[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee on
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the conflict in Yemen.
I am very pleased to have secured this important debate. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it to take place here today.
We meet against a background of continuing conflict and death, with further reports of Saudi-backed strikes on populated areas, most recently a cement factory in the city of Amran. That resulted in reports of further deaths, including of people inside cars parked nearby, of shopkeepers and of residents going about their daily business. This is a very pressing issue. The humanitarian situation in Yemen is dreadful and it is getting worse. Recent estimates by the United Nations suggest that over 8,000 people have been killed in Yemen since March last year. At least 1,500 children are reported to have died. Much of the civilian infrastructure has been destroyed by air strikes and armed fighting on the ground, effectively cutting families off from essential services, including clean water, sanitation and medical treatment.
My hon. Friend Dr Whitford has already raised in this House the incident in which a Médecins sans Frontières hospital in Saada was hit by missiles. That was the third MSF facility to come under attack in recent months. People are dying there from what should be preventable diseases because there are not hospitals, medical supplies or infrastructure to prevent it. With hospitals reduced to rubble, thousands of children are at risk of malnutrition. In fact, Save the Children has reported a 150% increases in cases of severe acute malnutrition among children. Some of their facilities, which should be safe havens, have been destroyed.
It is no surprise, therefore, to see Médecins sans Frontières and others declare that the conflict in Yemen is being played out with total disregard for the rules of war. The UK Government have been aware of mounting evidence of civilian deaths and of the destruction of civilian infrastructure. Among other growing voices, Amnesty International has raised concerns about air strikes targeting heavily populated civilian areas with no military targets nearby. That would clearly constitute a violation of international humanitarian law.
The numbers of civilians dying as a direct consequence of the conflict are stark. According to the UN, 73% of child deaths and injuries during the second quarter of 2015 were attributable to air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition. Some 60% of all civilian deaths and injuries have been attributed to air-launched explosive devices. Increasing numbers of children are being pressed into military service, used as pawns by both sides in the conflict, and placed in increasingly dangerous and vulnerable situations. More than 3 million children are now out of school. Education has fallen by the wayside, setting the children of Yemen up perfectly to be another lost generation, with significant long-term consequences for the country and the region.
More than 21.2 million people in Yemen, including 10 million children, are now in need of humanitarian aid. This staggering figure gives Yemen the dubious distinction of being the country with the highest number of people in humanitarian need in the world. Yemen relies almost entirely on imports for its food, so the de facto blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition at the start of its military intervention in March 2015 has had an extremely damaging impact. There is a very high level of food insecurity. According to the UN, 14.4 million Yemeni people are in this situation. In basic terms, that means one in every two people is not getting enough to eat.
One of the most distressing features of the conflicts that have plagued the middle east for too long is the re-emergence of the barbaric practice of siege as a weapon of war. When I raised the issue in the context of Syria, I was pleased to receive confirmation of the UK Government’s position that the imposition of starvation and deliberate destruction of the means of daily life for civilians may be a matter for the International Criminal Court. The practice must be stopped. It is vital that support be given to ensure that supplies and humanitarian aid can enter the country and be safely distributed to the population, including in the southern city of Taiz, where humanitarian access has been extremely constrained. Parties to the conflict must be pressed to allow this access. Unless we address those issues, we should not be surprised to see continued outflows of refugees from countries bombed back into the dark ages. Such an outcome is exactly what Daesh is working towards. Those who claim the status of legitimate Government cannot continue to act like medieval warlords and expect to receive the backing of the international community.
It is important to acknowledge the brave and tireless work of many non-governmental organisations working in the area, despite the huge dangers they face in this volatile situation. The conduct of the war means that NGOs are having to put their workers in peril. This raises significant questions about how much longer they will be prepared to do so, and about the consequences for Yemeni civilians if they decide they cannot continue. The Government must now listen to these organisations and consider the evidence. They must acknowledge what is happening and the scale of the issue. It is vital that they put pressure on all parties to allow humanitarian agencies a safe space to operate.
I acknowledge the important and welcome role of the Department for International Development in supporting the Yemeni population. Its response has been flexible and responsive and would appear to provide a constructive way forward, were it not for the astonishing mismatch between its welcome work and the Government’s military dealings with Saudi Arabia, which severely impact on life in Yemen and the country’s future prospects.
World attention on difficulties in the middle east is focused on the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and sadly the catastrophic situation in Yemen is often overlooked. Yemen’s status as only a minor oil producer—it is not even a member of OPEC—perhaps makes the country less likely to feature on the western news radar. The International
Red Cross described Yemen as one of the world’s forgotten conflict zones. While the world looks elsewhere, economic and political power plays in the middle east cause ever more chaos and destruction to the country. The UK cannot continue to look the other way or sit on the fence. If it does, it must accept that its foreign policy is morally bankrupt and that its lack of action is both knowing and deliberate.
Yemen is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Meanwhile, the daily intensive use of explosive weapons, often in populated areas, continues to rain down death on the civilian population. Many of these civilians have been killed by air strikes conducted by the Saudi Arabian air force, using British-built planes flown by pilots trained by British instructors, including at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, dropping British-made bombs—they are probably made in Scotland—and with operations co-ordinated by Saudi Arabia in the presence of British military advisers.
Figures from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills show that in the third quarter of last year, the UK granted more than £1 billion of arms export licences for Saudi Arabia, despite overwhelming evidence of human rights violations committed by the Saudi-led coalition in its aerial bombing campaign.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Government consider that there have been breaches of international humanitarian law, the Government should investigate and report to the House?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend.
Through their substantial support for Saudi Arabia, the Government are exacerbating the desperate plight of the people of Yemen. Since the conflict reignited in March, there have reports of serious violations of the laws of war by all sides. Human Rights Watch has documented several apparently unlawful coalition airstrikes between April and August. In all these cases, it either found no evident military target or considered that the attack failed to distinguish between civilians and military objectives. There are legal questions to be answered about the UK supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia in support of its military intervention and indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen.
It is important that we take stock of other UK interventions in this part of the world. Not only in Yemen but across the region, we have a very chequered past. The UK has a history of subjugating the interests of the population in the region, who are bit players in UK conflicts with other powers. Although we still have significant relationships with the rulers and leaders of the region, the UK is, perhaps unsurprisingly, mistrusted for its failure to deliver on promises. As Tarek Osman says,
“the wave of Arab uprisings that commenced in 2011 is this generation’s attempt at changing the consequences of the state order that began in the aftermath of World War One.”
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid and important point, but what we need to do is to ensure that everyone engaged in that region co-operates, wherever possible, to ensure that people get the food and other support that they need.
This new generation in Yemen, who are searching for a better future, have been abandoned to a conflict influenced by others, none of whom have the needs of the Yemeni people in mind.
The Minister said in a speech last week that Saudi Arabia should do a “better job” of trumpeting its human rights successes. What an astonishing statement to make. I think we can safely assume that the civilians in Yemen suffering as a result of this terrible onslaught will feel that they have no human rights whatsoever. Human rights, and particularly those of the people of Yemen, evidently did not loom large in that statement—but they must. The UK Government must admit that they have been front and centre of the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, and that yet again we are putting profit before basic human rights and international law.
I agree that the hon. Lady is making a powerful and pertinent speech. However, I ask her to be cautious in quoting from The Independent, which used a Google translator to translate a press release of a statement that did not accurately represent the meeting I had in Saudi Arabia. I did make that point last week in response to the urgent question and I repeat it today—I would never use such language. I made it very clear to the Saudi Arabians that they have a long way to go, and that we wanted to work with them on improving their human rights.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I echo his sentiment that there is a significant way to go in respect of human rights, which is a matter of great concern. I was in the Chamber last week, so I am pleased that I can recall the sentiment, if not the words, of what the hon. Gentleman said. I will be interested to look back at the discussion, because I thought the sentiment was quite clear.
The UK Government must fully consider the situation in Yemen. There is no doubt that it is challenging in many ways, but this does not mean that we should disregard either the credible evidence coming from the area or the realities and scale of the problem. A UN panel of experts has documented 119 coalition sorties relating to violations of international law in Yemen—including the targeting of civilians. It is worthy of note that the International Development Committee, while observing that this UN report was leaked, did not consider that this affected the credibility of what it was asserting.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and it is important to hear from as many organisations as possible. I must tell him that in the research I conducted, I encountered many organisations that have indeed suggested that there was targeting of civilians, which gives us all the more reason to have a proper investigation into the situation.
I must ask the Minister today whether he doubts the credibility of the UN panel of experts, and if so, why he feels that way. As in other parts of the region, we must do all we can to facilitate and support a peace process. We should be encouraged that the parties have previously come to the table, but it is disappointing that these talks have so far been delayed. One issue that needs to be addressed—this can come only with good first-hand information, as was suggested—is just how much control those who claim leadership really exercise over the myriad groups in conflict across the country. The leaders of al-Qaeda and Daesh-linked groups have no interest in peace, and we must not let them scupper every peace effort by destroying attempts to bring about a ceasefire. We know that, across Yemen today, chaos reigns. Disparate forces and agendas clash and bombs rain down from the air, destroying infrastructure, homes and lives.
