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

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and I will come on to address some of his remarks in my contribution, but he is quite right that poor, broken infrastructure inevitably means cholera, particularly in a country like Yemen.

There is some good news in that the instances of cholera in Yemen have fallen for the fourth week running. That is positive and shows the difference that British and international support is making, and although it is early days, I very much hope that that positive trend continues.

Several right hon. and hon Members spoke about what we do next—what happens in the event that the conflict is resolved to the point that we can start rebuilding Yemen. I think we have actually started that. We have to look at Yemen’s economy and see what we can do to support it—even in its current desperate state and even at a time when the priority clearly has to be to stop people fighting and to resolve issues relating to the humanitarian crisis. We need to ensure that what passes for a Government in Yemen is able to disburse funds to public servants, and we have been working on that. By that, I mean disbursing funds to public servants right across the country, not just those in the parts that are controlled by the Government of Yemen. We have made it clear that the Government must pay public sector workers, some of whom have not been paid for two years.

Mike Gapes made a balanced speech. He forensically dissected the conflict in Yemen, rightly pointing out that it is not just one war, but several conflicts. The principal one that we are engaged with today is clearly the conflict between the Government of Yemen and the Houthi insurgency, but there is also the war in the south between the Government of Yemen and the so-called Southern Movement. Most worryingly for those who live some distance from the middle east, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to be active. We may not hear a great deal about that in the context of Yemen right now, but it remains there, and we must be alive to the threat that it poses, both to Yemen and to the rest of the world.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the World Food Programme. The protection of NGOs in general is a matter of the utmost importance, and they must be allowed to do what they do safely. The World Food Programme is absolutely essential to resolving the situation in Yemen right now, and its work—for example, to ensure the safety of grain in the Red Sea Mills—is vital to unlock those stores and to ensure that people have food. I salute the World Food Programme and all the NGOs that put themselves at considerable risk. Looking around the world today, there is a real risk that those people’s lives are often in peril, but they continue never the less.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about southern voices in Yemen, I am absolutely clear that any process needs to include all the people of Yemen, including those vital southern voices. Indeed, the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths reaffirmed that in his most recent briefing to the Security Council on 15 May. It is right that the UK continues to engage, so far as it possibly can, with a wide range and diverse group of Yemeni individuals, and we will continue to do that wherever we can.

Stephen Twigg made several vital points in his important contribution. The evidence stands in relation to child soldiers. We are appalled by the presence of child soldiers, some of whom we are told are as young as eight years old on Houthi side of this conflict. The evidence is clearer for the Houthis, but the accusation stands that both sides are employing minors in this conflict. That must stop. It is a truly terrible thing, and it must stop.

I entirely agree with the need to involve women in that process, and Martin Griffiths made that clear in his remarks. It is always important to point out that conflict leads to an increase in gender-based violence, and that is certainly happening in this case. I am pleased that we continue to support the UN, particularly the Yemeni women’s pact for peace and security, which is extremely important. As far as we can, we will ensure that all groups within Yemen are involved in this process.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that our commitment to Yemen must be long standing. As he will know as Chair of the International Development Committee, the important thing is that we do not consider the job done when one way or another this conflict inevitably grinds to a halt—although may that be sooner rather than later—because we need a plan for the future. We have also heard about the dusting off old plans where they may be of assistance. He is also right to call for a ceasefire, which we of course want. Goodness me, wouldn’t that be good? We must plan for what might come in the future while doing everything we can with all our interlocutors to impress the importance of dialling down and stopping the conflict, and I will come on to why that is important not just for Yemen, but for the wider region.

My hon. Friend Victoria Prentis rightly concentrated on the impact that the conflict is having on the most vulnerable: the children. I am pleased that UK aid means that the screening and treating of 30,000 children for malnutrition is going ahead this year. That will always be inadequate, but these are big numbers, and it means so much at a human level for people who would otherwise be left to face their fate. Of course, that action comes from the £770 million previously cited, which puts the UK in the premier division—head and shoulders above all the other countries with which we can reasonably be compared.

People in this country are sometimes said to be parsimonious when it comes to international development. I do not believe that to be the case, but they want to know that their money is being spent properly. I do not think there will be many objections to spending money in Yemen today. Incidentally, I agree with my hon. Friend’s insistence that the UK must be a champion of the international rules-based system. It is something that goes without saying, but she is right to make that important point.

I think my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell has probably left, but I will nevertheless deal with his points because he is an acknowledged expert in this area. He is obviously concerned about Saudi Arabia’s purchasing of arms from the UK, and we have been around this buoy many times. Fabian Hamilton, who speaks for the Opposition, knows pretty much what I am going to say. The Labour party, with all respect, is an expert in this matter, because it was famously involved in some of this when in office. However, this is not something that can by any means be attributed to any particular political party. We do comply with the EU consolidated criteria and with the tenets of the Export Control Act 2002, which is so important. I am absolutely clear that this country must ethically pursue whatever we do. I am prepared to argue, though this is probably neither the time nor the place—you may call me out of order, Mr Deputy Speaker—that if the United Kingdom did not sell arms in the way it does, for legitimate self-defence in accordance with international law, other countries would do so, and probably a lot less ethically.

The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield is concerned about the investigation of things that have gone wrong in the prosecution of Saudi Arabia’s operations in Yemen, and there have been some horrible examples. The UK is heavily involved in ensuring that when that happens, as it regrettably does in conflict, it is properly investigated. It is not right to dismiss the joint incident assessment team, which has produced over 100 reports on incidents during this conflict. We will clearly hold the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s feet to the fire in relation to the investigation of these matters, as we will with all our partners in the region. I hope that gives some reassurance.

I am being hurried along, and it is absolutely right that the Whip on duty should do that, but, needless to say, the speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) were superb. I agree with much of what they have to say. The latter, of course, has an extensive geopolitical understanding of the region, for which he is famed, but both speeches were balanced and highly commendable.

The Government are fully committed to ending the devastating conflict in Yemen. We believe that supporting the work of Martin Griffiths and the UN-led process is the best way to do that, for which I heard general assent in the Chamber today. It is in the interests of all parties, but especially of the Yemeni people themselves, that we work together to find a lasting solution to this appalling situation. For our part, the UK will do everything we can, both through our determined diplomatic efforts and through our generous humanitarian support, to help find the solutions about which the right hon. Member for Leicester East spoke so passionately.