I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the peace process in Yemen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important and timely debate.
Just over 60 years ago, I was born in Steamer Point Hospital in Aden, and I began a long fascination with Yemen in its various guises. I was born with British citizenship as my father was serving in the British Arab army, and we left when I was three. Ever since then, I have tracked how things have changed over the years as I have written down the changing names of my country of birth. I have not been back since but I dream to, much like Valerie Vaz and her brother, the former Member for Leicester East, who were also born in Yemen.
Over the last 60 years, Yemen has been divided and come back together again, and it has now become a long-forgotten war for many. Why is Yemen important to us? The UK has a historic interest in Yemen through the existence of the Aden colony from 1839 to 1967. More importantly, today we are the UN penholder. The Government must continue to play their leading role in promoting peace. I pay tribute to the UN special envoy, Hans Grundberg, and his predecessor, Martin Griffiths, for all their work.
Today I will set the scene, as I know others will want to talk about different aspects. I thought it would be good to remind people about the complexity of the war and our role. That is not to say that we should impose a western-centric, top-down structure of government for Yemen. That has been disastrous in places such as Iraq. Like other middle eastern countries, Yemen is made up of different communities, and there is currently little feeling of a whole national identity. The war is not as clear as some may wish it to be. Often, there is too much focus on Saudi Arabia and the Iranian involvement, but it is an internal civil war, not a surrogate or proxy war. Although outside countries are involved, either by backing the Houthi rebels or supporting the Yemeni Government, they do not necessarily control them politically.
Yemen has had a history of civil wars for centuries, and a continual battle along the Saudi Arabian border—a border that has cut through some of the historical Yemen. It is a country divided by tribal and religious loyalties. The Houthis are more doctrinally close to the Sunnis than the Iranian Shi’ite regime with which they are often linked by the outside world. The Houthis are also more conservative than the southern tribes in their Sunni doctrine.
The hon. Lady seems to be implying that there are only allegations of Iranian involvement with the Houthis, whereas the Iranian regime is absolutely up to its neck in this, stimulating and providing massive amounts of material. Frankly, the Houthi attacks would not be successful without the destructive and disruptive behaviour of the Iranian regime.
If the right hon. Gentlemen was listening carefully, I said that although other countries are involved, they are not politically involved. They may be supported militarily, but the Houthis are thinking for themselves rather than being dictated to by the Iranian Government. That is the point that I was trying to make.
The sectarian divide in Yemen is not clearcut, as tribal loyalties cut across religious beliefs, making it a confusing and shifting picture, particularly for those looking from the west. Unification in 1990 was to bring forward a representative Government, with elections every seven years. However, it was fragile because of the problems with power sharing that we see elsewhere, including closer to home.
The origins of the present war lie in the political and economic marginalisation of northern Yemen by the former President Saleh. Many of the 301 members of the Yemeni Parliament, who were elected under universal suffrage, felt disenfranchised and unable to effect change. That was a missed opportunity to show that democracy works, in a part of the world surrounded by authoritarian regimes.
The war is a result of decades of exclusion of different parts of the population around the country. Yemen has been run by elites who have concentrated power with their own allies and disenfranchised large parts of the population, even when elections were held. With that in mind, we need to look at how that impacts the peace process and the route to lasting peace.
The six-month ceasefire has been the nearest thing to a reprieve since civil war broke out eight years ago. Casualties have come down countrywide, there has been an increase in fuel deliveries, and international commercial flights to and from Sanaa have recommenced for the first time in six years. However, the latest proposal put forward by the special envoy has not been accepted by the Houthis. The proposal is wide ranging and includes the payment of civil servants’ salaries and pensions, the opening of specific roads in Taiz—the second most populous city—a commitment to release detainees urgently, and the strengthening of the de-escalation mechanism through the military co-ordination committee. The main obstacle is that the Houthis want their security forces to be included in the salary payments to civil servants, which the Government could not accept. This is really disappointing.
Taiz has been in a state of a partial siege since the beginning of the war, and life has been tough, with a war economy inflating prices and insecurity. It was not until 2021, when Hans Grundberg became the first diplomat to visit Taiz since the start of the war, that the profile of the city and its plight were raised. Improving communications with and around Taiz must be central to negotiations, and this is one of the areas where the UK Government can help by working with the special envoy to call on the Houthis to show flexibility.
The outside world must remind the Houthis that all citizens have benefitted from the peace over the past year. Any attempt to prevent oil and goods from arriving at the port of Hodeidah impacts on the already difficult humanitarian crisis. Food is becoming more expensive as it becomes even more scarce, and there is not enough equipment to keep hospitals and schools functioning. Only 48% of the aid needed through the 2022 Yemen humanitarian response plan has been funded so far. The Houthis must realise that working towards a long-term peace process will help that and is in everybody’s interest.
Politically, the Presidential Leadership Council under President al-Alimi has unified the resistance to the Houthis. The Southern Transitional Council is the most well-known group, so we should recognise the role of Mr al-Zubaidi and, just as importantly, the other members —Tareq Saleh, Abdullah al-Alimi Bawazeer, Sultan al-Arada from Marib, General al-Bahsani, Othman Majali and Abu Zara’a al-Muharrami for their contribution to leading the council. However, the situation with the PLC is delicate, and support from the international community is vital to maintain its credibility.
I do not think it is for us to determine the future of Yemen. It is up to the people to decide what they would like to do through the negotiations, so I would not dream of putting what I think on to what they are going to decide. That is very important, as I mentioned at the beginning. We cannot apply our western-centric views to what is going on in Yemen. If the people decide that they want to divide as they used to be, that is fair enough, but I do not think we should be talking about that at the moment—
Does the hon. Lady recognise that there is considerable demand in southern Yemen for a degree of self-determination, if not independence, and that that is very much recognised by the south Yemeni diaspora here in the UK? This is not about us pressing for that as colonialists; it is very much a local demand.