I think that conflict in any area is cause for concern, but today we must focus on this particular conflict, and on the question of where the United Kingdom Government’s responsibility lies. I believe that it is inconsistent for them to give aid to Yemen with one hand while, with the other, selling weapons that will be used to bomb the country to smithereens.
The Minister and the UK Government need to come clean about the specific involvement of the UK military in arms sales, training and logistics in relation to Saudi Arabia’s military operations in Yemen. I do not think that conflict by proxy is the policy of the Conservatives, but given what is happening in Yemen, it is difficult to see how that is not the case. The Belgian Government have felt able to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, yet we continue to ignore human rights issues both in Saudi Arabia and in respect of Yemen, and continue to sell arms.
The delay in the establishment of the Committees on Arms Export Controls may have had an influence on the position. The Committees should have been established months ago, as has been highlighted by the continued pressure exerted by my right hon. Friend Angus Robertson. Let me ask the Minister this: what has been the cost to human life of that delay?
I agree wholeheartedly with the Chair of the International Development Committee, who said in his letter yesterday:
“It is a longstanding principle of the rule of law that inquiries should be independent of those being investigated.”
It is very disappointing that the UK Government did not take the opportunity in September 2015 to endorse the proposal of the Government of the Netherlands for the establishment of an international fact-finding mission to investigate the conduct of the war. That would have provided the information sought by the Minister, who recently said that if weapons systems had been abused and genuine intelligence was available to verify that, action would be taken in relation to export licensing.
It is time for the UK Government to stop running away from scrutiny, and to take urgent action to suspend all sales of arms to Saudi Arabia until it can demonstrate that they are not being used against civilians, and not being used in violation of international law. The UK must do more to alleviate this humanitarian crisis and ensure that there is access to areas where people are besieged and starving, and every effort must be made to ensure that the delayed peace talks begin. We cannot stand by any longer as Yemen descends further and further into terror and chaos. It is time for the UK Government to step up and do the right thing.
I congratulate Kirsten Oswald on securing this important debate, although I did not agree with every word that she said. I must say that I believe the British Government are more than open to scrutiny: the presence of this Minister in the House on numerous occasions, responding to questions and debates about Yemen, is testimony to that.
It is with some sadness that I speak in a debate about a country that is very close to my heart, but is suffering the horrors of conflict so eloquently described by the hon. Lady. The current war in Yemen has been described as the “forgotten war” by, among others, Andy Slaughter during a recent debate. The hon. Gentleman will be reassured to know that, while I agree with him about very few things, I do agree with him about that.
Sadly, the war in Yemen is still the forgotten war today, despite the work of many non-governmental organisations and many Members of Parliament. I think particularly of the work of Keith Vaz, and of all he has done to ensure that the House remains cognisant of what is happening in Yemen. I should add that he and others have always sought to highlight the joys of the country, and to explain why it is such a wonderful country. I know that Yemen is also very close to the heart of my hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat, who knows it very well.
As well as being vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen, I have had the pleasure and privilege of visiting and travelling around the country on a number of occasions, and seeing such wonderful places as Sana'a and Aden, but also Taiz, Ibb and Hadhramaut. I fear that, sadly, my visits to Yemen will not be repeated for some years, but they gave me an insight into this complex, ancient land and its generous, hospitable and fiercely loyal people. Along with, I am sure, many other Members, I am proud to declare myself a friend of Yemen and its people; and, of course, the United Kingdom has a long-standing friendship and an historical and trusted relationship with the country.
All that makes it even sadder to see what has become of Yemen. Its former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, described ruling the country as akin to
“dancing on the heads of snakes”,
so complex are its history and its religious, tribal and political make-up.
Yemen faces many challenges, as we have heard. It is the most populous country in the Arabian peninsula, with a population of almost 30 million, but it is also one of the poorest, with an annual income per head of less than $1,500. Yemen does not have the advantage—although these days perhaps it is a diminishing advantage—of oil revenues to swell its coffers and budget, and it has historically relied heavily on imports of food, goods and, crucially, diesel fuel in order to function. All this is compounded by the challenges of a burgeoning young male population with limited economic prospects. Those conditions, overlaid with a fractured polity and a security situation that is fragile at the best of times, mean that Yemen has always been in a precarious situation, even before the current conflict.
Yemen has always been more of a loose confederation of tribes than a nation state with strong central control on the Westphalian model, and for centuries its location has placed it at the centre of proxy wars waged by other powers. Today, in some ways, it finds itself in that situation again, with an Iranian-backed Houthi militia fighting a Saudi-led coalition supporting the legitimate Government of President Hadi, with regional and dynastic geopolitics also playing in their part in the conflict.
The conflict and its consequences are clear and stark, and I shall reiterate just a few of the comments made by the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire. More than 20 million people are at risk of starvation and humanitarian disaster, with 82% in need of some assistance, according to Save the Children. Of course it is often the children, the most innocent, who are the most likely victims of any conflict.
Our effort to play our part in helping to end this ruinous conflict has a number of major component parts. The most immediate is of course the provision of humanitarian relief. The witness from Oxfam at a recent hearing of the International Development Committee, chaired by Stephen Twigg, said that the support by DFID had been “really profound and fundamental”. UK aid already totals more than £85 million, and its scale is constrained only by the situation on the ground and the ability to distribute it safely. The UK’s aid contribution is not in doubt, and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, will convey to his counterparts in the Department for International Development the expressions of support from me and the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire for the work that it has done. I sincerely hope that that work will be built upon so that we can build an international coalition of aid givers. As we look across Parliament Square today, we see that there is rightly a focus on the situation in Syria, but we must make every effort to ensure that the situation in Yemen receives the same priority.
After food and medicines, getting fuel and water into Yemen remains one of the biggest challenges. Ports such as Hodeidah are barely functioning, and when they do, ships sometimes have to wait offshore for weeks before being able to offload. For a country that was already reliant on imports for its food and fuel needs, this is a disaster. Getting supplies into and around the country is vital, and I hope that the Minister will be able to update the House on that work later.
The humanitarian response and the UK’s continued role in it are vital, but we are to a large degree tackling the consequences rather than the causes of the problem, and we must strive to tackle both. The Minister has made it clear—in statements to the Select Committee, I believe—that the UK is not a party to this conflict, and he is right. The UK is not an active participant in the coalition, although we rightly support it as a reflection of our support for the legitimate Government of Yemen headed by President Hadi. We must make it clear, as was mentioned earlier, that it is unhelpful to focus on only one party to the conflict as being responsible for the civilian casualties. Both sides bear responsibility for the consequences of the conflict.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and displays his usual erudition and eloquence on this topic, as on so many others.
It is vital that renewed impetus is given to peace talks to find a lasting settlement to bring stability to the country. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Duncan and to this Minister for their work on this issue. I alluded earlier to the fact that Yemen could have no greater friend in the British Government than this Minister. I know he cares passionately and personally for the plight of the people of Yemen, and is working day and night to do what he can to alleviate it and bring peace to that country.
We must always remember that a peace settlement that is imposed from outside or that does not recognise and heed all voices in Yemen is doomed to fail. We in the UK have the potential to continue to play a significant role in bringing all sides together, but any settlement to bring lasting peace must emerge from within Yemen itself. I am reminded of what I believe is an old Arab proverb, “Me and my brother against my cousin, but me and my cousin against a stranger.” We must always remember that peace must come from within the country. The final element, in the longer term, must be support and a clear commitment over a prolonged period to rebuild this shattered country and its infrastructure, primarily its fuel and water infrastructure.
Before concluding, let me briefly deal with the comments made by the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire about the need for any suspected or reported abuses of human rights or civilian casualties to be investigated. The Minister has always been clear that where allegations of civilian casualties or about the consequences of actions are made, he and others have raised them with the Saudi Arabian Government, as appropriate. What was agreed in September at the Human Rights Council by all those there represents the right way forward: the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, working with the legitimate Government of Yemen—that is important in terms of access—will investigate, as appropriate, any such allegations. I believe it is due to report in March. That agreement, built on a consensus at the HRC, represents the right way forward. These things are always confusing through “the fog of war”—I believe that is the title of a well-read piece of research by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling in respect of broader legal challenges sometimes faced by our armed forces, in which he highlighted the complexity of conflict situations. There are competing versions of events and competing understandings of what actually happens, so I strongly urge all Members of this House to support the proposals agreed in September and see what the High Commissioner for Human Rights concludes in March.
As the hon. Lady has said, it is time that the international community gave the crisis and conflict in Yemen the focus and priority it deserves, as we quite rightly do with that in Syria. I know that the British Government are doing their bit, and I hope that today’s debate helps to raise the profile of this forgotten war and that peace will soon be a reality for all the people of that suffering country.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. It will be obvious to the House that we have very little time for this debate and a lot of people want to speak. I would like to try to do this without a formal time limit. If people could keep to five or six minutes, everyone will be able to get in. If not, we will have a time limit, be it three minutes, two minutes or whatever is necessary, later in the debate.
