Yemen - Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 5:19 pm on 15th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Luce Lord Luce Crossbench 5:19 pm, 15th November 2018

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking with international partners to end the conflict in Yemen.

Photo of Lord Luce Lord Luce Crossbench

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the urgent question of how to achieve peace in Yemen. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what action HMG are taking following the Foreign Secretary’s visit to the Gulf, and to the contributions of noble Lords to this rather delayed debate.

The 27 million people of Yemen face a kind of Dante’s Inferno; they are today’s forgotten people. It has become a failed state, which is exploited as if by piranhas by disparate groups in the country with a vested interest in continuing warfare through illicit trade and arms smuggling. It is also a breeding ground for al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

I must explain my interest in this country. My father, the late Sir William Luce, was governor of Aden in the late 1950s. The British ruled the southern part of Yemen forming a federation of Arab Emirates of the South, while the Imam led in what is now northern Yemen. Today, the Sir William Luce memorial fund based in Durham University finances, among other things, an annual fellowship. In 2016 Dr Helen Lackner, who lived in Yemen for over 15 years, gave her Luce lecture, providing a brilliant description of how Yemen’s tribal life and society had been transformed over 60 years. She demonstrated that the 30 years’ dictatorship of the late President Saleh seriously undermined Yemen’s society, creating a kleptocratic tribal military nexus riven by intra-elite power struggles. This has left Yemen with an unsustainable governance system, absolute water shortages, insufficient natural resources, low educational standards and the poorest people in the Arab world. Yemen today cannot be viewed in any way as a modern national state. We have to consider the rivalry of different groups within a fragmented country. These include the separatist tribal south, Aden, the Hadramaut, Taiz, the highland tribal territories and the land in the north and west, now occupied by the Houthis.

We can agree with our Saudi friends that Yemen as a failed state is a threat to their stability and that the Houthis are being encouraged by Iran to weaken Saudi Arabia, including by threatening it with missiles. We can see too that the Saudis would like access to the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb and the ports so that they can be less dependent on the Strait of Hormuz with its Iranian threat. At the same time our friends in the UAE are showing a different level of interest in establishing military bases in south Yemen and in ports on both sides of the Indian Ocean.

We need to be clear that the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and with which the US, France and the UK are associated, has been pursuing its ends through a cruel war which it cannot win. Moreover, the unmitigated rivalry between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran risks destabilising not only Yemen but many other parts of a region vital to the international community.

In Yemen itself, the coalition’s action has undoubtedly made a bad situation much worse. Since 2016, over 10,000 people have been killed and some 1,250 children have lost their lives through air strikes. The latest information from the UN humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, demonstrates that the country is on the verge of a massive famine. Some 14 million people are now entirely reliant on external aid to survive; 22 million are in need of support including 11 million children; 16 million are without access to safe water. Fuel imports are 25% of the requirements. Civil servants are not being paid. Health services are virtually non-existent. Prices of food and other products are increasing steadily due to devaluation of the currency, the rial. There is high unemployment except for those who are exploiting the conflict. This is truly a failed state.

At this stage I must welcome the Government’s support through DfID and the UN for the people of Yemen. In addition to general humanitarian assistance, I know that we are providing £170 million of support, much of which is helping malnourished children and providing vaccinations against cholera. Can the Minister clarify what else we are doing in this area?

Despite our diminished role in the world, and indeed our preoccupation with Brexit, it is surely very much in our interests to seek urgently a peaceful resolution in Yemen. Today we can achieve this only by working internationally with many other nations. I want to ask the Minister about our proposed next steps in the UN Security Council. We are the pen holders. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement of 5 November that we will work within the Security Council and ensure that Resolution 2216 is made more balanced and realistic, particularly in relation to the role of the Houthis. We must clearly work as closely as possible with the United States and respond to its lead in calling for a ceasefire by the end of November. But a ceasefire on its own is pointless unless there are clear proposals for starting discussions to end the conflict. I assume that we will work relentlessly with the UN through this month to ensure that the UN envoy, Mr Griffiths, is given an urgent remit to bring about peace negotiations.

