of law.
The Stockholm agreement in 2018, as well as the more recent Riyadh agreement, have provided us with the first glimmers of hope. Local ceasefires, humanitarian corridors, prisoner swaps and, crucially, the agreement to continue talks by the parties must surely be the framework through which the conflict can eventually be drawn to a close. I believe that the Government have adopted the right strategy of heavy diplomatic engagement in the region. We cannot force peace on the warring parties, but we can work to create the conditions where the parties can choose peace, and we must continue to do so.
The Yemeni conflict is one of the worst humanitarian crises of the modern era. In January, the death toll passed 100,000, and last month, more civilians were killed by the war than in any other month so far this year. Ten million Yemenis face acute food shortages, while 7 million require treatment for malnutrition. Twenty-four million civilians, or 80% of the population, are dependent on international aid and assistance, and it is shameful. It is shameful that Britain is complicit in such an atrocity.
The UK supplies weapons and crucial military support to the Saudi-led coalition, which is responsible for the highest number of reported civilian fatalities. The UN has verified the deaths of at least 7,700 civilians since 2015, although some estimates are much higher, and it found that 60% of those were due to bombing raids by the Saudi-led coalition. The UK is estimated to have licensed £5.3 billion-worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2015. British officials have also provided military advice, including on bombing, targets and tactics. In contrast, international funding at the 2020 Yemen pledging conference in June fell £1 billion short of the UN’s target. The UK contributed just £160 million, which is £40 million less than in 2019 and amounts to just 3% of the value of UK arms sold to Saudi Arabia. British companies should not be allowed to profit from the suffering of the people of Yemen.
Exports of British arms to Saudi Arabia were halted by a legal challenge in the summer of 2019, yet after a court ruling in July this year, the UK is to resume these sales, despite seemingly clear evidence that they will be used against Yemeni civilians in violation of international humanitarian law. This is criminal. The Ministry of Defence recently revealed that it has logged more than 500 Saudi air raids that are in possible breach of international law in Yemen—an increase of more than 200 in just over two and a half years. That directly contradicts the Government’s recent justification to resume arms sales on the basis that only isolated incidents without any pattern have occurred. In fact, the UK Government’s duplicity is shameful. On the one hand, they sign resolutions and speak of their desire to end the conflict, yet on the other, they continue to facilitate the suffering of the Yemeni people by providing the weapons that rain down on civilian houses.
Last week, the United Nations Secretary-General reported that there were more than 2,000 confirmed cases of covid-19 in Yemen. The country is already suffering from the largest cholera outbreak on record, with more than 2 million cases. A coronavirus outbreak would compound the misery, which the UK has shamefully allowed to fester. The global pandemic should have offered our Government an opportunity to step away from the conflict as well as from other theatres of war, which is causing so much suffering across the globe.
At the start of this pandemic, the UN Secretary-General called for a global ceasefire. It is about time that the Government listen and come here and account for their criminal acts.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe), although I do not think that the Government are acting in a criminal way in the slightest. It was quite disingenuous to say that. The Government are acting under international law. Indeed, we are a fan of international law, so we are abiding by it.
Members of this House will know that I have a deep interest in middle eastern affairs. It is a part of the world that boasts great beauty, a rich history and a warm talented people. Yemen is of particular interest as an important bridge between the horn of Africa and the Gulf nations. However, the House will also know too well that the middle east has been deeply troubled in recent times, with political instability, terrorism, dictatorships and civil war. We should not talk about Yemen without mentioning its influential place in history. It was the mighty Ma’rib dam built in the 8th century BC that collapsed, causing a migration of 50,000 people into the Arab peninsula, which affected and influenced so much of the world’s great events. We also have to look at the great UNESCO sites, such as Shibam, which is known as the skyscraper city. Its 500 mud brick buildings over 98ft high are at risk from the civil war, so we must think about the cultural as well as the humanitarian losses during the civil war.
Hon. Members have spoken passionately in this debate about the dreadful human suffering currently taking place in Yemen. Nearly 250,000 Yemeni people have died since 2015 and 24 million people are in need of aid, with almost 4 million people having been displaced. Cholera and other diseases are omnipresent and health services and vital infrastructure are on their knees. These numbers are almost too great to fully comprehend. This is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, but unbelievably things are getting worse. Fighting has not let up and the casualties, especially among children, have increased. Furthermore, Yemen is especially vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus.
