Yemen Peace Process

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:27 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Chair, International Development Committee 12:27 pm, 23rd May 2019

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He has anticipated something that I am about to say, so I will say it now. If implemented, the Stockholm agreement, about which I will say a little more later, is crucial to achieving that. While we have seen fragile progress in that regard, were that agreement to collapse, the consequences could be disastrous. The International Rescue Committee’s country director in Yemen, Frank McManus, says that the cost of the deal collapsing “cannot be overstated”, that almost 10 million people are “on the brink” of starvation in Yemen and that fighting in Hodeidah and disruptions to imports through the port

“could propel the country into a full-fledge famine.”

That is why implementation of the Stockholm agreement is so important.

The focus on Hodeidah is understandable, but there are challenges elsewhere in Yemen. The International Rescue Committee tells us that in Aden port, cargo is being delayed for months due to five different departments of the authorities there having to approve customs clearance, and in the north—the Houthi-controlled area—there are delays in getting the Houthis to agree to aid operations and increasing efforts by the Houthis to influence where aid is delivered to.

Stockholm is a hugely welcome development, but as both my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield pointed out, progress is fragile. As we have heard, last week we saw Houthi attacks on the oil export pipeline linking eastern and western Saudi Arabia, then a retaliatory strike by the Saudi-led coalition in Sana’a and further clashes in Hodeidah. The Yemen Data Project points out that the latest figures from April marked a record monthly low in the number of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes. Despite that, the number of civilian casualties from airstrikes in April was 131, which was up from the previous month.

I want to emphasise, as the two previous speakers have, the vital role of the UN special envoy and to welcome the diplomatic leadership of the United Kingdom, which I have no doubt has contributed to the progress we have seen in recent days, with the Houthis finally agreeing to redeployment from Hodeidah, Ras Isa and Salif.

Let me comment briefly on the wider regional context. We are seeing greater tension between the United States and Iran. Iranian links to the Houthis are well documented, but this rising tension makes it even more important for the United Kingdom, in our role as pen-holder, to retain an absolute focus on Yemen and its people. It would be a further risk to the prospects of peace if Yemen were simply seen through the lens of Iran versus the west. That is why, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield rightly said, we should be clear in calling out both sides for any alleged violations of international humanitarian law. I endorse his call for an independent commission of inquiry to be established through the UN Human Rights Council, and I hope the UK Government will support that.

Last year, the UN group of experts on Yemen said:

“There is little evidence of any attempt by parties to the conflict to minimize civilian casualties.”

We have heard about the Houthis’ appalling and widespread use of landmines, which are laid right up the western coast of Yemen, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries and inhibiting access for humanitarian aid. I thank Human Rights Watch for the excellent work it has done in exposing the Houthis for their use of landmines.

Looking at the other side in the conflict, the Yemen Data Project points out that there have been almost 19,000 air raids by the Saudi-led coalition during the conflict. That is one air raid every 102 minutes. In March this year, five children were killed in a Saudi-led coalition attack on a hospital in Kitaf supported by Save the Children. At the time, the Government said that the UK had

“raised this matter with the Saudi-led Coalition, who have announced an investigation.”

My understanding is that no public statement has yet been made by the coalition about an investigation, and neither the hospital nor the families have been contacted. Can the Minister update the House—ideally in responding to the debate, but if necessary after it—on any progress towards a genuine investigation into that attack, which resulted in the deaths of five children in March at a Save the Children-supported hospital?

Let me comment briefly on the issue of child soldiers. There is huge concern about the number of children who have been recruited into this conflict, mostly by the Houthis. It is well documented and must be condemned, but there are also reports that children have been recruited by the Saudi-led coalition. Can the Minister comment on that? Yesterday I had the opportunity, as others did, to meet the Yemeni Minister of Information. He raised with me the Houthis’ use of child soldiers, and I agreed with him entirely in his condemnation. I asked him about allegations of there being child soldiers on the Government side, and he said there were none. I would be interested to hear the UK Government’s assessment of whether that is actually the case.

Let me say a little more about what needs to happen with the peace process, and in particular the importance of peace-building efforts that engage Yemeni society, empower women, give a voice to young people and reach local community organisations. As we have heard, women and children have borne the brunt of this crisis. We have a responsibility to put women and children at the heart of efforts to build peace in Yemen. In the financial year that just finished, £7 million of the conflict, stability and security fund was spent on stabilisation and peace building in Yemen. What plans do the Government have to scale up support for peace building and to include as part of that engaging with Yemeni civil society, and especially women, young people and marginalised groups?

Let me comment briefly on the issue of UK arms, because I very much agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East that we need to see a major rethink. This is the only issue in the speech of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield with which I disagree. I respect his point of view, but I do disagree, not least because our sale of arms has contributed to the issue that he so eloquently described as our not being seen as a neutral player diplomatically. I also feel that the example of the arms that are being used in Yemen has undermined the claim, which is still made by the British Government, that we have the most rigorous arms export control regime in the world. I think it is now, sadly, very difficult to justify that claim, so I urge the Government to think again. They should follow the example of a number of European countries, including Germany, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East rightly said, the resolutions that were passed with cross-party support—bipartisan support—both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate in the United States.

An important element in our debates on Yemen is the Yemeni diaspora here in our own country. It has been an honour for me over the last three or four years to get to know the Liverpool Yemeni community, and we formed the Liverpool Friends of Yemen to enable people across the city to show solidarity with the people of Yemen. I was pleased to join the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend Valerie Vaz, at an excellent event in Birmingham in March, which engaged with the Yemeni diaspora from across the country but particularly from the west midlands. I am very pleased that we have formed the Labour Friends of Yemen, of which I am the chair. May I ask the Minister to give an undertaking when he responds that when Martin Griffiths is next available in the United Kingdom, he could meet representatives of the Yemeni diaspora so that their voice can be heard as part of his efforts to build peace in that country?

Let me finish by joining in the tributes paid by both my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield to the amazing, brave work that is done by human rights organisations and humanitarian organisations on the ground in these dangerous circumstances in Yemen. I welcome the leadership the Foreign Secretary has shown since he took the post, and in particular the support of the United Kingdom for the efforts at the UN of the special envoy, Martin Griffiths.

As the motion sets out very clearly and very powerfully, what is needed now for Yemen is a nationwide ceasefire. The whole country needs a ceasefire. We then need a peace process that, yes of course engages the combatants, but also engages civilians and civil society. We need a sense that there will be justice for victims on all sides in this conflict. Perhaps most importantly of all—I hope the Minister can give this commitment today—we need to demonstrate that the United Kingdom’s commitment to Yemen is not just during this conflict, but will be a long-term commitment to rebuild a country that was always poor and always faced many challenges, but one that has come close to destruction because of this conflict.