Well, I am going to come back to some aspects of that point, but I think we can agree that the case for an arms embargo is going to get stronger and stronger unless Britain moves to a position of neutrality in this dreadful conflict.
It has been just over two years since I stood in a funeral parlour in Sana’a where more than 100 people were killed by a Saudi airstrike. It is shameful—a profound political and moral failure—that Britain has been unable to convince our Saudi and Emirati allies to end the bombing of innocent Yemeni civilians. On that occasion, the aircraft that killed the mourners in the parlour came around again for a second attack after the devastation of its first strike. In my view, the Government continue to take an imbalanced approach, rightly criticising Houthi transgressions but wrongly remaining silent when our Saudi and Emirati allies commit violations. There has been no response by the British Government to the strikes on Sana’a last Thursday that killed five children—not even an expression of concern.
Quiet diplomacy with the Saudis is clearly the Government’s preferred approach, but the continued bombing of civilian areas demonstrates that this approach is simply not working. That brings me to my second question to the Minister. Does he not agree that incidents in which innocent children are killed warrant a public expression of concern and condemnation by the United Kingdom? An imbalanced approach to the conflict in Yemen risks undermining efforts to bring parties to peace negotiations. The idea that the Hadi Government hold true democratic legitimacy in Yemen is clearly fundamentally flawed. President Hadi was elected on a ballot paper with only one name on it, his term has long expired and he spends most of his time in Saudi Arabia, so I do not think that the British Government should camp on the legitimacy of President Hadi’s Government.
It is high time for the UK to correct this imbalanced approach—not just in our public statements, but in our capacity as penholders on the UN Security Council. Resolution 2216 is widely seen as imbalanced and unhelpful, yet it still underpins efforts towards a peace process. The United Kingdom should demonstrate strong leadership to unite the United Nations Security Council and ensure that Yemeni civilians do not pay the price for increased tension between the US and Iran, which threatens to undermine Security Council unity on Yemen.
Let me be clear: I am no apologist for the Houthis. Violations are being committed by all parties to the conflict and all violations should be condemned, but it is the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led coalition that the UK is backing, and this is where we can yield serious influence in order to prevent needless civilian casualties and push for revitalised peace negotiations. That brings me to my third question. Does the Minister agree that the UK should urgently lead action at the UN Security Council to call for a nationwide ceasefire and a swift move to inclusive peace negotiations?
The United Kingdom can play an important role supporting impartial investigations of violations by all sides in Yemen, and promoting accountability for perpetrators. Relying on the Saudi-led coalition’s Joint Incidents Assessment Team to conduct credible investigations into incidents is like trusting children to mark their own homework, and it simply will not carry any international credibility. That brings me to my fourth and—the Minister will be relieved to hear—final question. Does he agree that we need a strengthened UN mechanism for investigating human rights violations in Yemen, and that the UK should support the creation of a commission of inquiry in September’s session of the Human Rights Council at the UN, so that a truly independent body is established with a strong mandate to collect and preserve evidence of possible war crimes and other violations of international law?
As I said at the outset, Britain needs to be seen at the United Nations as a force for the constructive conclusion of these dreadful events in Yemen, moving to a comprehensive ceasefire on the ground and meaningful peace negotiations at all levels in Yemeni society. Britain’s reputation at the United Nations is challenged at the moment, and this situation is one part of that. The Minister will have noticed that only six countries supported Britain on last night’s vote in respect of the Chagos Islands, which was a very significant change of tone by the UN. He will also be aware that Britain was unable to procure, for the first time since 1947, the election of a judge to the International Court of Justice—a position formerly held by the highly respected jurist Sir Christopher Greenwood.
In spite of the quite outstanding work that the current British permanent representative to the UN, Dame Karen Pierce, undoubtedly carries out, our reputation is damaged. If we are to hold the role of penholder on Yemen, we owe it to the United Nations and the international community to be in a far more a neutral position. It is unsatisfactory that the Russians and the Scandinavian countries had to amend the British-drafted presidential statement on these matters. For as long as we are maintaining the planes that are used for the bombing runs, supplying the armaments and advising the targeting cell in Riyadh, Britain’s complicity is unavoidable. Britain’s role is also still quite extraordinarily confused. When I was in Sa’dah, I had the opportunity to meet the very brave unit that was demining and defusing armaments, some of which were British. The unit was largely paid for by British taxpayers’ money and led by a former British major. That seems to put the confusion of the matter in very clear sight indeed.
I want to end with the words of the chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights, Radhya Al-Mutwakel, who visited Britain recently and met the Foreign Secretary and the Chair of the International Development Committee. She is a very powerful and independent Yemeni voice on what is happening, and she said:
“Since March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates…have led a coalition of countries in a military campaign against…rebels in Yemen. As documented by multiple human rights organizations as well as the UN, the Saudi/UAE-led Coalition has consistently attacked civilians and critical civilian infrastructure—including hospitals, schools, school children, weddings, farms, and water wells—in violation of the laws of war…Four years into the conflict, around 20,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed or wounded and half the population—14 million people—are at risk of famine, according to the UN. Other estimates, however, range much higher: ACLED”— the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project—
“has recorded over 50,000 reported deaths as a direct result of the fighting, and according to Save the Children, 85,000 children may have died of hunger and preventable disease.”
That is the situation. Britain’s position needs to move and intensify, away from what it was, to a new place.