Motion to Take Note
My Lords, in this debate we are dealing with a short report—or rather, it might be said, a list of observations and questions—on the deeply troubling issue of the continuing conflict in Yemen and its hideous humanitarian consequences. These are on a scale unmatched in modern times, with 60,000 or more civilians killed directly by the fighting over the four years or so, and thousands more dying of starvation, and rampant cholera and other diseases. In the words of various United Nations agencies, it is the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, with up to 22 million people facing a severe food and water shortage, vast displacement of people, and many constant tragedies.
The much deeper issues of British and western involvement in the whole ongoing turmoil of the Middle East region were addressed by your Lordships’ committee in an earlier report, as indeed we addressed the question of whether this area is still in the western sphere of influence at all or is increasingly turning eastwards, towards the rising power of the Asian nations and networks, which the 21st century has propelled to dominance. Here we simply focus on the specific matters of the unparalleled horrors and suffering in Yemen, aspects of the complex struggle there, the ways it has been conducted and the British role.
This is a continuing conflict in which all sides are acting with extreme ferocity. The Houthis—the rebel group that sprang from the priest and cleric Houthi of 10 to 15 years ago—control their areas of the country with savagery, and neighbouring Saudi Arabia has a right to defend itself against direct attacks, which it has received with missiles which have been validated as of Iranian origin. No one wants hostile and aggressive powers right on the neighbouring borders, and the fears of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates must be fully understood. I think we understand them. Despite the flood of military equipment and the back-up of technical trade support and training being poured into the area, no side is winning and a stalemate of horror persists as the situation dissolves into a fragmentation of local wars and blockades.
The British contribution to address the suffering in line with our international duty must be commended, and we do so in our report. The UK aid total to date over the four years adds up to £511 million, which is not a small sum by any standards. There are, it is true, problems about our food aid getting through to the right hands rather than being diverted or just blocked at the ports, but the overall commitment by the British Government is undoubtedly strong and evident. The Foreign Secretary himself has visited Yemen, and our commitment to alleviate the suffering is clear.
However, when it comes to British involvement with the parties to the war, which is causing all the suffering in the first place, by virtue of Britain’s colossal arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the situation is much less clear. Our short report does not say that British arms shipments should be immediately suspended, as some of the more sloppy media reporting suggested, although other countries have indeed imposed a de facto embargo—Norway, certainly, and Germany for at least six months ahead. We are saying not only that future licensing of arms exports should be kept under intensely tight review but that this process and pressure should be used to keep pushing the combatants harder to end armed conflict and returning to politics and negotiation under the Stockholm process.
Our Government claim that their overall position is, to cite ministerial witnesses,
“narrowly on the right side of international humanitarian law”—
apparently accepting by implication that our weapons, including combat aircraft and munitions, are not being used for persistent and large-scale air strikes and civilian casualties. The question must be: how good is that evidence? Is the Saudi review process, from which these propositions come, good enough? How are the investigations of the horrific civilian casualties collected, assessed and made available?
We need to know more precisely how approval decisions on specific arms exports are matched against the evidence received. How does the licensing approval system work in situations such as this? It would also be good to learn more accurately exactly where British weapons end up and in whose hands they are in this many-sided struggle. For instance, are British arms actually going to various Yemeni militias as well as to the Saudi and UAE Governments—possibly through the UAE—or even to jihadi groups, several of which are operating in Yemen, notably al-Qaeda? There have also been reports of British Special Boat Service units operating in northern Yemen. I shall not ask about them, and the Government would not answer, but can we be assured once again that we are not being sucked into becoming a direct party to this hideous conflict?
As of now, without greater clarity on these issues and in the light of worrying reports of the use of British arms in indiscriminate airstrikes, we suggest that the narrow balance leaves British policy—however unintentionally—narrowly on the wrong side of international humanitarian law in an appalling situation. We should like to be assured that every effort is being made to turn war and terror into peace. We should like our efforts combined with others internationally to help rebuild a destroyed nation and restore a hideously wounded nation and people.
It would be good to have confirmation that the UK’s role as a so-called pen-holder—I think that is a sort of rapporteur but I may be corrected on that—in the UN is being used vigorously to put UN authority firmly behind an escape from the bloody status quo of stalemate. We support fully the work of Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy, but it is not nearly enough to bring the vital peace and end to suffering, alas.
Above all, I hope that we can be given clear assurance that, as well as doing our utmost to alleviate the suffering, British policy is doing nothing to prolong or intensify the conflict, and that such influence as we have with both the Saudi Arabians and the UAE is being used to counsel care and restraint in avoiding civilian casualties—while of course recognising fully the deep concerns of those two countries and the need for stability and government legitimacy in their neighbourhood. I await with great interest the Minister’s comments on these questions and the tragic issues behind them.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, and the committee for the report, particularly for setting out so clearly the complexities of the situation in Yemen. I support all the recommendations, particularly with respect to the need for the UK Government to be more robust and vocal in condemning violations of international humanitarian law. Over time, we have seen worrying erosions of long-held humanitarian principles—for example, regarding medical facilities, educational facilities, the denial of access to humanitarian aid workers and the targeting of such workers. Such significant breaches of these principles should not have happen.
There is also the importance of the UK Government redoubling their diplomatic efforts. That is why I was so pleased to see the special envoy get the parties round the table in Stockholm in December. The consultations is Stockholm marked the resumption of the political process. Two and a half years have passed without peace talks, during which time parties never sat together. The agreement reached in Stockholm proved what can be achieved through dialogue, mediation and diplomacy. It showed that something was beginning to happen on Yemen. The most important element of Stockholm was the agreement on Hodeidah, which prevented a battle that would have had both a political and humanitarian cost in the form of famine. The parties agreed on a government-wide ceasefire and the mutual military redeployment of forces from Hodeidah port and city. If implemented, this would be the first military withdrawal since the war started. It would also give the UN permanent access to the Red Sea mills, where metric tonnes of food sit. Everyone agrees that there is no military solution, but the threat of famine remains very real.
I was at the UN and watched with horror as the world allowed the crisis in Syria to unfold. The people seemed to come last. I hope that will not happen again in Yemen. When I was at the United Nations, I visited those who had to flee their homes and who were being targeted by parties to conflict, I was asked many times why the world had abandoned them. We have to make sure that this does not happen to the people of Yemen.
Since the Stockholm agreement, the ceasefire has broadly held. When compared with the 12 weeks preceding it, the post-agreement period has seen a 50% reduction in civilian casualties, in contrast to the rest of the country, where civilian casualties have increased. However, military deployments have not happened yet and the implementation of the Hodeidah agreement has been slow. The United Nations is still shuttling between the parties as they have yet to agree on an operational plan to make the redeployments a reality, and there is deep mistrust between them, which makes implementation slow. Hardliners in each camp have also taken advantage of the implementation phase to prevent progress. It is tedious work, which needs a lot of convincing, so patience is needed. I have seen that happen time and time again.