This crisis is one that should move every parliamentarian to action in a bid to stop this devastating conflict. I am therefore pleased to say that the UK has been at the forefront of global efforts to deliver aid and broker a peace deal. Only last week, the Foreign Secretary co-hosted an international meeting in Yemen, calling on the international community to step up its funding and humanitarian response and to pressure Yemeni parties to agree to the UN peace proposals. This is a civil war. Our duty is to broker a deal between the people.
My right hon. friend the Foreign Secretary has also announced a further £5.8 million contribution to the UN humanitarian response, bringing the total UK aid commitment to Yemen since the conflict began to £1 billion. That is us stepping up, and rightly so, to broker peace in the middle east.
Our efforts must be wholly focused on achieving peace in Yemen, and I welcome the opportunity for Members to press the Government today to ensure the implementation of the Stockholm agreement and to guarantee our continued assistance to the Yemeni people. Yemen is a wonderful, beautiful country. Yemen is a country to which we, in Britain, have a long history of connection. It is a country to which we have great affinity and it is right, therefore, that the Government are stepping up to the plate. I do think that it is disingenuous for us to be divided across this House while we are trying to broker a peace deal. When we are dealing with arms sales and other such issues, we obey international law, as we should. It is absolutely critical that the international community, led by the UK, secures long-term peace and stability in Yemen.
As we all know, Yemen was a hub of foreign languages before the civil war. Many people from Britain went to Yemen to learn Arabic. I myself learned Arabic not in Yemen, but in England—I would have loved to go there. It is a travesty for the whole world that we cannot embrace the country as it is. Therefore, I am pleased that the UK is stepping up to improve the situation and trying to work with all the parties involved. We owe it to the Yemeni people and to the country’s proud history and heritage. I know that we all look forward to Yemen’s emergence from the dark days into the sunlight of prosperity.
Liverpool has a long-established and vibrant Yemeni community, dating back to the 19th century; originally they arrived as seamen and traders, and now an estimated 11,000 live in the city. Many of my constituents still have relatives back in Yemen and are very concerned about the ongoing humanitarian crisis, the increased number of civilian deaths since August and the forced deportations of Yemeni asylum seekers from the Brook House detention centre, with 10 asylum seekers scheduled to fly out on 1 October.
Yemen is a poor and underdeveloped country that has suffered four years of political crises, followed by five years of devastating war. Yemen is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The country has been left weak and vulnerable, both for its people and its infrastructure, with at least 80% of the population of 24 million now reliant on aid to survive. Yemen relies on imports for between 80% and 90% of its food, fuel and basic necessities. Some 10 million Yemenis face acute food shortages, while 7 million require treatment for malnutrition. Yemen is the world’s gravest humanitarian emergency, experiencing crisis on three fronts—conflict, covid-19 and famine.
A pause in the conflict broke down in January, after an attack in northern Yemen. Since that point, despite various initiatives, rounds of negotiations have failed to produce an agreement workable for all sides. In recent weeks, the conflict has escalated; August had more civilian deaths than any other month so far this year. A quarter of people who were killed or injured were killed or injured in their own home. Covid-19 has further exacerbated the crisis. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said that there were more than 2,000 confirmed cases of covid-19 in Yemen and he warned that with the war having “decimated” the country’s health facilities, the need for a negotiated political settlement to end the conflict is more urgent now than ever. Covid-19 remains unchallenged, as widespread testing, tracing and treatment are non-existent.
The cholera outbreak continues to rage across Yemen. According to the World Health Organisation there were 1.3 million detected cases between January 2018 and June 2020. The level of immunisation against preventable diseases has fallen. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance reports that only 65% to 80% of children have received the DTP3—diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis—vaccination. The oral cholera vaccine was not widely distributed until 16 months after the outbreak began in 2016. Non-covid-19 illnesses or health conditions are going unmanaged. Based on reports on the ground and from international non-governmental organisations, there is a need for urgent action. Only half of all the hospitals and health centres remain operational, while in conflict-stricken, isolated or displaced communities services are non-existent. The remaining health centres are overcrowded and understaffed, and they face shortages of the basic essentials, medicines, personal protective equipment. There are electricity outages, and fuel supplies are sporadic and unreliable.