It is a great pleasure to follow Edward Argar. We share a border in Leicestershire and now we share a cause, and it is good to see someone who was elected only last year become passionate about an overseas country and become such an expert on it. I know that his interest in Yemen preceded his election, and I am glad to see him as a strong and effective vice-chair of the all-party group on Yemen. I speak not just as a Yemeni by birth, but as the chair of the all-party group for the past 27 years. I must rival President Saleh with the years that I have spent in office—that is not a good comparison, I know. It has been a huge honour to serve in that capacity and to be joined recently by my hon. Friend Valerie Vaz and Mrs Drummond, both of whom are Yemenis by birth.
We now have three Yemenis sitting in the House of Commons. That should help everyone to understand that for us this is not just business; it is very personal. The situation matters greatly. My fondest memories of my childhood were watching the boats coming in. They went past Steamer Point as they were about to enter the Suez Canal. Indeed, only Leicester beating Liverpool last Tuesday could match that kind of warm feeling that I had as a child. Sadly, those wonderful memories of our childhood have gone, and we face in Yemen a roll call of catastrophe, which was set out so eloquently by the hon. Members for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and for Charnwood (Edward Argar).
I know that the Chairman of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend Stephen Twigg, will have more horrifying statistics that we will struggle to understand—some 21 million in need of aid, millions of children without food and people starving to death. We hear such figures as if this is a piece of fiction, but it is fact.
I thank Tim Loughton who came on one of the all-party group’s last visits to Yemen. He caused us a lot of worry. He had been told to stay in the Sheba hotel, but, as everybody knows—especially the Prime Ministers and Secretaries of State who worked with him in Government—he cannot be told what to do. When we got up one morning and found that he was missing, we thought that he had been kidnapped. In fact, he was out in Sana’a, a world heritage centre, taking photographs. Like all visitors to Yemen, he had fallen in love with the country.
What is this country now? It is a country in poverty; a country facing the possibility of civil war; and a country that is being fought over by other foreign powers. It is not the people of Yemen who want to see this conflict. The conflict arises because those from outside want to topple the democratically elected Government of President Hadi, and because of that there is outside intervention.
I was touched by the care that the right hon. Gentleman showed for my welfare. It was indeed an extraordinary trip. Talking about children, at the time, the British Council was matching 1,000 schools in the middle east with schools over here. On our journey, I was able to twin a school in Worthing with a school in Aden. Does he agree that, as well as the killings and the injuries, one of the biggest tragedies is the fact that about half of all children in Yemen are not in education? So much is being done to ensure that Syrian children have some continuity in their education, but the situation in Yemen is so much worse. If we do not have the future in mind for those children, the future of the whole country is perilous.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He is the House’s expert on education. When he talks about the need for education, he is absolutely right, because it is a life chance. Some 1,500 people have died, and 9.9 million people are in poverty. The fact that the children cannot go to school will affect the rest of their lives, and childhood passes so quickly. They will not have the advantages of education, and we need to concentrate on that.
I join the hon. Member for Charnwood in praising the Minister—Members on the Opposition Benches do not tend to do that very often—because he deeply cares about the situation in Yemen. Whenever the all-party group has asked him to address us, whenever we have made suggestions, and whenever Sir Alan Duncan has made suggestions, which I am sure that he does on a daily basis, the Minister responds. If he had half a chance, he would be on a plane via Dubai to Sana’a international airport to try to stitch together the patchwork of international diplomacy that now exists.
Much mention was rightly made by the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire of the involvement of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s involvement has been important; had that not happened, I believe that the country would have been overrun and that President Hadi would not have returned to Aden. We now need to pause. The all-party group, individual Members and the Minister have been clear that there has to be a ceasefire. The airstrikes have to stop, and we have to find other methods of trying to secure the country without the scenes that have taken place. Civilians may not have been targeted, but they have died. We need to make sure that we work with the Saudis, who are the regional power—we cannot do this without them—to make sure that we get peace in Yemen. They have a big responsibility to ensure that that happens. If Yemen falls, that will affect every other country in the middle east.
As the Prime Minister has said on numerous occasions, the frontline in Sana’a is the frontline in London. Many of the terrorist plots that I have come across as Chair of the Home Affairs Committee have come from people plotting in places such as Yemen. Indeed, many of the Paris bombers were involved in some way with what was happening in Yemen; I think one of them was trained there. We are not talking about a country far away that we do not need to care about; it really matters to our future, not just because of the humanitarian crisis but, more importantly, because of how it will affect Britain and the rest of Europe.
I thank this Minister and the Minister of State, Department for International Development, Mr Swayne, who has also listened carefully to what we have said. One of the great things about how the Government have approached Yemen is that they have continued what was started by the previous Government. There is no party politics in this; the whole House is united, as were the previous Prime Ministers, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, in ensuring a focus on Yemen. The current Prime Minister is also very focused on it. I have written to him on numerous occasions and his responses are detailed and relevant. He wants to make sure that peace is restored. We are all on the same side.
As I conclude, I have a few asks. First, as he also supports the ceasefire, will the Minister give a commitment to intensify the support of the UN to try to bring peace to Yemen and to ensure that we continue the dialogue with all sides, especially with Saudi Arabia? There has been a lot of criticism about the use of British weapons by the Saudis in this conflict. That will go on, of course; we live in a parliamentary democracy and we have to raise these issues. The Government have to respond, and they have.
However, we need to work with the Saudis and the Omanis. Oman has not been mentioned enough in these debates, but the Sultan in particular has a big role to play. Here is a border in the Arab world: to the north, Oman is as peaceful as a country can be but to the south is the turmoil in Yemen. The Gulf Co-operation Council also needs to be involved. It cannot be absent from the table.
It is not the Minister’s job to chase up debts, but I remind him of the great donor conference in London before the last but one general election. Billions were pledged but very few countries have paid up. We should go back to the countries that pledged and make sure that something is done.
Let me end by saying this. We still have a lot of friends in Yemen. My two children were very friendly with the son of one of the Yemeni ambassadors who came here. His name was Salman, and we have lost touch with him. The last time we saw him, he had come up to Leicester to see a football match with my young son. I think of that bright young boy and his sisters, who came to this country for a short time as the children of diplomats, and the bond of friendship that we formed with them. To think of them in a house in Sana’a without electricity, schooling or food is terrible. I hope that, if Salman is listening to this debate or hears about it in some way, he will contact us so that we know that he and his family are safe.
My real worry is that Yemen is bleeding to death. Unless we are prepared to stop the bleeding, the consequences will be horrendous.
From the bottom of my heart I beg the Minister to continue doing what he is doing, to make sure that this issue is centre stage. I thank parliamentary colleagues from all over the country, who have so much on their agendas, for coming here in such numbers to think and talk about Yemen. I also thank my hon. Friend Fabian Hamilton, who has just joined the Front-Bench team, for coming. He will be a wonderful shadow Minister. I hope he makes this issue a priority. I know we talk about the big countries, but Yemen matters to us. Please let us not allow Yemen to bleed to death.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I make no criticism of the right hon. Gentleman, who has spoken with passion and taken lots of interventions, but we will now have a formal time limit of five minutes. I call Kevin Foster.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will bear in mind the time limit. It is a great pleasure to follow the thoughtful speech by Keith Vaz, given the passion he brings to this issue as a result of his background.
The first point for me is this: why does this conflict matter to us in the UK? Why has the MP for Torbay taken time on Thursday afternoon to come along to this debate? For me, there are three clear reasons. The first is Yemen’s geographical location. Back in Victorian times—I made this point recently during an urgent question on this issue—Suez was one of the key trade links for the then British empire, and it is still one of the seven key maritime pinch points. Therefore, stability in Yemen matters to global trade. Given that Aden was, for many years, a British protectorate, there is also a moral duty on us to retain an interest in the area and how it has developed. In many ways, as Kirsten Oswald touched on, we have played quite a significant role as a country over the last 100 years in shaping what governance on the modern Arabian peninsula looks like.
The second point is that problems do not stay within one nation’s borders. We have seen that dramatically illustrated in Syria, with the refugee crisis. The UN warned back in December that 14 million people are what it terms “food insecure”—an interesting way of describing people who may starve if they do not get assistance.
The third point is humanitarian concern. My predecessor in Torbay brought to my attention on social media today some of the heart-breaking images coming out of Yemen as a result of the conflict. Those very much reminded me of a statement by Robert E. Lee:
“It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”
The right hon. Gentleman very personally illustrated the impact for people on the ground.
