Rory speaks on the Humanitarian situation in Yemen

I begin by paying huge tribute to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). For as long as I have been in the House and long before I entered the House, he has been a great champion of the interests of Yemen. He understands Yemen, as he pointed out, from his early childhood and brings to the issue a level of knowledge and passion that is important in the House. Everyone on both sides of House has emphasised that the situation is a horrible tragedy—nearly 80% of the population currently face a humanitarian crisis. More than 1 million children face food shortages and almost 400,000 literally struggle to know where the next meal will come from.

I will take a couple of moments to talk about the causes and origins of the conflict, because it is important to consider them when addressing it. When I last visited Yemen in the spring of 2014, despite all the underlying fragility—the considerable south-north divides, the sectarian splits between the Houthis and other members of Yemeni society, and the extreme poverty—we were looking at a situation in which the national dialogue seemed to be working. There was a remarkable period of relative stability between 2011 and 2014. I pay tribute to Benomar, who was the UN special envoy at the time, and to the extraordinary work of the ambassadors from the Gulf Co-operation Council, the EU ambassador, who had served in Afghanistan and spoke fluent Arabic, the US ambassador, who was a fluent Arabist, and the French ambassador, who also spoke fluent Arabic. Unfortunately, however, despite all the work done in 2014, the situation deteriorated rapidly so that by the beginning of 2015 we found ourselves facing the horror that we see today. There are certain lessons that we need to draw from that to understand how we went wrong and to solve future conflicts.

The first and central thing is to apportion blame. We cannot shy away from the fact that the actions of ex-President Saleh and the Houthis are at the core of the conflict. They attacked the legitimate Government in Sana’a and propagated this conflict. There is also a broader context that the international community must recognise and take responsibility for. The national dialogue that I saw in 2014 did not do what it was supposed to do. In retrospect, it focused too much on an elite in Sana’a and did not reach out enough to the rural populations. It was not genuinely inclusive and left a situation in which the Houthis in particular felt that the federal deal offered to them was unfair and that the area that they had been allocated was too small and without access to the sea.

Partly through pressure on President Hadi to reduce fuel subsidies, international development actors helped to create a situation in which instability was encouraged by the cutting of those fuel subsidies—although much of the responsibility must lie with President Hadi and how he implemented the cuts. Corruption in Sana’a and Yemen was also a huge mobiliser of popular resentment against the Government and that was not adequately addressed.                        

Keith Vaz                                 

I thank the Minister for his kind comments. He is giving an impressive exposition of what went wrong. We, like the Americans, are great supporters of Yemen, so should we have done more at the time to monitor the situation and to move the dialogue in the right direction? Did we withdraw far too early?   

Rory Stewart                         

I pay tribute to Jane Marriott, our ambassador at the time, to the work done by her predecessor, John Wilkes, and to the DFID work that took place behind the scenes. Such things are difficult and I am not in the business of second guessing officials, but the lesson we should draw from all these conflicts is the one that I pointed to earlier: the international community must be cautious not to become over-optimistic and to be aware of the ways in which talking to an elite in the capital and engaging with the civil society in Sana’a misled us about the real resentment that existed in the countryside.

How do we address the situation now? Central to that is understanding that decades of ex-President Saleh’s policies lie underneath the problems we face today. He deliberately exacerbated those tribal divisions, and deliberately created that culture of corruption and impunity, which he is now so expertly exploiting in order to maintain instability in that country. But we cannot be naive here: simply removing ex-President Saleh is not going to solve this problem on its own. The problems in Yemen go much deeper than that and need to be addressed systematically, from politics through to the humanitarian dimension.

Let me touch on those two things. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, politics is at the centre of this—politics, politics, politics. Characteristically, he asked 10 questions, which I have to deal with in less than 10 minutes, but I will try to deal with them quickly before moving on. Hon. Members will notice that his 10 questions have largely focused on what I would call the high politics and diplomacy, and I will try to address them one by one and then take this into the bigger issue of the solution to the Yemeni conflict. First, he asked what the UK’s position is in relation to the Kuwait talks. The answer is that those talks were held between the parties in the conflict—the regional players and the Yemenis themselves. The UK ambassador to Yemen was present and was in the room, but in a diplomatic capacity and not as a party to the conflict.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked what support we are providing to Saudi Arabia. The current operations are, of course, Saudi-led, and the United Kingdom is not embedded in the Saudi military operations. As the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) pointed out in his statement today, we are very clear that the investigation needs to be led, in the first instance, by the Saudi Government, just as similar investigations of the United States or the United Kingdom Governments for actions taking place in Afghanistan and Iraq were led first and foremost by those Governments. He has said, however, that if that investigation is not adequate, he will look at this again.          

Stephen Doughty

The Saudi Foreign Minister told us yesterday that the UK had provided both technical and personnel support to investigations for the past six to eight months, and that advice had been provided on targeting. As one of the guardians of the humanitarian principle, will the Minister be clear about what support has been provided by the Department for International Development specifically in relation to investigating violations of humanitarian law?