Thank you, Mr Davies.
It is all very well for people in the UK to say that that is what should happen, but the country has been divided before. It came back together and started to have a Government who, unfortunately, were not run properly. Unifying the country could happen again, but if it is the will of the people of Yemen to divide again, we must accept that. It is up to the people of Yemen who are living there and those who are running the Government, who are beginning to run it with a lot of credibility. We have to wait for that to settle down.
The special envoy and other allies must also make clear that help and aid will come if the Government of Yemen take the opportunity to move on from their former position under President Hadi. Any weakness will be exploited by the Houthis and delay any future peace process. The UN special envoy has been tireless in his diplomatic efforts, and has been asking for a new six-month truce to allow time for negotiations for a formal ceasefire, the resumption of an inclusive political process, and talks on wider economic issues. We must help to make those things happen. On the humanitarian angle, Joyce Cleopa Msuya, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, has spent time in Yemen, helping the 4.3 million people who have been internally displaced since the start of the war in 2015. Her role can also help to encourage negotiations, showing that peace brings dividends. Mine clearance needs to be a priority, as mines are presently being washed into farm fields.
Before the civil war, 45% of the population of Yemen lived below the poverty line; that figure is now around 90%. Today, 24 million people are in danger of famine, of whom 14 million are at acute risk, and 2 million children are at risk of starvation. Huge parts of the population are being sustained by relief efforts. The UK has always been one of the leading donors supporting Yemen, providing more than £1 billion of aid during the conflict, and many British non-governmental organisations have been doing fantastic work. However, we must recognise that the Yemeni economy will need considerable help and support even after a return to peace.
Yemen is facing huge challenges from climate change, with near-constant drought and desertification of agricultural areas. Since the start of the war, the population of Yemen has doubled, but GDP per head has more than halved. There is a need to rebuild Yemeni society on an equal and fair basis, which includes the promotion of women’s rights. Lastly, there is the threat of an environmental disaster from the oil tanker FSO Safer, moored off the coast of Hodeidah. I have been raising awareness in Parliament about that potential catastrophe for many years. I am pleased that the UN has now raised enough money to start transferring the oil to a temporary vessel, but I have an immediate ask of the Government: that they work with our partners to make sure that transfer is completed as soon as possible, and to secure a safe disposal of the Safer. If that is not done, there is a risk of environmental damage to the whole of the Red sea for decades.
This war has gone on for too long, and too many people have died or been displaced. I urge the UK Government to work tirelessly with all parties and bring peace to a region that deserves it. The British Council is already working in the north and the south; there is a huge demand for English teaching and transferrable skills in Yemen. Our soft power influences can be a big help to Yemen in its post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation. That is important, because there is a compelling geopolitical reason why the west must help the people of Yemen: China or Russia, for example, could fill the vacuum, which could be disastrous for the region’s security. Our support for people in crisis in the world, helping them to build stable and fair regimes, is an investment in our own security as well as theirs. If we can achieve that, then perhaps I, the right hon. Member for Walsall South, and many Yemenis displaced around the world can one day safely return.
It is a pleasure to serve with you as Chair, Mr Davies, and I thank my hon. Friend Mrs Drummond for suggesting this debate. We both went along to the Backbench Business Committee and were able to pitch the debate, because—like my brother and my sister—she and I were born in Aden, and we did say we wanted to go back and visit it in all its beauty. I left when I was 10 years old, so I do remember quite a lot of it. It is important that the Backbench Business Committee has granted us this debate at this time, because amid the millions of ongoing problems and crises that are going on around the world today, the prolonged conflict in Yemen has been forgotten.
We wanted to draw the House’s attention to the dreadful state of affairs in Yemen, which has already been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley and which we cannot simply stand by and watch from the sidelines. We are a great nation and we have always stood up against what is wrong in this world—we were the framers of the European convention on human rights—and we owe that to the thousands of innocent people who are dying in Yemen.
I will set out the background to the conflict. It has been eight years in the making, which is almost as long as the time I spent in Yemen. The eight-year-old conflict in Yemen is between the internationally recognised Government, who are backed by the Saudi-led military coalition, and Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran.
After almost a decade of this prolonged conflict, the parties involved are far from reaching a peaceful solution. The failure in October 2022 to renew the ceasefire agreements is alarming and disturbing. But it is good that there was a ceasefire. The peace efforts gained some momentum in April, when Yemen's new governing council helped to consolidate anti-Houthi forces, a move that could set the stage for inclusive negotiations. The first nationwide ceasefire in years allowed commercial flights to resume from Sanaa and some fuel ships to dock in Hodeidah.
After six months of relative peace, however, the parties failed to renew the ceasefire agreements. Both the Yemeni Government and the Houthis have blamed each other for the disintegration of the deal, which has led them back to heavy fighting and plunged Yemen into a full-scale crisis.
I will outline some really upsetting and disturbing statistics, which my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley has already touched on. The United Nations Development Programme estimates that more than 370,000 people have died as a result of this war, with indirect causes, such as lack of food, water and health services, causing almost 60% of those deaths. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, three out of four Yemenis require humanitarian aid and protection and 4 million are internally displaced. Five million are at risk of famine and the cholera outbreak has affected over 1 million people. Fewer than half of the health facilities in Yemen are functioning, and many that are operational do not have even the basic equipment they need. Some health workers have not even been paid their salaries. In March, about 17.4 million people were in need of food assistance, with a growing proportion of the population having to cope with emergency levels of hunger. The conflict’s death-toll has been growing.
This is an urgent humanitarian situation, because the crisis in Yemen is exacerbated by the effect of the war on the humanitarian footprint and thousands of innocent people. An economic crisis continues to compound the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen. In autumn last year, the sharp depreciation of Yemen’s currency significantly reduced people’s purchasing power, so it was more difficult for them to purchase even the basic necessities, taking them even further out of reach. With around three quarters of Yemen’s population living in poverty, disease is rampant and of course the pandemic made matters worse.
