Current UK Position on Yemen Humanitarian Crisis

  • 26 January 2017      10.35 am

    (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the situation in Yemen, from a humanitarian perspective and on diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.

The UK supports the Saudi Arabian-led coalition military intervention, which came at the request of the legitimate President Hadi. We are clear, however, that military gains by the coalition and the Government of Yemen must be used to drive forward the political process. A political solution is the best way to bring long-term stability to Yemen and end the conflict.

The UK has played a leading role in diplomatic efforts, including bringing together key international actors to try to find a peaceful solution. This is known as the quad and involves the Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Other Gulf Co-operation Council countries and the UN have also been involved. The first meeting was held in London in July 2016; it was one of the first acts of the Foreign Secretary. The last quad meeting was held in Riyadh on 18 December, and I attended. I last spoke to President Hadi on 15 January to discuss the importance of taking measures to prevent economic collapse.

We continue to strongly support the tireless efforts of the UN special envoy, Ismail Ahmed, to achieve a political settlement. We are providing over £1 million to his office to bolster the UN’s capacity to facilitate the peace process. He is due to brief the Security Council today in New York on the latest developments and the UN’s plan. Our ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, met him yesterday.

We share a deep concern for the humanitarian suffering of the people of Yemen, which we all have an obligation to alleviate. The UK is the fourth-largest donor to Yemen, committing more than £100 million this year. Last year we helped more than 1.3 million Yemenis. Through the conflict, stability and security fund, we are funding: £700,000 for demining and clearing the explosive remnants of war; £400,000 for UN Women to support bringing women into the peace process and political dialogue; and £140,000 for other track II activities in support of the UN-led peace process.

Yemen is historically reliant on imports for more than 90% of its food and fuel needs. The Department for International Development is providing £1.4 million for the UN verification and inspection mechanism to speed up the clearance process for ships, so that food and fuel can get into the country more easily.

It is critical that all parties to the conflict renew their commitment to the cessation of hostilities, for the sake of the people of Yemen. All parties must engage constructively with the De-escalation and Co-ordination Committee, a mechanism created by the UN so that when incidents of concern are raised, they can be addressed effectively to reduce the likelihood of escalation.

I am grateful to the Minister for that statement. When the UN Security Council meets this afternoon, it will do so against a backdrop of heavy fighting in the Red sea ports of Mocha and Al Hudaydah and an increasingly dire humanitarian situation across the country. There are already 7 million people starving in Yemen. If those ports are destroyed or besieged, the delivery of vital aid that is required to avert famine in Yemen will become even more difficult.

The only way to prevent this unfolding humanitarian disaster deteriorating even further is to agree an immediate ceasefire. Today’s meeting of the Security Council provides a key opportunity to bring that closer. The Scottish National party believes that the UK is in a unique position to be able to show positive international leadership in order to bring about a ceasefire. It is vital to the lives of millions of Yemenis that we do so.

I ask the Minister, therefore, will the UK Government commit to use today’s meeting of the Security Council to back a ceasefire and urge all conflict parties to protect women, boys, men and girls from all forms of conflict-related abuse and violence; to ensure that all conflict parties allow civilians safe and unhindered access to humanitarian assistance; to strongly condemn all violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law in Yemen; and to call for the establishment of an international, independent and impartial commission of inquiry to investigate them; and finally, to ask the Government to think once again on their own position and listen to Members across this House; and please consider halting all sales of arms to Saudi now, and in doing so, urge all Governments to follow suit.

Mr Ellwood

Yet again, it is a tribute to this House that we discuss these important matters. There are so many challenges in the middle east and north Africa at the moment and Yemen sometimes tends to get buried or overshadowed by some of the other challenges that we face, so I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this matter, on which we also had a thorough debate last week.

The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the work that is taking place at the United Nations Security Council today, where the UN envoy, Ismail Ahmed, will lay out his plans for what we expect and hope to achieve in 2017. We ended the year in a better place: the Houthis were minded to support the road map—although they have yet to come to the table—and President Hadi was looking more favourably on providing support in order to rejoin talks in Kuwait in the very near future. Key aspects of the road map still need to be ratified. Once that is done, we are in a process that will lead to that important cessation of hostilities.

I understand the hon. Lady’s desire to call for a ceasefire—a cessation of hostilities—immediately. We will see what comes out of today’s meeting and comes out from the United Nations, but I am absolutely in agreement with her that that is what we want to happen. Calling for it needs to work in conjunction with the art of the possible; otherwise it is just words. In order for us to ensure that any ceasefire will hold, we need to be able to say what happens if either side breaches the cessation of hostilities, which means there need to be some prior agreements in place. There need to be some confidence-building measures as the build-up to the call for a ceasefire.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady’s concerns about safe access. Humanitarian access to the country has been extremely limited, not least in respect of use of the ports, which we have discussed on many occasions. She yet again repeats her call for a UN independent commission of inquiry into some of the allegations on humanitarian and human rights law. In our previous debate on this matter, I stressed that it is the protocol for any country to conduct its own activities. I have said that if I feel that the reports that are due to come—and are slowly coming from a country that has never had to be pressed to write a report before—are deemed to be unworthy, unsuitable or miss the purpose for which they are being written, yes I will join with her and say that this should be moved to an independent examiner, possibly the United Nations, as well. But until we reach that point, I will continue to back Saudi Arabia conducting its own inquiries, in the same way as we do ourselves, and America does itself, not least when it hit the hospital in the north of Afghanistan.

The hon. Lady mentions arms sales. We have one of the most robust sales processes in the world. Each sale is conducted and scrutinised on its own basis. As we have said in the past, where we see ourselves at the moment is that we fully support the continued sales of arms to Saudi Arabia.

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