I have met Liverpool Friends of Yemen and Labour Friends of Yemen, and spoken to medical experts, who have expressed grave concerns about the Government’s intransigence in tackling the significant humanitarian and political crisis in Yemen. The UK is the pen holder on Yemen at the UN Security Council and plays an instrumental role in the continuous efforts to achieve long-lasting, sustainable peace. The UK has a moral responsibility towards Yemen, owing to its historical relationship. The UK is also a key member of the quartet tasked to look after Yemen—
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, having—along with my SNP colleagues—raised this matter and participated in debates on it a number of times over the years. The awful gravity of the situation in Yemen means that it is a matter of profound regret that we so often have to raise these matters and so often have to repeat the harrowing suffering of the people in that country. One of the points that comes up again and again—in fact, it is impossible to have any discussion about Yemen without talking about it—is the shameful fact that the UK Government continue to persist in their sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, which is committing sickening atrocities on Yemeni civilians. Independent reports from a number of sources have shown over the years that by doing so, the UK Government are aiding and assisting war crimes. Yemen has long suffered a deep humanitarian crisis.
The UK Government, as we have heard again today from the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), obfuscates, equivocates and pettifogs about the legality of arms sales to the Saudis, when it is as plain as the nose on your face that Saudi is a barbaric regime which has perpetrated appalling massacres on the Yemeni people. It is beyond sickening, it really is.
No, I want to make some progress: other people want to speak.
It really is putting profit and trade in death before due and proper consideration for the sanctity of the lives of the Yemeni people and the huge suffering that they have encountered. We have heard today of “heavy diplomatic engagement” by the UK Government, but the arms sales to Saudi undermine and indeed mock any efforts by the UK to pretend to be an honest broker.
Despite the legal and ethical considerations, we have heard today that since 2013 the UK has sold £5.4 billion-worth of arms to Saudi. Let us not forget that the country we are selling arms to is the same country that punishes its homosexual citizens with public whippings, beatings, vigilante attacks, chemical castrations, imprisonment— possibly for life—capital punishment and many other forms of torture. Why do we not take a much firmer line with a mediaeval regime like that in the first place, instead of selling it arms so that it can perpetrate its own forms of barbarism? It is a country based on sharia law where women are legally the property of their oldest male relative. Is it any wonder that Saudi has no respect for the human rights of the Yemeni people when that is how it treats its own civilians?
The Government’s trade and foreign policies are contradictory. They sell arms to that regime so that it can slaughter civilians, while trumpeting their subscription to the global human rights sanction regulations on selling instruments of torture to the Yemenis. It really is time for the UK to stop the warm words, which will not save the lives of the Yemeni people. It is time to stop selling arms to the blood-soaked regime in Saudi, stand up properly, in practical terms, against the slaughter of the Yemeni people, and play a less equivocal role in this conflict.
Like other hon. Members across the House, I am deeply concerned about the situation in Yemen, as are many of my constituents, with over 900 people in Luton South signing the parliamentary petition relating to the subject of this debate.
I want to focus on the health and humanitarian crises caused by the conflict, which are exacerbated by the covid-19 pandemic. Before the global pandemic, Yemen had already been described by the UN as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. More than 20 million people require urgent humanitarian assistance. The threat of famine is very real. People are struggling to access food due to the logistical challenges posed by the blockade. UN official Sir Mark Lowcock has said that, because aid has been cut, the UN is barely able to give food to half the people it is reaching. Fundamentally, this comes down to powerful countries choosing to abandon the people of Yemen in the middle of a global pandemic.
The virus thrives on vulnerabilities and chaos. The UN has warned that covid-19 could spread faster and more widely, and with deadlier consequences, than in many other countries, due to the hundreds of thousands of people displaced in camps. Poor access to water and sanitation is helping the virus to spread. The country’s health infrastructure is close to collapse, and there is only enough capacity to treat those in the most critical situations. Malnutrition is ravaging the youth of Yemen, but only half of the health facilities are operational and there are huge shortages of medicines, equipment and staff.
In July, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimated that there are 1 million covid infections in Yemen, with the forecast that without concerted action, cases could rise to 11 million and cause 85,000 deaths.
We have a moral duty not to leave the people of Yemen in their time of need. Every report in the country shows growing misery and desperation, but instead of maintaining aid through this critical period, powerful countries have decided to cut aid for Yemen. While the Government state that they are very concerned about the situation, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, they have more than halved their aid, from £253 million in 2019, to £125 million in 2020. This will severely impact on healthcare services for Yemeni civilians, with some forced to close.