This leads me inevitably to the issue of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. We have enjoyed a long-standing friendship with that country for over 100 years. Today, intelligence and counterterrorism are common concerns. We have major trade and economic interests in the kingdom, including of course our defence sales and military assistance. It is now abundantly clear, however, that the continuing of a war led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is not going to solve the Yemen problem and bring peace on its own. The Saudi Crown Prince is indeed trying to introduce many economic, cultural and other reforms, including more freedom for women, but he is using the pursuit of military victory in Yemen as well as dictatorial means to achieve this and to strengthen his position. This will be counterproductive. We must not only say so frankly, as friends, but also be prepared to use what influence we have, in conjunction with our western allies, to persuade the Saudis and their coalition to adopt a different approach. The Saudis should take seriously the very real pressures here and elsewhere to curtail the supplies of essential armaments and other military support, as well as the measures that the US Administration have already taken on aircraft refuelling.

The next few weeks will be crucial. The battle for the port of Hodeidah could have big implications. It is vital of course to ensure that food supplies continue to get to the people, but it will in the end be essential for the Houthis to see their self-interest in ending that battle and finding a peaceful resolution in which they play a role. This is one of those times when tragic events seem to be persuading the international community to change direction. It is in our interests not to ignore the rest of the world, but rather to take this opportunity to play a constructive role to achieve peace in Yemen. There could not be a more appropriate time to be peacemakers than the centennial anniversary of the Armistice.

In addition to the discussions that the Foreign Secretary has held in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, the Government need to show vigorous and visible activity at the UN and fresh new direction in their thinking, including revisiting Security Council Resolution 2216. We have to work internationally to assess the immediate emergency needs of Yemen and to prevent famine. We also have to work with the US, France and Germany and with constructive voices in the region, such as Oman and Kuwait, towards a fresh political approach, thinking where we can outside the box. We need too to think ahead about how we can realistically help the reconstruction of Yemen and end the famine. We have to address how in a fragmented failed state we can pursue, perhaps through the mediation of regional participants, movement towards some kind of a federal framework and system of governance.

I look forward to the Minister’s response and to reassurance that the Government are still willing and able to play a constructive role for stability in other parts of the world, not least in Yemen.

Photo of Baroness Helic Baroness Helic Conservative 5:30 pm, 15th November 2018

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for securing this important debate.

I am told that the ancient name for Yemen was Arabia Felix. It is certainly not a happy country any more. I recently received messages from a friend whose family still lives in Yemen. His sister writes, “One thing you don’t expect is the eerie silence. Due to petrol shortages, there are no cars on the roads. Even the children have stopped crying … Suicide is a mortal sin in Islam, yet for the first time there are stories of ‘family suicides’ where a desperate single mother, or a deeply impoverished family, choose to end their own lives and the lives of their children since this is the ‘less painful’ way out of the nightmare they’re in … We now realize that the entire world has turned its back on us—we’re on our own”.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s visits to the Gulf. He is right to say that there is,

“a short window to make a difference”.

I hope that his energy will be matched with action that will help stop the shameful disaster that is the war in Yemen. I also welcome the recent American and United Kingdom shift to advocating a ceasefire. However, I regret that this did not come sooner. The Saudis have been embarrassed before the world, not for the thousands of civilians killed in Yemen and their own ambitions to control that country, but by the appalling killing of one man, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia should rightly face strong international diplomatic pressure for atrocities of this kind. But we should collectively ask ourselves what has happened to our moral compass if we respond more to that one killing than to the faces of thousands of emaciated children being starved to death in front of our very eyes, for years now.

Stepping back in time, I believe that we did not intend our Government’s initial support for the coalition to become a blank cheque. I do not say this lightly, and I am sure that that Ministers themselves are not comfortable with the course the conflict has taken. But sadly, we have shown a touch of naivety and a lack of understanding of the Middle East and of the history of Saudi ambitions in Yemen, and we have failed to put uppermost the interests and values of the United Kingdom. We and our allies claimed we would have leverage to push the coalition to abide by international humanitarian law and to support parallel diplomatic efforts. That has clearly not been the case. Unfortunately, we all failed in limiting and ultimately ending the war.