This beautiful country is being destroyed and fragmented, town by town, street by street, and house by house. We are in the midst of a terrible war in Yemen and the humanitarian impact of this war on the Yemeni people, especially women and children, is painful for us to watch as silent bystanders.
So how can we go forward? The UN-backed peace negotiations have made limited progress. I, too, want to acknowledge the incredible work of Hans Grundberg, the UN’s special envoy of the Secretary-General to Yemen. He is looking at de-escalating mechanisms through the military co-ordinating committee, turning swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. And of course I also acknowledge Martin Griffiths for his work on the Stockholm agreement.
The regional conflicts and tensions among the actors involved have simply turned this crisis into a prolonged war. All the actors involved seem to be wedded to a military solution, but war can never be a solution for the millions of people who are suffering.
I have a series of questions for the Minister. Will he pursue every effort for an immediate ceasefire in Yemen, as well as for the implementation of the Stockholm agreement? Will he look at establishing a new international accountability mechanism for Yemen? The existing mechanism is simply not enough. We need independent reporting on war crimes. Will the Minister, as the UK penholder, consider drafting an appropriate resolution immediately that moves the country on to a peace process? We have done it in Northern Ireland. There are people who can facilitate a peace process. Even today, there is peace negotiated in Ethiopia.
We cannot stand by and watch the destruction of a country and the death of so many innocent civilians. The situation in Yemen is tragic and heartbreaking. The war and the stalemate have led to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, because of widespread hunger, disease and attacks on innocent civilians. The country is burning and the people are suffering. I know we have our own problems to deal with here, but ignoring this massive crisis is a disgrace to humanity.
It is a real pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Yemen is important to us, and I want to concentrate on why that is. The south-eastern end of the Arabian peninsula was once crucial to the functioning of the British empire. A settlement in Aden was occupied by Royal Marines in 1839. It became a bunkering port for passing ships on the way to India. After the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, Aden became vital as a staging post for ships going to and from India and the far east. When oil replaced coal as the main fuel for ships, the importance of Aden was reinforced, particularly as it is so close to the middle-eastern oil fields. Unsurprisingly, BP built a rather large facility there.
As time passed, Aden and its hinterland became a formal part of the British empire, the Aden protectorate. That was the southern bit, as my two lady friends, my hon. Friend Mrs Drummond and Valerie Vaz, will recall, although they were still in nappies when I was running around there—I am old, in other words. I have lost my place now.
Yes, we have reminisced a lot together about what a lovely country it was. It was wonderful for me that there were so many different nationalities there; I was taught by Italian nuns and had Greek friends. There were people from Goa, and all sorts of other people, including of course the Arabs, with their brilliant hospitality. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that we need to restore that beautiful country.
I thank the right hon. Lady, whom I call a good friend, although she is not formally meant to be a friend; technically, she is not a friend, but she really is a friend. I have been able to find my place now—thank you.
The colony of Aden consisted of 23 sultanates when we were there. There were emirates, sultanates and several independent tribes. All this was run from London and controlled by the British Government, although not completely. In the 1950s, when I was there, some tribes were in open rebellion against British authority, which led to a protracted insurrection that we all remember. Well, others might not remember it as much as I do.
In 1967, the United Kingdom had enough. Aden was given independence as South Yemen, and British forces withdrew. The Aden protectorate was renamed the People’s Republic of South Yemen. The Yemen Arab Republic was to its north—that is the division we were talking about. In 1990, north and south joined to become Yemen.
My particular interest in Yemen comes from the fact that as a child I lived there from 1953 to 1957. I was there because my father served there, like the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley. My father was a company commander in the 1st Battalion of the Aden Protectorate Levies, charged with keeping order “up-country”, as we called it. He was always away, and I never really saw him. He was always on operations, and there was pretty fierce fighting. In 1955, he was awarded the Military Cross.
Since 1990, Yemen has gone from bad to worse. It is such a dangerous place that it would be utterly foolhardy for foreigners to go there without protection. We have already identified how poor the country is; it is actually very poor. It is the poorest country in the middle east and a very fragile state. Yemen has essentially become a cockpit where some would say the two main branches of Islam are fighting tooth and nail by proxy. The official Government of Yemen are now backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan, the Gulf states and, through them, us as their allies, and the United States. The rebels are mainly from the northern Shi’a Houthi grouping, who, I seem to recall, used to take great delight in shooting at my father in the 1950s.
Forgive me if I got that wrong; I am perfectly willing to be corrected. To complicate the situation further, al-Qaeda has turned up. Perhaps the most dangerous of the al-Qaeda factions is in Yemen. Just to make the problem even more difficult, so-called Islamic State is present as well, or Daesh, as I might prefer to call them. That is a very rude word in Arabic, and I will not explain what it means, but frankly it is correct.
We have a responsibility here, because we drafted the original UN Security Council resolution 2216 in April 2015, which demanded that the Houthis withdraw from all their seized areas and relinquish all seized arms. We established an arms embargo against the Houthis and the forces loyal to the former president. Security Council resolution 2216 was passed unanimously. The five permanent members of the Security Council must agree it; otherwise it does not pass. In this case, four did. Russia did not, but it abstained, which under the rules allowed the resolution to pass, so it passed unopposed. United Nations action on the ground has not been very effective, but that does not stop leaders of the United Nations doing their very best to try to sort out the situation.
There remains little access to large parts of Yemen, but I am pleased that the UK provides so much aid. Are we the fourth or the second-largest provider of aid to Yemen?
