Yemen

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:15 pm on 8th November 2011.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee 9:15 pm, 8th November 2011

It is a great pleasure for me, though a sad pleasure, to raise in the House yet again the situation in Yemen. I am delighted to see the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Mr Browne at the Dispatch Box to keep the House informed of developments in Yemen.

My attachment to Yemen comes from the fact that it is the country of my birth. My parents having been born in Mumbai in India travelled to Aden in south Yemen, where I, my sister, my hon. Friend Valerie Vaz and my other sister were born. For the first nine years of my life I lived in Yemen. I have returned to Yemen over the years, having established the all-party Yemen group. It is a country to which I feel an emotional and physical attachment, because of the kindness that was shown to me and my family and the way in which that country has sought to develop over the past quarter of a century.

I am sorry to say that the situation in Yemen is yet again at a crisis level. That is despite the good work of successive British Governments. I pay tribute in particular to the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for International Development, the Minister of State, Department for International Development, Mr Duncan, our ambassador in Sana’a, Jon Wilks and Joanna Reid, who heads the DFID project there. All those people who are still in that country in turmoil show what is best about Britain. A commitment made by Ministers at the Dispatch Box and at numerous conferences in the past decade has been followed through by exceptional public servants.

The political crisis that we are seeing shows a central Government in Yemen who are weak, peaceful protests that are turned into violence and, since the start of this year, hundreds of people dead and thousands injured across this impoverished country. At least 94 children are known to have died since the start of the year. Recent reports from places such as Taiz, a southern town that has always had a tradition of law and order—a real civil society—reveal that it has become a place of lawlessness. Only last Wednesday seven civilians were killed in Taiz, including two children.

The background to the events has always been that Yemen is a poor country, but we now have a humanitarian crisis. Some 7.5 million people struggle to find enough to eat each day; 320,000 people have been displaced in the north and 100,000 in the south. Yemen is the poorest country in the middle east, with 40% of Yemenis living off less than £1.25 a day. In Yemen there are 3.6 million children under the age of five, 43% of whom are underweight and 58% of whom have had their growth stunted. There are acute water shortages, and inflation and unemployment are rocketing. One in three Yemenis go hungry every night. It has the third highest malnutrition rate in the world.

So the background to the current situation of unease and crisis is the humanitarian catastrophe. I was told recently at a meeting with the Yemeni Foreign Minister that 32 schools were closed in Sana’a due to military occupation and that there are severe electricity shortages.

The World Bank has cut back on aid, freezing its £500 million programme and citing the uncertainty in the political and security situation. As the Minister will know if he has followed the deliberations on Yemen in the House, the concern has always been that countries of good will come together, as they did under the previous Government when the former Prime Minister held a conference concerning Yemen, and the Friends of Yemen donated billions of dollars to Yemen, but at the end of the day very little of that money finds its way to the Yemenis.

So we have a power vacuum. President Saleh has been in office for many, many years. I have met him on many occasions and the Foreign Secretary met him just before the Arab spring and the protests began. He is a president who has been very supportive of the present Government, but a president nevertheless who made it clear that he wished to leave the country’s presidency, vacate his position and give way to a Government of national unity. We need to resolve the impasse. Because of the bombing that occurred in the presidential palace, President Saleh went to Saudi Arabia and the situation became a little calmer, but it has become worse again.

Why does this matter? The situation matters to us hugely because what happens in Sana’a today may well happen on the streets of London, so the counter-terrorism agenda is extremely important. That is why I have welcomed the support that the American Government gave to the Yemeni security forces, donating £90,000 worth of public order equipment in order to train members who were there to provide support. The reason we are so interested in that country is that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is based in Yemen. There are people in that country who not only want to destabilise Yemen and therefore the middle east, but want to export their brand of terrorism to other parts of the world. Tackling terrorism is a key factor in trying to deal with the situation there.

I was heartened to hear from the Prime Minister at the Liaison Committee that at a meeting of the National Security Council, the Secretaries of State of all the major Departments focused on the situation in Yemen. That pleases me, having raised the matter on so many occasions. Because Yemen does not have the oil resources of a Libya or the punch power of a country such as Saudi Arabia, it is easily forgotten. I was heartened to know that at the highest levels of our Government, the Prime Minister and senior Ministers were prepared to have that discussion and set out a roadmap.

How do we deal with the situation? That is what I hope the Minister will tell the House about tonight. We need somehow to move on the good work that we have done in the international debate that we are having and the pressure that we are applying in the Security Council, with an excellent resolution sponsored by the United Kingdom recently about the situation in Yemen. We have to turn those resolutions into good deeds.

That means that we need to send support for the UN envoy, and as I have said for the past six months and seriously believe, we need to send to Yemen three wise people, one representing the UN, one representing the Government, and one representing the European Union, to negotiate directly with the president and the Opposition to try to bring all sides together. It is clearly something that cannot be done just by the Yemeni Government and the Yemeni people. The Gulf Co-operation Council and the Saudi Arabian Government have tried and failed. My message to the Minister tonight is that we cannot allow the situation to drift and eventually Yemen to break up into civil war.

The picture I have painted is bleak, but we must not forget the courage of the Yemeni people. The country is awash with weapons, yet peaceful protesters are going out and trying to bring international attention to what is happening. There is a long history of peaceful protest in the Arab world. My first memory of Yemen is of standing after school one day on the top floor of the block flats where we lived and seeing my first political protest. A group of Yemeni students were walking through the centre of Malah and protesting about the level English teaching in their schools. I went to the balcony and watched that amazing protest. There is a long history of peaceful protest in Yemen, but not a history that ends with the violence we have seen.

We must come to the aid of the Yemeni people. I know that the Minister is very busy—he now has responsibility for India, in addition to his large responsibilities all over the world—and that this is not his primary area of concern as a Foreign Office Minister, but he has come to the Dispatch Box today because he represents the Foreign Office. When he goes back to his fellow Ministers, he must tell his right hon. and hon. Friends that the House is debating Yemen today because we believe that tomorrow will be even worse.

The good news is that in a few days’ time I will welcome Tawakkal Karman, the first Yemeni to win the Nobel peace prize, to the House of Commons, where she will talk with colleagues. Because of the House’s wonderful structure of all-party groups, the all-party group on Yemen has been able to visit the country almost every year, but we have not done so for the past year and a half. I am assured by the President and the ambassador that it is safe to visit but, as I pointed out to the ambassador, even the President was not safe in the presidential palace. I am not sure that they could guarantee the safety of British Members of Parliament, so we said no on this occasion.

It has always been my dream to take my young son and daughter to visit the country where their father and aunts were born and where their grandparents had such a wonderful life before the revolution started in Aden. My dream is that one day I can ask you, Mr Speaker, to go to Sana’a and speak to the Yemeni Parliament in a situation that is very different from the one that exists currently. You have been such a great Speaker and gone to so many countries. You recently went to India and spoke to the Indian Parliament. Your going out to speak to the Yemeni Parliament in different circumstances would be of such great benefit.

I do not use the term often, but I beg the Minister, as a Government spokesman, to give this as much ministerial time as he can, not to lose focus, not to allow Yemen to break up in civil war and not to allow those who wish to peddle terrorism to take it from the streets of Aden, Taiz and Sana’a and bring it to the streets of Birmingham, London and Manchester. That is my plea to the Minister tonight.