It is also worth remembering the security threat that exists in the midst of this conflict, and that is what I will focus my brief remarks on. In the middle of the battle between the Houthis and the forces loyal to President Hadi is al-Qaeda. Both President Hadi and the Houthis oppose al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has staged numerous deadly attacks from its strongholds in the south and south east. Western intelligence agencies now consider al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula the most dangerous branch of al-Qaeda because of its technical expertise and global reach.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the regional instability that makes this issue even more urgent? We need to find a peaceful solution to the problem so that we do not create a bigger vacuum, into which organisations such as al-Qaeda can move.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Where we have spaces in conflicts—especially spaces where no Government and no system of law and order exists—these groups are able to fester, grow and develop their abilities. We saw that in Afghanistan during the time of the Taliban, and we are seeing it in Syria, where a civil war has allowed Daesh to grow, fester and build its capabilities. As we have seen in Yemen and other parts of the middle east, having these spaces where no Government exist creates a danger to our security and global security, and we cannot just ignore that.
With President Hadi’s co-operation, the US has been carrying out operations, including drone strikes, but the advance of the Houthi rebels has seen that US campaign scaled back. Therefore, a quarrel between two enemies of al-Qaeda is making it easier for al-Qaeda to develop and become more of a threat. As we have heard, there is the prospect of the fighting spilling over into neighbouring countries, not least into Saudi territory. While we all have our views about some of Saudi Arabia’s bluntly appalling domestic policies, such as the lack of religious freedom and the use of the death penalty in a way that we in this country find unacceptable and certainly would not contemplate, we must sometimes be careful what we wish for, because some of the potential alternatives in that country are not those of a modern, liberal, western democracy.
Looking back to the Arab Spring of 2011, many of us, perhaps naively, hoped that it would be very much like the 1989 “velvet revolution” that swept through eastern Europe, sweeping away dictators and despots and replacing them with the relatively modern democracies that we have today. Yet experience shows that some of the forces that have been unleashed since 2011 have not been those of freedom and tolerance—in fact, quite the opposite.
It is therefore right that we work with the Saudi Government and the wider coalition to try to bring peace to Yemen based on a United Nations resolution. With regard to our supporting the Saudi armed forces, I have to say—this may be a point of difference with some Opposition Members—that I would rather that is done by our forces, who have human rights and international law ingrained in their operations, than potentially by some other countries’ forces who have within the past 30 years engaged in things that we would find unacceptable.
We cannot just ignore this situation. We cannot turn a blind eye while we see children being dragooned into fighting for rebel groups and terrorist organisations, and a three-way war threatening to spill over and threaten the security of some key maritime routes and the stability of the wider region. It is not for the UK to do this on its own, and we are not doing it on our own. We need to make sure that international law is applied and that all parties to the conflicts respect their obligations. I think that ultimately, working with our partners through the United Nations, we can bring peace. I welcome the interest in this subject expressed in this debate.
It is a pleasure to follow Kevin Foster. I congratulate Kirsten Oswald on bringing this very important and timely debate to the Chamber today. The International Development Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into the situation in Yemen. Last week, we heard such powerful and convincing evidence that DFID’s excellent humanitarian response is being undermined by the wider Government approach to Yemen that this week we felt compelled to write to the Government setting out our serious concerns, to which I will refer in turn.
Let me start by addressing the scale of the humanitarian crisis. Every speaker has described the horror: more than 21 million people—over 80% of the population—are in need of assistance, more than 14 million people are struggling to find enough food, and 2.5 million people are displaced. The effects of this conflict are devastating. Atrocities have been committed by both sides. We heard evidence that 62% of the killings and maimings have been caused by the Saudi-led coalition, and that Houthis have recruited over 700 children to armed groups that have laid siege to cities such as Taiz, denying their populations access to humanitarian aid and medicines.
As a Member who was born in Aden, I was concerned to hear that a church in Ma’alla where I used to worship was hit, along with a hospital. What steps are being taken to ensure that aid will be allowed to get through? Access to aid is very important.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In evidence from DFID itself we were told that the very welcome UK aid of £85 million could have been more, but that it is simply proportionate to what can currently be spent by our partners given the difficulties of access. She is absolutely right that that is one of the major considerations.
Let me turn to the need for an independent international inquiry into alleged abuses of international humanitarian law. We received overwhelming evidence that is contrary to the position that the Government have taken on this matter. The UN expert panel report documented 119 alleged abuses. There is evidence from Amnesty International, from Human Rights Watch, and from Médecins Sans Frontières. Saferworld told us in its evidence last week:
“In other contexts, the Government will cite” the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty reports on Syria, Libya and Sudan to support a British Government position, but
“they are referred to as not good enough to be considered evidence compared with a reassurance from the Saudis, one of the belligerents to the conflict, that there are no violations of international humanitarian law.”
It is true that a resolution was agreed at the UN Human Rights Council last September, but the original wording of the motion tabled by the Government of the Netherlands was much stronger. In my view, the British Government should have stood with our Dutch partners, rather than with Saudi Arabia in watering down the need for an independent inquiry. We do not have that independent inquiry. Once again, I urge the Minister to reconsider the UK’s position, so that we support a genuinely independent, UN-led inquiry into the serious allegations of the violation of international humanitarian law.
Let me finish by talking about the central issue of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia. DFID is consulted when arms are sold to a country in receipt of DFID assistance. Saudi Arabia does not receive such assistance, so DFID is not consulted on the question of arms sales to that country, even though those arms are being used in Yemen, which does receive DFID aid. The scale of our arms sales to Saudi Arabia is eye-watering. The £3 billion received in just six months last year represents 40% of total UK arms sales for that period, with £1 billion of it received in just three months for bombs. The Royal Saudi air force has more UK planes than our Royal Air Force.
United Kingdom, European and international arms trade law is clear that licences cannot be granted if there is a “clear risk” that they may be used in the commission of violations of international humanitarian law. That is all that is required—a clear risk—and we have a very powerful legal opinion from Matrix Chambers that the UK has breached its obligations under international arms law.
I urge the Government to think again on this central issue. As has been said, the Committee on Arms Export Controls will be established when we meet next week. The issue must be on the Committee’s agenda. It is absolutely vital that we take seriously our responsibilities under our own law as well as international and European law. The International Development Committee met members of this country’s Yemeni diaspora two weeks ago and their voices were very powerful on that question. The evidence that we heard from the UN panel of experts and international humanitarian organisations last week, and from the diaspora, is very strong that the UK should support a truly independent inquiry into what is going on, and in the meantime we should suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
I welcome this debate and the inquiry by the International Development Committee, of which I am privileged to be a member. The suffering of the people of Yemen is acute, and the world needs to know about it. I urge people who have knowledge and can provide an account of the situation in Yemen to contribute to our inquiry. As the Chairman of the Committee has just said, we heard some powerful accounts during a meeting with the diaspora just a couple of weeks ago. I hope to refer to some of them in a moment.
I applaud my hon. Friend Edward Argar for his excellent speech, on which basis I have had to remove substantial parts of mine. I will, however, reflect on some of the points that have been raised during the debate. As several Members have said, 21.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in Yemen, making it the country with the highest number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in the world. Forty per cent. of the country’s population are under 15 years old, so the children really are suffering substantially. Since March 2015, 1,012 grave violations against children have been documented; the figure is now likely to be much higher. Forty-one schools and 61 hospitals have been damaged and, as has been said, more than 700 children have been recruited or used by armed groups. As we heard from the diaspora, those youths join extremist groups simply to feed their families.
Not only are 47% of schoolchildren in Yemen out of school but, as a university professor from the diaspora group told us, higher education has been affected. He taught in a university that once had 4,000 students; there are now only 400 left. Those statistics will have a significant bearing on the long-term development of the country. We were told by the diaspora that there have been outbreaks of dengue fever and measles, and that they fear polio. They told us that the health facilities have been gutted, and that there are 2 million people in an area that is at grave risk of a malaria outbreak.
Those who are in business told us that the banking system, which is vital if people are to survive, is crippled. One businessman said that before the conflict, there were 15 banks that he could work through, but now there is only one left and he worries that it will close soon. Will Ministers do what they can to try to ensure that what remains of the banking system stays open, so that those involved in business can continue to trade? That is vital.
Much of the food in Yemen—80% to 90%—is imported. We were told, however, that the economy is crippled and cannot function. Manufacturing and what food production there is in Yemen have stopped. Products, including medicines, which are in short supply, now cost 300 to 400 times more than they used to on the black market. Major cities have had no electricity for six months. The UN report of last August stated that 26% of private businesses had closed in a five-month period, but the diaspora representatives told us that the true number was much higher. On their estimates, 77% of private sector businesses have closed and 71% of private sector workers have lost their jobs. That is critical because, as they told us, although aid can help, it will never be enough to feed and support the more than 20 million people we are talking about. A healthy economy is what is needed.
Finally, I pay tribute to all who are working in Yemen, including Save the Children and the UN workers, for the sterling work that they are doing in such difficult circumstances. Let us hope that the world continues to hear and take note of the suffering of Yemen. For too long, too little information has been put out, and I congratulate all Members of the House who are determined to ensure that that changes.
I am glad to be able to participate in this debate on the situation in Yemen, which is clearly not getting the international attention that it should. I commend to Members the coverage that Scotland’s newest newspaper,
The National, has given the conflict over the previous months. The newspaper has consistently endeavoured for some time to get the matter into the consciousness of the Scottish public.