We are second. Aid must get through. We have mentioned people starving and a lack of medical supplies, but all I can remember about Aden is how little water there was there. Water is crucial—good clean water. Certainly, in the early days, some of the Saudi-led airstrikes went wrong, and they have clearly killed innocent people. However, in 2016, when I visited the Riyadh air operations centre, which controls all operations, I was impressed by the attitude of the air controllers and the coalition pilots to what ex-military people like me call weapons release. From what I saw, they were doing their very best then, and have done since, to avoid civilian casualties. Indeed, I heard real evidence that they often returned with full bomb loads. They were not positive that they would not hurt people, so they did not have weapons release.
The Gulf Co-operation Council and Saudi Arabia are very close allies of our country. We must be quite clear that, regardless of its mistakes, the Saudi-led coalition is operating under the authority of a unanimously adopted Security Council resolution. It is acting for the Security Council. It is acting for the forum of the world. It is doing the work on the ground in response to the Government of the world, if one wants to think of the United Nations like that. After all, the usurpation of power in Yemen was illegal. The Government of Yemen are a legal Government. We do well to remember that. It is far too easy for us to sit here and castigate what our allies do sometimes. The Saudi-led coalition is doing its very best to implement international law and the Security Council resolution that we, the British, drafted.
Obviously, everyone here realises that the only way ahead for Yemen is a political solution. That solution must obviously involve the United Nations. I suspect that it has to involve countries such as ourselves, other Arab countries and the United States. Perhaps, dare I suggest, it has to include Iran.
According to the United Nations, as we have heard, 150,000 people have been killed in the war in Yemen, and that does not include the 227,000 who died as a result of famine. I cannot believe that people in this world are dying because they do not have enough food. That is appalling. It is something that, as human beings, we have a real responsibility to sort out. Lack of food, kids dying—it is just dreadful. The lack of healthcare facilities just piles it on, too.
I should stop shortly, because others want to speak, but I hope that I have emphasised that we, the British, have a responsibility for action in Yemen. I know that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is acutely aware of the United Kingdom’s long-standing concern about what has happened in the country, and that the issue is not on the backburner. It is very difficult to sort this one out, but surely a world that can land a spacecraft on a flipping comet can find a way to stop Yemen going through the bloody awful hell that it is enduring.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Davies. I thank Mrs Drummond and my right hon. Friend Valerie Vaz for putting the debate together. It is of huge importance, and good to hear of the fond memories that they, and certainly Bob Stewart, have of the place where they spent part of their lives. I gained my information on this subject over almost 40-odd years. My father had a friend called Said Abdi who came from Yemen. He would tell us about the issues and what was going on there. He was a Labour councillor, and he introduced me to the Labour party, so I have a lot to thank him for.
As has been said, significant human rights abuses have taken place in Yemen. There has been huge, indiscriminate mining of the ports by the Houthis, and they have recruited young people as soldiers. That is inhumane and barbaric. As the right hon. Member for Beckenham said, there have been issues and mistakes made in some of the military attacks by the coalition, but there have also been huge sacrifices, particularly by the UAE. It lost over 150 soldiers in an ambush on its camp; we have to recognise that. That is a huge tragedy, but the biggest tragedy is for those people in Yemen whose children are starving, and who have all sorts of diseases that we would not expect people to have in this day and age. It has been a sorry state of affairs for the whole country. What is essentially a proxy war should not affect the people of Yemen, but it is being played out by people from a different arena using Yemen as a base.
My concern—it was raised by my right hon. Friend John Spellar, who is not in his place—is about south Yemen. We have a group of people who can, in this difficult situation, make at least some things work. On the negotiations, I am not advocating a partitioned country; I am saying that there should be support given to people to manage their own affairs regionally. That would not only give some stability to the region, but get the peace process moving, because we could see elements of peace there. It is no secret that the interference—the supply of arms—has predominately been by Iran. The only way we will get the peace process moving is by engaging people and getting them together to understand what the conflict is about.
The United Nations is producing a report, and has been involved for a long time, but that work needs to be reinforced with more robust reporting about what is going on, and that reporting needs to consider people’s actual position. It needs to consider all of Yemen, but particularly south Yemen. We need to make progress, and we can only do that by trying to resolve at least an element of the problem, and seeing how we can move forward. Considering the time, I will stop, but it is important for the Minister to look at how we can get the peace negotiations going and engage with the south.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I thank Mrs Drummond for bringing forward this important debate and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. We are debating the peace process in Yemen, but the brutal fact is that before the UK can make any meaningful contribution to any peace process in Yemen, the Government need to make up their mind what their position and intentions are towards Yemen and the horrific situation there. The Government are wringing their hands about the deliberate killing, widespread rape and intentional starvation of millions of people—there are more than 20 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and 4 million displaced—while knowingly fuelling the emergency by refusing to ban arms sales to one of the main actors in that brutality, with the ridiculous excuse that there is “no clear risk” that weapons sold to one of the main aggressors against civilians in Yemen might be used on civilians in Yemen.
UK-produced weapons make up around 20% of Saudi arms purchases. Even the US Government, which made up most of the rest of the Saudi arms supply, has now decided to pause its weapons sales to the country and has gone as far as to reset its military relationship. At the same time, we have the UK acting as penholder for Yemen on the United Nations Security Council, supposedly taking the lead on the Council’s activities and resolutions regarding Yemen. The UK Government do not just wring their hands about the emergency that they help to fuel; they lead the international hand wringing.
The penholding has done nothing practical to improve the situation for Yemeni civilians. Instead, earlier this year the UN decided to shut down its investigation into war crimes in Yemen, apparently under pressure from the Saudi Government—a lack of oversight that observers say has seen an acceleration in the rate of atrocities committed as perpetrators feel able to act without scrutiny, let alone consequences. The UN’s abdication of its role in Yemen mirrors the UK’s two-faced stance, and makes it all the more urgent that the UK finally acts in a manner consistent with its expressed concerns about all the horrors taking place in Yemen.
Ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia is the obvious first step if our Government are serious about the UK’s role in helping to end the mass murders, rapes and starvation. But it must not end there. The UK must also use its penholder role to—
I think our responsibility is to work towards peace, and we need to focus our efforts on ending the arms sales that rain bombs down on the Yemeni people.