UNICEF states that, without additional aid funding, millions of children in Yemen could be pushed to the brink of starvation. As Dr Ali Al Ashwal, who works in a hospital in Hajjah, north-west of the capital Sana’a, told CNN:
“Those who aren’t killed by the airstrikes or this war? They will die form shortages in medical supplies”.
I urge the Government to take global leadership on this issue and call for increased aid to support the people of Yemen.
May I start by saying how glad I am that we are having this debate at long last, and I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing it?
Yemen is the world’s gravest humanitarian emergency. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a penholder on Yemen, the UK has a unique leadership role in helping to bring about relief, at last, for millions of suffering Yemenis. The UK Government must step up and use our country’s position and influence in the world to persuade all parties in Yemen to end the fighting and usher in an immediate ceasefire and a lasting peace. The UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia must stop. They undermine our peace efforts. We must lead on an international embargo on arms sales, instead of being a country that will not follow others.
I want to focus on a critical aspect lacking in the humanitarian response in particular—water, sanitation and hygiene. Yemen is one of the most water-scarce nations on Earth. According to Oxfam, 20 million people lack reliable access to clean water. Seventy per cent. of Yemenis do not have soap for hand washing and hygiene. Not only does this have dire consequences for poverty levels and public health; it makes disease prevention almost impossible. It is, therefore, absolutely no surprise that there are an estimated 1 million covid-19 cases in the country, alongside a severe outbreak of cholera and increasing malnutrition and incidence of polio.
Public health is almost impossible without access to water, sanitation and hygiene. It is the first line of defence against infectious diseases. It is also a best buy in public health. Hand washing is one of the cheapest and most effective disease-prevention methods. It really is a no-regrets intervention and investment.
Good water, sanitation and hygiene also have benefits beyond public health for the Yemeni people. It is crucial in addressing gender inequality, reaching the most marginalised people and groups, and removing disparities in access to public services. However, according to the World Bank last year, there is a global financing gap of $114 billion for water, sanitation and hygiene. In 2019, the UK spent just 2% of our bilateral aid on water, sanitation and hygiene, and this summer cut the aid budget by £2.9 billion overall.
The Government claim to be one of the largest humanitarian donors to the crisis in Yemen. We should rightly be proud of that, but why did the UK cut its contribution to the Yemen pledging conference by £40 million this year? Overall, international funding at the pledging conference fell £1 billion short of the UN’s target. As a result of these funding shortages, 12 out of 40 major programmes in Yemen have been cut or reduced.
The Labour party warned the Government that a shortfall in aid funding would lead to the humanitarian and health crises spiralling into irreparable disaster. Warnings have become reality in Yemen. The Government must do more. I would welcome an assurance from the Minister that he will support more funding for WaSH, alongside ceasefires to get aid where it is needed, to rebuild water systems.
At the moment, the UK’s primary export to Yemen seems to be bombs delivered by Saudi fighter jets, rather than the clean water and sanitation that Yemenis desperately need. I implore the Government to shoulder the responsibilities conferred on them by the UN and show the leadership needed to open up the humanitarian response to the crisis. The suffering of the Yemeni people has gone on long enough, and the world is looking to us to lead the way.
On the morning of 9 August 2018 in Dahyan, Yemen, a group of schoolchildren were on a day trip. On their way, the bus driver stopped at a market to pick up water for the children. Then, the bus was hit by an airstrike. At least 40 children were killed, along with a dozen adults. A further 63 people were injured. The bomb had been dropped by a Saudi jet. The Saudi authorities later admitted that there were no military targets in the area. The strike was a mistake, they said.
That is just one of countless examples of apparent war crimes that have been committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The conflict has now lasted five years. More than 100,000 people are estimated to have been violently killed in that time, and the war has triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Last week, the UN warned that more than 20 million Yemenis face starvation, including 10 million children. Eighty per cent. of the population is now dependent on aid, and an estimated 1 million Yemenis have covid-19.
What utterly shames this House—it should be a national scandal, leading the front pages of newspapers every single day—is that these war crimes and this humanitarian crisis would not be possible without British and American support. As an expert on the war has observed:
“Bombs supplied by Britain and America are dropped from planes built by Britain and America, flown by pilots trained by Britain and America, and kept in the sky with British and American maintenance.”
This war would not be possible without that support, these violent deaths would not occur without that support, and a humanitarian crisis on this scale would not have happened were it not for that support.
