Yemen

– in the House of Commons at 3:45 pm on 8th February 2021.

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Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee 3:45 pm, 8th February 2021

(Urgent Question) To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, if he will make a statement on Yemen.

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood for asking a question on this important matter. The ongoing conflict and humanitarian situation in Yemen remain a challenge for the international community. The new Houthi offensive in Marib has only made our efforts to bring peace and stability even more difficult. Nevertheless, we continue to work with the international community to find a peaceful resolution, with an emphasis on the political process.

The UK is playing a leading role in responding to the crisis in Yemen through both our humanitarian response and our diplomatic influence. We actively support the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, in his work to reach a political solution, and we pay tribute to his tireless efforts to bring about peace. The UK has pledged over £1 billion in aid to the humanitarian response since the conflict began.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have regular calls with partners on Yemen. Recently, the Foreign Secretary spoke to Secretary Blinken in the new United States Administration and to the Saudi Foreign Minister. Last month, I spoke with the Yemeni Foreign Minister to offer my condolences after the attacks at Aden airport. The UK has also used its role as the penholder at the UN Security Council to help move the Yemen peace process forward, working with our partners and allies at the United Nations to ensure that Yemen continues to be a top priority for the international community.

We welcome the recent statement by President Biden to instigate a review of US foreign policy towards Yemen. Our ambassador in Washington has already spoken with the new US envoy to Yemen. I also welcome reports that the US may reverse the previous Administration’s designation of the Houthis as foreign terrorist fighters. The UK has engaged closely with the US Administration on that very matter.

However, we cannot—we must not—ignore the Houthi actions. Those include the use of children and sexual violence as tools of war, the persecution of religious minorities and attacks on civilians. On 30 December, the Houthis attacked Aden airport, killing 27 civilians and injuring more than 100 others. We must address the Houthi sense of impunity, to make the peace process meaningful, and that must extend to other actors in the region, notably Iran. I note the US decision to pause its arms exports while it reviews its policy towards Yemen. I reassure the House that the Government take their own export responsibilities extremely seriously and assess all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria.

The political settlement is the only way to bring about long-term peace and stability in Yemen and to address the worsening humanitarian situation. The Government remain committed to bringing an end to the conflict.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee

Last week, President Biden gave his first foreign policy speech, reversing many of the isolationist policies of his predecessor and seeking to re-engage with like-minded allies in order to revisit major global hotspots neglected by the west. The complex civil war in Yemen, now entering its seventh year, was named specifically. Today, it is the largest humanitarian catastrophe in the world. The US President has appointed a new envoy, as we have just heard, and will end support for the offensive operations and connected arms sales, seeking to establish the conditions for a ceasefire and fresh peace talks.

The war in Yemen is complicated. The country never properly stabilised following unification in 1990, and President Hadi has struggled to handle corruption, unemployment, tribal disputes and, most critically, separatist and extremist agendas pursued by the Houthis and al-Qaeda respectively. The Houthi advance into the capital in 2014 led to UN Security Council resolutions that legitimised a Saudi-led military coalition to support President Hadi. Despite many rounds of talks—some of which I was involved with, as a Minister—six years on, we are no closer to peace. Indeed, the conflict has spilled out into a wider proxy war.

The US reset is to be welcomed, and this poses our first big test of what global Britain means in practice. In that spirit, I encourage the UK to fully align ourselves with our closest security ally by ending arms exports connected to the war and to reverse the cuts to our overseas aid budget. I recommend that, as the UN Security Council penholder on Yemen, the UK offers to host a UN summit that looks at political options for peace and that the UK is willing to commit British forces to any UN stabilisation effort that may be required once a political settlement is reached. This is a real opportunity for Yemen to end the war. I hope the Minister can confirm today Britain’s resolve to play a leading role.

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his thoughtful contribution and the work he did as Minister on this portfolio. I can absolutely confirm that the United Kingdom’s desire to bring about a peaceful settlement in Yemen is unwavering. We will continue to work with our international partners—both the United States and regional partners—to bring that about.

