Yemen Peace Process

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:34 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence) 1:34 pm, 23rd May 2019

First, I welcome my opposite number, the Minister, to his place. He has big shoes to fill but I know he will do it effectively and efficiently.

I thank my right hon. Friend—my good friend; my dear friend—Keith Vaz for bringing this debate to the House today. He is a fine, fearless and forthright advocate for Yemen. For as long as I have known him, he has provided that advocacy, but never more so than in these past four years when it has been more necessary than ever before. He opened our debate by talking about the unification of Yemen in 1990, when it was a country that was being destroyed and fragmented, to use his words, after four years of appalling conflict, echoes of which we have heard from many hon. and right hon. Members. We know that 100 children die every single day and 70,000 have been killed or have died since the war started. This is the largest humanitarian disaster since the second world war and a shocking testament to our inability to stop this needless slaughter of innocents. A child dies every 12 minutes, he told us, and many have echoed that.

My right hon. Friend referred to the Houthis’ indiscriminate use of landmines, which we have condemned over and over again. He mentioned the Stockholm agreement that was agreed in December 2018, but the implementation process of which has been sadly and woefully slow. On 10 May—at last—Houthi forces began their redeployment. We hope, like him, that that is a path to peace. As we know, 80% of goods come in via Hodeidah, and they are much needed—more needed than ever before. There has been $2.6 billion pledged in aid, but only $770 million in aid has been received. Sir Mark Lowcock says that much more must be done to try to ensure that those pledges turn into reality. The most important message that he gave us was, “Stop the bombing now”—something echoed by every hon. and right hon. Member who spoke.

We then heard from somebody who has really shown his mettle over the past few years and has acted where many others just speak—Mr Mitchell. He is somebody we should always listen to. I agreed with everything he said, bar one thing that I will come to in a moment. He posed four pertinent questions to the Minister, and I know the Minister will do his best to answer them. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has visited Sana’a, Sa’dah and many other towns and cities in Yemen, and has shown his knowledge and understanding from those visits. He said something very important—that the United Kingdom has been complicit in this war. He mentioned the corrupt Houthi leaders blocking food aid, and the aerial attacks by the Royal Saudi Air Force and the United Arab Emirates, which I will say a little more about later.

My hon. Friend Stephen Twigg, the Chairman of the International Development Committee, has also taken up the cause of Yemen and spoken again and again, with passion and with feeling, to try to make sure that we play our part in this country to stop the slaughter. He said that the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe has been widely described. He emphasised the 80% gap between the funds pledged and the funds actually paid, and asked what the United Kingdom is going to do to ensure that the push for the pledges to come forward is made. Like every other Member, he mentioned the effect on children, especially those under five, and the 1,000 children a day—a day—who are contracting cholera. He welcomed, of course, the diplomatic leadership by the United Kingdom. Importantly, he agreed that there should be a major rethink on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He said that although we do have rigorous arms sales licensing, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned, our sales of arms to Saudi Arabia undermine that rigorous set of rules. He said that a nationwide ceasefire is of course vital, but, more than that, we must have a long-term commitment by this country to rebuild Yemen. We would all agree with that, I hope.

John Howell said that it is a cause for celebration that the truce outlines are there, and that the peace process is akin to a mediation, but much more needs to be done to build peace. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned peace building, a role close to my heart as our shadow Minister for peace.

We then heard from the former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mike Gapes, a close friend. I served under him on the Committee when he was Chair. His knowledge, understanding, interest and passion came through very strongly. He is a Member we should always listen to, especially on this subject—especially with his lifelong knowledge and expertise of the middle east and of the conflicts. Not only does he talk about these things, but, as he made clear to all of us this afternoon, he acts, too; he visits the regions—he is fearless in doing that.

The hon. Gentleman made some important points. The UAE is also a big player in the coalition against the Houthis, and of course Iran’s role in this proxy war is extremely important and we need to tackle the Iranians on it. He also said something I would certainly agree with: while we listen to what the Americans say about Iran we need to play a much stronger role because we have a warmer relationship with the Iranians. In that regard, I hope I will be having some contact myself with the Iranian ambassador, as I am sure the Minister does regularly. The final point the hon. Gentleman made was that there are more than just two Yemens; this is a multifaceted country and we have to make sure all parties, all tribal groups and all the groups playing a role in this terrible conflict are brought into the peace talks, not just the main contenders.

Victoria Prentis again talked about the plight of children. I know that she is concerned and always passionate about trying to stop conflict. She mentioned the increase in violence in other parts of Yemen now that there is a relative ceasefire in Hodeidah.

Finally, we heard from Mr Seely, who also clearly has a great deal of knowledge about the region. He said, again backing up comments of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, that this is not just about weapon sales, and stopping weapon sales will not solve the issue. He also emphasised once again that this is a proxy war.

The Houthi rebels have started to comply with a UN-led agreement to withdraw their forces from the key port of Hodeidah. Before talking about that, however, I want to mention a “Dispatches” documentary by journalist Sue Turton shown on Channel 4 recently. It underlined the role our country is playing and that many personnel, both military and non-military civilian staff, are playing in ensuring the Royal Saudi Air Force is able to operate. They do not touch the bombs—that would be against the law—but they do make sure the aircraft are airworthy and able to go on bombing missions. That is why Labour pledges absolutely to push as hard as we can on this, and if in government to stop all arms sales to Saudi Arabia while we ensure there is a UN investigation into the role those arms sales have played. I accept that, as some Members have said this afternoon, it will not stop the war necessarily, but I urge everybody who has not seen that documentary to watch it; that journalist’s credentials are excellent and her sources impeccable, so it is worth watching because it might change Members’ views about this.

While UN figures estimate over 10,000 people have been killed in the last two years, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project claims that the figure is closer to 60,223, many of these being children as we have heard so often today. Save the Children claims 85,000 may have died from starvation since 2016. I know that figure of 85,000 has been mentioned a few times this afternoon, but we need to remember it. These are children; not only are they the innocent victims of war, but they have no say in trying to stop this war. They were never consulted, and nor were most of the civilian population for that matter.

While we on this side of the House welcome—as I am sure we all do—the progress finally being made under the auspices of the Stockholm accord and the Houthi decision to withdraw from the port of Hodeidah, it is now vital that all sides adhere to the terms of the peace plan. Over 80% of humanitarian aid enters Yemen through the port of Hodeidah. The Yemeni people have suffered enough, and the chair of the Redeployment Coordination Committee, Lieutenant General Michael Lollesgaard, is right to say that the unilateral withdrawal of the Houthi rebels must be followed by

“the committed, transparent and sustained actions of the parties to fully deliver on their obligations”.

We believe that there must be a full investigation into why there are reports, such as in the documentary I have just mentioned, of British weapons and even SAS soldiers being used in Yemen—it may not be true, but there have been reports. The fact that British weapons may have been used to kill innocent civilians, including many children, is extremely sickening, but we want to make peace in Yemen possible.