Yemen Peace Process

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:51 am on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East 11:51 am, 23rd May 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
notes that 22 May 2019 is the 28th anniversary of the unification of Yemen, when that country emerged from a long and painful civil war;
further notes that today Yemen is once again in a deep and pitiful state of conflict, having entered the fifth year of its current, tragic war;
acknowledges that the most recent estimate places the death toll in excess of 70,000, of which 10,000 have died in the last five months alone;
notes that Yemen remains in the midst of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, in which at least 85,000 children have starved to death and almost 200,000 have contracted cholera in 2019 alone;
commends the work of the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, who brought opposing sides together for agreements including on a ceasefire in the Al-Hodeidah Governate;
regrets that the implementation of those agreements has been slow or non-existent;
and calls on the Government to take every possible measure to support an immediate ceasefire, the flow of humanitarian aid and further peace talks in Yemen.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee and its excellent Chair, my hon. Friend Ian Mearns, for granting time in the Chamber for this important debate. I am pleased to see so many Members in the Chamber despite this being election day.

I congratulate the Minister for the Middle East, Dr Murrison, on his appointment. He knows this area well, and I wish him well. I hope he can continue the diligent work of his predecessor, Alistair Burt. I am glad to see the shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, my hon. Friend Fabian Hamilton, and the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend Valerie Vaz, whom, of course, I met many years ago in Yemen—she was born in Yemen.

Yesterday was a special day for many Yemenis. It was Yemen Day, their national unity day: 22 May, the day on which the country’s unification took place in 1990, is a national holiday in Yemen and should have been a day of festivity, yet no one was celebrating in that troubled land. And why should they have been when their country is being destroyed and fragmented, town by town, street by street and house by house? We are in the midst of a terrible war in Yemen, and in March we passed the grim milestone of the war’s fourth anniversary.

Yemenis are losing their lives every single day. According to the Foreign Secretary, a hundred children die every day. So far, at least 70,000 children have been killed in the fighting since the war began. This will rise to 100,000 if the war ends this year, according to the United Nations. We can add to that 130,000 more who will die from starvation and disease.

Women and children are suffering and bearing the brunt of this war. A child dies every 12 minutes in Yemen, and at least 85,000 have succumbed to starvation. The all-party parliamentary group on Yemen has heard time and again from aid agencies and Yemeni organisations about the episodes of brutality, which range from the indiscriminate detonation of landmines laid by the Houthi militias to the aerial bombing of the hospital in Kitaf, northern Yemen, by coalition forces. Yemenis are literally being blown apart from the skies above and from the ground below. This must end.

An agreement was made in Stockholm in December 2018. It included three key proposals: first, the deployment of forces from Hodeidah; secondly, the exchange of prisoners; and, thirdly, humanitarian access to Taiz. In each of those areas, there has been little progress. Prisoners have not been exchanged, and talks broke down in February this year. Taiz remains in the grips of a humanitarian disaster. It is likely to have shrunk to a city of just 200,000 people, which is one third of its pre-war population of 600,000. It is as though the city of Sheffield had lost two-thirds of its population. The Taiz-Aden highway, along which much-need aid can travel, remains cut off by the fighting. The redeployment of forces from Hodeidah has been dragged out. The original deadline for troops to leave was 1 January 2019, almost half a year ago. The implementation process was only agreed in principle on 17 February, and the detailed plan of how this would take place only accepted on 15 April. This is painfully slow, while people continue to die. Finally, on 10 May, just 13 days ago, Houthi forces finally began their redeployment.

The Houthis withdrew from the key ports of Ras Isa, Hodeidah and Salif. That of course has to be welcomed by this House, and we hope it is an indication of a path to peace that both sides will travel along. Around Salif and Ras Isa, there are minefields that can now be cleared—these minefields have cost so many lives, including those of aid workers The House will be aware that about 80% of Yemen’s humanitarian and other goods are imported through the port of Hodeidah. We are now at a critical juncture. There have been reports of rising violence away from Hodeidah. In the al-Dhale governorate in southern Yemen, there has been a sevenfold increase in air raids in recent months. In Hajjah, in northern Yemen, fighting near the border with Saudi Arabia has caused the displacement of 100,000 people. If the agreement is not implemented in full, and if these recent developments break down, it is likely that the peace process will irretrievably falter and come to an end, with catastrophic consequences. For the sake of the people of Yemen—for humanity—we cannot let this take place. Before it is too late, this Government and the international community must grasp this chance for peace.

On 26 February 2019, the United Nations, and the Governments of Sweden and Switzerland, hosted its annual high-level pledging conference in Geneva. Donor states pledged a total of $2.6 billion in aid to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian supplies to the people of Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates each donated $750 million. We donated £200 million, bringing the UK financial contribution since the war began to £770 million. This support is most welcome. However, Sir Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs—OCHA—told Members of this House recently that it has received very little of this promised funding, with only 7% of the $4.1 billion required delivered by 24 April. From Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it has received less than $240 million of that promised. Saudi Arabia’s impressive Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, assured hon. Members in a robust exchange at the Saudi embassy recently that they were ready to transfer the rest of the funding. Will the Minister confirm that the rest of that funding has been transferred?

The UN reports that it has received only £30 million from the UK; will the Minister explain why we have not delivered exactly what we promised? The pledging of aid is one thing, but the promises have to be delivered on. Delays in payments are costing lives.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his engagement with Yemen. In particular, his visit to Aden, the city of my birth, on 3 March this year showed that he cares for the people of Yemen and that he wants to see a solution to the conflict. He met members of the all-party group on Yemen on 4 February this year and hosted a meeting of the Yemen Quad in London on 27 April. All that is by marked contrast to the engagement of his predecessor, but, as he knows, much more needs to be done.