The UK must use its penholder role to push the UN into restoring its mandate for war crimes investigation immediately to ensure that those who carry out those crimes are identified and held to account. The horrific situation in Yemen demands nothing less than a concerted and consistent political stance and a matching push for action. Instead of turning a blind eye while companies profiteer from the horror, the Government must step up now.
I have an incredible friendship with Bob Stewart, but I might have to disagree with him on one small point. I want to set this out at the beginning to have it out of the way: I believe that Saudi Arabia does stand condemned in the courts of this world for its bombing of innocent women and children. It cannot be ignored. I want to put that on record. At the same time, the right hon. Gentleman is right that when it comes to the issues of sexual abuse, murder, arrests and intimidation, that is clearly down to the Houthis. I have expressed my deep concerns about the unholy alliance between Iran and the Houthis, which disturbs me greatly, as it disturbs peace in the middle east and across the whole world.
I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary groups for international freedom of religion or belief and for the Pakistani minorities. There are many issues in this debate, but I want to focus on one issue. Being chair of those APPGs gives me a deep interest in the issue of persecution. Recent FCDO reports on Yemen have stressed abuses occurring such as arbitrary arrests, the mistreatment of journalists, sexual violence against women and children and the persecution of religious minorities. It is the ordeal facing religious minorities that I want to focus on today. These are the stories we are getting back from Yemen. I want to focus on that specifically, as everyone else has done a marvellous job of highlighting the issues from different perspectives. It is important we do so.
When the ceasefire came into force in Yemen this April and was later extended, a glimpse of peace seemed visible on the horizon. We all hoped it would last longer than six months, as the right hon. Member for Walsall South referred to. A glimpse of peace was visible for a short period. However, regrettably, such ceasefires do not translate into an improvement for Yemeni Christians in particular. An Open Doors analyst for Yemen observed that:
“Christians with a Muslim background seeking emergency supplies are vulnerable to discrimination and mistreatment, if their faith is known…Their names can be removed from distribution lists, especially if help is being given out through local mosques where it can be checked whether someone is a good Muslim or not, based on mosque attendance.”
With all the terrible things people have said for the Yemeni people themselves, it is even worse for Christians. It poses a serious risk to the majority of Christians in Yemen, as 95% of them are converts from Islam.
The situation also raises grave concerns about the fair distribution of humanitarian aid reaching Yemenis. We all want to see more of that, but it has to be fair and equal for everyone. A lack of freedom of religion or belief for converts should not be dismissed in the name of humanitarian disaster. It has to be equal in its distribution. At this moment in time, it is not. Of course, the crisis facing Yemen is manifold and complex, but one human rights issue should not be neglected for the sake of others, particularly as research shows that where freedom of religion or belief is protected, other human rights conditions tend to improve as well. I have always believed strongly that religious belief—whatever that belief is—of ethnic groups and human rights march hand in hand together. They cannot be separated as different things —they are one.
Suspended fighting in Yemen can, in short, mean little tangible improvement for Christians as the humanitarian crisis looms, but the staggering scale of humanitarian disaster should not lead to policy makers and authorities ignoring the plight of Yemen's religious minorities. Indeed, a report last year by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights documented some of the awful disregard for religious minorities in Yemen, revealing that the conflict, which seems to many to be a Sunni-Shi’a divide, leaves no room whatever for people of other faiths. Experts found that Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi incited violence and discrimination against religious minorities for his own political and personal ends, including Baha’i and Jewish communities. In March, he said that the Christians, Jews and Baha’is
“don’t want to coexist…They want to take away the sovereignty of Islam.”
No, they do not; they just want the same rights, the same parity and the same equality as everyone else. They should never be treated differently just because they have a different view. I would say that if it were Muslims, because they should all have the same equality of treatment.
The report further documented practices designed by parties to the conflict to silence their perceived opponents or punish them for their religious beliefs and legitimise their power through the spread of fear. Like others, I speak on behalf of the Christians, Baha’is and Jews— on behalf of all the ethnic minorities that are being discriminated against by al-Houthi in Yemen.
Any peace process in Yemen must remember the country’s Christians and other religious minorities and ensure that solutions to the crisis, however temporary they may be, respect and protect the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. As chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief, I speak up for those of a Christian faith, those of other faiths and those with those with no faith because I believe that everyone should have the same equality. We do not see that in Yemen today.
Parties to the conflict must cease the arbitrary arrests and acts of harassment aimed at preventing the free exercise of those rights, including those directed at religious minorities and human rights defenders. We hear much about human rights defenders across the whole of the middle east. They play a very significant role, and they have been targeted too. We cannot wait until the humanitarian crisis is under control to protect those rights; they need to be safeguarded now.
Today, I just want to highlight the plight of the persecuted Christians and ethnic groups to all hon. Members and especially the Minister, for whom I have the greatest respect. I know that what I am saying is very close to his heart. I hope we can address this matter and see the plight of others in Yemen who are perhaps hidden. We want them to be treated equally and with parity, the same esteem, the same religious freedom and the same humanitarian aid. At this moment in time, they are not.
It is a pleasure to see you in your place, Mr Davies. It is a genuine pleasure to wind up for the SNP in this debate. We have heard some very thoughtful contributions. I warmly commend Mrs Drummond and Valerie Vaz—the best part of Walsall, as I understand—for their very thoughtful contributions, and their empathy and good sense. I am struck by the sensitivity and humanity that we have heard from all points of the political compass.
I am glad that nobody fell into the trap of easy answers. As Members may be aware, the middle east is close to my heart. I grew up in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, and my parents have just retired back from Kuwait. My mother-in-law lived in Aden until 1967. My family has sand in our blood. In the middle east, everything is connected to everything else, and in Yemen more than elsewhere. We should beware easy answers; there is very little black and white in any of the middle east, and particularly in Yemen. I am glad that we have not had too many easy answers this afternoon.