Since the war began, the UK Government have issued arms export licences worth £5.3 billion to the Saudis. Figures revealed in response to a written question that I tabled show that, in that time, the Ministry of Defence has recorded 516 known instances of alleged breaches of international law. Yet this summer, the Government decided that those violations are not systematic, in spite of their repeated, consistent occurrence, so they resumed granting export licences to the Saudis.
This war could have been stopped by the British and American Governments. They could have withdrawn their support. They could have stopped selling the weapons, stopped training the pilots and stopped maintaining the planes, but they have not. The British and American Governments have put the profits of arms dealers first. They have put their alliance with the Saudi dictatorship ahead of the basic human rights of the Yemeni people.
This Government like to boast that Britain upholds peace and justice on the world stage. Their record in Yemen is the latest example of what a cruel joke that is. This Government are deeply complicit in this war and in pushing Yemen to catastrophe. So my message is simple: stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, stop your support of this horrific war, and truly stand up for peace, justice and human rights on the world stage.
First, I thank hon. Members for securing this debate. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) back in the House, because she is a strong voice for Yemen.
I wish to draw the House’s attention to the third report of the UN group of eminent experts on Yemen, entitled “A Pandemic of Impunity in a Tortured Land”. The chair of that group, Kamel Jendoubi, has implored the international community to take action and
“not turn a blind eye”
any longer. So much of what has happened in Yemen has been incredibly well documented, and we all know that that has happened.
The eminent experts recognise that
“there are no clean hands in this conflict”.
However, I ask all Members to reflect on the group’s statements, particularly on arms sales. It says that
“the continued supply of weapons to parties to the conflict is only perpetuating the conflict and prolonging the suffering of the Yemeni people.”
Anybody who is selling arms into that conflict should bear that in mind. I ask the Minister to respond in particular to the recommendation by the group of eminent experts that the situation in Yemen should be referred to the International Criminal Court. Will he support that very strong recommendation?
Will the Minister consider speaking to his colleagues in the Home Office? There should be a place of safety in this country for Yemenis who reach these shores. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) said, however, that has not been the case. Last week, May Bulman reported in The Independent that Yemenis were among those the Home Office tried to put on a removal flight. This matters; it has been going on for as long as the war. A Yemeni constituent the Home Office tried to remove, not long after I was first elected in 2015, eventually got sanctuary in Glasgow, but I wish that many more Yemenis who reach these shores were able to get that peace of mind and safety.
Let me reflect on some comments from people in Yemen and what they are asking for, and particularly on the position of women within peace negotiations, which is incredibly important. Dr Bilqis Abu Osba, head of the Awam Foundation for Development and Culture, says of women and their involvement in peace building that
“the inclusion of women and youth in any upcoming peace process is an assurance for comprehensive and just peace for all Yemenis.”
I encourage the Minister to ensure that as many women’s organisations as possible are included in those negotiation to help build the peace.
Other organisations such as Amnesty, Mwatana for Human Rights, and the Mothers of Abductees Association have raised particular concerns about the failure to implement measures in the Stockholm agreements regarding the return of those who have been kidnapped, detained or forcibly disappeared. Many people have disappeared. People do not know where they are, and their families remain concerned about their prospects. It seems particularly brutal that that situation is still going on, despite being mentioned in those agreements. I urge the Minister to consider what more can be done to ensure that people can get back home to their families.
Finally, I will mention one person who was forcibly disappeared by the Houthis, but who was able to return to his family. Hisham al-Omeisy spoke on Peace Day, and I will conclude with what he said:
“I’m haunted by the ghosts of thousands of souls lost in the brutal Yemen conflict asking if it was worth it. It wasn’t. Violence was never the answer. Sadly, we can’t change the past. But we can learn and charter a new path for reconciliation and peace together.”
I urge the Government to take that on board.
I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing this debate. We have heard some incredible contributions. I spoke about Yemen many times in the Chamber with Keith Vaz, the former hon. Member for Leicester East, and we shared many things in common.
As chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief, I wish to mention two things in the short time available to me. A Foreign and Commonwealth Office report on human rights and democracy stated that the
“right to freedom of religion and belief has been widely denied in Yemen”,
and that is certainly the case for the few thousand Christians in that country. There is no room for any open church activities or private worship, and those who wish to convert from Islam can face the death penalty. Even if someone is not prosecuted for apostasy by the authorities, it is seen as a huge source of shame for a family member to leave Islam, and Christians from Muslim backgrounds run the risk of honour killing or physical violence if their families or communities discover their faith.