My right hon. Friend made a number of specific points. The UK has—indeed, I have on a regular basis—spoken with the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and we fully support his work. We will look at ways to bring together the various parties around the negotiating table. I note my right hon. Friend’s idea about a UK-hosted summit. He will understand that I cannot commit to something like that at the moment, but I welcome his thoughtful contribution. Similarly, he will completely understand that it would be inappropriate for me to speculate about what a military intervention might look like. The Saudi-led coalition was mandated at the UN Security Council; as he said, this is something he worked on during his tenure. We also note that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a legitimate right to defend itself against attacks, and we completely condemn the attacks both within Yemen, at Aden airport, and cross-border, into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Foreign Secretary

We are not a bystander to this conflict—UK arms, training and technical support sustains the war in Yemen and the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. More than 80% of Saudi’s arms imports come from the US and the UK. The US’s decision to end all support for offensive operations, including relevant arms sales, is welcome, but it leaves the UK dangerously out of step with our allies and increasingly isolated. What is worse is that the UK is the penholder for Yemen at the UN. We cannot be both peacemaker and arms dealer in this conflict.

It was the Foreign Secretary who said:

“human rights will be at the forefront of our leadership this year”—[Official Report, 12 January 2021; Vol. 687, c. 178.]

This is the first test since that statement just four weeks ago, and he has failed it. It is surprising, given the obvious panic in Downing Street about relations with the Biden Administration, that the Government were so reluctant to challenge President Trump’s decision to change the designation of the Houthis and are now determined to continue to be an outlier in arming Saudi Arabia. It puts us out of step with our US and EU allies, despite the compelling moral and diplomatic case to change course.

When the Foreign Secretary re-emerges, perhaps he could confirm that he will now take long overdue action to end arms sales and support to Saudi Arabia and explain what possible reason there could be for not doing so earlier. Can he tell us whether he spoke with Secretary Blinken about this announcement before it was made and whether the US Government have asked for UK support in this matter? Will he tell us what he will do to live up to our responsibilities to reinvigorate the peace process and help bring this appalling conflict to an end?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I do not know where the hon. Lady gets her assessments of Anglo-US relations from. I was very pleased that our Prime Minister was one of the first world leaders to speak with President Biden upon his taking office, that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke with his counterpart shortly after that appointment and that we have engaged with both the last Administration and the current Administration on our concerns about the implications of the designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist fighting organisation, particularly the implications for the passage of humanitarian aid, to which the UK has committed over £1 billion since the conflict started.

Obviously, the decisions the US takes on matters of arms sales are decisions for the US Government. The UK takes its own arms export responsibilities very seriously, and we continue to assess all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria.

I mentioned in my opening response to my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood the very recent assault by Houthi forces on Marib and the Government of Yemen’s need to defend themselves and to have support from the international community to do so.

I can assure the hon. Lady that our relationship with the United States of America remains very strong indeed, and we welcome the commitment that President Biden has made to the United States’ international responsibilities and his engagement on this most important of issues.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

I am glad that my right hon. Friend mentioned Marib, because does he recognise that much of this dispute is about water and the missile technology now being used to threaten Saudi Arabia’s water desalination plants on both the western and eastern side of the country? Will he stand up for Britain’s interests in the regions and our partners in the area, and oppose the Iranian action that is causing a spread of violence across the Arabian peninsula the like of which we have not seen since perhaps even the year of the elephant?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. We are clear that we must see an end to Iran’s destabilising interference in Yemen, which has stoked further conflict through its support of the Houthis. As I have said, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has the legitimate right to defend itself and its key national infrastructure. We have raised the issue of Iran’s behaviour with the Iranian Government. Iran’s provisions of weapons to the Houthis contravenes United Nations Security Council resolution 2216, and while Iran has stated that it supports UN-led efforts to bring about peace in Yemen, we encourage it to ensure its actions are consistent with its comments. It is important that Yemen is not used as a theatre for the escalation of conflict in the region.

Photo of Alyn Smith Alyn Smith Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The Scottish National party is in fundamental and deep disagreement with the UK Government position on Yemen. It is impossible to pretend to be the humanitarian honest broker on one side while also simultaneously being the biggest arms dealer to the conflict; we are tackling the symptoms of a problem that the UK has in no small part helped create. The situation in Yemen is, of course, complex, but this is a test for global Britain, as Mr Ellwood has said; the US policy change is to be welcomed, and I would be the first to welcome a similar announcement from the UK Government, because they risk being behind the times. Surely now is the time to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia while we work towards a peace?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the fact that we have a fundamental disagreement on this issue. The UK’s position is that we have been not just the penholder at the United Nations but an active player in attempting to bring about peace. Both my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have engaged extensively with the regional players, including with the Houthis directly and with the Government of Yemen, to try to bring about a negotiated political settlement to bring peace to the people of Yemen. The best thing that we can do in terms of pursuing our humanitarian aid is to bring about an end to the conflict, and we work tirelessly with international partners and the United Nations to do that.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