However, outside pressure is also essential. In his report to the UN Security Council in February this year, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Mark Lowcock, said:
“About 80 per cent of the population—24 million people—need humanitarian assistance and protection. Some 20 million people need help securing food, including nearly 10 million who are just a step away from famine. Almost 20 million people lack access to adequate healthcare, and nearly 18 million don’t have enough clean water or access to adequate sanitation. More than 3 million people—including 2 million children—are acutely malnourished. Some 3.3 million remain displaced from their homes”.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell, has already referred to some of these figures. Mark Lowcock could not have painted a bleaker picture because behind every single one of those statistics is a child, a woman or a man.
We must find a way to move this forward. The parties do not want the UN to hold the next round of political consultations without any, as they call it, tangible progress on Hodeidah. The implementation of the Hodeidah agreement is a test to assess whether the parties can be trusted to deliver on their commitments. It is a demonstration of will. If the special envoy and the parties manage to implement what was agreed in Stockholm, we may be on the path to a comprehensive political solution in Yemen. It is doable. The issue in Yemen is not necessarily finding a solution but finding the way to get to that solution. There is a wealth of knowledge about the possible political solution. In 2016, the parties spent three months in negotiations in Kuwait. The question is whether there is the political will. I hope so because the alternative is much worse: war, famine and terrorism will flourish. The UN Security Council is united on Yemen. The role that diplomacy plays has been very positive. It has complemented the special envoy’s efforts and the council being united has meant that the United Nations has been able to use its diplomacy efficiently.
Perhaps I may put three questions to the Minister. The first relates to the humanitarian situation and the financial resources agreed at the conference in Geneva. Urgent disbursement is required, so I ask the Minister when DfID and the UK will disburse their contribution. Secondly, I turn to the role of women in the peace process. I was horrified to see that there were no women in the delegations in Stockholm. How will the UK Government use their influence to encourage the parties to include women in those discussions? Finally, it is clear that we need the United Kingdom to support the efforts of the special envoy. How can the UK use its influence with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to prioritise progress towards a political settlement, as well as using their influence with Oman, which has some influence over the Houthis?
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, who speaks with enormous authority and experience on this issue, having served with such distinction at the United Nations and in tackling humanitarian issues. I too warmly welcome the report of the Select Committee and the excellent introduction from the noble Lord, Lord Howell. It is certainly refreshing to be talking about an issue outside the European Union, looking more outwards, which is what this country needs to do again. I hope that in due course we will follow this Select Committee report with other ones about our role in the rest of the world—the sooner, the better.
Four and a half months ago I put down a Question for Short Debate. We have since had the Stockholm agreement, as the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, referred to it; the efforts of the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, in his tour of the Gulf countries, and I commend the efforts of Her Majesty’s Government; and the valiant efforts of Mr Griffiths and others. But we have to recognise the condition of Yemen before we decide how to move forward. It is a failed state. I have described it before as a kind of Dante’s Inferno for the people who live there. At the moment it does not have the makings of a nation state. I have to confess that I have watched this for over 60 years, since I first went out as a young student in the late 1950s when my father was governor of Aden. At that time there was the imam ruling north Yemen, and the British with the colony and the eastern and western protectorates of Aden.
Since then, after the unhappy departure of the British—it was a very unhappy situation indeed after we left—there has been civil conflict of major proportions between north and south. The unification of north and south under President Saleh was absolutely disastrous and has led to warring factions of one kind or another from the separatist tribal south to Aden, Hadramawt, Ta’izz, the Houthis and so on. It is a fragmented country with desperate humanitarian challenges.
The report and the noble Lord, Lord Howell, referred very fully to the Stockholm agreement. I agree with the recommendations in the report of the Select Committee, although I ask for more than just a review of export licensing. We are facing an extremely serious challenge there, and where export licensing may conflict with humanitarian law we should take action and suspend those licences.
There is no military solution whatever to the problem in Yemen, as the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, said, but I commend the role of the British Government. This is the kind of role we should be playing in different parts of the world. Our humanitarian contribution of over £500 million in four years has been outstanding, but I want to say a word about the role of diplomacy by the United Kingdom. Of course, the precondition for any progress at all is the fulfilment of the various first stages from Stockholm, and thereafter a ceasefire. But the people of Yemen want hope, and they need to link that with the prospects in the longer term—so even though the immediate situation is very grave, we need to think too about the longer-term strategy. We have to start by recognising the gravity of the fragmentation and considering how the various groups in that country will find a way of living with each other and what form of governance will emerge. I recently met a man called Mr al-Zoubaidi, the president of the Southern Transitional Council, which is strongly supported by the UAE. He said he is looking forward to an inclusive political process because the south has been marginalised for so long. The groups have to find a way of living and working together—obviously with the help and encouragement of outside powers.
The point I stress is this. The role of regional nations is critical; Europe is there to back up, but the front row of the scrum is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Our job is to back that up where we can, and to engage with Kuwait and Oman so that there is a very strong international effort behind finding a long-term way forward. To my mind, a key is the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is vital that the international community does whatever it can to press those two nations to find a way of living together. The rivalry is doing an immense amount to undermine stability in the Middle East, and certainly in Yemen.
Then there is the question of the longer-term role of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in their coalition. It looks as though Saudi Arabia’s interests are to see stability in the north of Yemen, whereas the UAE is already showing more than an interest in the south. The question is: how much are we and the international community engaging with those two nations on the kind of role they can play that would help to stabilise that region and not colonise it?
The last point I want to raise is the lessons of the wider region. The strategic importance of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb is obvious to the international community, but both sides of the seas are very unstable. In the Horn, you have Eritrea and Somalia and the work of al-Shabaab; by contrast, you have Yemen on the other side. It is worth reminding ourselves that we, along with other naval forces, have played a positive role through the naval task force in trying to reduce piracy in those seas, and that has been successful. We have also played an important role in helping to build up Somaliland as a more stable part of Somalia. There could be lessons to be learned here. For example, in the port of Aden, there could be areas in which we could work to help build up greater stability.
I hope the Minister will reassure me that the Government are thinking seriously about longer-term strategy as well as the immediate.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Luce, and the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, who bring such expertise about both the region and the UN. I have the pleasure of serving on your Lordships’ International Relations Committee, and the noble Lord, Lord Howell, as chairman, has introduced the report very effectively. I thank him for chairing this short report. As a committee, we are still relatively new. We have had some long reports but we have also tried in a few shorter reports to bring issues of urgent importance to your Lordships’ House. This report was printed only in mid-February, so it is a great opportunity to be able to debate it today. I am grateful to the usual channels for allowing the debate to come forward in such a timely fashion.
As the noble Lord, Lord Luce, intimated, there is a danger at the moment that we in the United Kingdom spend so much time focusing narrowly on our future relationship with the European Union that we do not have time to think about the wider world. While we focus on whether or not we have a relationship with the European Union that is about a customs union, a free trade area or anything else, millions of people are facing starvation in Yemen. There is a man-made catastrophe; some 24 million people are in need of aid—three-quarters of the whole population. The noble Baroness, Lady Amos, indicated just how many individuals are facing starvation and medical need. She also pointed out that each one of those statistics is a human life.