The 2019 Open Doors world watchlist stated that the crisis in Yemen is making an already difficult situation for Christians even harder, as the war has allowed radical Islamic groups to expand their operations in certain areas, leading to Christians being abducted and killed. I have asked for, and hopefully will get, a Backbench Business Committee debate on religious minorities and ethnic groups, which are often the last to receive the benefits of medication for covid-19.
I also wish to mention people in the Baha’i community, about 2,000 of whom are in Yemen. They are facing severe persecution in territories under the de facto governance of the Houthi movement. Beyond hate speech, the persecution of the Baha’is in Yemen has included arrest, arbitrary detention, imprisonment, torture, the threat of execution, and forced exile. Currently, 24 people from the Baha’i faith, including many administrators of that community, are being prosecuted on the basis of their faith. The Government are clear, as are hon. Members, that those with a different religious belief have the right to express that faith, but that does not happen in Yemen.
The Baha’i community in the UK have stated that, based on their previous findings, briefings and reports, it appears that the Iranian state is actively contributing to the escalation of persecution of Baha’is in the Houthi-controlled territory. Indeed, the behaviour of both the Iranian and Houthi Governments is consistent with the recommendations contained in a secret memorandum approved by Iran’s Supreme Leader in 1991, which stated:
“A plan must be devised to confront and destroy their cultural roots outside the country.”
I urge the Minister to do all that can be done to protect religion and belief minorities in Yemen. I also ask the Government to live up to recommendation 2 of the Bishop of Truro’s independent report, which called on us to become
“the global leader in championing freedom of religion and belief”,
with the freedom of religion and belief for those in Yemen—that is what the debate is all about—given due priority in the UK’s engagement in multilateral institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council. We can then say with a clear conscience and a clear voice in this Chamber that we have done all we can for those poor communities during this humanitarian crisis.
I too congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on bringing forward the debate, and I pay tribute to him for his long-standing and committed interest in the region, along with a number of other colleagues. It is right that we should discuss Yemen today. It is difficult to imagine how any more tragedies could befall that poor benighted country.
I hope that in the short time I have been a Member of this House, I have proven that I am naturally bipartisan and consensual in my politics. I believe we solve most problems on the centre ground, and that is where we need to meet to find solutions. I am not in the business of pretending that there is difference where there is none in our approach. In that spirit, on Yemen, we on the SNP Benches fundamentally disagree with the actions of the UK Government.
It is dangerous, of course, to view any international affairs or foreign affairs matter in black and white terms, and Yemen more than most, but there is a fundamental dichotomy in the UK’s approach to Yemen. We have heard that the UK is the third biggest humanitarian donor. I pay tribute to that and praise it. We have also heard that the UK has committed considerable diplomatic resource to try to find a peace in the region. I acknowledge and pay tribute to that as well. But those actions, praiseworthy as they are, are completely overshadowed by the role of the UK as a supplier of arms for the continuation of that conflict. I am not naive—the reality is that the UK has chosen a side in the conflict, and therefore cannot claim clean hands in the promotion of peace.
It is not just the UK, and I acknowledge that this is a complicated region, but these are not just my concerns. I refer the House to the UN Human Rights Council report from 14 September, which says, in paragraph 25:
“Notwithstanding the strong recommendations by the Group of Experts in its previous reports, third States, including Canada, France, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the United Kingdom…and the United States of America, continued their support of parties to the conflict including through arms transfers, thereby helping to perpetuate the conflict.”
I am not a pacifist. We on the SNP Benches are not pacifists, and we are not naive. We are not against arms exports. But in that spirit, it is incumbent on the Government to acknowledge that there are grave and legitimate doubts over the legality and morality of continuing arms exports to the Saudi regime for use in Yemen. Other countries have embargoes in place and I strongly urge the UK to follow suit; however, that plea may fall on deaf ears.
I urge the UK to go further. The arms export regime we have in this state is not sufficiently robust or transparent. The SNP would take that responsibility away from the Department for International Trade and give it to a bipartisan committee of this House to ensure greater transparency and, indeed, a hope for consensus on where the UK’s arms go.