Rory Stewart

I am happy to provide more detail, but, in essence, we currently provide two forms of support and I will elaborate on this in a written answer. We provide training and capacity support, which includes statements about international humanitarian law, but that is not about this military operation—that is in general for the royal Saudi air force. Secondly, my Department and the Foreign Office have worked together through the UN process on international humanitarian law, particularly in a meeting in Geneva last month—this is partly in response to the question raised by the right hon. Member for Leicester East—where we are pushing for more staffing for the independent UN investigation on human rights through the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and, in particular, its Yemen office.

The right hon. Gentleman asked a question about arms sales. We take those sales very seriously. As Members from both sides of the House are aware, the report by the Committees on Arms Export Controls was divided,but we continue to monitor carefully all actions of international humanitarian law, although this is not a prime responsibility of my Department. He asked whether we would be in the room for peace talks, and we absolutely will. Our current ambassador, Edmund Fitton-Brown, is very close to the UN representative, and so long as these are not talks taking place between the parties to the conflict, the UK is present in a diplomatic capacity.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the Prime Minister would be prepared to call King Salman of Saudi Arabia and President Hadi. Of course, as the right hon. Gentleman is aware, on Sunday the Foreign Secretary met the Saudi Foreign Minister, but more than that the Saudi Foreign Minister came to this House of Commons yesterday to be directly accountable to this Parliament. Indeed, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East spoke to President Hadi in a visit to Saudi Arabia last week. The right hon. Gentleman asked about sanctions. Of course we will continue to put pressure on all parties to this conflict to support the current peace. He asked whether we are providing support for the special envoy, and the answer is that the UK Government are providing more than £1 million of direct support for the staff of Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the UN special envoy to Yemen.

In the remaining minutes, I hope to talk about the broader context, in addition to all the good 10 points the right hon. Gentleman raised. We need to look at politics at local and regional level.          

Keith Vaz

This must be a first—a Minister is given a set of questions and he replies to every one of them. I do not think that I have ever come across that in my 29 years in this House—well done. Will the hon. Gentleman address the issue of the ceasefire? We know that we have 72 hours. Can we please try to ensure that it is longer, because 72 hours is not enough? I know that there are many other things to talk about, but that ceasefire is critical.              

Rory Stewart

We absolutely agree that the ceasefire is critical and that 72 hours in and of itself is not enough, but as the right hon. Gentleman is so aware the only way in which we can do any kind of peace or conflict resolution all the way from sub-Saharan Africa right the way through to the peace and the conflict in Cambodia is to start with small steps. It is vital to begin with those 72-hour moves. That is why the UN special envoy has done it and why we and the United States are strongly supportive of it. We will of course do all we can to extend that ceasefire, because we do need longer. Indeed, what we want is a permanent political settlement in place, which brings me to the broader question of politics. There are two dimensions to that: we need to acknowledge that this is taking place in a broader peninsula context, and that lasting peace will come only if we address the local-level conflicts taking place on the ground in Yemen. Our humanitarian response—this is a debate about the humanitarian crisis—needs to take that into account.

I wish to make some brief observations on the nature of DFID’s humanitarian response. First, we need to approach this with some degree of humility. The right hon. Gentleman has quite rightly pointed to the important role that the United Kingdom plays. We do indeed hold the pen at the Security Council. We have put £100 million into this, and it is true that we play an important role in the Quad, but we are not the only people here and we cannot act as though we are. We have to make sure that we acknowledge the role of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other states such as Oman, but above all we must acknowledge the role of the Yemeni people themselves. The only real solution here will come from the Yemeni people. We need to acknowledge again that, although the United Kingdom has put in £100 million, the current UN appeal is only 47% met. We were very pleased at the UN General Assembly to raise another £50 million from other partners, but we still need to do much more.

We cannot at the moment, as an international community, adequately address all the 21 million people who are currently at risk, so we need to prioritise. We need to make sure that we focus on the most vulnerable people. First, we need to protect civilians; secondly, we need to make absolutely sure that we focus on food security—it is an absolute tragedy that we are seeing extremes of malnutrition and we must make sure that that does not turn into a famine—and thirdly, we need to make it absolutely certain that, whenever we are dealing with anyone in Yemen, we look at preventable disease. It is a tragedy that cholera is now breaking out in Sana’a.

Commerce and shipping will be absolutely central. We need to get the markets working, get the ships into Yemen, and understand that this is not just a development and a humanitarian response.

I will finish by paying tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, to the very strong work both of the UK Government and of the UN special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and to the extraordinary work of the humanitarian organisations, which work in very difficult circumstances. I am talking about the suffering that has been experienced by Mercy Corps, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières. Above all, it is the Yemenis—not just internationals—who are bearing the burden of this, who are out in those field offices, and who are delivering aid in some of the most testing conditions on earth. If we can plan now for the medium to long term, think hard about the stabilisation and the politics that are at the root of this, and ensure that we get the economic framework in place so that if we are lucky enough to have a ceasefire, we are really able to move to a situation in which we have a sustainable economy in Yemen for the future. If we can sometimes do less than we pretend, we can do much more than we fear.


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