I also agree with a thoughtful point by the hon. Member for Meon Valley, who said that this is primarily a civil war. I agree: to categorise it as a proxy war is slightly insulting to the Yemeni people. There are a number of real disputes going on in the Yemeni territory as it exists at the moment, but the tragedy is that we cannot deny the external aspects of prolonging the conflict. The UK has a case to answer in that. It is not an impartial bystander; it has chosen a side via its foreign policy.
A number of excellent points have been made. I will try to distil them down to a few questions and points from our perspective to the Minister—I welcome him to his place, and I look forward to working with him on this and other issues. The SNP will always be constructive where we can be. Our worldview is different from that of many of the other parties here, but on international affairs there is less opportunity for domestic point-scoring, and less need for it, given that every 10 minutes a child dies in Yemen. We need a common effort and to assist each other to find a resolution to the issue, so I will focus on peace, aid and arms in my remarks
The UK is the penholder on Yemen at the United Nations. Because of that and by dint of our history and connection to the region, we are in a position to assist with the problem. As the right hon. Member for Walsall South said, the Stockholm agreement is in the doldrums. In the view of the UK Government, does that remain the best mechanism to reboot the peace process? The UK is supporting the special representative, but what can be done to give added impetus to that process? Perhaps there is now an opportunity, given the good news from the African Union today about the situation in Ethiopia. Progress is possible, so there could be progress in Yemen if there were a new impetus.
On the accountability mechanisms, there have been war crimes on all sides. None of us should indulge in the idea that it is some sort of competition: there have been war crimes on all sides and there needs to be a proper accountability mechanism for war crimes committed by anybody. I would be glad to hear about support for the UK’s continuing efforts to properly investigate those crimes and bring the perpetrators before the International Criminal Court.
On aid, there is a clear distinction between the position of my party and that of the UK Government. We deplore the cut from 0.7% to much lower and we think that was badly timed. All the world was dealing with covid and the idea of covid being used as a pretext to cut aid is entirely wrong, but we lost that argument. I welcome the fact that in March 2022 the UK pledged £88 million in aid for Yemen, but that compares to the figure of £214 million in 2020-21. Surely the situation has not improved since then. We should consider providing far higher amounts of aid, particularly post-covid and given the impact of the war in Ukraine on grain supplies to the wider middle east and Yemen specifically. We would like to see much more aid because the humanitarian crisis is not getting better, and will get worse.
If we want to hear big numbers, the UK’s position on arms exports cannot be taken out of consideration. Since March 2015, the UK has sold £8.6 billion worth of arms, which is a significant sum. To be clear, I am not against the arms trade or arms companies, but I would like to see far higher standards to safeguard the use of those arms, particularly in such a complicated conflict as the one in Yemen. Will the Minister commit to suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia while there is a fuller investigation than we have seen to date? There is a case to answer. Will a wider and more comprehensive package of aid be brought back?
I am glad to wind up for the SNP in the debate. There are a number of points of agreement across the House. If the Minister takes steps towards a meaningful, durable peace in Yemen, he will have my full support.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, I believe for the first time. I welcome the Minister to his place, and I look forward to working with him on this and many other issues. I thank Mrs Drummond and my right hon. Friend Valerie Vaz for securing this timely and important debate on the peace process in Yemen.
I believe the debate is important to raise awareness about the fragile political situation in Yemen and the ongoing humanitarian crisis. I welcome the opportunity to hear from the Government about what actions they are taking to help the people of Yemen. All of us, regardless of political party, are united in wanting to see a permanent ceasefire in Yemen and a political reconciliation between the warring factions. I and the Labour party believe that there is no military solution to the conflict and that inclusive political dialogue is the only route to a sustainable resolution.
The UK is the penholder on Yemen at the UN Security Council, which means the UK has the power to draft and table Security Council products on Yemen, including press statements, resolutions, presidential statements and more. Within the UN, the UK has the power to lead the way in efforts to forge a political, not military, solution to the conflict. It is important to consider that in our discussions about Yemen and about the actions the UK Government can take to help bring about a lasting peace. We need to focus on those efforts.
The relative calm brought about by the six-month truce has allowed some Yemenis to dream of a better future. It is therefore deeply disappointing that the truce came to an end last month, on
As hon. Member know, the conflict began in 2014 when the Iranian-aligned Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen, and later forced the Government into exile. In March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition, including the United Arab Emirates, began a military campaign, backing the internationally recognised Government. The toll of eight years of war on Yemen’s population has been extreme and the war has devastated the country. There have been thousands of civilian deaths, and the famine caused by the war has endangered millions of lives. Across Yemen, 16.2 million people—60% of the Yemeni population—continue to experience acute food insecurity. The UN has described the war in Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and it is estimated that 377,000 people have been killed or have died as a result of the war and the associated crises in basic food and other necessities.
Against this dire backdrop, the recently ended truce offered a beacon of hope and brought some welcome developments. Despite claims of violations by both sides, the truce brought about a sharp drop in fighting. Save the Children has calculated that the truce led to a 34% drop in child casualties and a 60% drop in the displacement of people. According to al-Jazeera, residents in Sanaa reported that their daily lives dramatically improved during the truce, and that prices came down as more essential goods entered the city. Evani Debone, a communications co-ordinator at the Adventist Development and Relief Agency Yemen, told al-Jazeera that the truce had given Yemenis hope for peace. She said:
“Children who go to school are not afraid of airplanes any more. Having the next generation of Yemen not being afraid and not running from the war, as well as having the right to live their lives again is the most important thing when we think about the truce.”