The situation in Yemen is of grave concern, but it is not sufficiently on the front pages of our newspapers. In the years since the crisis began five years ago, GDP per capita has gone down 61% and fuel and food prices have gone up 98% and 110% respectively. They are dramatic figures that we need to think about, because each further day of this conflict means more children dying, not only as civilian casualties but through starvation, which should not and need not be happening. There is food in the ports, but is it getting to the people concerned? There are clearly issues about how far food is able to get through. What reassurances can the Minister give that British aid is getting through? We were given evidence that 99% of food is getting through, yet suggestions from Saferworld and other organisations indicate that it is perhaps not that much. What is happening on the ground? Can the Minister reassure us?
We have already heard that Her Majesty’s Government have made significant humanitarian aid available to Yemen—and that is true—but we are looking at figures of £170 million in aid, alongside arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the same amount of time of £4.7 billion. Surely something is going wrong when the countries involved in the conflict—whether as part of the coalition or supporting the coalition—are engaged in serious arms exports and arms trading while, at the same time, giving humanitarian aid at a much lower level.
The United Kingdom is the fifth-largest donor of humanitarian aid to Yemen at present, after the United States, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. If the war stopped, we could begin to focus on ensuring that the humanitarian situation is not just mitigated but resolved. As the noble Lord, Lord Luce, suggested, perhaps we need to think about more than simply reviewing our arms export licences to Saudi. Is the Minister satisfied that the United Kingdom is currently on just the right side of humanitarian and international law, as the former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, believed, or may we have tripped over to the wrong side?
This was a short inquiry, consisting of one evidence session. However, it was rich evidence session because the key evidence giver was the former Minister of State, Alistair Burt, who brought a great deal of wisdom and expertise. We are most grateful to him for his evidence and he will be greatly missed as a Minister. He reminded the committee that Her Majesty’s Government’s position is that we cannot resolve the situation in Yemen through military means or external action; it needs to be resolved by the Yemenis.
Our conclusions included the suggestion that Her Majesty’s Government need to do more to resolve the situation rather than simply trying to mitigate the crisis. What do they propose to do to enable us to go beyond the conflict and the Yemenis to take control of their own future? The visit of the Foreign Secretary to Yemen and the surrounding region is important. How far will he be able to take a lead in working beyond the Stockholm process to ensure that we do not face another five years of conflict in Yemen but will be able to resolve the issue and work together with the international community to overcome the crisis, rather than simply coming back in a year’s time, for example, and bemoaning the difficulties that the international community has been unable to resolve?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Howell for setting out so clearly the main points that underpin our report and recommendations. It was such a pleasure to serve on the committee under his chairmanship. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, just said, this is a timely debate, coming just a week after the Foreign Office and DfID set out their joint statement on the fourth anniversary of the intervention by the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen conflict.
I shall focus today on the impact of the war on women and girls, who have been disproportionately affected by the conflict and the humanitarian crisis and the role they could play in the peace process. I welcome the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, on the peace process. The International Committee of the Red Cross says:
“80% of Yemen’s population rely on aid to survive. Yemen’s entire economic system has collapsed. This can’t be substituted by humanitarian organisations”.
Of course, it is right, but humanitarian assistance is vital today for the very survival of Yemenis. I congratulate the Government on their contributions to humanitarian aid in Yemen. Can the Minister update the House today on the result of the recent pledging conference in Geneva? What have other European Union countries pledged? Have they matched the UK’s good example?
I am grateful to the International Rescue Committee for its written briefing on the humanitarian concerns and to Ciarán Donnelly, the IRC’s vice-president for international programmes, for his presentation to the joint meeting of the APPGs on Women, Peace and Security and Yemen last month. I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, was able to attend and give a presentation of the committee’s short report.
While all Yemenis are clearly affected by the war, women and girls are bearing the burden. This is particularly evident in the context of the country’s malnutrition crisis, to which other noble Lords have referred. Some 2 million children and more than 1 million pregnant women and new mothers are acutely malnourished. The war has also exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and vulnerabilities for women and girls. Incidents of gender-based violence have increased by more than 63% since before the conflict started. The rate of early and forced marriage of girls has risen dramatically, tripling since 2015.The breakdown of public services is having a major impact on women’s ability to gain access to healthcare. Only 35% of maternal and new-born health services are fully functional. Health services that are available are simply not equipped, staffed or trained to deal with the needs of women and girls affected by violence.
Does the Minister agree that it is important for the UK and other humanitarian actors to increase the priority given to the needs of women and girls, paying specific attention to preventing and responding to gender-based violence and to ensuring better access to maternal healthcare? If so, what action do the Government intend to take? For example, will they increase dedicated funding to end violence against women and girls? Will they press for the UNFPA’s Yemen humanitarian response plans to be fully funded? Will the UK encourage the UN to appoint a gender-based violence adviser to be based in Yemen to be responsible for ensuring that a gender perspective is applied to assessments and that UN co-ordination on gender-based violence is improved across the work of UNICEF and UNHCR?
As our report makes clear, we commend the Government for their ongoing humanitarian contribution and the work of DfID and British volunteers who risk their lives every day to deliver assistance, but we can do more to help to resolve the crisis. We could, for example, put our weight behind the UN peace process in new and imaginative ways. I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to our committee’s recommendation, at paragraph 69 of the report, that the UK,
“should consider appointing a Special Representative, based in London, to speak to all the parties concerned, both internal and external, to reinforce the efforts of the UN Special Envoy”.
This could provide an impetus to work on including women in the peace process more effectively.
I welcome the fact that the UK has supported the Yemeni Women Pact for Peace and Security to increase women’s leadership and inclusion in the official peace process. The group now has official status as a consultative body for the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy. However, I suspect that they will not sit round the table to negotiate peace until and unless there is a change of attitude among all parties to the conflict. A UK special representative could be an influence for good in shifting the dial.
As long as the voices of Yemeni women are relegated to the periphery, it is unlikely that any peace process will have a lasting effect. To create lasting peace, we need women’s voices. From conflict prevention and conflict resolution to reconciliation and economic recovery post conflict, women’s meaningful participation in peace processes increases by 35% the likelihood that an agreement will last more than 15 years.
Meaningful participation requires that women are at the table when negotiations take place, that women’s interests and lived experiences are fully reflected in peace processes, and that women are equally considered in recovery efforts in the aftermath of conflict. As my noble friend the Minister said last month in New York when he attended the Women for Women International meeting at the Commission on the Status of Women:
“We don’t just want women involved; they have to be involved in conflict resolution ... Let us deliver on this noble objective”.
He was right. How are we going to do that?
My Lords, I follow a number of other members of the committee in thanking our chair, the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, for his very crisp and clear introduction of our report. I echo much of what the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has said, and I am delighted also to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, whose work at the United Nations was something that we should all be grateful for. She deserves much credit for it.