I hope that as we prepare to try to bring about a ceasefire, we will bear in mind two lessons. The first is that our so-called influence is weak and almost non-existent. Unless we use the leverage we possess, collectively, as arms suppliers and trade partners, Europe, the United States and we will fail to affect the calculations of stronger regional actors. I cannot see any justification for not suspending arms export licences to Saudi Arabia and other countries engaged in operations in Yemen, given the compelling evidence that international humanitarian law has been breached by all parties to the conflict—including of course, the Houthi rebels themselves. Can the Minister say whether it is too late to stop Saudis using the US and UK weaponry that we have provided? Can he confirm whether the United Kingdom is currently providing assistance to coalition operations with targeting?

The second lesson is surely that policy should be based not on partiality to one side or the other, as it is at the present, but on sound analysis. The Trump Administration is purely wrong to fully endorse Riyadh’s narrative that the Houthi rebels represent an extension of Tehran’s destabilising hand in the tumultuous region and that the Hadi Government can simply be reinstated. Houthis have local grievances. They began their revolt in 2004, when Iran was not a player in Yemen. They get some support from Iran but would fight on regardless without it. Does the Minister agree that a new political settlement in Yemen must include all domestic political forces?

I welcome the Government’s reinvigorated engagement in the region. I know that we have long-term relationships with the regional powers, as well as important security interests, and I know that Ministers always strive to act in the interest of our own country. But Britain is always at her best when our interests and our support for human rights align. I fear that our current policy in Yemen is serving neither as it should.

Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Labour 5:35 pm, 15th November 2018

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Luce, has set out very clearly the extent to which Yemen is a failed state, and I will not repeat what he said. He also made it clear that the war in Yemen is a calamity. The suffering of thousands and thousands of innocent people, many of whom are children, is horrific. Severe malnutrition is common- place—400,000 children are suffering from it and some have already died of starvation. We are now warned by humanitarian agencies that by the beginning of next year famine is likely to affect as many as 13 million people—half the country’s population. Were this to happen, it would be the biggest famine for a century.

I turn to the statistics on the humanitarian crisis that already exist. Over 20 million people, constituting 75% of the population, are in need. There are 2 million displaced people, of whom nearly 90% have been displaced for more than a year. Cholera is now rampant, as the noble Lord, Lord Luce, mentioned, with 1.2 million people infected last year and the likelihood that even more will be infected in the coming months; 9.7 million people need to be vaccinated against this horrible disease, yet only 1.1 million have had a vaccination. It is unclear how many civilians have already died in this conflict but some estimates suggest that it could be at least 50,000. We know that the number of civilian deaths increased by 164% in the three months from June to September this year. There have also been many serious violations of international humanitarian law by all sides in this conflict.

It is now a matter of the greatest urgency to end this conflict. There is a military stalemate, with very few signs that the warring parties are willing to accept a ceasefire and search for a peaceful outcome, so this is a war without much purpose. In these circumstances, there must be forceful intervention by the international community to get the participants around the table and to broker a ceasefire. To quote David Miliband speaking in his role as the head of the International Rescue Committee:

“Yemen cannot afford a slow walk at UN. Peace in Yemen requires active … diplomacy”.

I therefore welcome, as have the other speakers in the debate so far, the Foreign Secretary’s initiative earlier in the week to visit Saudi Arabia and, while there, to put pressure on the Saudi regime to agree to take steps that could lead to a ceasefire.

I ask the Minister why it has taken so long to get to this point. This was begun in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia and the UAE foolishly thought that their intervention would deal with the Houthis and put Hadi back in power, and that the civil war would end in a few weeks. How wrong they were. Their blockade of Yemeni ports, as well as their persistent bombing campaign, have done untold damage. Moreover, instead of pushing back Iran, experts have suggested that it has given Tehran an opening in Yemen that it would not otherwise have had. Can the Minister explain why the Government have been so reluctant up till now to table a UN Security Council resolution on this crisis? It is the penholder on Yemen at the UN and therefore should be at the forefront of UN action to try to stop the war.

The Government’s past reluctance to intervene suggests, as some commentators have argued, that they have more or less sided with Saudi Arabia and protected it from the heavy criticism it deserved. Why have we had to wait for the brutal murder of a Saudi journalist critical of the regime, by a hit squad sent to Turkey from Riyadh, before directly confronting the Saudi leadership on its part in the war? However great a crime the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi was, the crime of perpetuating this war, as the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, said, is far greater because of the loss of life and terrible suffering it is inflicting.