On 18 February, the UK will chair the UN Security Council meeting on Yemen, where the Security Council will consider the final report of the UN panel of experts. The publication of the panel’s latest report has caused a stir in Yemen and the wider region. It has alarmed numerous organisations in Yemen, which suggest procedural irregularities in the report’s drafting and raise questions about the credibility of its content. Ahead of the Security Council meeting next week, will the Minister urgently consider representations from parties in Yemen and the international community to hear their concerns about the report, including fears that inaccuracy in the report could lead to the food security challenges on the ground being compounded in what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The food insecurity situation in Yemen is of great concern to us in the United Kingdom, which is why we have focused so much on our humanitarian response. I am more than happy to receive details of the concerns that my right hon. Friend raises, but he will understand that it would be inappropriate for me to comment in more detail until I have seen the points that he has brought forward.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The Liberal Democrats have long called for arms sales to Saudi Arabia to be suspended in response to its consistent targeting of civilians in Yemen, in clear breach of international law. The humanitarian impact of this conflict is hard to put into words. At least one child dies every 10 minutes because of preventable disease, and 100,000 children are on the brink of starving to death. On the issue of arms sales, the Minister rightly says that the US’s decision to stop selling arms was a matter for it. The matter for this House is whether we continue to sell arms, so I ask him to answer plainly: will the Government follow the example of our ally and finally stop all arms sales supporting this horrific war—yes or no?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The United Kingdom takes its arms export licensing responsibilities very seriously. We will not issue any export licences for items where there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law. Every licence application is rigorously assessed against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he said about Iran, but is he as surprised as me that we rarely hear from the Opposition parties about Iran and what it is doing in Yemen? Unless Iran stops its malign activity there, it will fundamentally affect the progress of peace.

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I publicly welcomed Saudi Arabia’s unilateral ceasefire last year, and I was very disappointed to see attacks and attempted attacks on both Riyadh and key national infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. We have been clear that we must see an end to Iran’s destabilising activities in the region, and it would be nice if some of the comments from those on the Opposition Benches were more balanced when they are holding parties responsible for the terrible situation in Yemen.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister for his response to the urgent question. In 2020, the Foreign and Commonwealth OfficeHuman Rights & Democracy” report asserted that in Yemen:

“Freedom of religion or belief was widely denied in 2019.”

It further noted that the Baha’i minority was the “most visibly persecuted” group, but that many others are also facing difficulties. For example, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Yemeni Christian community that once numbered 41,000 has shrunk to a few thousand. What steps are the Minister and our Government taking to address freedom of religion or belief violations in Yemen?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. As he knows, freedom of religion is something this Government take very seriously. We welcome the long overdue release of six Baha’is from Houthi detention, but it is worrying that they were detained for their beliefs in the first place and that they cannot live freely in their country. We continue to follow the treatment of the Baha’is in Yemen closely, including through meetings of their representatives in the UK and lobbying the relevant authorities, and we strongly—strongly—condemn the continued persecution of religious minorities in Yemen.

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Conservative, Blackpool South

The actions of the Iranian regime continue to destabilise the middle east, as my right hon. Friend has said. In particular, the supplying of Houthi rebels with arms is only prolonging the conflict in Yemen. Is my right hon. Friend able to update the House on what discussions he has had with the new US Administration about their policy on Iran and any potential implications for the current conflict in Yemen?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this point. I can confirm that on Friday, the E3, which of course includes ourselves, and the United States discussed a united approach—or discussed how a united approach—could address our shared concerns about Iran. We will of course continue to work with the new Administration in the White House as well as with our European partners to pursue this agenda.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North

Will the Minister accept that there is a serious and huge humanitarian disaster in Yemen at the present time: 80% of the population are in need of aid and, as others have pointed out, hundreds of thousands have died and many more are on the brink of starvation? Britain’s contribution over the last five years has been to sell to Saudi Arabia billions of pounds of arms and logistical equipment that have been used to bomb Yemen. Will he welcome the moves by Martin Griffiths to go to Iran to try to broker a regional peace agreement that will bring about a long-term peace, but will he also give a clear commitment that we will no longer supply any arms to Saudi Arabia so long as the war in Yemen goes on?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I have spoken with Martin Griffiths on a number of occasions, and the United Kingdom fully supports his role in trying to bring about peace. The right hon. Gentleman speaks about the provision of arms to the conflict. I do not remember recently hearing him criticising Iran for their support, with weapons, to the Houthis and the devastation that Houthi military activity has caused to the people of Yemen. Were he to do so, I think his criticisms of this Government’s actions might carry a little bit more weight.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