My interest in Yemen was sparked by my constituent Fahim, who came to see me last year on the day the exam results came out in Scotland. He passed the courses that he had been studying, but his pride in doing so was overwhelmed by the devastating news that his application to stay in the UK had been rejected and the Home Office had decided that he had to return to his native Yemen. This adoptive Glaswegian has been in the UK since 2009. He was a pharmacist back home, and since coming to Glasgow he has participated in voluntary groups and tried to make a life in the city. He would love to be able to go back home but, as he explained to me, it would be incredibly dangerous. He has no certainty about what has happened to his family in Yemen, so he could not even return to the people he knew, never mind the place he knew.
Since I spoke to Fahim he has been made destitute by the Home Office, and he has been sleeping in shelters and on sofas. Today the Home Office tried to contact him at an address that it evicted him from in August. I have been fighting for him to be able to stay here, because the more he told me about the situation, the more worried I became. I discovered that UK citizens are advised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that if they find themselves in Yemen, they need to get out. Its website says that the FCO
“advise against all travel to Yemen. This includes the mainland and all islands. If you’re in Yemen, you should leave immediately.”
There has been no British embassy in Yemen for over a year, and the FCO has advised people against traveling there since 2011.
But what of the citizens of Yemen? If Yemen is not safe for you, Mr Deputy Speaker, or for me, it is not safe for Fahim and it is certainly not a safe place for the citizens of Yemen. The last figures I obtained from the Home Office show that, for the first half of last year, only 14—I repeat, 14—asylum claims by Yemeni nationals were successful, while 31 were refused and 221 souls are still awaiting a decision. I hope, when the new figures come out, that they will have improved, but I urge the Government to give some certainty to those in the same situation as Fahim who are ill with worry about their future. If we can keep more Yemenis safe in this country, we have an absolute humanitarian duty to do so.
I attended the excellent meeting of the all-party group on Yemen last week, but I was absolutely shocked by the stories told by the representatives of Oxfam, Save the Children and Saferworld. They reported on a broken country, with severe shortages of fuel, water, food and other resources. Save the Children says that 21.2 million people, including 9.9 million children, are in desperate need of humanitarian aid. They are currently among the most desperate in the world.
The aid agencies tell us that they do not have all the funds they require. They are very much asking for their partner agencies in other parts of Europe to get more money from those countries. It has been mentioned that the UK has been generous, and we have been generous, but we need to get more aid to those agencies. The agencies cannot get access to all the people who need their help. People have been displaced in the country multiple times, and much of the infrastructure is struggling to cope.
The situation in Yemen is deteriorating daily. Twitter brings me news today of more bombs dropped on civilian areas. The Yemen Post newspaper reports today that, in the past 24 hours, 25 civilians have been killed by air strikes, 45 have been injured and 17 homes have been destroyed. Yesterday, 16 were killed and 31 injured when a factory was attacked in Amran. If such a level of carnage was happening in this country, we would be outraged and we would act. If a hospital here got hit by bombs or missiles, as no fewer than three Médecins sans Frontières medical facilities have been in the past three months, we would find that unacceptable.
As well as those struggling with the humanitarian crisis, medics in Yemen are struggling to do their job of patching up the people hit by bombs and injured in conflict, because they are coming under attack themselves. It is clear that the conflict in Yemen is being carried out with no respect for international humanitarian law. Hospitals are supposed to be off limits. Dr Joanne Liu, the international president of the MSF, has stated that,
“the UK Foreign Secretary claimed that there have been no deliberate breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen…This implies that mistakenly bombing a protected hospital would be tolerable.”
It is not.
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. She is illustrating the horrors of war, which largely occur in populated areas when one adversary chooses to hide within such populated areas. Unfortunately, that leads to casualties. We are not in any way advocating that when a civilian area or facility is attacked or destroyed that is somehow acceptable; it absolutely is not. When there is collateral damage of that form, it is important for whichever side has done it to put its hand up and say that it will conduct an investigation. We are not saying it is right, but we are making it clear—
Order. In fairness to the Minister, he cannot take advantage of the situation. We are struggling to get everybody in, and interventions are meant to be very short. He cannot make a speech now, given that he will be making a speech later. That is unfair to everybody.
The point is that such bombings have now happened three times, and those involved in the conflict are not taking responsibility for their actions. Médecins sans Frontières is struggling to get the support it needs when it says that such a situation is unacceptable. People being taken to hospital in ambulances have been hit in this conflict, so it is clear that huge errors have been made in the conduct of the conflict. We could say that such hospitals are not being targeted, but what is worse is that bombs are being dropped in crowded areas, which is where the danger arises for many of the people living there. Cluster bombs, which are illegal, are being used in the conflict, as we can see from the pictures that appear on Twitter and other media sources. Who would bomb a hospital? It is completely wrong, and it is completely against all the rules of warfare. We should challenge that on every possible occasion.
If we have troops embedded with the Saudis, they should be making that clear and not allowing such attacks to happen. The Saudis are getting their bombs from us, so we could stop this happening. We could suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia today, and we could be an honest broker in bringing peace to the people of Yemen. I ask the Government to act, and to act now.
I thank colleagues in the Chamber for securing this important debate. As has been said, the conflict in Yemen has been described as the forgotten war. In recent weeks and months the conflict has escalated significantly and has begun to attract international attention.
In the time available, I shall focus on the humanitarian situation. It is a privilege to be a member of the International Development Committee. It is estimated that some 21 million people in Yemen—more than 80% of the population—are in need of life-saving assistance and protection. Recently at the IDC we heard evidence from a number of NGOs—Oxfam, Save the Children, UNICEF and the Yemeni diaspora. We heard about the difficulties in getting humanitarian aid into the country and into the areas where it is most needed. We heard that in Taiz people need food, water and medical supplies. They even need oxygen. Many civilians have been displaced and are forced to live on the edge of the city.
In these circumstances it is the children who are among the most vulnerable. It is estimated that more than 9 million children are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. There are reports of grave violations against children and of schools being attacked or destroyed. The indirect consequences of conflict are often worse than the conflict itself, such as children falling ill who would not otherwise have fallen ill. It is vital that the UK continues to play its part in the humanitarian aid effort. I am always grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues from DFID for taking the time to come to the Chamber, answer questions and update us on the dreadful situation in Yemen.
DFID has doubled its aid and recently the Secretary of State announced a further £10 million of aid. We must recognise the very difficult conditions in which DFID and FCO staff are working. One of the biggest challenges is getting that humanitarian aid to where it is most needed. It is therefore vital that the international community does all it can to secure safe humanitarian corridors so that aid relief can pass through unimpeded. Those who work tirelessly on the ground in those difficult circumstances have to manage and mitigate the risks on a day-to-day basis.
I shall touch briefly on defence and defence co-operation. Politically, the UK supports the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention. It is important that we remember that that came at the request of the legitimate President, President Hadi, to deter aggression by the Houthis and the forces loyal to the former President, and to allow the return of the legitimate Yemeni Government. Nevertheless, it is worrying to hear of air strikes on civilian targets. With all that is going on in Yemen, I urge the Government to continue to monitor the situation closely and to take seriously the allegations of violations of international humanitarian law.
With conflict in the wider middle east region—Syria, Iraq and Daesh—continuing to make the headlines, it is easy to see why Yemen’s has been described as the forgotten war. Let us hope that after today we can play a part in changing that. The situation in Yemen is different from that in Syria, but that does not make it less important. I urge the Government to continue to do all they can to secure a comprehensive and peaceful solution for Yemen, as that is the only way to bring about the long-term stability that the country, the wider region and the world want.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Kirsten Oswald on bringing about this important debate, particularly at this time. Given the time pressures, I shall focus on the humanitarian situation in Yemen.
Recent figures reported by the United Nations indicate that the conflict claimed 2,795 civilian lives in 2015, and that there have been thousands more casualties. Nearly 1.5 million people have been displaced by the conflict, and many thousands may die from malnutrition and the impact of the humanitarian crisis.
Even before the conflict, Yemen was the poorest country in the Arab world. Poor governance, poor human development indicators and rapid population growth meant that millions of people were suffering greatly and already experiencing poverty and hunger. The country is now experiencing a significant humanitarian crisis. It is reported that more than 80% of the population is in need of humanitarian aid. That equates to approximately 21.1 million people, including nearly 10 million children.
In Yemen, it is the civilians who are bearing the brunt of the conflict. Many public facilities have been damaged or destroyed and people have lost access to essential services, including clean water, sanitation, energy and medical services. It is reported that nearly 600 health facilities have closed, and, as we have heard, hospitals have been hit. Food prices have soared, creating a desperate situation for millions of people, including particularly vulnerable groups of children. Of the 10 million affected children, nearly 8 million do not have enough to eat on a daily basis. UNICEF estimates that 537,000 children, or one in eight under-fives, are at risk of severe acute malnutrition.
Many children have been forced out of school by the conflict. Although differing figures are quoted, it appears that the number of children who need access to education may be between 2.9 million and 3.4 million. Furthermore, with medical centres being shut down and supplies diminishing, children are at risk of dying from treatable diseases. That is in addition to the risk of death or injury in the conflict itself. Save the Children has reported that since the start of the conflict, at least seven children have been killed or injured every day.