Will the Minister also tell the House what discussions the Government have had with the United States Government? Until very recently, they had failed to use the enormous leverage they have with the Saudis to stop the bombing and seek a political solution. I know the US has recently broken its silence and asked for a ceasefire, but could the Minister perhaps enlighten the House: what has the follow-up been since this relatively recent intervention? One attempt to get the parties together was apparently destroyed by blocking the Houthi delegation’s travel to the talks—I think it was leaving from Oman. Can we ensure that such action, apparently by the Saudi-led coalition, is not repeated? What consideration, if any, are the US Government giving to stopping their logistics assistance and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia while this conflict continues?

I expect that the Minister will emphasise the considerable commitment the Government have made to supplying aid, in particular emergency food aid, to the stricken Yemeni people. I strongly support the Government’s role in this. However, despite our participation in the large aid programme, it is little more than a sticking plaster as long as the conflict continues.

As a major supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia, our Government have a particular responsibility to push for not just a ceasefire but also a diplomatic solution. Can the Minister say whether the Government are sure that the use of UK-supplied weapons in this war is compliant with our domestic and international obligations on arms sales? Since international humanitarian law has been breached in the conflict, should we not have suspended our sales of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, as the German Government did? I end by asking what the Government’s timetable for putting down a UN Security Council resolution is. It cannot come soon enough.

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 5:42 pm, 15th November 2018

My Lords, my noble friend has long personal memories not only of Aden but of the Gulf and Sudan. We are extremely fortunate that he has opened this debate. Yemen has been relatively unknown here since the 1960s and, until the recent Commons debate, has had barely any attention in Parliament. I would also like to declare a family interest. My wife is a specialist on the Middle East and has given me advice on the position of different parties to the conflict.

I join this debate mainly because I am concerned at the acute humanitarian consequences. Who would not be? The Yemen war is one of the most pressing issues today. This is also a debate about Saudi Arabia, and some understanding of the present political confusion in that country is essential. As has been said, the uncertainty comes mainly from the erratic behaviour of the Crown Prince, who is the effective ruler. This man has promised reform, and there have indeed been a number of recognised changes, including benefits for women and the defanging of the religious police. But, as my noble friend said, the negatives far outweigh these: his early power-grabbing and the ill-treatment of many senior Saudis, including law-abiding women activists; his absurd decision last August to recall 8,000 Saudi students from Canada, expel the Canadian ambassador and cut economic ties, all because of tweets from Ottawa in Arabic about Saudi violations of human rights; the kidnapping and forced resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri last year; and the ramping up of the disagreement with Qatar into a regional crisis. Meanwhile, dozens of Saudi men and women are held without trial.

As a result, the Saudi king had already reasserted his authority, even before the appalling and still unexplained murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, an event that has rightly focused world attention on Saudi Arabia. But whether the king has given any hint of a change of policy, domestically or on the war in Yemen, remains to be seen; perhaps the Minister knows—certainly a lot of people are betting on it in relation to the war.

We are told by analysts that peace talks this time really do mean peace talks, and that Saudi Arabia is now confronting a serious deadline offered by the US and the international community. Jeremy Hunt’s famous “window” is presumably based on the premise that the royal family is now so divided by the Khashoggi affair, on top of the turmoil created by his son, that they will have to rethink their position on the war, as on most other things. I hope he is right.

One critical question is whether there is any justification for the latest advance on Hodeidah. My noble friend Lord Slim, with his considerable military experience, says that if Hodeidah was going to be taken it should have been taken months ago. The Saudi-led coalition may still believe that the end will justify the means, but the military argument falls away now we know that the advance has taken so many months, at such cost and without result. This war will not be over soon. It could drag on for years under present conditions, and once resolved, civil wars take a very long time to heal.