We may disagree on that effort, but I will end with a plea on which perhaps we can see more progress. In Yemen, winter is coming, and on 15 September Mark Lowcock, the UN Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs, reported to the UN Security Council that the UN’s appeals have received barely 30% of the funding necessary to alleviate the famine for 9 million people. If the United Kingdom Government will not change tack on arms exports, perhaps the Minister, who I have much respect for and who I believe has a nuanced approach to this, could commit to at least alleviating the problems that our foreign policy is causing.
I warmly welcome this debate. My congratulations to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on his comments and on securing this debate, and my thanks to the House for clearly responding so effectively to public concern.
Yemen is the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis, as many hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), have said. We are seeing 2 million acutely malnourished children, 4.3 million people forced from their homes and 80% of the population of Yemen needing humanitarian assistance. We are seeing a terrible civil war made worse by Yemen becoming an arena for international competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This terrible situation is now becoming much worse because of covid-19.
Aid is obviously vital to Yemen; we should all share concerns about the disappointing response of the international community and, indeed, our own Government, but now it is important to consider how that money is spent, as well as how much money is allocated, and whether the funds are distributed effectively. I ask the Minister to give clarification on how much British aid is being channelled through Yemeni organisations. That is important, because I know it is difficult in many parts of Yemen, but there is concern among non-governmental organisations about the correct distributive mechanisms not being in place to ensure that the people who need the aid actually receive it.
Yemen is being ripped apart by civil war and many people believe it is unlikely that any side will have an outright victory. What is needed now is a meaningful ceasefire, followed by negotiations leading to a lasting peace. Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy, is doing a sterling job in our view, but what is needed is for the British Government to be as proactive as possible, as it is a key penholder.
A number of hon. Members have expressed concerns about British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana). We should take note that, while the Court of Appeal in this country recently ruled against the Government, our Government started arms sales again the day after 20 Saudi officials were placed on the Foreign Office’s Magnitsky sanctions list. I welcome that ruling—it should have been made—but how obtuse can it be that arms sales to Saudi Arabia began the day after?
It is not just hon. Members who are expressing concern, but many people inside the United Nations. The United Nations group of eminent international and regional experts on Yemen recently published a report stating:
“The Group of Experts repeats its concern about third States transferring arms to parties to the conflict in Yemen in blatant disregard of the documented patterns of serious violations of IHL”—
international humanitarian law—
“and human rights law in the conflict to date.”
We really ought to take note of that, and morally act upon what is an objective statement of truth.
I would like briefly to refer to two other issues, if I may. There are recent reports that the Houthis may be close to seizing Ma’rib, a city of some strategic importance that contains many displaced persons, and there is real concern about their safety. We heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) concerns about members of the Baha’i faith being discriminated against and persecuted. The city could well see a whole range of human rights abuses if the situation is not rectified. What diplomatic efforts are the Government making to protect civilians in that city?
Finally, an ageing oil tanker—the FSO Safer—is moored off the Yemeni coast, with 157 tonnes of crude oil aboard. We could well be on the verge of an ecological disaster that will afflict not just the Yemeni coast but much of the Red sea. What representations and co-ordinated work are the Government involved in to ensure that the international response prevents a crisis from materialising?
We have had an important debate. We all agree that the situation in Yemen is terrible. It is the most acute humanitarian crisis that the world has faced for a long time, and it is incumbent on us all to pull together, play our part and find as much common ground as possible, to ensure that the people of Yemen do not suffer anymore.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing the debate and pay tribute to his work as chair of the APPG for Yemen. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), who preceded him as Chair; I know that she is passionate about this issue because of a long-standing personal connection with Yemen.
I am grateful for the contributions of Members across the House. This is an important debate, and there have been many thoughtful speeches. I recognise the passion with which those contributions have been made, even if I do not always agree with all elements of them. I will attempt to cover as many of the points raised as possible, but Members will recognise that this is a significantly complicated environment.
The looming famine in Yemen, which a number of Members have raised, worries us in the UK greatly. The simple truth is that Yemen is closer to famine than at any point since the conflict began. The UN projects that, by the end of 2020, 1.2 million more people in the south of Yemen alone will be classified as severely food-insecure. The Government recognise that, which is why we have appointed senior official Nick Dyer to be our envoy for famine relief. I raised this issue when I met David Beasley of the World Food Programme earlier this month. The primary cause of this issue is the conflict and the additional pressure imposed by covid-19.