On human rights issues, it has been highlighted that there has been a significant recent increase in the recruitment and use of children in conflict in Yemen. I have spoken in previous debates about the impact of using children in combat. The effects are often felt long after the physical scars have healed. It psychologically damages them for life. In addition, it has been highlighted that children, particularly refugee children, are falling victim to human traffickers and are at risk of trauma, such as physical and sexual violence.
As we have heard, Yemen relies on imports for the majority of its food and fuel supplies. The blockade has had a significant impact on the quantity of vital supplies that are able to enter the country. The unpredictable and dangerous situations that agency staff on the ground have to work in have severely impeded their ability to distribute crucial humanitarian supplies around the country to affected populations. I pay tribute to the work of aid agencies in the area. Substantial obstacles continue to impede the passage of essential goods into and around Yemen. Much more needs to be done to create a humanitarian corridor.
I want to focus on the need to place increased diplomatic pressure on all parties in the conflict to support UN efforts to find a political solution. We must pressure those who are involved to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law, to take all possible measures to protect civilians and to ensure that humanitarian agencies are given a safe space in which to operate. The UN declared Yemen a level 3 crisis on
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate following our earlier discussions in Westminster Hall. As Keith Vaz said, I was born in Aden, and I have always taken a close interest in the affairs of the middle east. It is regrettable that the crisis in Yemen has been carrying on in different ways and far from the attention of the rest of the world, and even since our last debate, the situation has deteriorated and the civil war in the country has carried on into yet another year. I am hopeful that through diplomatic means the conflict can be resolved, but that depends on the willingness of external powers to make that happen, just as much as it does on the willingness of the two sides in Yemen.
This current civil war is the latest in a series of conflicts that reach back centuries and are one strand of the wider conflict between Sunni and Shi’a in the Muslim world. Whatever our aims to restore peace, we must understand that there is a problem at the heart of that issue, which very few settlements in the middle east have managed to resolve. Any settlement in Yemen is likely to require the engagement and attention of the outside world for a long time.
Whatever we say about our involvement as an arms exporter to the region, it is clear that we have an historical and moral role in the affairs of that part of the world. Almost since 1945, the situation in Yemen has been one of civil war of some sort. The coalition includes Saudi
Arabia and the Gulf countries—those countries are our friends; we have influence with them, and we must work with them closely to stop this humanitarian catastrophe.
Throughout this period, Yemen has been one of the poorest areas of the world. Save the Children has been working in Yemen since 1963, and it is a damning comment on the lack of political progress and commitment to solve the conflicts there that it is probably helping the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of families that it worked with more than 50 years ago. The humanitarian position is one of deep crisis, and I am reassured that it fully engages the attention of the Government through DFID, and that that engagement is respected by non-governmental organisations working in Yemen. We are a leading donor, along with the US and the UAE, and I welcome the Secretary of State’s recent announcement of an additional support package.
Absolutely, and there is also the fear of al-Qaeda and Daesh getting into a country that is failing.
However desperate the crisis is in Syria, that country benefited from a degree of infrastructure, education, and general health of population that was miles ahead of the Yemeni equivalents. The poor of Yemen have no resources of any kind to fall back on except for external aid, yet there has been a blockade of Yemen across all routes by the coalition engaged in the war. The impact of that on a country that depended on imports for 90% of its food has been significant, despite the best efforts of relief organisations.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the impact of the blockade on the fuel supplies on which Yemen depends for its water and energy needs is a huge problem for that country?
I thank my hon. Friend because he has just saved me from reading out quite a lot of my speech. I totally agree with him, and I can now move on quickly to the next bit.
The role of the Saudi-led coalition has come under scrutiny because of the alleged human rights violations during their involvement. Those allegations are balanced by equal concerns about the attempts of the Houthis to overthrow a legitimate Government by force. The coalition is in a position of moral authority to call a ceasefire. The Government are securing Aden against al-Qaeda, and are moving towards Sana’a and the Houthis. I am concerned at reports of large casualties already as the push to Sana’a gets under way, with news outlets talking of “dozens” of deaths last night alone. Saudi forces have entered north Yemen for the first time, and I hope that we can get an assurance from the Saudis that their presence on the ground is temporary, and operates under clear rules of engagement.
The role of Iran in this conflict also needs to be addressed. The west has engaged with Iran in the hope that the Iranians will contribute towards pacifying the middle eastern situation, but we have yet to see evidence that they are willing to do so. There are already widespread concerns about human rights breaches, which the Government so far seem to believe are confined to the rebel side. Evidence on the ground suggests that the air campaign has been carried out with little regard for target verification by some coalition pilots. Our allies may well assure us that they do not mean to harm civilian targets, but it is fair to question whether they have operational control over sorties, and the discipline that we expect from our own forces. We are in danger of being found in breach of international law unless the coalitions control its forces.
I hope we will also learn about how breaches of international law by all sides will be independently investigated. We have heard assurances from several Ministers that the Government support investigations, but we have not yet heard any details of how we will support them in practice. In the discussion following the urgent question on
I want to add to hon. Members’ comments on the help of NGOs and others with the humanitarian crisis. I did have a longer speech and have had to take the part relating to this out, but that is not to say it is not incredibly important. I am very pleased that DFID has long had an operational plan for channelling aid to Yemen. I am confident that further stepping up our commitment will be efficient and effective. I am sure other hon. Members will support calls from NGOs and charities for our continued and increased involvement. I agree with them.
Finally, I hope the Syria conference this week will provide the opportunity for meaningful talks. The only way we will ever get a settlement in Yemen is by talking, not fighting. I hope that, with our long history with Yemen, we can be a major contributor to the peace process.
I have to bring the time limit down to four minutes. I call Mike Wood.
With the humanitarian situation deteriorating, we must ensure that all sides in the conflict are clear about the urgent need for a political solution. Yemen has descended into widespread armed conflict since March and is classified by the UN as a level 3 emergency. Despite that, this in some ways remains a neglected crisis. Government institutions are no longer able to deliver basic services to people in need, including basic healthcare and nutrition services, water and electricity. According to Amnesty International, four out of five Yemenis today rely on humanitarian assistance to survive. There is no access to essential services and food prices have soared, creating a desperate situation for millions of people.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, women and girls in Yemen face entrenched gender inequalities that limit their access to basic services and livelihoods. The conflict has exacerbated the impact of those inequalities. By October 2015, an estimated 52% of internally displaced persons were female and 22% were girls. Displaced women often bear the burden of supporting their families despite challenges in accessing assistance, especially outside their communities. These challenges are even more acute for female-headed households, which assessments have found comprise over 30% of the displaced households in some areas: conflict and displacement; increased gender-based violence, especially sexual violence; domestic violence; early marriage; and trading sex to meet basic survival needs. Despite uneven reporting, recorded instances of gender-based violence show a clear upward trend since March. Overall, women are also more acutely affected by a decline in living conditions and service availability. Even before the recent conflict escalation, Yemen had the second-worst malnutrition and stunting levels globally, with half of all children malnourished and one in 10 dying before the age of five.
The United Kingdom cannot stand idly by. This is why it is not only morally right but essential that the UK has more than doubled its humanitarian funding to Yemen in the past year, with new funding announced last week bringing the annual total to £85 million. The new £10 million emergency support package announced by the International Development Secretary will provide much needed help for people affected by a conflict that has disrupted the delivery of essential food, fuel and medical supplies to those most in need, putting millions of lives at risk. This new aid, which will go to UN and NGO delivery partners on the ground, will include critical medical supplies and rehabilitation of health centres to improve the health of children in particular, with 320,000 children suffering severe malnutrition. It will include emergency food assistance and the protection of livestock to help people who are facing critical food shortages. Thermal blankets will keep displaced families warm during winter as 2.5 million people have been displaced by fighting. The aid also includes treatment for potentially fatal diseases, such as diarrhoea, cholera and malaria.
The UK can be proud of its humanitarian effort, but there is more to be done. I welcome the unity displayed today and the clear commitment from the Minister to ensure that further assistance is provided.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate, which I thank Kirsten Oswald for organising, because Yemen is an important country to many of us.
Yemen is important to me personally because I studied my Arabic there some 20 years ago. Though I was not born in Khormaksar, as some of my hon. Friends were, and though I did not grow up overlooking Crater lake, as so many did, the country has marked itself on me. It has done so because it is a country of such wonderful contrasts. It is a very rich, green and beautiful land. It grows some of the world’s finest coffee, as well as khat, which, although banned in this country, is very popular in certain parts of the world. It is extraordinary in its richness. It is the place where the Arabic language was formalised and the domestication of the camel happened and therefore the place from which the colonisation of the deserts of Arabia and the rest of al-Jazeera al-Arabiya began.