Meanwhile, what about the effect on civilians? The evidence is overwhelming that air strikes have had a major impact on civilians. On 9 August, there was an appalling air strike on a bus in Sa’ada, killing at least 29, possibly 40, children. The Saudi coalition, having first said that the air strike was militarily legitimate, later admitted to the Joint Incidents Assessment Team that it was unjustifiable. That is only one of many examples. On 23 August, another 22 children died escaping from Hodeidah. According to the Yemen Data Project, almost one in three air raids have been against non-military targets, and we must not forget that the Houthis are responding with Iranian SAMs and other missiles—this was part of the evidence given to the International Development Select Committee last month. In the past fortnight, over 100 people have been killed in Hodeidah. Thousands of people are currently cut off from supplies and medical aid. A government aid worker here tells me that the bigger push on Hodeidah is just making the risk of famine greater. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, has already laid out the UN statistics. Altogether there are 22 million in need, 2 million pregnant women and young mothers acutely malnourished, and almost half the health facilities no longer function.

How much hangs on the special envoy? I remember Martin Griffiths from his time as overseas director at Save the Children. In fact, I travelled with him to the Far East. He is a man who likes to get things done, and I would be surprised if this situation fazed him, although it must be one of the most intractable he has ever faced. However, it seems that, without the Houthis at the table, his mission is permanently delayed. He is due to report to the Security Council.

The UK has a special responsibility in this war, and I know that the FCO has pulled the stops out in supporting the peace process up to now. I also recognise that the UK has been a generous donor, as indeed has Saudi Arabia, as one would expect. However, as the UN’s Mark Lowcock pointed out on 30 October, Yemen is on the verge of a serious catastrophe and no one can deny that. As the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, said, we should be making more of an effort. A group of diplomats and experts has written to the Foreign Secretary as follows:

“We urge HMG to … consider where Yemen’s calamity is leading—a crippled economy, destitution, political instability and terrorism … The lack of governance and rampant corruption that have bedevilled Yemen … have been major drivers of the resentments fuelling this war”.

Can the Minister anticipate the Foreign Office reply, because the situation is already critical? The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, put a lot of questions to the Minister, which I fully support.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 5:49 pm, 15th November 2018

My Lords, it is high time this House had the opportunity to debate the dramatically appalling situation in Yemen. For that opportunity, I thank my noble friend Lord Luce.

The UK may not be directly a party to the conflict there but we are very much involved—as a supporter of Saudi Arabia, as a supplier of some of the equipment and munitions being used in the fighting, as a former colonial power of part of that country, and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, on whose agenda the question of Yemen is a constant reproach.

I have no doubt the Minister will have a good deal to say about the efforts that the Government are making to alleviate the suffering of the civilian population—the threat of mass starvation and the cholera epidemic, as others have mentioned, among the appalling woes that afflict this country—and those efforts deserve praise. They are substantial but they are both inadequate and, in some senses, broadly irrelevant as long as the underlying cause of the suffering of the people of Yemen—the war, of course—is not being effectively addressed. It is hard to say that the international community, or the British Government, as an important player in the international community, have yet found means to address those problems—the causes of war—effectively.

The Government seem quite proud of the fact that on the UN Security Council Britain is known as the pen-holder on the question of Yemen. In the five years that I was at the United Nations I never heard that concept referred to—it did not exist—although I drafted rather a large number of the resolutions of the Security Council. However, if the hand which holds the pen remains paralysed, as it has done for many months, what on earth is the use of it?

What are we doing in New York to inject a sense of urgency into the discussion of Yemen? I am not suggesting that we should dash down to the Security Council and seek to pass some empty words, but if we were moving more purposefully towards a new basis for seeking peace in Yemen, endorsed by the Security Council, it would get the attention of all the parties to the conflict. So I should like the Minister to tell us why this paralysis in the pend hand is continuing.

The recent statements by the US Secretaries of State and Defence calling for a cessation of hostilities within 30 days and a resumption of the peace process—calls which were echoed, I am glad to say, by the Foreign Secretary—are welcome, but why do we have to wait for the Americans to say this before we let out a single cheep?

What has been the reaction of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to those calls for a resumption of the peace process? Does it really make sense, as the Secretary for Defence in the United States said, to ask one party to the dispute, the Houthis, to take the first step before the other party is asked to do anything? What consequences would there be for our relations with Saudi Arabia if it does not continue to respond positively to the US and UK calls for a ceasefire after initially doing so? I understood from the Foreign Secretary giving evidence to your Lordships’ International Relations Committee today that it has responded positively in the past few days.