The truce established a partial opening of the Houthi-controlled Sanaa International airport and the key Houthi-held Red sea port of Hodeidah. During the truce, flights restarted at Sanaa International airport for the first time since 2016 and, according to the UN, fuel imports into the port of Hodeidah are calculated to have quadrupled during the truce, allowing people to regain some level of normality in their lives. The truce also called for the lifting of the Houthi blockade on Taiz, the country’s third largest city, but little progress was made there after talks aimed at reopening local roads stalled. Another sticking point was the funding of public employees, many of whom have not received salaries for years.
For now, it appears that some of the main gains of the truce, such as the increase in fuel shipments to Hodeidah and the resumption of flights to Sanaa International airport, have thankfully held. The ability to move freely from Sanaa International airport is particularly important because it means that tens of thousands of Yemenis have been able to visit loved ones and receive vital medical treatment during the truce. It is estimated that the opening of the airport allowed almost 27,000 Yemenis to get medical treatment overseas, and to pursue educational or business opportunities abroad.
I am sure everyone here agrees that the protection of measures that so improve the lives of ordinary Yemenis must be a priority. Although it appears that there has been no immediate major uptick in violence since the truce expired, the fear is that it will begin again. Two weeks ago UN special envoy Hans Grundberg told the Security Council that a “new uncertainty” and a “heightened risk of war” now prevailed across Yemen. Meanwhile, all sides in the conflict are blaming each other for the failure of the truce, but it is the ordinary people of Yemen who will suffer most if the violence begins again. However, UN special envoy Hans Grundberg has signalled that there is still cause for hope, telling the UN Security Council:
“It is important to remember that the truce was never intended as an end in itself, but as a building block to enhance trust between the parties”.
A truce is necessary in order to establish the kind of environment in which a political solution to the conflict can be reached. I have therefore been heartened that the special envoy has stated that he believes there is still a possibility for the parties to come to an agreement. It is vital that the UK Government and the whole international community do everything in their power to try to facilitate that. Re-establishing the truce would be a first step towards a durable peace. There is no doubt that it will take compromises and leadership from all sides.
To conclude, what specific steps are the Government taking to make the most of the UK’s penholder role in the UN in relation to re-establishing the truce in Yemen? Will the Minister tell us what the UK Government are doing to support the ongoing UN-led process to establish peace, and to encourage the negotiation of an enduring political settlement? It is vital that the Government do all they can to help end this brutal conflict and stop the suffering of the Yemeni people. For the people of Yemen, the stakes could not be higher.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Davies, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Drummond on securing the debate. She was an amazing Parliamentary Private Secretary when I served in the Department for Work and Pensions, and we worked well together. It is great to see her passion on this subject, just as it is to see the passion of my right hon. Friend Valerie Vaz—I call her my right hon. Friend because she is a friend, not an enemy—and my right hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart.
This is a really important debate, and it is good to hear about people’s family links. Indeed, it is wonderful to have received a bit of a history lesson from my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham, who spoke about his experience. He was very quick to talk about other people’s nappies, but he did not talk about his own, which I thought I would just mention gently. He talked about the complexities of the situation, and Alyn Smith clearly set out that there are real challenges to deal with.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley and the right hon. Member for Walsall South for securing the debate, for their incredible work in this area and for their keen interest in this subject. I also recognise the important comments made by my good friend, Jim Shannon. He and I share a real passion for freedom of religion or belief with many other people in this room. He is a beacon on the subject and we treasure him greatly. For peace to be achieved Yemen, it needs all members of minority religions to be involved in the peace process, and the UN special envoy has been taking steps to ensure that the process is inclusive. No doubt the hon. Gentleman and I will speak more on that subject, as we always do.
Yesterday marked seven months since the UN successfully brokered a truce between the warring parties in Yemen. The truce has allowed Yemenis to live more safely and travel more freely than at any time since the war began, and has delivered many tangible benefits for the Yemeni people. As Members have mentioned, the reopening of Sanaa airport has enabled 60 commercial flights, allowing Yemenis to reunite with loved ones and seek urgent medical treatment abroad. The reopening of Hodeidah port has enabled oil to flow into the country, allowing public services to restart and bringing down the towering oil prices that made it entirely unaffordable for most people. Cross-border attacks, such as those on the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in January, have ceased.
It is therefore deeply disappointing that the Houthis refused to agree to an extension to the truce on
I was remiss in not welcoming the Minister to his place. He has been a great colleague; I worked with him when I was shadow Leader of the House and he was a Whip, and he is amazing. I will speak about freedom of religion. My first communion and confirmation were all held in a church in Maala, and we had all of our confirmations at Steamer Point. My mother used to sing in the church choir, so my whole life was filled with music and going to church early in the morning. The Minister mentioned the peace process and said that there is room for hope. As the penholder, is he prepared to host a peace conference, as we did previously, to try to get aid to Yemen? Is he prepared to host that peace conference here, to bring all the parties together?
I thank the right hon. Member for her comments and her sincerity. This is not my brief, but Lord Ahmad’s, so he will respond to that point in due course. Without going as far as committing to what she suggested, I will come to what we are doing to facilitate and move forward with a political settlement.
The UK Government remain one of the principal supporters of UN-led efforts to end the conflict, and continue to play a leading role in moving the peace process forward. The Foreign Secretary, in his previous role as Middle East Minister, met UN special envoy Hans Grundberg in January. He offered the UK’s continued support for the work to bring the parties to the negotiating table, and to extend and expand the truce to convert it to a longer-term ceasefire agreement, which the right hon. Member for Walsall South included in her asks. We are working on those issues. Our excellent diplomats and experts continue to deliver on that pledge, working with countries in the region and the wider international community to bring about peace and alleviate humanitarian suffering. In January and July we convened Quint meetings relating to Yemen with the US and regional partners, to back the UN plan.