Yemen is, then, at the heart of Arabia, and that is one reason why the conflict matters so much. For the Saudis, it is not some minor adjunct to their territory or some neighbouring state they can ignore. It is a country with which they have such close relationships of blood and history that they cannot cut it off. Many tribes that now live happily in Saudi Arabia have cousins and links across the border. I remember as a soldier watching as convoys of donkeys crossed the Saudi border—forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker, for taking a slight diversion. They would load up donkeys with hay and take them on the route five or six times, and when the donkeys knew where they were going, they would remove the hay, take away the donkey driver and load them up with heroin, and the donkeys would follow the same route. And so these self-propelled donkey caravans of drugs would come straight out of Yemen.
The Saudis have a real and personal interest in Yemen, and we should recognise, therefore, that they are defending their own interests. I will not argue, however, that they are doing so in the most humane way; they are not. They are behaving in ways that frankly call into question the training they have received from some of the finest pilots and servicemen in the world. I would urge them, therefore, to remember the lessons and doctrines they learned at Shrivenham and Cranwell and to remember that civilians are not a target.
This is an extremely important moment for Saudi Arabia. It is just beginning again to assert its presence in the region, as it has the right to do, being an important country. It is also right to do so given the expansion of the Iranian empire into traditionally Arab areas, such as Iraq, the eastern seaboard of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where the Iranian influence is growing. The Iranian encirclement of Saudi Arabia is certainly a threat. I welcome the fact, therefore, that the Saudis are reacting and that Britain is playing her role, as a good ally, in supporting her, but I urge them to think hard about how it conducts this campaign.
The campaign, in the heart of Arabia, is being played out perhaps not in our broadsheets, but in the broadsheets of the cafés of Cairo, Algiers and Baghdad. People are watching the leadership of Riyadh and its conduct, and they are thinking, “Are these the allies we want? Is this the example for Arabia and the post-Arab spring generation?” I ask the Saudi Government to think hard about the human rights and lives of the people they are affecting, not just in Yemen, but around the Arab world.
I suggest that the Front Benchers take eight minutes each.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Kirsten Oswald and others on securing this debate and the Backbench Business Committee on allowing us the time. It has been an important and timely debate, and we have heard some powerful and personal speeches, not least from the hon. Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and for Charnwood (Edward Argar), Keith Vaz and Mrs Drummond. We have also heard useful contributions from the members of the International Development Committee, whose recent report and letter I strongly endorse. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to it.
This is not the first time Yemen has been discussed on the Floor of the House recently. On
We have heard in moving detail about the humanitarian situation. Yemen has the highest number of people in humanitarian need of any country in the world right now, and the impact on children is particularly worrying. The right hon. Member for Leicester East spoke about the lifelong and generational consequences of denying children their education. Much of the humanitarian situation could be preventable, or at least be capable of being mitigated, even in the face of the conflict, because the threats of food insecurity and the challenges to infrastructure are as a result of coalition restrictions on shipping and the damage that has been done to infrastructure, severely limiting the ability of commercial deliveries such as food and medicines, stopping them from getting through.
My hon. Friend Alison Thewliss made the point that the Foreign Office advises against travel to the country, which starkly illustrates the humanitarian situation, yet the Home Office is trying to deport people back to it. It would be good to hear a response from the Minister on that. It is important to have a sustained return to pre-conflict levels of commercial supplies and humanitarian aid, and the establishment of UN mechanism to simplify and streamline that. It would be helpful to hear how the Government are supporting that at the UN. Allowing a humanitarian response is, of course, the first step to a peace process.
We heard from the hon. Member for Charnwood that peace must come from within the country. That is correct, but it needs to be supported by an international process. The right hon. Member for Leicester East was right to say that the bombing has to stop. Now is the time for a ceasefire—first to allow humanitarian access and then to provide time and space for negotiations. Kevin Foster was right to point to the geographical and geopolitical significance of Yemen and the real risk of violence spreading elsewhere.
Peace across the middle east is a complex and inter-related process. If we are going to build peace in Syria or anywhere else, we must have peace in Yemen, and the UK Government should not undermine their position and their credibility as peacemakers across the region by their links to this conflict. As I have said, that is one of the crucial issues. A major characteristic of the conflict has been the use of explosive weapons, especially in populated areas, intensive aerial bombardments and ground attacks, destroying not only military but civilian targets—and there is real concern that that is deliberate.
Yesterday, my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow Central and for East Renfrewshire met Yemeni human rights campaigners who told us of destruction and showed us horrific images of civilian death and destruction in the country. They rightly say that this is no way to restore the legitimacy of any Government, let alone by a foreign power such as Saudi Arabia. That reflects the findings of the UN report.
There is a bigger and more serious concern about the influence of the United Kingdom. Serious allegations have been made in a comprehensive legal opinion commissioned by Amnesty International, Saferworld, Professor Philippe Sands, QC and others in Matrix chambers, which concluded on the basis of the information available that the UK Government are acting in breach of their obligations arising under the UK consolidated criteria on arms exports, the EU common position on arms exports and the arms trade treaty by continuing to authorise the transfer of weapons and related items to Saudi Arabia within the scope of those instruments.
Several times the Minister has asked to see the evidence and asks us to give him the evidence and information on which to launch an inquiry. If this legal opinion by some of the most respected human rights lawyers in the United Kingdom is not the basis on which the Government can act, what is? As we have heard, the Government of Belgium has suspended its arms trade, and why the UK Government cannot follow suit has yet to be made clear. As has been expressed, we hope that this will be high up on the agenda of the Committees on Arms Export Controls when it meets next week.
I want to leave time for Front Benchers, especially the Minister, to respond to the debate. This has been described as a forgotten conflict. I hope that today’s debate has helped to change that and that the Yemen conflict will not be forgotten. Serious questions are being asked of the Government about their humanitarian response, their role in the peace process and, above all, their possible complicity in military action by Saudi Arabia and thereby their connection to alleged war crimes. The Government now have a chance to respond on all those issues. They should heed the questions asked by Members and by many of our constituents. Let us hear some answers and see some action.
Some of what was said by Patrick Grady slightly cut across some of the things that I was going to say, but I shall say them none the less.
Let me begin by thanking Kirsten Oswald for securing the debate. We have heard some passionate arguments and some important facts and statistics, but, above all, we have heard that this is a conflict that will continue to have profound effects, not just on the region but on the rest of the world, unless peace can be secured. That is not to ignore the terrible desperation and the terrible death and destruction of the people of that country, including so many children.
As for the Labour party’s position on the conflict, we recognise the legitimacy of President Hadi and the coalition. In particular, we note that the coalition’s action is backed by a United Nations resolution, and that Saudi Arabia has been attacked by Houthi rebels from northern Yemen. However, it is clear to us that both sides should be doing considerably more to reduce the humanitarian cost. Ultimately, as many Members have said this afternoon, peace talks are the only way to bring about an end to the conflict, and a negotiated settlement must be the priority for everyone.
In her opening remarks, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire said that Yemen was being bombed back into the dark ages. She also quoted the Red Cross as saying that this was a forgotten conflict, a phrase that many other Members repeated. My right hon. Friend—my good friend—Keith Vaz observed that the conflict was having an effect in the United Kingdom. He should know, because, as Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, he will have seen much evidence that that is the case.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on his promotion to the Front Bench. I was very moved by the case that was raised by Alison Thewliss. Bearing in mind what she said, does my hon. Friend agree that we should think very carefully about sending people back to Yemen when they have committed no criminal offences, but are here legitimately, and would be returning to a country in great conflict? Does he agree that the Home Office should look at that policy again?
If I had had a little more time, I would have responded to the main point that was made by Alison Thewliss, who wondered how we could even consider sending vulnerable people who have been here—in the case of her constituent—for more than six years back to a conflict zone that we will not allow our own citizens to go anywhere near. That seems to me to be totally inhumane. I know that it is not strictly the Minister’s responsibility, but I hope that he will at least shed some light on whether the Government will reconsider the position of those vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers from Yemen, as well as that of the Syrians whom we are already taking in. I thank my right hon. Friend for making that important point.
Many Members have referred to the humanitarian crisis, and that is the issue that really upsets and depresses so many of us when we hear statistic after statistic about the effect of conflict and war on our fellow human beings. As would be expected, the Opposition are deeply concerned about it. A number of Members cited statistics showing that 14 million people currently rely on food aid, and that more than 2.3 million—four times the number of people who were displaced at the beginning of 2015—have fled their homes in Yemen in search of safety. Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross—whom I was privileged to meet, along with Members who are present today, when I was a member of the International Development Committee, as I was until last month—has said that the situation in Yemen is
“nothing short of catastrophic.”
That sentiment was echoed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East when he spoke about the humanitarian effects of the conflict.
Edward Argar praised DFID’s efforts in Yemen but said that we needed a coalition of aid givers to ensure that sufficient aid was received. However, as Fiona Bruce pointed out, aid cannot resolve the problem. The economy has to be rebuilt and that can happen only if there is peace. That peace agreement has to be negotiated.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East said in his passionate contribution that Yemen was a catastrophe, with 21 million people in need of aid. Tim Loughton, who is no longer in his place, emphasised the effect that the conflict is having on children, as did many other hon. Members. The children in Yemen are in a worse position than the children in Syria at the moment. To echo something that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East said, Yemen is bleeding to death.