Nearly two years ago, your Lordships’ International Relations Committee produced a report on the Middle East. One of our findings was that we needed to be prepared to take rather more robust action in our relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is the relationship of a friend and ally, if we were to get its attention. We do not suggest, as many have done, the absolute cessation of all military supplies to Saudi Arabia. That would be a huge step. It may be necessary but, as I say, it would be a huge step. We suggested that the Government should be prepared to warn Saudi Arabia that if the weapons that we provide are misused or are used in attacks on civilians, there would have to be suspensions of some of our supplies. I really think we have been a little inert in all of this.

Of course, other outside powers are involved, as well as Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, most obviously Iran, with whom our US allies have no contact at all and against whom they have just stepped up their unilateral economic sanctions. But we speak to and have diplomatic relations with Iran and we are not, quite rightly, applying those sanctions. We therefore have a good basis on which to have a dialogue. Last week, the Iranian deputy Foreign Minister and the senior Iranian official who handles relations with Yemen were in London. How did they respond to the calls for a cessation of hostilities? What transpired from their contacts with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, if indeed they took place? Can the Minister say something about that? I wonder whether they, too, would be prepared to advise their Yemeni partners and allies, the Yemeni Houthis, to come to the conference table and to respond positively to the efforts of the UN Secretary-General’s representative, Martin Griffiths? That will be an important factor in this rather complex situation.

There are more questions than answers in what all those who have participated in this short debate have said, and I hope that the Minister will be able to reply to at least some of them. What we cannot afford to do any longer is to stand by and wring our hands as things go from bad to worse.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 5:57 pm, 15th November 2018

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for introducing the debate. Of the many press reports on recent events in Turkey, one that I found shocking was the New York Times report covering the work of Dr Mekkia Mahdi in a northern Yemen health clinic, who was quoted as saying: “We’re surprised the Khashoggi case is getting so much attention while millions of Yemeni children are suffering and nobody gives a damn about them”. According to the reporters, she said those words while sitting by the bed of a seven year-old girl named Amal Hussain, who was severely emaciated. Sadly, as many noble Lords will know, Amal died two weeks ago, with her mother Mariam fearing that her other children would suffer the same fate.

We know, and we have heard it in today’s debate, that for every child like Amal, there are millions more children with stories just like hers and thousands of others whose stories ended when the air strikes came, or when they picked up a cluster bomb, or when the Houthis put a rifle in their hands. The children of Yemen have a right to demand more than sympathy and tears. They are calling out for action. There is no possible military solution without unthinkable human cost for Yemen’s civilians, the innocent people who ask no more than to be allowed to live their lives. Of course, Jeremy Hunt expressed similar sentiments 10 days ago when he said:

“For too long in the Yemen conflict, both sides have believed a military solution is possible, with catastrophic consequences for the people”.

He also confirmed that the UK has been discussing with UN Security Council partners what more the council can do to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and step up support for the work of the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths. I hope the Minister can reassure the House that we have stressed to our Security Council partners—in particular, the United States—that for any ceasefire proposals and subsequent peace deal to be sustainable, all parties must be properly involved. We cannot have a ceasefire that will simply lead to failure.

As the Minister has said before, in the search for a political solution there is a special responsibility on the United Kingdom as the pen-holder on Yemen at the Security Council. However, as we were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, the UK has ducked that responsibility for two years by sitting on a draft resolution. Now is the time to bring it forward. As my noble friend Lady Blackstone said, the shocking murder of Jamal Khashoggi has brought into sharp focus the current Government of Saudi Arabia’s apparent disregard for human rights, the rule of law and the sanctity of human life.

On 23 October, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, Mark Lowcock, set out to the Security Council the need for urgent action in five areas: a cessation of hostilities in and around all the infrastructure and facilities on which the aid operation and commercial importers rely; protection of the supply of food and essential goods across the country; a larger and faster injection of foreign exchange into the economy through the Central Bank, along with expediting credit for traders and paying pensioners and civil servants; increased funding and support for the humanitarian operation; and a call on the belligerents to seize this moment to engage fully and openly with the special envoy to end the conflict.

In addition to those areas, I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that other vital issues will be considered in any draft resolution. In this Chamber, I have repeatedly raised the need for accountability for war crimes and human rights violations. A new resolution should demand that all parties to the conflict abide by the laws of war, including prohibitions on attacks that target civilians and civilian objects, that do not discriminate between civilians and military objectives, and that cause civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military benefit.

