Yemen

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:28 pm on 8th November 2011.

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Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 9:28 pm, 8th November 2011

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s assessment. I hope that the next passage of my speech will at least provide him with some assurance that we are seeking to make progress, while recognising that we inevitably face some restrictions and limitations on our ability to bring about the change we all wish to see.

The lack of urgent progress in Yemen towards achieving peace, alongside a worsening humanitarian situation, has placed the country increasingly under the international spotlight. Since the Adjournment debate on the subject secured by the right hon. Gentleman in April, the United Nations has begun to play a helpful political role in support of the efforts of the GCC, alongside our EU and US partners. A UN special adviser has visited the country five times and will be arriving in Yemen again shortly. We welcome the UN Security Council’s statements and, most recently, resolution 2014, which was adopted unanimously on 21 October. As the Foreign Secretary stated, that resolution represents a clear indication from the international community that the deteriorating humanitarian, economic and security situation in Yemen is a direct result of President Saleh’s refusal to agree to a political settlement.

That was also the view of the EU Foreign Affairs Council in October, which said that it would explore all available options if the political impasse persisted and the economic and humanitarian situation continued to deteriorate as a result. We, the British Government, will continue to work closely with our international partners and allies, including in both the EU and the Security Council, to support a peaceful transition. We look forward to the Security Council’s review on 21 November of the situation in Yemen in the light of the adoption of resolution 2014.

We have talked about the Yemeni economy. Its situation is truly desperate. Economic collapse and escalating conflict and violence is pushing Yemen into a humanitarian crisis. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the role played by the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan in that regard. We share the UN Security Council’s grave concern about the deteriorating humanitarian situation. Although a £15.4 million package of humanitarian assistance has been given, DFID continues to support a range of initiatives being carried out by non-governmental organisations, UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross to help to alleviate the suffering of Yemenis. DFID continues to be active in Yemen.

More generally, the current crisis has set back Yemen’s development by years. Yemen was already the poorest country in the middle east and faced significant challenges, including falling oil revenues, increased water scarcity and rapid population growth. There is political instability, violence, great poverty, economic hardship and, as a result, humanitarian suffering. It is very much the Government’s intention to approach Yemen in a broad co-ordinated way, drawing on our security and diplomatic expertise, as well as on our humanitarian and development knowledge.

Yemen’s human rights record is also very worrying. The high number of credible allegations of violations perpetrated by the authorities against peaceful demonstrators is disturbing. There have been numerous reports of detentions, civilians caught up in armed conflict, the recruitment of child soldiers and restrictions applied to the media. We have witnessed appalling violations by the security forces since the beginning of the protests, in particular in Sana'a on 18 March. Most recently, we have seen an escalation of violence by both sides in Sana'a in September, and the shocking use of heavy artillery to quell demonstrations. We estimate that more than 400 civilians have now been killed and that thousands have been injured.

I should like to use this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of all our staff in the embassy at Sana’a. The right hon. Gentleman said at the end of his speech how much he would like to be able to take a cross-party delegation from this Parliament to the Parliament in Yemen but was prevented from doing so by his concerns about the security situation. It is worth placing on the record the fact that the United Kingdom staff and their Yemeni colleagues have been operating in very difficult circumstances in an environment of high terrorist threat. Sana’a is now probably our most dangerous post world-wide—the most dangerous place for Foreign Office and other British Government staff to serve in. Our diplomats’ ability to operate has also been continually constrained by ever-present and unpredictable bouts of violence and civil disorder. Our staff are living in temporary container accommodation inside the embassy compound and have to cope with irregular electricity, and occasionally even water, supplies. Life for our local staff has often been even more difficult, with many living in areas of the city affected by ongoing violence and curfews. They have been constantly affected by frequent food, fuel and electricity shortages. Yet through all this, all our staff continue to show willingness, effectiveness and commitment in pursuit of our vital national objectives in Yemen.

That brings me to the crux of what I wish to say. The reason we maintain, at considerable cost and, in terms of hardship, a considerable burden on our staff, a diplomatic and wider British Government presence in Yemen is that we recognise, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the great importance of Yemen in its own right across the wider region and globally. As he said, it is important in security terms because the presence of al-Qaeda and other malign influences in Yemen means that they have the potential to visit themselves on us here in the United Kingdom. However, we also recognise it in other regards.