The Chair of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend Stephen Twigg, pointed out that terrible atrocities were being committed by both sides. He said that evidence had been given to the Committee that DFID’s humanitarian effort was being undermined. He also told the House that hugely respected non-governmental organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had provided overwhelming evidence of human rights abuses.
Let me turn now to the role of Saudi Arabia. I want to mention cluster munitions, because widespread reports from NGOs state that such munitions have been used in this terrible conflict. The response to a written parliamentary question from the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn, suggests that the Government might be conceding that that is true. The reply from the Foreign Secretary stated:
“We are aware of reports of the alleged abuse of cluster munitions by the coalition in Yemen and we have raised this with the Saudi Arabian authorities. The UK does not supply cluster munitions to any members of the coalition in Yemen. In line with our obligations under the Convention on Cluster Munitions we will continue to encourage Saudi Arabia, as a non-party to the Convention, to accede to it.”
I hope that the Minister will give us further information on that terrible situation.
The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow North quoted Philippe Sands, and I should like to quote something equally relevant from his important opinion given on
“In the current circumstances we can be clear in concluding what the UK is required to do to bring itself into full compliance with its legal obligations: it should halt with immediate effect all authorisations and transfers of relevant weapons and items to Saudi Arabia”—
I have been struck by the recent words of the international president of Médecins sans Frontières, Joanne Liu, who said:
“Is this the new normal: an MSF hospital bombed every month?”
We do not know that these are British munitions, but we do not know that they are not. Until we know the answer, should we not be stopping these arms sales completely?
Clearly there is a strong case to stop the arms sales immediately. I am pleased that the Chair of the International Development Committee and the Chairs of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, the Defence Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee have now re-formed the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which we used to call CAEC. I served on it during three Parliaments, so I know how it works, and I believe that it could examine carefully how British munitions and arms are being used by Saudi Arabia. In the meantime, I believe that the sales should be stopped.
I shall give the House the complete quotation from Philippe Sands:
“In the current circumstances we can be clear in concluding what the UK is required to do to bring itself into full compliance with its legal obligations: it should halt with immediate effect all authorisations and transfers of relevant weapons and items to Saudi Arabia, pending proper and credible enquiries into the allegations of serious violations…that have arisen and that could arise in the future, as addressed in this opinion and the sources here referred to.”
In other words, those sales should stop immediately.
I wish to conclude by making two more points. First, I have three key questions that I would like to put to the Minister. As we have heard, there have long been serious and credible allegations of war crimes against both sides. Now that these reports have been corroborated by a UN report, the Opposition have called for the suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia while that is being investigated. As we have heard, that has been backed by the Select Committee on International Development. Last week, the Minister said he was yet to read and study the UN report. He has now had the time to do that, so what does he make of it? Last week he promised to raise the report with the Saudis at the “highest level” this week, either at the counter-Daesh meeting or at the Syrian donors’ conference, which is taking place today. Has he had the chance to do so? Thirdly, the Government have consistently said that reports must be investigated. What would he consider to be an adequate investigation?
Finally, we have heard some remarkable speeches today, not just from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby and the hon. Members for Congleton, for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), and for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), all of whom I had the privilege of serving with on the International Development Committee until last month, but the hon. Members for Charnwood, for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for Glasgow Central for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and, of course the Yemenis in this House—those who were born in Yemen—Mrs Drummond and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East. I hope that the Government can take the hints, listen to what has been said this afternoon and play a vital role in securing a peace for the people of Yemen and the rest of the world.
I have just under six minutes to answer this too short debate, and I cannot do justice to the quality and the detail of the questions and concerns that have been raised. As I have done in previous debates, I assure hon. Members that I will write to them to give them my best answer. This debate, short though it is—I join others in saying that we should have longer debates—has shown that there is interest, concern and expertise in this House.
I pay tribute to Kirsten Oswald for securing this important debate. As many hon. Members did, she started by talking about the humanitarian devastation in Yemen and said this was the forgotten war. I had the opportunity at the current conference on Syria to speak to the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. I said, “Look at the support that Martin Kobler is given in Libya and that Staffan de Mistura is given in dealing with the Geneva talks, and compare that with the support given to Ismail Ahmed, the UN special envoy for Yemen. They are not on the same scale.” There is an acknowledgement that more needs to be done by the international community because of the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe taking place there.
The hon. Lady also mentioned concerns about oil and other assets needed to keep people alive getting into the country, as did others. She said that the UK is looking the other way, but, as we have heard in passionate speeches from Members on both sides of the House, Britain certainly is not looking the other way. We are one of the largest donors and supporters of the country. We are working to support the UN envoy and we are working towards a political solution. She touched on the 119 incidents mentioned by the UN report, and I intervened on her to qualify my own comments. The Opposition spokesman, whom I welcome to his place, asked me about that. I did raise the issue with the Saudi representatives at the Syria conference, and I also spoke to President Hadi on the phone today, raising the concerns about what is happening in Yemen. I also had the opportunity to speak to the UN envoy to raise the concerns about the scale and profile of what is happening. I am sorry that there has been a delay in the talks following the ceasefire that took place in December, and we are working hard to establish what needs to come first, before the ceasefire. I am referring to the confidence-building measures, which are the prelude to then making sure that the ceasefire can last.
My hon. Friend Edward Argar gave a passionate speech, again calling this the forgotten war and talking about Yemen being a complex and ancient land. He also commended the role DFID is playing and our contributions there, and I concur with him on that.
Keith Vaz articulated his own experience of Yemen. Indeed, there are others in the House who have lived in or who were born in that country as well. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words of support. He touched on the wider concerns of extremism in the Arab peninsula, not least with al-Qaeda, which was responsible for a number of attacks on the mainland, and he made an important link between what is happening in the region and the security that we have in our own country as well, and that should not be forgotten.
The day before yesterday, I met the culture Minister of Oman and raised some of those concerns with him. It was a private meeting, but it was very helpful to have such a frank conversation.
My hon. Friend Kevin Foster stepped back and looked at the wider regional picture. He reminded the House that, from a maritime perspective, Yemen is one of the seven global pinch points in the world. He also talked about the threat from other extremist organisations, such as Daesh, which recently killed the governor of Aden. Indeed, al-Qaeda runs the town of Mukalla, which is a port town on the southern coast. He also mentioned the effect of change by asking what would happen if the Administration in Saudi Arabia were changed. It is a liberal wing that is running that very conservative country. Of course we want change and modernisation, but it must be done at a workable pace.
Let me turn now to my friend, Stephen Twigg, whom I have known for a couple of decades—we used to represent different student unions at university. It was a pleasure to stand in front of the International Development Committee, of which he is Chairman. I offer on record to meet him in private to talk about some of the detail, as I appreciate that he and his Committee members were a little frustrated in my not being able to answer all their questions. He talked about the city of Taiz. Sadly, President Hadi has confirmed that the city has again been cut off and that humanitarian aid cannot get in. The hon. Gentleman again raised the matter of the report of the UN expert panel. I can confirm that we are looking into its findings, but there is a UN process as well, which was pre-empted when the report was leaked. None the less, there is a process, and we will be following it and looking at the findings.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the formation of the Committees on Arms Export Control. It is absolutely fantastic. Why has it taken so long? It is an important aspect from a legislative perspective of holding the Executive to account. I am pleased to see that it is to be reformed. He also touched on the Human Rights Council resolution in October. There is a consensus there, and he will be aware of that. As much as any individual would want to push forward a particular line, we have to leave the room with what will actually work, and it was decided that the resolution would work. I should make it clear that the council then determined that it would provide assistance to Yemen’s national independent commission of inquiry, which will look into the details. It will then report back to the Human Rights Council. If it is felt that the inquiry is not independent enough, then that is the vehicle that can be used for that to be recognised, rather than having a general call for an independent inquiry.
Time is against me. I have so many other comments to make and answers to provide. As I have said, I will write to Members with my response to this debate. I can say that this Government take what is happening in Yemen very seriously. I personally have devoted an awful lot of time trying to remain at the forefront so that I have some influence. I recognise the concern that this House has over the human rights issues, and I will take them away with me. I am grateful that we have had this opportunity to debate these matters. I certainly hope that, the next time we do so, we are not limited to a 90-minute debate.
I thank everyone who has taken the time to come here and speak today. It is very heartening to see such a high turnout on a Thursday afternoon, which reflects, I think, the importance of the subject. There have been some very impassioned speeches, some of which reflected a great knowledge of Yemen. However, we are talking about a forgotten war, and I hope that our debate has had a positive impact in that regard.
I reiterate my calls for the UK Government to consider very carefully our position in relation to the arms that we sell and the training that we offer to Saudi Arabia. Humanitarian aid, access, and the need for a consistent and coherent peace process are key to providing the stability that Yemen and that whole area of the world need in order for it to move forward for the benefit of the people of Yemen and for the wider benefit of the global community.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the conflict in Yemen.