I want to pick up on a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. A new resolution should specifically mention the Saudi-led coalition by name; vague appeals to “all parties” will not have the required impact on Riyadh and the regime there. It should also specifically address arms by calling for the cessation of weapons transfer to any party where there is a clear risk that they will commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian law or international human rights law. As noble Lords have said, the time for action is now. The people of Yemen cannot wait any longer.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State 6:04 pm, 15th November 2018

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in the debate. It is a very poignant end to the day. Indeed, I was reminded of that as I was leaving the Foreign Office by a UNICEF advert focusing on the grave humanitarian situation in Yemen. As a father and a human being, I cannot help but be moved into ensuring that we do our part, both politically and on the humanitarian front. I therefore join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for tabling this debate. I appreciate the keen personal interest that he has taken in the conflict, based also on his family ties to the country. Before responding to some of the specific questions raised, I want to share the sentiment expressed by all noble Lords that we have sat back and let this conflict go on for far too long. The need is to act. I hope that through some of the responses that I give today I will provide noble Lords with assurance in that respect.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, and other noble Lords for focusing on the humanitarian support that the UK Government have provided—the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned it, as did my noble friend Lady Helic and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who spoke from the great experience of his time at the United Nations.

We all acknowledge that what is unfolding in Yemen is now the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. The United Nations estimates that almost 80% of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance, including nearly 8.5 million people at risk of starvation. Last year, there were 1 million suspected cases of cholera, the largest outbreak in modern history—several noble Lords alluded to that.

I assure noble Lords, as several of them have acknowledged, that the UK is at the forefront of the response. Since 2015, we have provided more than £570 million in bilateral humanitarian support, including an additional £170 million this financial year, as we announced in April, to meet the immediate food needs of more than 2.5 million Yemenis.

I say in answer to a specific question from the noble Lord, Lord Luce, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, that UK aid has supported Yemen’s first ever cholera vaccination campaign. It was completed in May and helped to protect more than 450,000 men, women and children from that deadly disease. In August, we launched a further vaccination campaign around Hodeidah and other parts of Yemen aimed at more than 500,000 people.

As many noble Lords have acknowledged, the conflict has been led by the Saudi coalition in Yemen. However, we should also recognise that the conflict is the result of a Houthi insurgency which overthrew Yemen’s legitimate Government. The coalition became involved at the request of President Hadi, who had been forced to flee. As noble Lords have identified, Saudi Arabia has been deeply involved in the conflict, but we recognise its right to protect its national security from attacks, including missiles launched from Houthi bases at Saudi Arabia.

However, I acknowledge and respect the concerns expressed by noble Lords about violations of international humanitarian law, points on which were raised rightly by my noble friend Lady Helic among others. We are aware of such violations and take them very seriously. In Houthi-controlled Yemen, we also have deep concerns about aid not being allowed through to those in dire need, and we have pressed for improvements.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, asked about US intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia. I am sure that she will accept that that is a matter for the United States and not directly for the United Kingdom. On her specific questions about UK arms exports, I am aware that the European partners have halted issuing licences. We remain confident that our assessment of licences is consistent with the current criteria. As the noble Baroness and other noble Lords will be aware, export licences are assessed against consolidated EU and national criteria. Our key test for exporting to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is whether there is a clear risk that the export might be used in serious contravention of international humanitarian law. We continue to focus on that issue. I assure the noble Baroness that the MoD monitors allegations of violations of international humanitarian law arising from coalition airstrikes. The information gathered is used to form an overall view on its approach and attitude to international humanitarian law.

Saudi Arabia has now publicly acknowledged that it investigates reports of alleged violations of international humanitarian law through the joint incidents assessment team and that it acts on lessons learned. To date, the joint incidents assessment team has issued more than 90 statements from its investigations. I assure noble Lords that our test for our continued defence exports in relation to international humanitarian law is whether there is a clear risk that that a licence might be used to commit a serious violation. I have listened very carefully to the concerns raised during this debate and I assure noble Lords that we will keep this situation under careful and continual review.

My noble friend Lady Helic raised the issue of the targeting chain within Saudi Arabia. The UK’s role in the Saudi targeting chain is limited to providing advice, information and assistance to help Saudi Arabia respond to the threat from Houthi missiles. I hope my noble friend recognises the limits of what I can say in that respect, but this is a very limited form of support that we extend to Saudi Arabia.

