It is right to congratulate Keith Vaz on securing this debate, and on his powerful and compelling contribution. He and I have known each other for very many years, and there are not many political issues on which we agree. On the question of Yemen and Britain’s role, however, you cannot get a cigarette paper between his opinion and mine. He set out clearly for the House the profound jeopardy of what is going on in Yemen, and Britain’s complicity in it. He spoke of the tens of thousands of young Yemenis who are being radicalised, and who know where the death and destruction that rains down from the skies night after night comes from.
I welcome the new Minister, my right hon. Friend Dr Murrison, to his position. He will cast a fresh pair of eyes on the problems of Yemen and Britain’s role in tackling them. I hope that he will speak out in the Government if his fresh view suggests that there are other ways of handling those problems. The purpose of my speech is to pose four questions to him, although I do not expect him to answer them from the Dispatch Box. I must apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I have already done to him, for the fact that I may not be able to stay until the end of the debate, because I have a very important engagement in my constituency.
I hope that the Minister will consider what he hears today. Britain is a beacon of light in some very dark places in the world, standing up for values that really matter to us and around the globe. On Yemen, however, I believe that Britain has lost its moral compass, and I say that with deep regret. I praise the new Foreign Secretary—he is not that new—who, immediately on taking office, went to Riyadh and Tehran. He has made it very clear that Britain’s contribution to solving the problem is right at the top of the agenda. That was made rather easier by the profound change of sentiment towards the war after the murder of the journalist Mr Khashoggi in Turkey. The values that were displayed in that despicable act led to considerable rethinking.
I also praise Martin Griffiths, a distinguished international civil servant. As the UN special representative, he is clearly giving everything he can to finding a solution, and his energy and endeavours on the ground are helping. I pay tribute to Sir Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and former DFID permanent secretary, who has been equally tireless in his efforts to help. Above all, this debate is a good opportunity for the House of Commons to pay tribute to the bravery and effectiveness of humanitarian workers. Many in the sector are very young, and they often put themselves in harm’s way to assist their fellow human beings who are caught up in such jeopardy.
I went to Sana’a and Sa’dah, as the right hon. Member for Leicester East mentioned. I think I remain the only European politician who has been into Sana’a and Sa’dah. Many have been into the comparative peace of Aden in the south, but you have to go to the north, Madam Deputy Speaker, and see for yourself the extraordinary damage that the bombing has caused to infrastructure and people’s lives. When I was there, I met British aid and humanitarian workers from Oxfam, in particular, who were doing brilliant work for some of the most dispossessed and miserable people in the world.
My purpose today is to encourage the Government in their apparent change of emphasis, and to urge them to move away from their former position of complicity in what is happening in Yemen. The blockade of the country by land, sea and air with British support has effectively created a famine, which is on Britain’s conscience. It is incredibly important that the Government move away from a partisan position and towards a neutral one by seeking to achieve a ceasefire, a negotiated settlement and an end to the violence.
I echo the urgent concern that the World Food Programme raised yesterday about corrupt Houthi leaders blocking humanitarian access to civilians. The arbitrary denial of humanitarian access is an unconscionable violation of international humanitarian law, and everyone should condemn it. It is no less concerning to see an intensification of violence in Yemen, including aerial attacks by the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition. When I recently asked a Yemeni human rights defender about the well-being of her family in Sana’a, she replied that
“in Yemen we are only safe by accident”.
That reflects the position of millions of men, women and children on the ground who suffer these air attacks, which I heard and saw for myself when I was in Sana’a, night after night.
Last week, on Thursday
I approach this matter more as a humanitarian than as a politician. In spite of the discomfort of this position, I have never called for an arms embargo. That is because, first, I do not think it is for politicians individually to make judgments about the sales of arms. It is for the Committees on Arms Export Controls to reach judgments in accordance with the laws that are made by this House. Secondly, quite apart from the undesirability of politicians waving their moral consciences around at the expense of high-quality jobs in the north-west of England, I think it is likely that the Saudis will continue to procure weaponry from some in Europe. Saudi Arabia is a rich country surrounded by opponents and enemies, and it will be able to secure such weapons. When it comes to protecting the people on the ground—the children in the school I saw in Sa’dah—an arms embargo from Britain will not have a direct effect, and it may not even have an indirect one.