It is extraordinary that there has still been no mention of the malign influence of Iran in this whole tragic situation. The humanitarian crisis has got far worse since we last debated the situation in Yemen back in September, with 2 million children now out of school, half of all medical facilities having been destroyed and at least one child dying every 10 minutes, as we have heard. Will the Minister undertake that, at the pledging conference in March, the UK will maintain its very generous aid towards Yemen and perhaps work with partners to see how we can make vaccines available in the battle against covid, which is just one of many battles that that country faces at this time?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the UK’s contribution in Yemen. As I have said, we have contributed £1 billion since the conflict started. He will know that the official development assistance budget will be constrained because of the economic situation brought about by coronavirus. He also made the very important point that cash is not the only way that the UK is supporting people in Yemen. We have worked with our international partners to try to pursue peace. He also mentioned vaccinations in response to the coronavirus. I am very proud of the leading role that the United Kingdom took in working with international partners to raise funds to roll out vaccinations to those countries that were unable to do so, and I have no doubt that the UK will continue to be a leading player in the equitable and global distribution of vaccinations, as they are manufactured.

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

For too long, Yemen has been the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, so what steps is the Minister taking to protect UK aid spending to Yemen from his Government’s cuts, and how is he encouraging the participation of women and girls in conflict resolution and peacekeeping in Yemen?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank the hon. Lady for the points that she has made. As she knows, coronavirus has, in the UK and around the rest of the world, had severe and detrimental effect on our economies, and this will have an impact on our aid spend. Nevertheless, Yemen will remain a UK priority country, and we will continue to use the full force of our diplomatic efforts to bring about peace. I am also glad that she raised the importance of women peacebuilders. I myself have spoken—virtually, unfortunately—with women in Yemen. I am the ministerial lead for women, peace and security, and I have on numerous occasions called for the voices of women in Yemen and further afield to be right at the heart of decision making about peacebuilding. I will continue to do so.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Two of the most worrying aspects of the role of the Houthi rebels in this conflict are, first, their use of increasingly advanced and increasingly long-range missile technology procured from Iran, targeted indiscriminately at civilians in Saudi Arabian cities and, secondly, their persistent recruitment and engagement of child soldiers. How are these two issues best addressed?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My hon. Friend is right to say that we have seen recent news about long-range attacks by the Houthis on Riyadh and, as I mentioned in my response to my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, the use of child soldiers is of very significant concern. Ultimately, the best way to address both those problems is to bring about peace in Yemen as quickly as possible, and that will absolutely be a priority in the work that we do. We fully support Martin Griffiths and the UN-led peace process, and we speak directly with regional partners, with the Government of Yemen and with the Houthis directly to encourage them to the negotiating table to bring about a political solution, because that is really the only sustainable way of protecting the very people that my hon. Friend has identified.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

May I say once again to the Minister, as I have to his predecessors, that the Scottish National party unequivocally condemns the actions of Iran in this conflict and the atrocities committed by the Houthis and by everybody else? The difference is that the United Kingdom is not providing weapons to Iran or to the Houthis, but it is providing £5.5 billion-worth of weapons to the Saudis. The only reason that the British Government have no evidence that those weapons are being used in deliberate attacks on civilians is that they have made a great point of not looking hard enough in the right places where everyone knows the evidence is. So will the Minister explain how the continued provision of weapons to one party in this conflict is helping to end the conflict? If he cannot do that, will he agree that the best contribution that Britain can make to peace in Yemen is to stop arming Saudi?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I am genuinely amazed that the hon. Gentleman in some way equates a UN-recognised state—the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—and its legitimate right to defend itself against the attacks that we have heard detailed by Members of this House, with an organisation that is not a state actor.

