House of Commons debate the conflict in Yemen
On 28 March 2017, a debate was held in the House of Commons on the conflict in Yemen. Led by Labour MP Keith Vaz, Conservative MP Flick Drummond and SNP MP Alison Thewliss, it focused on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and efforts to pass a resolution at the UN Security Council to end the conflict. The motion debated was:
That this House notes the worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen; and calls upon the Government to take a lead in passing a resolution at the UN Security Council that would give effect to an immediate ceasefire in Yemen.
This month marked two years since the start of the Yemen conflict, when a Saudi Arabia-led coalition intervened on the side of the Yemeni Government against Houthi rebel forces in March 2015. Two years on, there is still no military solution to the conflict in sight, and the suffering inflicted upon Yemenis, including from siege, airstrikes and fighting, has been massive.
Over the last couple of months, anxieties about famine in Yemen have grown markedly. Stephen O’Brien, the UN Under-Secretary-General (USG) for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator told the UN Security Council in February 2017 that “Yemen is largest humanitarian crisis in the world and the Yemeni people now face the spectre of famine.”
Keith Vaz, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Yemen, opened the debate by setting out the current humanitarian tragedy facing Yemen.
“The latest figures from the humanitarian crisis in Yemen are unbelievable: 10,000 people have died; more than 1,500 of the dead were children; 47,000 people have been injured, many crippled for life; and 7 million are at immediate risk of starvation, including 2 million children. The United Nations has just announced that Yemen is only one step away from outright famine. In total, 21.2 million people require urgent humanitarian assistance—80% of the country’s population. We have become frighteningly numb to the figures.”
Despite the scale the conflict, it still receives little coverage. As Vaz described:
“According to a recent YouGov poll, less than half the UK’s population even knows that there is a war in Yemen, a former British colony. It is the forgotten war, which is why the motion has only one objective: to secure an all-important, long-lasting ceasefire.”
The root cause of the worsening humanitarian crisis is the conflict and the issue of aid access. As Labour MP Stephen Doughty noted:
“Both sides in the conflict continue to frustrate humanitarian access. For example, at the port of Hudaydah, cranes that were supposed to unload crucial medical and humanitarian cargoes are not yet in place.”
Other MPs, including Alison Thewliss, outlined the importance of the port of Hudaydah:
“Hudaydah is strategically important. It used to handle 70% of food imports, as well as humanitarian aid. It has been under sustained attack, leading to the destruction of infrastructure and rendering inoperable the cranes that used to unload the cargo ships.”
As Keith Vaz put bluntly:
“If Hudaydah cannot function, we cannot stop famine in Yemen.”
Earlier this year Yemen was declared by the UN as one of the four countries, alongside Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia, facing famine. However as Vaz remarked:
“The Yemenis are not starving: they are being starved by a blockade in which we are complicit.”
In light of the looming threat of famine, calls have been made for major international assistance. In February the UN launched an international appeal for $2.1bn needed to support 12 million people in Yemen in 2017.
However as Conservative MP Seema Kennedy described:
“On the appeal for $2 billion of funds, sadly, although we are a third of the way through 2017, only 6% of that money has been raised. The UK is in a good position on the list—we are third—but many of our European partners have not paid up yet. I ask the Minister to urge his colleague, the Minister for Europe and the Americas, to talk to European partners about how they can do their part as well.”
Many MPs acknowledged the UK’s efforts in this regard, including Keith Vaz:
“We continue to be one of the largest bilateral aid donors to Yemen, and the Department for International Development is contributing £100 million to the country. I commend the efforts of the Secretary of State for International Development, who has made additional funds available to Yemen as a priority for her Department and taken the lead on Yemen internationally.”
However MPs also pointed out the UK’s inconsistent policy towards Yemen. Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, who visited Yemen in January 2017 said:
“The British Government’s policy needs tweaking because it is internally inconsistent. One part of the British Government is seeking to get development aid and vital supplies in through the port of Hudaydah, while another part is supporting the coalition that has been bombing the port.”
In a similar vain, SNP MP Brendan O’Hara pointed out:
“We have already heard about the ridiculous situation of the UK Government giving aid with one hand while arming the antagonists with the other. Does she agree that famine relief and a ceasefire can come about only with the immediate suspension of the Government’s selling of arms to the Saudi regime, which has already been found to be guilty of breaches of international humanitarian law?”
And as Labour MP Alison Thewliss said:
“As I said in Foreign Office questions earlier, £3.3 billion has been made from arms licences over the past two years, which dwarfs the £85 million in Government aid, welcome though that is. The arms sales must stop now. Peace will not happen if bombs continue to rain down on the heads of people in Yemen!”
An earlier debate held on 12 January 2017 focused on the sale and use of arms from the UK to Saudi Arabia. On 7 February, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) took to the UK government to the High Court into the UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
As well as the humanitarian crisis, this debate focused on negotiation efforts to bring about a much needed end to the conflict.
Keith Vaz described the international community’s failures so far:
“We have had three failed opportunities for a sustainable end to the fighting: negotiations in April 2016 ended in failure; a UN-sponsored round of talks in Kuwait ended in failure in August 2016; and John Kerry’s initiative last November led to the Saudi-led coalition and Houthis agreeing to the UN special envoy’s terms, but the agreement collapsed when President Hadi refused to sign the deal.”
He also offered some optimism for a Security Council meeting scheduled on Wednesday 29 March.
“Tomorrow may be one of the most critical days in the history of Yemen. At 10am in New York, the United Nations Security Council will hold a full session on the conflict in Yemen, where they will hear directly from the special envoy. It will be chaired by our excellent ambassador, Matthew Rycroft.”
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornbury probed the government about their efforts in securing a ceasefire and peace deal:
“However, the UN special envoy for Yemen told the Security Council in January that a viable proposal for peace was on the table and within reach. What happened to that proposal? Where has it gone? Was it connected to the ceasefire resolution that we were told the UK would introduce six months ago? Can the Minister tell us what has happened to the resolution?
The last time we debated this matter, the Minister told us that the British Government were in the process of redrafting the resolution to make it up to date. How is that going? Do we have an up-to-date resolution? When the Security Council meets tomorrow, under British chairmanship, to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Yemen—I understand the Russians pressed for the discussion—we will be the pen holder, we will be chairing the meeting and we should be putting forward a peace resolution. Are we going to? I fear not.”
Concluding the debate, Middle East and Africa Minister Tobias Ellwood remarked:
“Britain continues to play a leading role, unswayed by the prejudice or interest of any other country. As she says, we are the pen holder, and we are determined to do that job without prejudice and without influence from other nations, doing what we see is best. We show leadership at the United Nations and in the new Quint, which involves nations from around the middle east that are looking at this and which met in February, along with UN special envoy Ismail Ahmed.”
“In conclusion, the UK Government are gravely concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. We are taking a leading role in the international response, which means not only providing substantial humanitarian aid but using all diplomatic means available to us to support efforts to reach a political agreement and to press for a solution to the economic crisis. As I have said before, it is ultimately the Yemenis themselves who must reach a compromise. The Yemeni people need and deserve peace, and we continue to work with international partners to secure it.”
You can read a full transcript of the debate here.
Or you can watch the 90 minute debate here.