I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this short but important debate. I start by paying tribute to you, Mr Speaker, for your recent visit to India—it is not the topic under consideration, but it was mentioned by Keith Vaz—which was greatly appreciated by the Foreign Office and Parliament. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, a former Foreign Office Minister himself, for his long-standing interest in Yemen, which is born of his personal commitment to the country and a very contemporary interest. It is a constant reminder to the House and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the importance of Yemen to Britain’s national interests.
The British Government have a long-standing relationship with Yemen, and we have worked with its Government and our partners in the international community for some years to pursue security, prosperity and democracy in the country. The current situation is of increasing concern, however, and I am grateful for this opportunity to lay out comprehensively before the House the British Government’s current assessment.
As the right hon. Gentleman has already said, Yemen is in a sad state today. The political process is stalled, the economy is in tatters and ordinary Yemenis are suffering greatly. Security is fragile, violence is worsening and the country is fragmented and divided. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will exploit and is exploiting that instability. The country will take a long time to recover, and the British Government are profoundly concerned by Yemen’s decline, a concern that is reflected at the highest levels of the Government and in the interest being taken by the most senior Ministers.
Yemen is stuck in political stalemate. The momentum behind the valuable initiative of the Gulf Co-operation Council—GCC—to broker a political settlement leading to a managed transition has been lost, and over the past 10 months we have seen widespread demonstrations throughout Yemen calling for President Saleh to step down and for democratic change. Tragically, the demonstrations have also frequently seen the use of excessive and lethal force by Government security forces, but regrettably the armed opposition, too, has been partly responsible for the frequent escalation of violence.
We have condemned in the strongest terms the use of excessive force against unarmed protesters, and we have called for restraint by all sides and for the Yemeni authorities to listen to the legitimate demands of the Yemeni public for change. We continue energetically to encourage negotiators on both sides urgently to conclude discussions on implementing a plan for political transition based on the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative. That plan, brokered by Yemen’s neighbours and with widespread international support, represents the best hope for a peaceful end to the crisis. It envisages a transfer of presidential power to the vice-president, the establishment of a national unity Government led by the Opposition and early presidential elections.
We welcomed President Saleh’s decree in September in which he authorised Vice-President Hadi to restart dialogue with the Opposition and to sign the initiative on his behalf. Along with our EU, US and GCC partners, as well as the UN, we have been working closely with the vice-president and the Opposition to encourage a speedy conclusion to discussions on an implementation mechanism.
It is important to appreciate, however, that our and, principally, our regional partners’ efforts are ultimately dependent on the willingness of President Saleh to fulfil his promise to agree formally to transition. To date, he has pledged on several occasions to pass all executive authority to the vice-president and then to step down, but each time I regret to say that he has reneged on his promise.
Our task, alongside our international partners, has been and continues to be to impress upon the Yemeni leadership that, in the absence of an agreed and sustainable political settlement, Yemen will continue to spiral downwards towards state failure and humanitarian catastrophe. We can already see that the country is fragmented and under-governed, with growing insecurity, especially in southern Yemen, and with frequent episodes of extreme violence, targeted largely at unarmed protestors.
The Yemeni authorities have lost security control over large swathes of the country, and the Government are barely functional, struggling to deliver services and to pay salaries. The current situation has the biggest impact on the wider Yemeni population, who are struggling to eke out an existence in an environment of food price rises, water scarcity and sudden upsurges in violence, so it is indeed a truly terrible situation.