There seems little doubt that the longer the conflict goes on, as several noble Lords acknowledged, the more appalling the humanitarian situation becomes. Noble Lords have rightly said that peace talks must be the top priority: there can be no military solution to this conflict. That point was made very clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. The Yemeni parties must also engage constructively and in good faith to overcome obstacles and find a political solution: that is the only way to end the conflict, bring long-term stability to Yemen and address the humanitarian crisis. I assure noble Lords that the United Kingdom has played, and continues to play, a leading role in diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful solution. We have provided, for example, £1.68 million to the office of the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, to bolster his capacity to facilitate the peace process.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, talked about recent efforts. The UK has brought together the US, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and the UN to find a peaceful, lasting solution to the conflict. The most recent meeting of the quad was on 27 September at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, spoke of the UK’s position as a pen-holder. The UK proposed and co-ordinated a UN Security Council presidential statement, which I am sure that noble Lords recognise and which was agreed on 15 March 2018. The statement builds on a previous text from June of last year in its expression of deep concern about the humanitarian situation in Yemen. It calls for all parties—a point made by several noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Collins—to agree steps towards a ceasefire. It welcomes the new UN special envoy and recognises the humanitarian imperative, calling for a vaccination programme, which I alluded to.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, asked about our discussions with the United States on the ceasefire. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to Secretary of State Pompeo about Yemen and specifically raised these issues last week. I assure the noble Baroness and all noble Lords that UK and US officials are working very closely together in New York on further action we will take at the Security Council. I assure noble Lords that we strongly support special envoy Martin Griffiths’ extensive efforts, including in trying to bring together all representatives, including the Yemeni Government and the Houthis, for consultations in Geneva in September. The UN, the UK and other states tried very hard to address the Houthis’ concerns but their delegation did not attend.

I fully accept that more needs to be done to address the catastrophic consequences for the Yemeni people. Now, for the first time, there appears to be a window, as noble Lords acknowledged. I am sure that all noble Lords welcome the recent intervention by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary when he visited the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on Monday to build support in the UN Security Council to bolster the UN-led process—indeed, I was in the UAE at that time. This followed his meeting with UN special envoy Martin Griffiths last month. The Foreign Secretary also had useful discussions in Saudi Arabia and in the UAE. We welcome the recent announcements, because of his intervention and efforts, and the Saudi assurances on the transportation of Houthi wounded from Yemen. I believe that there are 50 being taken out who require specific medical attention. This was a precondition for Houthi attendance at the next round of talks in Stockholm and we continue to urge all parties to engage with UN special envoy Martin Griffiths on the proposed political talks in Stockholm later this month. Let me assure the noble Lord that we will continue to work specifically on that at the UN Security Council.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked about the visit of Yemeni personnel last week. If I may, I will write to him in that respect. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, also asked about the UK’s response to the letter from the Yemen Safe Passage Group. Briefly, in response we continue to call on all sides, including the Houthis, to allow unhindered humanitarian and commercial access in and throughout Yemen, through the UN Security Council and direct messaging to the parties. We have successfully lobbied for the Government of Yemen to lift decree 75, which has slowed the import of food into the country. I am specifically pleased about the steps we have taken around Hodeidah. While the ceasefire is fragile there, it continues to show dividends in access to fuel and humanitarian aid.

In thanking all noble Lords—and as the Minister for the UN—let me end on a point about the UN Security Council. We are progressing constructively with all partners at the UN in New York. As the Prime Minister herself made clear on 31 October, a Yemen-wide ceasefire will have an effect on the ground only if it is backed by a political deal, which we all recognise, between all parties. A cessation of hostilities is an essential first step towards alleviating the suffering of the Yemeni people. This must be uppermost in everyone’s minds as we seek to put in place a longer-term solution. I am sure that we will return to this issue. Let me assure noble Lords that I will seek to update them on the initiatives and progress we are making on the Security Council, and that the UK will continue to influence the push for a collaborative approach to finding a lasting and political solution in our bilateral engagement with all parties and through our efforts at the UN in New York.

House adjourned at 6.16 pm.