Today’s debate is long overdue; nevertheless, it is welcome. It is particularly welcome that the Government have scheduled this debate ahead of the two-month limit for the submission of their response to our report. That makes the Minister’s reply today all the more important, and no doubt it will be followed by the Government’s formal response to our recommendations. It is overdue because in this country, as elsewhere, the situation in Yemen has tended to be marginalised and overlooked, despite the copious evidence of appalling loss of life and suffering in the civil war that continues there.
It has been very easy to think of Yemen as a far-away country of which we know little, but that is a mistake. This is a conflict in which Britain has been playing a role—admittedly, an indirect role and not that of a combatant. Therefore, I begin by unstintingly praising the work of DfID and the British-based NGOs in mitigating the humanitarian catastrophe brought about by the war. The impressive sums that we are devoting to this mitigation need to be sustained, and I imagine that the Minister will say something about that. However, mitigation is, frankly, no longer enough, if it ever was. What is needed now is a major concerted international effort to bring this war to an end, because it will not be ended on the battlefield; it desperately needs a political solution.
Britain’s position as a permanent member of the Security Council is an important aspect of that international effort, particularly as we are the penholder for Yemen in New York. Being the penholder is not so much a matter of pride; it is a responsibility. I have to say that holding the pen is not much use if the hand that holds the pen is paralysed. Through much of 2018, that was indeed the situation; the Security Council did not do much to deal with a situation that was deteriorating all the time or with the suffering, which was so great.
With the adoption of two resolutions at the United Nations on the basis of the Stockholm talks, I accept that this is no longer so. But it must not become so again. We must not fall again into a state of palsy. With the first fragile and tentative steps towards a peace process at Stockholm not progressing very far, or very fast—not registering much progress—the Security Council’s intervention may well be needed again. It would be good to hear from the Minister something about the role of the Security Council in the period that now lies ahead.
We need then to consider how best we can back up the praiseworthy efforts of Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy. Our reports suggested, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, mentioned—I mention it too—that the Government should contemplate the appointment of a special representative, who could be in continuous contact with all the parties to the conflict, both internal and external; our ambassador to the Hadi Government, in Riyadh, clearly cannot be. Perhaps the Minister could give us a response to that suggestion.
On the ground, the UN is playing a modest verification and monitoring role and function in and around Hodeidah, which is crucial for access to humanitarian supplies for the rest of the country. I am sure it would be helpful if the Government could make it clear in this debate that they would be willing to provide equipment and expertise additional to that which we are already providing for that mission, not just in Hodeidah but elsewhere in the country if, as is to be hoped, the ceasefire can be extended more widely.
In this debate, as in our report, the issue of arms supplies to those involved in the conflict—particularly to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—cannot be ducked. There is too much evidence that material we have supplied has been used in what amounts to breaches in international humanitarian law and, thus, to a contradiction between our obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty and the commerce that we are conducting. I have to say—the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said it too—that our committee was not a court of law. We had no access to confidential material, but it seemed to us that a line has been crossed, and that the Government’s assertions to the contrary lack credibility. This, after all, seems to be the view of the German Government—who have suspended their arms supplies to Saudi Arabia—and of both Houses of the US Congress; that is quite a combination.
We have suggested that the Government make it clear, in private and without grandstanding, to all the external players, that if they were not to give their backing, in deeds as well as words, to the peace process that began at Stockholm, and if aerial bombardment or the blocking of humanitarian supplies—food and medicine most importantly—were to resume, there would be negative consequences for our bilateral relations, and that would include some suspension in the supply of arms. I hope very much that the Minister will say that the Government share this view and will act accordingly. That would be a real boost to the prospects for peace.
I end as others have done with a tribute to the former Minister of State, the right honourable Alistair Burt, whose tireless efforts, and evidence to us, were so invaluable. His best legacy would be if the Government were to give a real strong helping hand to the efforts to resolve the conflict in Yemen, and give it the same priority that he always did.
My Lords, I too am a member of the International Relations Committee and am grateful that we have been given the opportunity to debate this report so soon after its publication, given the urgency and extreme seriousness of the situation in Yemen.
I shall focus on just two issues. As the first is the position of women, I have just deleted several parts of my speech, not to repeat the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, with which I wholeheartedly agree. We know from various sources that women and children are, not surprisingly, bearing the brunt of the violence and its consequences, including starvation and the lack of healthcare. For example, the International Rescue Committee reports that over a million women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are currently acutely malnourished. The UN has warned that the maternal death rate is likely to be double what it was in 2015.
Against this appalling background, the committee’s report was able to record some impressive aid programmes being delivered by DfID; it goes without saying that these are more than welcome. For example, last September, Her Majesty’s Government announced that almost £100 million would fund a nutrition programme, treating 70,000 children with acute malnutrition and providing antenatal care to 800,000 women.
I do not, however, want to focus on women solely in relation to their suffering in the conflict. I also wish to stress how important it is that women form an integral part of the peace process to resolve that conflict—an issue also raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Amos and Lady Anelay.
In a recent Written Question, I asked what action Her Majesty’s Government have taken, or plan to take, to ensure that the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on the involvement of women in peace negotiations and post-conflict reconstruction are being fully complied with in the Stockholm agreement process aimed at ending the war in Yemen. The Minister provided an encouraging Answer, saying that the UK has indeed lobbied the parties in the conflict to include more women in formal peace talks and explained why—although, in the light of the observations of the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, we should perhaps be talking not about more women but about any women at all.
In addition, he pointed out that, through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, the UK helps to support the Yemeni Women’s Pact for Peace and Security. I thank the Minister for this information. Can he update the House on any progress being made by Tawafaq, the Yemeni women’s pact, especially in the light of the championing of its work by the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen?
Looking at other ways of increasing—or perhaps I should say achieving—the participation of women in peace talks, I draw the Minister’s attention to the meeting a few weeks ago which members of the International Relations Committee held with the president and other members of the Southern Transitional Council of Yemen. He will know that the STC is currently excluded from the Stockholm process and I appreciate that there are dilemmas to be addressed. At the same time, it was clear that the STC has an inclusive attitude towards women and at its 2017 assembly agreed explicit policy on women’s rights. So can the Minister tell us the Government’s current view on including the participation of the STC in official peace talks, with specific reference to the inclusion of women?
The second issue I want to raise, like most other noble Lords in this debate, is that of arms sales by the UK to Saudi Arabia. As others have said, we concluded in our report that we disagreed with the Government’s view that the UK was,
“narrowly on the right side of international humanitarian law”,
to quote the former Foreign Secretary. We also concluded that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are,
“highly likely to be the cause of significant civilian casualties in Yemen”.
Since the report was published, further doubt still has been directed at Her Majesty’s Government in this regard. The international NGO Saferworld has argued that the UK’s assistance to Saudi Arabia in targeting strikes is potentially leading to more, not fewer, casualties, and that the UK is guilty of a lack of transparency in how decisions on arms licences are made, putting the UK out of line with several other European countries, which, as we have heard, now have a de facto embargo on arms sales to Saudi.
Does the Minister still stand by the Government’s position that they are on the right side of international humanitarian law in this case? Secondly, echoing the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, will the Minister clarify how political approval for arms licences is reached? I look forward to his reply to my questions and those of other noble Lords.
