Yemen Peace Process

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:21 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Douglas Chapman Douglas Chapman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Procurement & Nuclear Disarmament) 1:21 pm, 23rd May 2019

I thank Mr Seely and other experienced Members around the Chamber for their comments. There is obviously a huge amount of knowledge about Yemen in the House. I hope the Minister is in a position to listen to the comments that have been made today and to act on the good suggestions that we have heard.

My starting point is that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is one of the greatest tragedies of our time. Can the UK do more to alleviate the dreadful humanitarian situation in that country and that region?

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for supporting this debate in Yemen week. I congratulate Keith Vaz on securing the debate and on the assiduous way in which he has pursued such a complex issue through the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen, which he chairs with the support of Mr Mitchell and my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss, who sadly cannot be with us as she is on manoeuvres elsewhere. All Members share their passion for peace and prosperity in Yemen, both in the short term and in respect of its long-term success.

The pressure that the APPG has brought to bear over the past four years has been something to behold, particularly the number of parliamentary questions that have been put down by our members and the number of early-day motions that have detailed every twist and turn of the process. As the bombs have rained down on the people of Yemen; as food, water and medicines have been in exceptionally short supply; as the humanitarian crisis has deepened; and as the Government have blatantly ignored our calls to stop UK-built weapons being exported to Saudi Arabia, the APPG has been there, influencing, making the case and highlighting the deficiencies of the Government. We have praised the good work that has been done where we can, but overall we have been hugely frustrated by the slow progress that has been made over recent times. The APPG has worked assiduously with the non-governmental organisations that have a presence in the country. We keep ourselves as well informed as we can. We keep in contact with Yemeni groups here in the UK and those who work every day to bring some sense of normality within the country itself.

The biggest thing for the APPG has been to support the work of the UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, and the peace process that he has put in place. Despite some setbacks, we wish him well in all his efforts, because the only solution in this dreadfully war-torn country will be a political solution. I look forward to those issues being discussed in Edinburgh and Glasgow at the inter-parliamentary conference on 20 June, which follows a similar event at the French National Assembly in Paris last November. Most of all, I look forward to Martin Griffiths’ efforts being successful. I doubt there is even one Member of this House who does not want that peace to be won for the people of Yemen and the security of the region.

I will say a bit more on the peace process later, but I will begin by looking at an issue that some other hon. Members have veered away from: the sale to Saudi Arabia of arms that are subsequently deployed in Yemen. I believe that those exports still play a significant negative role in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. By continuing with this policy, the UK is now “out of step” with the rest of the EU member states and its position is

“becoming ever more absurd, to the point where Jeremy Hunt claimed at the end of March that it would be ‘morally bankrupt’
not to sell weapons to the Saudis.”

So wrote Anna Stavrianakis in a recent article for The Guardian.

Agreeing licences for arms sales is not the good news the Foreign Secretary thinks it is; it is a blot on our reputation. When Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Rights Watch UK are supporting a legal appeal brought by the Campaign Against Arms Trade, and when we know that many of our European counter- parts have not fallen into the arms trade trap, it is clear that a serious message on arms sales is not getting through to the most senior levels of our Government—a Government who have the power to stop or suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia until Yemen is firmly on a path to peace and stability.

There is an even stronger warning from Amnesty International’s extensive and credible report, which has

“demonstrated that British-made weapons have been repeatedly used—and continue to be used—to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law, including possible war crimes.”

That is a dreadful legacy for any Foreign Secretary and, indeed, any Government to leave to those who come after them. Someone, someday will have to be around to clear up the mess that has been left behind.

The Netherlands, the Flemish part of Belgium and Greece have all suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and Austria, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland have put restrictive measures on exports to Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, several EU states announced that they would suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including Germany, Norway, Finland and Denmark. I hope that the Minister accepts in his response that many of the countries I have just mentioned are our friends and allies. Why have they seen the light, and why is the UK out of step with them?

The Government have said many times that they are friends with the Saudi regime and that they have influence in the region. In a good friendship, sometimes one has to be a critical friend. I therefore hope that the Minister will listen to the views that have been expressed in this House and explain to his Saudi counterparts that many Members of the House are unhappy with the arms sales and the way in which British arms are being deployed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Many hon. Members have highlighted the dreadful humanitarian crisis affecting Yemen. Women and children are on the frontline of that crisis. Their difficulties have been well documented by UNICEF, Oxfam, Save the Children, Islamic Relief and the Red Cross. Some of the statistics that we read are chilling: 80% of Yemenis are in need of humanitarian aid; 50% of children between six months and five years old are chronically malnourished; half the population, or 16 million people, wake up every day hungry; there have been, to date, 17,000 UN- documented civilian casualties, 10,000 of which are attributed to Saudi-led coalition assaults; 85,000 children have died of starvation; and 20 million people do not know where their food will come from in the next week.

Those are just numbers, and it is easy for them to trip off our tongues as Members of Parliament, but the House must recognise the lives, the families, the education and the wellbeing of those who lie behind them. While we are the fifth-largest contributor to aid to Yemen, which is to be welcomed, we are the second-biggest arms exporter to Saudi Arabia. It might be a start if the those two areas were transposed and we started putting more into aid and much less into arms sales—if, indeed, we are to have arms sales at all.

The peace process is of course where much of our hope for the future lies. As I said, I think the whole House is united in our support for the work of Martin Griffiths and Sir Mark Lowcock, whom many hon. Members have met in recent months. The UK is the penholder for Yemen in the UN, which means that we have a special role—a significant responsibility to the people of Yemen to help to lead them to a situation where they live in a peaceful and prosperous country. We support UN resolutions 2451 and 2452. I thank the Foreign Secretary for travelling to Stockholm to engage in these peace talks, but we need to do more. I also thank the previous Minister, Alistair Burt, for everything that he did in this area and the way that he kept Members informed. I hope that the new Minister will step seamlessly into his shoes and do an equally good job.

There are five areas critical to peace where the UK could do more. We need to do much more to apply pressure to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to bring about an end to this conflict and to secure peace and a lasting ceasefire. The special relationship must be made to work towards peace and stability. I would like to hear the Minister’s views on how he is working towards that. We ask that the UK stops, or at least suspends, arms sales to give a really strong signal that we are serious about a ceasefire and bringing peace to the region. Stephen Twigg made a good point about allowing us to find some space to rethink what our position is on arms sales. We should send a message that we want to bring peace and stability to the region. This is not a long-term position that the Government need to adopt; we just need to provide a bit of space to make sure that progress can be made.

Having a diplomatic presence in Sana’a would give a clear message that we are serious about the long-term future of the country and help to focus the international efforts to bring about an immediate and lasting ceasefire. I do not know if there are any plans to do that or if it has already been done, but it would send a very strong message to people on the ground that the UK was playing a major part and respecting our penholder status.

I hope that we can listen a lot more to the people of Yemen on the ground—particularly women—who have a crucial role to play in the future of their own country. The solutions must be found by the people of Yemen and not just done to the people of Yemen. I hope to hear from the Minister about how he would hope to encourage that sense of inclusion across communities and groups that currently operate in Yemen. I look forward his response.