Yemen Peace Process

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:50 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development) 1:50 pm, 23rd May 2019

The unfolding crisis in Yemen reminds us, as we struggle with our own domestic issues, that they are as nothing compared with the disaster that is unfolding in that country. It gives us a sense of perspective. Set against that, of course we can never do enough. I have been in this job for two weeks, and I am already enfolded by a sense of frustration and inadequacy. Douglas Chapman, who speaks for the Scottish National party, hopes that we might have an embassy again in Sana’a, and so do I. That would be a litmus test of real progress in Yemen, but we are a long way from there at the moment. I thank Keith Vaz for bringing this matter forward. I am sorry that the turnout has not been greater, but what we lack in numbers, we have made up for in quality today. No one in this House knows more about Yemen than he does. He is a tremendous advocate for the people of that country, the place of his birth, and I salute him for a really high-quality speech.

As right hon. and hon. Members have said today, there has been some progress. It is always a good thing in debates of this sort to try to find something positive to say. The Stockholm peace process has progressed, in baby steps, over the past several weeks, and General Lollesgaard, the head of the UN mission to support the Hodeidah agreement, confirmed on 14 May that Houthi forces had redeployed away from those vital ports that have been cited in the debate. Progress is painfully and disappointingly slow. Nevertheless, the United Nations has rightly described Hodeidah and Salif as a lifeline. Last month, they were the entry points for well over half of all the food imported into Yemen. Given that more than one in three Yemenis rely on aid as their only source of food, those ports are truly vital.

As I have said, there is still a lot to be done. Our country is one among many, but we do punch above our weight. I have only been doing this job for two weeks, but I have been struck by how much effort this Government have put into trying to make a difference in Yemen. Hon. Members have generously mentioned the contribution made by the Foreign Secretary, who has been to Yemen very recently. He has assembled the Quad, and we are the penholder at the United Nations in this matter. I am proud of that fact. I am also proud of the amount of aid that the United Kingdom has given to Yemen, and I will come back to that if I may. A number of Members have asked questions about aid, and I should like to describe and enumerate that issue a little more.

Central to all this is the work of the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, who I spoke to yesterday. I am grateful for the support for him that has been expressed today by a number of contributors to the debate, not least the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife.

Let us be clear that only a political solution can end this situation. It is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It might not seem that way to the general public, because it does not get the kind of coverage in our media that I think it deserves, but that remains the case nevertheless. Millions of Yemenis are experiencing the most appalling suffering. I am not keen on statistics, because they can sometimes betray and let down the sheer scale of some of these ghastly tragedies, but 24 million people—a staggering 80% of the population—are now in need of humanitarian assistance. UN Security Council resolutions 2451 and 2452, proposed by the UK, were unanimously adopted in December 2018 and 2019. It is important to understand that the UK has been right at the heart of trying to resolve this desperate situation—with the assistance of others, of course.

As the right hon. Member for Leicester East and others mentioned, we do not currently have a diplomatic presence in Yemen, but let me assure them that we monitor the situation on the ground closely, and this assessment is reviewed on an ongoing basis. As soon as it is safe to do so, we will ensure that we have proper diplomatic and, importantly, consular representation on the ground. I know that a number of right hon. and hon. Members are concerned about constituents who are wrapped up in this situation, and not being helped by the fact that the normal assistance that we would give to UK citizens is being hampered because we simply cannot have normal diplomatic or consular relations at this time.

With regard to the right hon. Member for Leicester East’s question about the upcoming state visit, I should like to remind Members of the remarks that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made only yesterday at the Yemen Day meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen, where he said that he would raise Yemen with President Trump and that he had already discussed it with Secretary Pompeo. It would be remarkable if that were not the case. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his suggestion of a UK-hosted conference for peace in London. As I have said, we are just one country among many, but we are influential and we have taken a lead on Yemen. In the spirit of the soft power that he cited, I will certainly consider his suggestion very carefully indeed.

I should like to make a few remarks about the UK’s response to the humanitarian crisis. We are providing a further £200 million this financial year, bringing our total humanitarian contribution since the start of the conflict to £770 million. I have checked with officials this morning, because I know that several Members are concerned about the roll-out of that money, and I am told that more than £600 million of that sum has already been paid. I will go further and say that in my early conversations with my interlocutors over the past two weeks, I have made it clear that those who have pledged aid must give that aid. I have underscored the fact that it is not good enough simply to pledge money, and that they must hand it over.

This is slightly complicated because most of those interlocutors, including the UK, disburse most of those funds through non-governmental organisations. That is quite right and proper, and it is the best way to achieve our aims, but the process means that there could be some delay in disbursing funds. According to the programmes and schedules of the NGOs, donors must hand over the cash as soon as they possibly can, and that has been the burden of my conversations with my interlocutors over the past few days. I hope that that gives right hon. and hon. Members the reassurance that they were rightly seeking from me.

Our latest disbursement of funds will help to meet some of the immediate food needs of the people in Yemen. It will enable us to feed people, to treat them and to ensure that they get better access to water and basic sanitation, which leads me to the subject of cholera and watery diarrhoea.

Almost 300,000 suspected cases have been recorded by the World Health Organisation. Our support is saving lives, and the British public need to know that, but it goes beyond simply giving people vaccines—simple though that is in the case of cholera. It has to mean a much wider public health approach to tackling what we in this country would call an “antique disease”— a disease that should not be affecting people in the 21st century—and that means instructing people in proper hygiene. We need teams who can do that, and we must ensure that people have proper access to clean water. GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, understands that full well, which is why we are supporting it and UNICEF and other partners to help vaccinate over 2 million people in high-priority districts.