My Lords, I am afraid that I was unwell in the week the committee had its hearing on the Yemen problem, but the report we are debating demonstrates extremely well the continued horrific situation in that part of the world. I congratulate the Government on bringing forward this debate so quickly. Many noble Lords have already referred to the detail of the horrific situation that confronts us. I will not enlarge on it—the widespread hunger and food shortages, the growing threat of disease, including cholera, typhoid and other maladies associated with the deprivations of this nature, the shortage of medicines, and, of course, civilian deaths as a result of military action.
A number of noble Lords have talked about the Stockholm agreement. It seems inadequate in meeting the crisis. Of course, we have always known that it was only the first step in the process of achieving a peace. In spite of it, the port of Hodeidah, contrary to all the intentions of the Stockholm negotiations, continues to be blocked as a conduit of food aid and other humanitarian assistance to the stricken 24 million people who comprise 80% of the population. I hope that, in spite of some pious hopes, we can see a little more evidence that there will be significant troop redeployments around the city of Hodeidah by the Houthi leadership to ensure full delivery of essential food and medicines to the beleaguered millions.
The Foreign Secretary referred a short time ago to the 50,000 tonnes of grain that sit in stores in Hodeidah and remain there as the millions starve. Following on from what the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said, I hope the Minister will update us with the latest figures on relief supplies, especially food, entering the ports of Yemen—and Hodeidah in particular, which is much the most important—as well as on the movement of those items from the docks and the stores to where they are urgently needed. An update of that sort would be most welcome.
We have heard continually that there is no military solution, and we know what a divided country Yemen is. As a background to this, I hope noble Lords will remember that at the heart of the Yemen crisis lies the centuries-old rivalry between the Muslim factions of Sunni and Shia. I was in Riyadh not too long ago, where we met virtually all the key leaders, including the King. We did not meet the Crown Prince because he had other distractions, with the President of China in town at the same time, so that was understandable. But I was struck that almost wherever we went in Riyadh we were regaled with tales of how dreadful and evil the Iranians were and of the malevolence of those in Tehran. Surprisingly, only once during our visit were we retold the familiar view of their attitude to Israel. Indeed, since that visit, there have been stories about very high-level visits by Saudis to Israel and suggestions that a visit could have been made by the Crown Prince himself.
So, it is this Saudi-Iranian rivalry that lies behind so many of the problems that confront Yemen. The frequent Houthi missile attacks on Saudi territory, around Riyadh as well as other places, must alarm us all. The situation could surely escalate, leading to a much wider conflict between the rival Islamic Middle Eastern states themselves. Hence, the UK Government must do everything in their power, and in the United Nations, to give full effect to the Stockholm agreement and then to move on to a wider settlement of this dreadful situation.
While I am not opposed to us selling armaments to the Saudis, I am alarmed at the committee’s conclusion that they are, as it has been quoted,
“narrowly on the wrong side”,
of the law. The Government need to review this situation urgently and take steps to ensure that this accusation cannot be made and maintained. Especially, I ask the Minister to tell us what the situation is about our arms sales to Saudi and the United Arab Emirates, which is also actively engaged with the Saudis in Yemen. Is he satisfied that the UAE sales in particular are within the law?
I end by saying that the Saudi regime has continually told us that UK arms sales are compliant with the rules of international law. The chairman of the committee, my noble friend Lord Howell, I think referred obliquely to the problematic veracity of some of the things the Saudis say. I hope the Minister will tell us that whatever assurances we are given by the Saudis will be thoroughly examined for their veracity. We have had recent cases over the death of Mr Khashoggi that lead us to the conclusion that they do not always mean what they say.
My Lords, I am sure I speak for very many in expressing deep appreciation for this report from the Select Committee, which is setting a very high standard for hard-hitting, effective reports, repeatedly introduced so well and constructively by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. I am also greatly cheered to be sitting in front of my noble friend Lady Amos, who has more than proved herself by being there at the UN carrying so many heavy responsibilities and doing so positively and cheerfully. It is therefore very important to listen to what she has to say.
My noble friend emphasised the importance of will in this situation, as indeed have others. That is crucial. Without will, nothing effective will happen. It is always a matter of negotiation and policies, but these must be there as a means to fulfil the will, which is paramount. She also referred to the special envoy, as indeed have others. He has unstintingly done a heavy job, and received great credit for how he has performed it. There have been some comments that the trouble with the Stockholm settlement agreement was that it was too general, and did not include enough specifics to pin it down. But if you have not had people around the table for years, you have to get something going. I am not sure I would join in criticising the approach that he took. It is incumbent on the rest of us to face the disappointing reality that in recent months the situation has deteriorated.
I was reading a report from the International Rescue Committee, which points out that other areas as well as Hodeidah have seen persistent clashes and air strikes, with heavy civilian tolls and damage to civilian infrastructure, reflecting a trend throughout the war. It also says that a hospital in the north-west of Yemen supported by Save the Children was reportedly hit by an air strike on 26 March, killing seven people, including four children. Figures from the Yemen Data Project suggest that SLC airstrikes have killed 8,338 civilians—1,283 of them children—and injured 9,391 others over the past four years. The IRC and others have also referred to the heavy toll and impact on women, which is striking. Women in pregnancy and lactating have paid a heavy punishment for what has been happening. We should take this very seriously indeed.
There has also been reference to the importance of women in negotiations. I share the clear frustration of my noble friend Lady Amos that no women were involved. There is no way we can build peace without the full involvement of women. This needs acute attention.
There has also been considerable mention of the arms issue. I am glad that the committee grappled with this so firmly. The remarks by the Government about remaining on the right side of the law are very defensive and unconvincing. We need a much more fulsome and honest debate about this. I am one of those who believes that it is one thing to have arms trade treaties—indeed, the European rules on the export of arms are a very important element backing up the Arms Trade Treaty—but it is not just about treaties. It is rather similar to the point about will. Are these minimal approaches? Is this Governments being able to say that we are within the letter of the law, or are they positive, dynamic proposals ensuring that our arms are not contributing to the ongoing suffering and conflict?
I am convinced that this is a deep cultural and economic issue in Britain which we have never faced under successive Governments—I plead guilty because I have been a Minister at the Ministry of Defence and at the Foreign Office. We have got to be honest with ourselves. Arms are dangerous—lethal—exports. In the volatility and instability of the world, of which Yemen is an acute example, they are particularly dangerous. We can never be absolutely sure about end use. This is one of the crucial issues that one has to pursue, whatever the good intentions. We might eventually say that arms may be necessary—they may be essential in certain situations—but are to be used only by our own services or by those in alliances of which we are a member for action which we specifically support and only ever for specific, positive purposes that we are convinced about. But when arms start reaching beyond that, we are inviting deep humanitarian trouble. It is good that in the report, the NGOs and many others have drawn our attention to this. I want to place on record my admiration of DfID as a humanitarian agency working to such good effect. However, so much of that is threatened and undermined by the arms issue.