I welcome the new Secretary of State for International Development, Rory Stewart, with whom the all-party group worked during his previous period at the Department. These ministerial changes show that we have two friends of Yemen in key Front-Bench positions, and I hope we will hear from a third when the Minister responds to the debate.

Our message to our friends is that they need to tell our partners to stop the bombing, and to do so now. We need seriously to consider the issue of arms sales to our coalition partners. The United Kingdom has sold at least £4.7 billion-worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and a further £860 million to its coalition partners since the war began. The issue must be addressed.

We need to talk to other regional powers. We know that the Government are not friendly with Iran—they have made that clear—but they need to talk to the Iranians. Of course, Iran denies involvement in Yemen, but only last week the Houthis, backed by Iran, struck Saudi oil pipelines. This violent act had to be, and was, condemned. But just three days later, exactly a week ago, the coalition retaliated with an air strike that hit central Sana’a, killing six people, four of whom were children. This is the never-ending cycle of death that happens whenever there is an act of violence and whenever we do not engage in the peace talks. That is why we must have an immediate ceasefire.

I commend the work of Congressman Ro Khanna of the 17th congressional district of California, and Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Mike Lee of Utah and Chris Murphy of Connecticut for their passion on and commitment to this issue. The US Congress has been more active on the Yemen peace process than we have been—to be frank, in some areas it has been more active than our Government. On 4 April this year, Congress passed a resolution, which was previously passed in the Senate, calling for an end to US involvement in the Yemen war. Regrettably, the measure was vetoed by President Trump, who, as we have heard, is making a state visit to the United Kingdom from the 3 June to 5 June. The House will expect the Yemen conflict to be on the agenda for his meeting with the Prime Minister; will the Minister confirm that that will be the case?

We owe a debt of gratitude to the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, for all that he has done. He has brought the parties in the war together and has initiated the trust-building measures that led to last week’s troop withdrawal. We know how busy he is, but we hope he will meet members of the all-party group when he comes to London. Members of the group have been diligent in raising awareness of the Yemen peace process both inside and outside the House. In particular, Alison Thewliss, who sends her apologies for not being able to attend this debate, Tim Loughton, my hon. Friend Gill Furniss and Douglas Chapman, who I see is in his place, have all worked tirelessly on this issue.

The humanitarian impacts of the peace process have been the focus of the Chairman of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend Stephen Twigg, who is in his place, and of Mr Carmichael. Other Members, including my hon. Friend Kevin Brennan and Stephen Gethins, have considered Yemen because of the plight of constituents with family members caught up in the conflict. I am so delighted to see Mr Mitchell in his place. He is the only senior politician in Europe to have visited Sana’a during the conflict. From his time as one of the great International Development Secretaries, he has shown himself to be a great friend of Yemen.

Yesterday afternoon, the all-party group hosted its annual Yemen Day event. We heard from charity representatives about their work in Yemen and the devastation they encounter. International humanitarian organisations continue to do so much to help the people of Yemen. These include Oxfam, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee, Human Rights Watch, Médecins sans Frontières, CARE International and Save the Children. I have presented the Foreign Secretary with a letter signed by 86 hon. Members from both sides of the House, as well as Members of the other place, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. It calls on him to use every tool at his disposal to push for peace in Yemen. We urge him to use our considerable influence—that great soft power that Great Britain is so good at wielding—in the region to stop the bombing. It has to remain at the top of his agenda.

On the 20th of next month, the all-party group will host an international conference on Yemen. Parliamentarians from across the world will join us in Edinburgh and Glasgow for the conference being hosted by the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) and for Glasgow Central. This follows the first international parliamentary conference for peace in Yemen held in Paris in November last year and hosted by Sébastien Nadot, a Member of the French Assembly. I extend an invitation to the Minister, who has not yet been to a Yemen event—he has just been appointed, so I forgive him—to come to Edinburgh and take part in that meeting.

Here are our key asks. The Stockholm agreement was a vital staging post, but it did not go far enough. We should have had an immediate nationwide ceasefire in Yemen. We have played an important role in the peace process. We secured the passing of UN resolution 2451 on 21 December 2018 and resolution 2452 on 16 January 2019. Just last month here in London there was a meeting of the Quad. The US was represented by David Satterfield; Saudi Arabia, by Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir; and the United Arab Emirates, by Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed.

As we all know, the UK is the penholder at the Security Council, but we need to do much more. I have an idea for the Minister. Why do the Government not host a peace conference in London in the next eight weeks? Why do they not use their position on the Quad, as the penholder, to organise such a conference, as we have done in the past, to keep this right at the top of the agenda? Key parts of the agenda should be the facilitation of the unimpeded access for food, fuel and medicines through the key port of Hodeidah and through Taiz and implementing the demand for an immediate nationwide ceasefire. What better way to show a commitment to peace?

In successive debates in this House, I have lamented the fact that Yemen is bleeding to death, while all we do is make speeches in this House. One cannot look at the pictures of what is happening to our fellow citizens of the world and not be overcome with emotion. As I have said many times before, I want one day to return to the country of my birth to show my children where I was born and where I spent the happiest days of my life. I want to live long enough to see Yemen peaceful, prosperous and united, free from violence and free from hate. We have reached a critical juncture in the peace process that will be of historic significance if we seize the moment. From the bottom of my heart, I beg the Minister to save the children of Yemen. I beg him to stop the bombing and the killing. I beg him to stop this war. This is in our Government’s hands.