The situation in Yemen highlights why the co-ordination of our diplomatic and our development and aid work is so important. If we were able to bring peace to Yemen, we would be able to start the repair work on its economy, its ability to buy food, its health infrastructure and its ability to fight coronavirus. That is why it is so important that our aid effort goes hand in hand with our diplomatic effort.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) rightly highlighted the real concern about the situation in and around Ma’rib. The Houthi offensive on that city could see people who are already suffering enormously and are already internally displaced suffer even more greatly. I will come on to talk about arms sales, but a number of Members have asked why we engage with Saudi Arabia on this issue. I ask Members from across the House to consider the imminent offensive by the Houthis towards Ma’rib. If the coalition were to disengage from this conflict, who would stop that? Who would protect the people of Ma’rib? That is why we work closely with Saudi Arabia.
We recognise the concerns about our arms sales policy. We have reviewed it in the light of the Court of Appeal decision, and all sales are measured against the revised set of criteria[Official Report, 28 September 2020, Vol. 681, c. 1MC.]. We are working to support Martin Griffiths in pursuing a nationwide ceasefire, and we welcomed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s unilateral ceasefire earlier this summer. What did we see in return for its ceasefire? We saw attacks by the Houthis, backed by Iran, into Saudi Arabia and within Yemen. Oh that it were so simple that we could just disengage from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the conflict in Yemen would cease. Unfortunately, it is not that simple.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Safer oil tanker, which is of huge concern to us. It is estimated that a spill from the Safer oil tanker would be four times larger than the spill caused by the Exxon Valdez, and the environmental impact in the Red sea would be incalculable. He asked what we had done about the situation. We have called for a stand-alone session of the United Nations Security Council, and I regularly raise Safer in my engagement with parties in the region. I discussed it with the Yemeni Foreign Minister on 24 August, the Saudi ambassador on 5 August and the Saudi deputy Foreign Minister on 20 June. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised it at the high-level ministerial meeting on Yemen that he co-hosted on 17 September, and I have commissioned work to look into what the UK could do to secure it. The situation is terrible, and we are working hard to prevent the environmental catastrophe that would flow from it.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) spoke about the role of women in the peace process, and she was absolutely right to do so. I am the Minister responsible for the women, peace and security agenda in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and we seek to make sure that all voices, particularly the voices of those who are most directly impacted by conflict—unfortunately, the simple truth is that that is women—play an increasing and important role. That was brought up during my virtual visit to Yemen.
A number of Members have asked about our engagement, and we engage regularly with parties. Several Members raised concern about the significant shortfall of £1.9 billion in aid. I am proud that the United Kingdom has maintained its position as one of the leading aid donors to Yemen. We have matched our earlier commitment levels, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary recently announced additional expenditure that brings us up to £200 million. Not only that, but in our international relationships we have used the fact that we have stepped up to the plate on aid spending to encourage other countries to do so. I genuinely believe that that has played a part in Kuwait’s recent announcement of an extra $20 million contribution, and in Saudi Arabia’s agreement to disburse more of the money that it has already pledged.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was right to raise the protection of religious freedom as a serious concern. We welcome the release of six detained Baha’is last month, but there is far more work to do. We will continue to work on these issues, including the release of Luke Symons.
This situation, unfortunately, is going to remain one of the most difficult on the agenda of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. We will not sit back and allow the people of Yemen to suffer without our doing everything we are able to do to help them. That is why we are seeking to get a ceasefire and supporting Martin Griffiths and the United Nations in their efforts to secure that ceasefire, and that is why we are maintaining our expenditure in aid and lobbying other countries to do so.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. This is about the licence by this House to the BBC as to our proceedings, and what I believe to be a failure by the BBC under the House of Commons rules of coverage. It arose in respect of what I believe to be a less than full and accurate account on Radio 4 on Monday and Tuesday of exchanges on the controversial issue of UK breaches of international law, and those exchanges arose from an intervention I made on my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). The matter relates to the specific question of UK breaches of international law, and I do not believe it was accurately reported. The matter is now with the House authorities and under investigation. I have complained to the BBC, which says it is editing; I disagree. I wish to put this matter on the record as part of my continuing complaint.
I thank Sir William for his forward notice of his point of order. While it is not a matter for the Chair, he has clearly taken all the right actions and he has put it on the record.
I intend to suspend the sitting briefly, as I did last Thursday, because a lot of Members want to take part in the next debate. Please would those leaving the Chamber do so in a socially aware way? Once both Dispatch Boxes have been sanitised and as soon as the main players are in place, which most of them are already, we will start again.