My Lords, in the aftermath of António Guterres’s assertion that Yemen is,
“the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”,
the International Affairs Committee has provided the House with a succinct, brave and timely report. Yemen’s victims are disfigured by grinding poverty, caught in a cycle of declining GDP, the collapsing Yemeni rial, accelerating food and fuel prices and, as the United Nations Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs described in a recent report, it has,
“A higher percentage of people face death, hunger and disease than in any other country … Eighty percent of the entire population requires some form of humanitarian assistance and protection … Twenty million Yemenis need help securing food and a staggering 14 million people are in acute humanitarian need … Ten million people are one step away from famine and starvation … Seven million, four hundred thousand people, nearly a quarter of the entire population, are malnourished, many acutely so … Two million malnourished children under five and 1.1 million pregnant and lactating women require urgent treatment to survive ... Conditions are worsening at a nearly unprecedented rate”.
In what is, increasingly, a breeding ground for the next wave of ISIS recruiting sergeants, it is reported that in western Yemen hidden landmines have taken the lives of 267 civilians, also claiming the lives of five charity workers who were demining the area. Aid agencies estimate a 63% increase in gender-based violence, 1.3 million suspected cases of cholera—the worst outbreak in modem history—with coalition airstrikes destroying water treatment facilities, crippling access to clean water. In a war crime warranting prosecution, five medical facilities run by Médecins Sans Frontières have been bombed since 2015. Despite the three-month-old truce in Hodeidah, according to UNICEF,
“At least one child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen from malnutrition and preventable diseases”.
In December, UNICEF reported:
“Over 6,700 children were verified killed or severely injured. Nearly 1.5 million children have been displaced, many of them living a life that is a mere shadow of what childhood should be. In Yemen today, 7 million children go to sleep hungry every night. Every single day, 400,000 children face life-threatening severe acute malnutrition and could die any minute. More than 2 million children are out of school; those who are in school often have to settle for poor quality education in overcrowded classrooms”.
As the conflict and the humanitarian crisis rage on, the estimated cost, as we have heard during this debate, has reached staggering sums of billions of dollars. In evidence to the committee, the then Minister Alistair Burt—an old friend of mine—described Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s,
“huge existential fears for their states”,
but, as the report says, he also said that,
“Opponents of the Saudi-led coalition had used a ‘very easy narrative’ that had ‘misunderstood the nature of this conflict’”.
He insisted that the UK was,
“not a party to the military conflict as part of the coalition”,
but this is a very elastic definition. Last week, as we have heard, national newspapers reported:
“Members of the Special Boat Service … were shot while fighting in the Saadah area in the north of the country”.
How is that not taking part in the military conflict?
However, it is far worse than that. Over four years, the coalition has carried out over 19,000 air strikes—one every 106 minutes. In 2019, the UN panel of experts on Yemen said that precautionary measures to protect civilians are “largely inadequate and ineffective”. The UK has provided training in targeting weapons, along with liaison officers at Saudi headquarters, resupplied Saudi air capability and provided technical maintenance and spare parts. We have licensed £4.7 billion of arms exports to the Saudis, along with a further £860 million of arms to their coalition partners. As only second to the United States in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, we have stoked the fires of this conflict by selling arms to a country which has exported terror and ideology. We have acted as quartermaster to the conflict and then salve our consciences by boasting about how much aid we have given to the suffering people of Yemen.
Although Ministers have played a constructive role in promoting United Nations Security Council Resolution 2451 and encouraging the work of the admirable Martin Griffiths, special envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General, in brokering the Stockholm agreement our own credibility in this process is damaged when, as the report says, in their licensing of arms sales to Saudi Arabia the Government are “narrowly on the wrong side” of international law,
“given the volume and type of arms being exported to the Saudi-led coalition”.
The report goes on to say that these sales,
“are highly likely to be the cause of significant civilian casualties in Yemen”.
When he comes to reply, I hope that the Minister will respond to the call of the 25 Yemeni and global NGOs which have called on Germany to extend its moratorium on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and tell us whether he is comfortable that we have not done the same. The UK’s response and that of France—countries which both produce arms that require parts and components of German origin—has been for the UK to actively lobby Germany to lift its moratorium. This demonstrates again how we are stepping over the line, and it risks weakening international standards for arms control. Indeed, it may violate our obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty including:
“Respecting and ensuring respect for international humanitarian law”,
and preventing human suffering. I might add that, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, the US Congress has voted to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen—although the White House has signalled that, if necessary, it will veto this
Knowing of the attacks on civilians and atrocities in Yemen while still providing the weapons to Saudi Arabia makes Her Majesty’s Government complicit in those atrocities. Your Lordships may recall that both Yemen and Saudi Arabia are accused of having committed war crimes; hence, Her Majesty’s Government could fall within the ambit of complicity. Contrary to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Her Majesty’s Government are subject to the International Criminal Court, and Ministers should urgently seek the advice of the Government’s law officers on this matter. If they seriously want to see an end to the carnage and suffering in Yemen, the Government should immediately end their complicity in this disgraceful business and make it clear that this appalling campaign of killing is not to be conducted in our name.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has vividly set out the case that enough is enough. The horrendous number of deaths and casualties, the displaced and the lack of access to drinking water are an absolute catastrophe. As the Minister so rightly once said at the Dispatch Box, one death is one death too many.
The Saudi-led coalition’s goals remain elusive, and, while conditions on the ground deteriorate, with the humanitarian situation worsening and disease spreading, the Houthis are more entrenched, with Iranian influence growing. Good-faith negotiations on long-term political and security arrangements, with support from Secretary Pompeo for UN-sponsored talks, are welcome, but it is concerning that the December confidence-building measures contained in the Stockholm agreement for a ceasefire in the port city of Hodeidah, along with an end to the siege of Ta’izz and prisoner exchanges, faltered. Some suggest that consideration of moving forward with a more detailed road map might have been usefully addressed to assist the Stockholm process advancing.
UN special envoy Griffiths has cultivated a relationship of trust with the Houthis, which is a major asset. It will require herculean Houdini-like abilities for the United States to express itself as an ally of Saudi Arabia and in parallel manage Iran, when the Administration’s agenda is to instigate regime change in Tehran. The United Kingdom’s reputation is also tarnished by the continued supply of arms to Saudi Arabia, defying comprehension. More particularly than ever, our future policy should be to play our cards as an honest broker.
Reputational damage is enhanced when we do not take account of Germany, Spain and Denmark, supported by the European Parliament, encouraging the suspension of the supply of arms to Saudi Arabia. Is the US requesting us to continue with that supply of arms? Did I understand correctly that Foreign Secretary Hunt had requested that Germany continue the supply of weaponry and spare parts? If that was the case, by what reasoning was this request made? The Minister should offer a robust explanation of why the United Kingdom continues with this practice.
It would appear that the UK-Saudi relationship is to be placed in the spotlight, with Channel 4’s “Dispatches” airing this evening. To state that the Saudis’ continuing bombardment is an image disaster for Saudi Arabia would be an understatement. I suspect that Saudi Arabia will stop the air strikes only when the United States indicates that continuation will adversely affect the relationship between the two countries.