The UK supports the pursuit of peace. We do speak with the Houthis, but ultimately we look to support the legitimate Government of Yemen, which was, in our assessment, attacked by the Houthis. To equate the actions of a nation state in defending itself with the actions of a group of people trying to prevent peace embarrasses the hon. Gentleman and he should reflect on making a false equivalence between the two.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

I have a long personal memory of Houthi atrocities and well recall the activities against my father’s battalion, the Aden Protectorate Levies, when I was a boy in Aden. Several of my father’s brother officers were killed—one in a very brutal way—by Houthis in June 1955. It does not surprise me that the Houthis have utterly failed to reciprocate the Saudi-led coalition’s unilateral ceasefire, and they have recently made a grievous attack in Aden. Apart from fully supporting the United Nations special envoy Martin Griffiths’ efforts to secure a lasting peace, is there anything more that we in the UK can do about it?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My hon. Friend and I have spoken privately about this issue and he knows that I have a huge amount of respect for his knowledge of the region, born out of his personal experience and that of his family. Our assessment is that the best way to bring about meaningful peace is to work through the UN and the work of Martin Griffiths. We support his work by speaking directly to the various parties involved—with both the Government of Yemen and the Houthis directly —to encourage them to bring about a meaningful political resolution to the situation. I genuinely hope that in years to come other people who sit on these Benches will not have repeatedly to see deaths and conflict in Yemen, as my hon. Friend has done. The UK will continue to work tirelessly to bring about a sustainable, peaceful resolution to this long-standing and difficult issue.

Photo of Gill Furniss Gill Furniss Opposition Whip (Commons)

This year will mark the seventh anniversary of the start of the war in Yemen, which has led to the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. UNICEF has described Yemen as “a living hell”. Last week, the US pledged to stop support for offensive Saudi operations in the country; does the Minister agree that it is now time for the UK to follow suit and commit to go that extra mile so that we can stop this horrific war?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The thing that will stop the war is if the Houthis respect and reciprocate the Saudi-led coalition’s unilateral ceasefire that we saw last year. Unfortunately, we see through things such as the attack on the Yemeni Government at Aden airport, the drone attacks on Yemen and the other attacks raised by right hon. and hon. Members in this House that at the moment the Houthis are not reciprocating the overtures towards peace. We strongly encourage them to do so. We will work with the international community to support meaningful peace efforts and we will do what we can to alleviate the humanitarian situation caused by the conflict. That is our commitment to the people of Yemen, and that commitment is enduring.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

Yemen has been described as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, and has for 13 consecutive years been ranked last in the World Economic Forum global gender gap index. With the situation continuing to deteriorate for both men and women, and with famine, human rights abuses and the use of sexual violence commonplace, what assurance can my right hon. Friend give me that the UK Government are doing all they can to work with all the parties involved to bring this dreadful civil war to an end, support victims of sexual violence, and allow the country to rebuild and recover in peace?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank my hon. Friend for the point that she has raised. When I made a virtual visit to Yemen, I was able to speak to Yemeni midwives and medical professionals. Their reports of the situation, particularly for women, were horrific. On a personal level, I found it very difficult to deal with, which is part of the reason why I and the UK Government are so committed to being a leading player in the pursuit of peace in Yemen. The conflict brings a particular horror to the lives of women that we want to address and to alleviate, but the best way of doing so is to bring about a meaningful and lasting peace. As I said in response to Sarah Champion, I will do what I can to ensure that the voices of women are at the heart of those peace negotiations and beyond.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Labour, Denton and Reddish

I welcome this urgent question, because the humanitarian situation is just dire. I heard what the Minister said about the rigorous nature of British arms licences, but I am afraid that it just sounds like whataboutery while innocent people are being killed by British-made arms. The Biden Administration have made absolutely the right call on this, so can the Minister explain to the House how our selling arms to Saudi Arabia will assist the UN special envoy for Yemen in his diplomatic efforts in trying to secure a negotiated political solution to this dreadful conflict?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The ability of a nation state to defend itself is widely recognised as legitimate. The UK’s work, both bilaterally with the Government of Yemen and also through Martin Griffiths and the United Nations, is a completely separate issue. We are working very hard, and we will continue to do so, to alleviate the humanitarian situation until a sustainable peace is brought about. We will work just as hard to support Martin Griffiths and the United Nations and the regional players to bring that peace about.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley

The United Nations said last week that it had indefinitely delayed the salvage operation off the coast of Yemen to avert an ecological disaster from the oil tanker FSO Safer, which holds roughly 48 million gallons of oil, citing a failure by the Houthis to guarantee the salvage team’s safety in writing. Has the Minister any further information on the efforts to stabilise and empty the oil tanker, and has he any indication that the new Biden Administration will prioritise this in their agenda in Yemen?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We have liaised directly with the Houthis on this issue. The ecological disaster that would inevitably happen were the oil from the Safer tanker to be released into the sea is unimaginable, and we must do everything we can to prevent that from happening. Ultimately, it is up to the Houthis to ensure the safety of the people who would seek to secure that tanker. We have encouraged and we will encourage them to deliver on that promise so that we can avert what would be the worst ecological disaster probably in our lifetime—it is significantly larger than the Exxon Valdez spilling—costing an estimated £20 billion to repair.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Yemen is the world’s gravest humanitarian emergency, with 80% of the Yemeni population reliant on humanitarian assistance and protection. If President Biden’s decision to end support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive operations in Yemen was part of his pledge to restore US moral leadership, how would the Minister characterise the UK’s continuing support for and arming of Saudi Arabia —moral indifference, perhaps?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The UK has played a leading role in pursuing peace in Yemen. I have spoken to the representatives of the Government of Yemen and representatives of the Houthis, as well as to Martin Griffiths, in pursuit of that. The UK absolutely stands by its leading position in attempting to bring about a meaningful and sustainable peace in Yemen.

Photo of Dehenna Davison Dehenna Davison Conservative, Bishop Auckland

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response to this timely urgent question. What role can the UK play to ensure that all partners in the region are working actively to end the war in Yemen?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. She is right to highlight the diplomatic work that is necessary in this. The UK plays a very active role: as a humanitarian donor in our own right; in encouraging other countries around the world and the region to support the humanitarian effort; and in encouraging active engagement both within Yemen and beyond Yemeni borders to bring about a coalition of the willing to drive forward the peace agenda. We will continue to act as humanitarian supporters, and as the convener and encourager of the diplomatic efforts to bring about peace.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

This is a complex conflict, on which any sensible Government would not take sides. There is clearly evil on all sides, and the Houthis are some of the worst of all of them. But the UK has repeatedly sided with Saudi Arabia, its coalition partners and even its proxy terrorist group, al-Qaeda in Yemen. The Government have been found guilty by British courts of illegally approving arms sales, and even broke UK court orders to prevent further arms sales last year and had to apologise to the courts. Surely now is the right time to stop the rhetoric and mistruths that we have the strongest arms control in the world—we do not—and to follow the US lead, stop British complicity, stop the arms licences being approved, and revoke those that continue to be extant. Will the Minister just do the right thing?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The hon. Gentleman’s comments equate the activities of regional players as equal—I am sorry, but it is almost beyond credible. His deployment of the word “evil” betrays his prejudices, rather than any flaw in UK Government policy. We will continue to pursue peace in the region and to support humanitarian efforts until that peace is brought about.

Photo of Antony Higginbotham Antony Higginbotham Conservative, Burnley

It is clear that the reason the Houthis will not meaningfully engage in the quest for peace is that they continue to get militarily, financial and political support from an Iranian regime, so may I ask the Minister what steps the UK is taking to pressure the Iranian regime to end this reckless and destabilising intervention?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My hon. Friend is right; Iranian involvement is without a doubt prolonging the conflict, and therefore, by extension, prolonging the suffering of the people of Yemen. We support the work of Martin Griffiths and the United Nations in attempting to bring about a resolution to this issue by speaking to all the parties involved, and we will work with our E3 partners and the new Administration in the White House to put pressure on Iran to stop supporting the violent activities of the Houthis and to help us bring about peace in Yemen.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Despite the UK Government’s claims that they provide training to the Saudi-led coalition to avoid civilian casualties and prevent Saudi Arabia from breaching international humanitarian law, there is no sign that that has reduced the deadly toll of the air raids. How can the Government justify not only profiting from the crisis in Yemen through arms deals, but spending £2.4 million of taxpayers’ money since 2016 via secretive funds to bolster the Saudi forces as well?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The UK is proud of the role that we have taken in trying to uphold international humanitarian law, working with countries around the region to try to improve and support their institutions. That is part of our ongoing agenda of being a force for good in the world, and we are proud of that role.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Other Members have raised the issue of the nefarious activities of Iran, acting in a proxy fashion in Yemen. The reality is that the people of Yemen are suffering as a result. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely essential for the United Kingdom to retain good relations with Saudi Arabia, to ensure balance in the region and to eliminate the humanitarian problems that are occurring in Yemen as a result of Iran’s activities?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; Saudi Arabia is one of the larger contributors to humanitarian support for the people of Yemen, and maintaining good bilateral relations is an important part of that. More broadly, it is also the case that Saudi Arabia is a strong bilateral partner on a whole range of issues, including security issues, which keep British people and British interests, as well as Saudis, safe. We will continue to work with it, with the Government of Yemen and with other countries in the region to try to bring about a sustainable political solution and peace for the people of Yemen.