The hon. Member for Stirling mentioned the importance of the Stockholm agreement and its three main components, and we agree with him. It sets a solid foundation, covering key areas. The UN is taking forward a comprehensive political settlement that addresses the full suite of issues that are important to the parties and to the Yemeni people. We continue to use our role as penholder on Yemen in the UN Security Council to push for a lasting political resolution to the conflict. Resolution 2216 should be replaced when there is real consensus on a political settlement, and the UK stands ready to support the negotiation of a new resolution on ending Yemen’s war when the time is right. We have provided expert advice to underpin the technical aspects of the truce, and to support the longer-term economic, security and political vision for the country.
The UK has long upheld the position that any peace process and subsequent settlement should be Yemeni led, which was an important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley. We recognise the need for that process to be inclusive and involve marginalised groups, which we talked about under the auspices of freedom of religion and belief. We commend the UN special envoy’s approach to his consultations with the parties in March 2022, which involved a wide range of Yemenis.
To support the UN’s efforts to deliver a durable and sustainable peace deal, we have backed a range of grassroots initiatives that engage civil society and local groups through our conflict, stability and security fund. In April, we welcomed the establishment of the Presidential Leadership Council in Yemen. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley, I reiterate the UK’s strong support for the council and its eight members: President Rashad al-Alimi, Sultan Ali al-Arada, Faraj Salmin al-Buhsani, Abdullah al-Alimi Bawazeer, Othman Hussein Megali, Tariq Saleh, Abed al-Rahman Abu Zara’a, and Aidarous al-Zubaidi. We praise the strong and magnanimous leadership of the PLC. That leadership sustained the truce for six months and, since its expiry, has kept the door open for an extension. United, they will play a vital role in a Yemeni-led path to a political settlement—the outcome that all Members present actively strive for.
A number of points have been raised during the debate; I will answer those that I can. Concerns were raised by John Spellar and Mr Mahmood about the Iranian involvement in Yemen. The UK is deeply concerned by Iran’s destabilising interference in Yemen and the region. We know that Iran’s sustained material support for the Houthis has stoked further conflict and undermined the UN-led peace efforts. It is vital that Yemen is not used as a theatre in which to escalate the conflict in the region. The right hon. Member for Warley and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr also talked about the issue of southern Yemen. The governance arrangements for southern Yemen are ultimately a question for the people of Yemen themselves; the UK position, and that of the UN Security Council, is to support the unity, sovereignty and independence of Yemen. That is why the UK supports an inclusive peace process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley talked about external influences from China and Russia in Yemen. I note, though, that the five permanent members of the Security Council have remained relatively united on Yemen—more so than in other conflict areas. We know well that Chinese and Russian support for the peace process is highly valued by the UN special envoy. Ultimately, we share the goal of sustainable peace in Yemen and will continue to work together to that end.
The right hon. Member for Walsall South characteristically made some demands and asks—she is a demanding person, but in a nice way and for good reason. We regret that the mandate of the group of eminent experts on Yemen has not been renewed. The UK voted in favour of that resolution, and spoke in support of it during the voting. We are concerned about reports of serious and wide-ranging human rights violations and abuses by parties to the conflict. That group had a crucial role to play in providing ongoing reporting on the actions of parties, and we continue to urge the parties involved to investigate those allegations, and take action to promote and protect human rights. We advocate for the establishment of an equivalent mechanism—Lord Ahmad will give further detail in writing to the right hon. Member.
Questions were raised about arms sales. I reassure Members that the UK takes its export responsibilities extremely seriously, and assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria. We will not issue any export licence if to do so would be inconsistent with our export licensing criteria, including respect for human rights and international humanitarian law. In response to concerns raised by Claudia Webbe, I highlight that the UK regularly raises with Saudi Arabia, including at senior levels, the importance of international humanitarian law, and conducting thorough and conclusive investigations into alleged violations.
Political progress is essential for the permanent alleviation of the immense humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people. We continue to be a major donor to the UN-led response, and have contributed over £1 billion since the conflict began. Yemen is a clear humanitarian priority for the UK. We have supported millions of vulnerable Yemenis with food, clean water and healthcare, and will continue to do so. Our support to UNICEF has already provided 182,000 children and caregivers with mental health and psychosocial support, and we intend to reach another 30,000 by March 2023.
It is worth mentioning that the British Council continues to have a positive impact on thousands of Yemenis. Since 2015, close to 1,000 teachers and over 300 school leaders have taken part in British Council core transferable skills training, which has enhanced the learning experience of over 160,000 students in Yemen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley raised the issue of the Safer tanker. This year, UK financial and technical support also went towards addressing the threat posed by the tanker, which she clearly highlighted. The decaying vessel is at imminent risk of a major leak, which would be four times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill, and would devastate Red sea marine life, destroy livelihoods dependent on fisheries, and worsen an already critical humanitarian situation in Yemen. UK expertise brought the issue to international attention, and British firms are working with the UN on mitigation. Our £6 million contribution helped the UN to reach the threshold to begin the operation. That demonstrates how the UK is supporting Yemen in achieving the economic and environmental security that is critical for its future prosperity.
In conclusion, it is good to see that the situation in Yemen is more positive than in February. There has been considerable progress, which has delivered a truce and has the potential to lead to a permanent resolution to the conflict. However, we must also recognise that this opportunity is fragile and must be grasped by all involved. An inclusive and comprehensive political settlement under the auspices of the UN is the only way to secure enduring peace for Yemeni people and the region. The UK Government will continue to do all we can to bring about peace and a brighter future for all the people in Yemen. The Yemeni people deserve nothing less.
Thank you very much for chairing the debate, Mr Davies. I thank the Minister for his encouraging remarks, and all hon. Members for their contributions.
The war started as an internal civil war. It has gone on far too long and has brought in other state actors. We need every party to get together, in a bottom-up, not top-down, way that encourages every community and tribe to get involved. We need a new peace process, and we need it fast. I thank everybody, but I especially thank my friend, Valerie Vaz, for securing the debate with me; shukran.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the peace process in Yemen.