Then there is the question of Iran. If it is believed that Iran is part of the solution to the misery and it believes it can contribute, then engagement with that country is mandatory; however, if you think that Iran is part of the problem, a solution must be arrived at. I am pleased to observe that the Iranian political attaché has taken an interest in our proceedings by attending this debate.
With their military takeover in 2014, the Houthis are under the influence of Iran, but the report of the International Relations Committee concludes only that,
“it is known that there is some relationship between the Houthis and Iran”.
It continues that it was a matter,
“of academic difference as to the degree of that control, but our assessment is that the Houthis are very independent minded”—
and so it went on. Iran is often figure-pointed as the origin of the supply of missiles. The report noted that when the Houthis captured Sanaa they assumed control of Yemen’s stock of missiles, which included weaponry from the former Soviet Union and North Korea. How certain is the Minister about the reports that the missile attacks on Riyadh emanate from Iranian supplies?
I applaud Foreign Secretary Hunt’s past visit to Tehran and the talks conducted in Muscat. The committee’s report drew attention to Iran being in the sphere of influence but did not refer to E4 meetings with Iran about Yemen. It is important to Iran that it does not consider itself neglected. The UK has more experience than most in the affairs of the Middle East and we should not compromise our continuing ability to engage, now and in the future, with the two regional powers. Will the UK provide a draft of a statement at an upcoming meeting in Jordan, and will the Minister confirm that he anticipates it being couched in balanced and neutral terms?
Mr Griffiths, to whom participants and observers have paid tribute, has not yet visited Tehran, I believe. He might wish to consider doing so, particularly as Iranian influence in Yemen is growing significantly. This becomes more critical as Shiites in other countries embrace the Houthi cause as part of what they see as a larger struggle against Sunni predominance. With all that said, as the report rightly points out, it is for Yemenis to determine their political future. Peace must be restored but not imposed.
On a more personal note, I remember well my visits to Yemen over the years. It is a beautiful country, reminiscent to me of Arabia of old. This whole affair is tragic, and another example of where the innocent suffer with diplomacy faltering. An outcome that would not be in the interests of the West but has been seen elsewhere in the region is for additional external players to weigh in.
My Lords, following the powerful contributions from the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on the humanitarian situation and their personal reflections, the noble Lord, Lord Luce, on the geopolitical situation, the noble Baronesses, Lady Amos and Lady Anelay, on highlighting the failings of a process that is actively excluding the majority of people, women—I will touch on that later—and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, there are limited areas on which I can make an original contribution to this debate. It has been very powerful, even if it has been brief. I have the pleasure, as do others, of serving on the committee so ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and I concur with all of the contributions from my colleagues on the committee today.
I direct the House to my entry in the register of interests. Yesterday afternoon, I returned from a two-country visit to the Middle East. It was said to me then, as others in this debate have remarked, that we have lost with his resignation a Minister who is widely respected, not only in this House but, more importantly, in the region. A week on from his resignation, it is depressing to see there is no Minister for the Middle East to replace him in the Government. It is not acceptable that the Middle East is now covered by a Minister extending the scope of Africa and a Minister extending the scope of Asia. I hope the Minister will give the positive response that the Prime Minister will appoint a Minister for the Middle East as a matter of urgency.
I want to address the first element on which many noble Lords have commented, our arms and defence relationship with Saudi and the UAE. Any reader of the FCO website on GOV.UK will see two articles. The first has the headline:
“Britain has been shaping the world for centuries. That won’t change with Brexit”.
That is immediately followed by:
“Yemen crisis won’t be solved by UK arms exports halt”.
There is a jarring visual element to reading the articles by the Foreign Secretary, not just from looking at the website. I commend the Foreign Secretary for visiting the region, taking a strong special interest in this and supporting Michael Aron, our ambassador for Yemen, and his excellent team based in Amman, who are doing hard work.
The article by the Foreign Secretary said that the “strategic relationship”, by which he means our arms and defence relationship,
“allows us the opportunity to influence their leaders”,
by which he means Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He wrote that, if we stop this relationship, our position would be “morally bankrupt” and we would be bystanders. He gives the impression—in fact he states—that Stockholm would not have happened and we would not have the peace process. That is a regrettable article and it undermines some of the humanitarian work that the UK has provided in that area. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, it jars with the position of Germany and the United States Congress.
If countries buy over £5 billion of work from us, most objective people will wonder who provides the influence. Is it the seller or the buyer? There are questions on not just the use of the armaments that we sell but also, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has said, on the down-the-line impact of the training on those weapons and targeted training, and the deeply ingrained relationship we have. It is right for the committee, if not to say it explicitly, to ask for a serious and urgent reconsideration of our defence relationship, given this conflict.
I declare an interest in that I chair the UK board of Search for Common Ground, which has worked in Yemen since 2010, with consistent and active programming throughout the conflict cycles, not only of the last four years, but the last nine years. It has active projects running across seven different governorates, in both north and south, covering stabilisation, countering a culture of violence, conflict sensitivity among the humanitarian sector and trying to support the national peace process. In addition to the UK Government, work there has been supported by diverse UN agencies, USAID and the foreign ministries of the Netherlands and France, among others, showing that it is an international area of consistency. It is also an international shame that this crisis can still exist in the 21st century.
I commend the UK, however, for its government support and humanitarian aid delivery. I would like to see the Government moving beyond a do-no-harm approach to humanitarian assistance and more into the development sphere. From the many visits I made to northern Iraq when Mosul was occupied by ISIS, I saw that insufficient consideration of good governance work post peace process means that those who have been most affected will not be involved in the long-term reconstruction and rehabilitation of communities.
Other noble Lords have mentioned the three-phase process of the UN envoy. Phase one is the redeployment of forces away from Hodeidah. Phase two is a prisoner exchange, which is complex, as I understand there are high-value prisoners from the Saudi side. We know from the situation in Northern Ireland over many years that prisoner exchange is a highly charged and problematic issue. Perhaps we can offer some good lessons on the second area of prisoner exchange. The third phase is for a joint committee for Taiz which, I hope, will meet soon to agree a peaceful way forward.
As indicated by the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, and others, the confidence process is one of incremental stages. If it does not create a degree of momentum, which can be buffeted by wider political considerations of other partners, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, it will be hard to consider what progress is. It would help if the Minister can say what areas of progress the Government consider are sufficiently robust to reassure both sides that there can be movement to the next stage of the peace process.
It is worth putting on record the good offices of the Omani and Jordanian Governments, but I also return to the point mentioned so powerfully by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and others. Over recent years, we have seen the negative impact, both in Iraq and Libya, of processes that exclude women. This does not have an academic element, nor is further research needed. We know for a fact that the majority group has been excluded and that these peace processes are less robust because of it. Even in the last week in Amman, an event took place in which no women participated, contrary to the UN principles indicated by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. It may be time for the UK to say to the United Nations that an empty-chair approach could be necessary until women are actively part of the process.
