“I am grateful to the honourable Lady for raising this vital issue. The conflict in Yemen has escalated to become one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world. Today, 8 million people—nearly one-third of the population—depend on United Nations food aid. Starvation and disease have taken hold across the country. More than 420,000 children have been treated for malnutrition and 1.2 million people have suffered from a cholera epidemic. In total, about 22 million people across Yemen—nearly 80% of the population—are in need of help. Yet the bare statistics cannot convey the enormity of this tragedy. What we are witnessing is a man-made humanitarian catastrophe, inflicted by a conflict that has raged for too long.
Britain is one of the biggest donors of emergency aid, providing £170 million of help to Yemen this year, bringing our total support to £570 million since 2015. But the only solution is for all the parties to set aside their arms, cease missile and air attacks on populated areas, and pursue a peaceful political settlement. Last week, I conveyed this message to the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which lead the coalition fighting to restore Yemen’s legitimate Government, when I visited both countries. On Monday, I said the same in Tehran to the Foreign Minister of Iran, which backs the Houthi rebels. On the same day, I instructed our mission at the United Nations to circulate a draft resolution to the Security Council urging a ‘durable cessation of hostilities’ throughout Hodeidah province, and calling on the parties to ‘cease all attacks on densely populated civilian areas across Yemen’.
This draft resolution also requires the unhindered flow of food and medicine, and all other forms of aid, ‘across the country’. The aim of this UK-sponsored resolution is to relieve the immediate humanitarian crisis and maximise the chances of achieving a political settlement. Martin Griffiths, the United Nations envoy, is planning to gather all the parties for peace talks in Sweden in the next few weeks.
Amid this tragedy, the House will have noticed some encouraging signs. Last week, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates paused their operation in Hodeidah, although there was a further outbreak of fighting yesterday. The Houthi rebels have publicly promised to cease their missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. Martin Griffiths is meeting all parties as he prepares the ground for the talks in Sweden. Britain holds a unique position as the pen holder for Yemen in the Security Council, a leading humanitarian donor and a country with significant influence in the region, so we will make every effort, and use all the diplomatic assets at our command, to support the United Nations envoy as he seeks to resolve a crisis that has inflicted such terrible suffering”.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the response to that Urgent Question and welcome the resolution, despite the fact that the United Kingdom had been sitting on a draft for two years. I also welcome the fact that it covers the five areas identified by Mark Lowcock on
In the other place, the Foreign Secretary said that this is not the last word but the beginning of the process. He said that the priority is to build trust, but trust can only be sustained in the knowledge that no party can act with impunity. Jeremy Hunt said that he gave a tough message on the need to investigate war crimes. Was it in the draft which he discussed in Saudi Arabia with the Crown Prince? If it has been removed, how does the United Kingdom intend to ensure that the tough message it has already given holds and is implemented in the future?
I thank the noble Lord for his question and for referring to last week’s extremely well-informed and useful debate in this House, which raised important points. I think the noble Lord will understand that there is a delicacy in the diplomacy which is about trying to ensure that as many parties as possible are encouraged to group round the resolution. As he is aware, the draft has been circulated at the United Nations. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary detailed, in the other place, a summary of what is in the motion. I reassure the noble Lord that the underlying purpose of a change in language from previous resolutions has been to try to build a consensus. We recognise that that is the best way of trying to find some form of agreement, if not to bring this dreadful catastrophe to an immediate close then at least to introduce the prospect of better conditions for people in Yemen. That is why, as he will be aware, the draft motion is constructed around getting in aid and humanitarian help; getting a ceasefire; and getting some movement on a political settlement. Very importantly, and at the behest of Martin Griffiths, the special envoy, it is about getting the parties to Sweden, hopefully later this month or, if not, in early December, to sit round a table.
On the other aspect to what has been happening in Yemen and whether that constitutes war crimes or contraventions of international humanitarian law, that would be a matter for determination once we have restored more order to the ground in the country. There is such disorder at the moment—it is a very fractured country—that it is very difficult to obtain reliable information about what has been happening. I think that everyone would regard the absolute priority to be trying to improve the desperate and distressing situation for so many people in Yemen.
My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question. She is absolutely right that the situation in Yemen is truly appalling. What progress is being made to secure the Security Council resolution to which she referred? When will this be put to a vote and why has it taken so long to get to this stage, given the United Kingdom’s lead in this area? There are reports that Saudi Arabia and its allies have been hindering this. Can she cast any light on that? Does the United Kingdom support a nationwide ceasefire? What is proposed at the moment is much more limited than that. The US Government have stopped refuelling coalition planes. Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and others have stopped arms sales. Surely we should be doing the same.
I thank the noble Baroness for her question. Part of my answer echoes what I already said to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in that I would dispute her assessment of feet dragging. Britain has been at the forefront in trying to engage with partners at the United Nations and, as my right honourable friend said, to broker a solution. What has been done skilfully is to try to find a form of language which, instead of deterring and deflecting people who genuinely want to do something to help, brings them into the tent and invites them to be participants on that ultimate road to finding help.
On the question of arms sales, many people have strongly held views about this but, as she will be aware, this country operates a very strict check on our arms exports to any country, whether to Saudi Arabia or anywhere else. It is very clear—I believe the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, raised the specific point in the debate last week—that the continued test is this: is there a clear risk that those items subject to licence might be used to commit a serious international humanitarian law violation? If that were the case, we would not agree to the exports being made. We constantly monitor the situation. The assessment process is very robust. It is a combination of DIT, FCO and MoD, and we certainly try to ensure that any exports could not possibly be used for malign purposes.
As to the progress of the draft resolution at the United Nations, the noble Baroness will be aware—and we should pay tribute to Karen Pierce—that there has been a very energetic diplomatic endeavour for the UK. That should be recognised and praised. There is diplomatic activity going on to try to engage people with the draft resolution, attract support for it and try to ensure that the Swedish meeting can take place. People are hopeful that that might provide an opportunity, away from the area of conflict, for people to begin to talk constructively about the way forward.
My Lords, I am sure we would all want to endorse what my noble friend has just said about the efforts that are being made, but does not this ghastly human tragedy bring sharply into focus the need for more adequate peacekeeping from the United Nations? Could we not, as a nation and a permanent member of the Security Council, try to initiate some form of in-depth discussion on how much better the United Nations could become at peacekeeping? There was a concept some years ago called “Shield”, which called for a rather more international army than exists at the moment. Millions of people have suffered in recent years, especially in the Middle East. If there were more-adequate peacekeeping from the UN, that might not have happened.
I thank my noble friend; he makes an interesting point which I am sure will be noted and reflected upon. My observation in relation to Yemen is that the ability of any group to achieve peacekeeping is only as good as security on the ground. Unfortunately, we have seen in Yemen a turbulent, unpredictable environment—a fractured country with huge security risks. That is why the priority at the moment has to be finding a ceasefire and a political settlement.
My Lords, I associate myself with the observations of the Minister about Karen Pierce. She is an outstanding public servant who has much experience at the United Nations. I understand that consensus is the objective, but if consensus cannot be achieved, is it not necessary to press this resolution to a vote so as to expose those who are opposing humanitarian relief?
I thank the noble Lord for his comments. Things are at a delicate stage. It is perhaps prudent in the circumstances, given the progress that has been made, to allow a little time to elapse to see if the diplomatic endeavours can bear fruit. They may very well do that. If not, we certainly want the talks in Sweden to happen and to progress, but there is no doubt that a careful eye will be kept upon the progress of the draft resolution at the UN. The noble Lord is quite correct: we shall have to review the position depending on what is happening.