As Mark Lowcock indicated, 24 million people need assistance. A population the size of London will be hungry tonight in that region, and we consider most of those victims to be women. It is simply not acceptable anymore, in how we go about our diplomacy and peacebuilding work, that women are considered a group that deserves to be consulted but not to participate. I hope the Minister says that our approach to look for an opportunity for the participation of women in this peace process before Ramadan will start to see some urgency.
My Lords, I too thank all members of the committee for this excellent report, and the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for his powerful introduction. Since UN Resolution 2216 the UK, alongside the US, France and others, has consistently supported the war aims of the Saudi-led coalition and has continued to authorise the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia and its partners for use in the conflict. My noble friend Lord Judd referred to the independent Yemen Data Project and it is important to note its analysis, according to which there have been 18,000 air strikes on Yemen since the start of the conflict up to April 2018. It found that roughly one-third hit civilian targets, one-third hit military targets and one-third hit targets of unknown designation. A UN expert panel report released last September said that all sides in the conflict may have committed breaches of international humanitarian law.
As we heard so powerfully in the debate, as a result of the conflict and the Saudi blockade, Yemen has been sinking deeper into a humanitarian crisis. Your Lordships’ committee rightly concluded that the situation is “unconscionable”. This side has long called for all UK arms sales to Riyadh to be suspended because of the evidence of breaches in international humanitarian law in the conflict. The Government argue that it is “on the right side” of IHL because of the Saudi-led coalition’s processes for investigating possible errors. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, reminded us, your Lordships’ committee said that the Government are,
“narrowly on the wrong side”.
As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Howell, its conclusion on the likelihood of civilian casualties was based on the volume and type of arms being sold by the UK to Saudi Arabia.
As we heard, the UK has licensed more than £4.7 billion-worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, and £860 million-worth to its coalition partners, since the conflict in Yemen commenced. We are the second-largest exporter of arms to Saudi Arabia after the US and, as we have heard, the fifth-largest donor of humanitarian aid. This year we have committed an additional £200 million of aid, bringing our total commitment to more than £770 million since the conflict began. As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, it is that contradiction which the Government must address as a matter of urgency, and I hope that the Minister will respond specifically to his question.
Last Tuesday, my right honourable friend Emily Thornberry, shadow Foreign Secretary, asked an Urgent Question in the other place, following press reports at the weekend that members of British Special Forces were engaged in gun battles with the Houthi rebels in Yemen while providing support to the coalition forces. One disturbing allegation in the Mail on Sunday report was that our forces were providing support to locally recruited, Saudi-funded militia and that many of the fighters—up to 40%, it was alleged—were children as young as 13 years old. If these allegations are true, it would confirm that our forces were not just party to this conflict but witnesses to war crimes. In response, Mark Field said in the other place:
“I am keen that we get to the bottom of those allegations”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/3/19; col. 187.]
In a subsequent letter to Emily Thornberry on Friday, he wrote:
“We have an ongoing defence engagement relationship with Saudi Arabia which includes training courses, advice and guidance. However, we are not a member of the SLC and do not have any role in Coalition policy. We are committed to supporting the legitimate security needs of Saudi Arabia, including defending itself against ballistic missiles fired by Houthis into civilian areas, and guarding against the danger of regional escalation. To this end UK personnel are involved in providing information, advice and assistance to Saudi Arabia on mitigating the threat from Houthi missiles as well as assisting them in other areas including on measures to support compliance with International Humanitarian law”.
He said that,
“the UK’s position on child soldiers is categorical … We raise allegations of human rights abuses or violations of IHL, including the use of child soldiers, with all parties to the conflict in Yemen. We have been clear that all parties must comply with IHL”.
Have the Minister or the Government been given evidence of breaches of international humanitarian law by Saudi coalition forces from British sources? That was raised by the committee. If we have been, how does he think we should meet our international treaty obligations? Surely we must act on such evidence, and we should all condemn the failure to do so, as we have heard in the debate.
My noble friend Lady Amos—I too pay tribute to her work at the United Nations on the humanitarian fund—highlighted that we are all concerned at the fragility of the agreement reached in Stockholm. On this side we welcome the steps that the Government have made through the UN to bolster the team in Hodeidah charged with overseeing that agreement. What difference does the Minister expect that increased force to have on the ground? Are we shoring up the peace, as we hope we are?
I conclude by saying that peace will not be won on the battlefield, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said. We all want the Stockholm agreement to succeed, but if it does not—if we are back to square 1 in terms of ending the war and the humanitarian crisis—will the Government consider bringing forward a new United Nations resolution requiring a nationwide ceasefire, with robust penalties against all parties who breach it?
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated, particularly my noble friend Lord Howell for securing this debate on the conflict in Yemen and for his long-standing commitment to the subject, not just as chair of the International Relations Committee but in his engagement and involvement with the field of foreign affairs. The Government welcome the committee’s report and thank it for its detailed examination of the issue. I am especially grateful that we have been able to have this debate before the formal response from the Government. As ever, I am grateful for the insight and expertise that noble Lords have provided.
I assure noble Lords that achieving progress in Yemen is a top priority for the UK. That is why my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary visited Yemen earlier this month. I am sure many noble Lords acknowledge his shuttle diplomacy. It is why he also attended the Stockholm peace talks in December, and why we are using our unique position—as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, with his deep insight into the United Nations, reminded us—as penholder at the UN Security Council to find a way to end this devastating conflict. As Minister for the United Nations, I acknowledge the importance of our role.
Before I go into the report itself, I shall first address the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in particular, regarding recent media reports of the involvement of UK military personnel in Yemen and the use of child soldiers in conflict. I hope noble Lords will recognise that I cannot comment in detail on specific deployments, but I can clarify that a small number of British personnel are working in a liaison capacity in Saudi headquarters. They are not, as some have suggested, based in so-called command centres. British personnel have no role, to repeat what my right honourable friend said in the other place, in setting coalition policy or executing air strikes in Yemen.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, also raised the issue of child soldiers. I reassure the noble Lord that the Government give priority to this matter. He will no doubt recall, as will other noble Lords, that the office of United Nations special representative Virginia Gamba is funded by Her Majesty’s Government. I continue to work very closely with the special representative on this issue. I assure all noble Lords that our position on the recruitment and use of child soldiers is clear and unequivocal: it is simply unacceptable. We condemn it, and I assure the noble Lord that we are committed to ending it in all circumstances. If we have reports to this effect, we will continue to raise the issue vigorously with all parties concerned.
Unfortunately, regrettably and tragically, this is not the first time we have heard reports of child soldiers being used in the Yemen conflict. The UN group of eminent experts found that the Houthis had also forcibly recruited children—some, tragically, as young as eight—in schools and hospitals, and had used them in combat and to plant explosive devices. We raise our concerns about this with all parties to the conflict in Yemen, as I have said, and I can state as Minister for Human Rights that our officials also raised the use of child soldiers as a key issue in the last universal periodic review of Yemen.
I turn to the specific recommendations of the report and the issue of arms exports raised by several noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Howell and Lord Jopling, the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. The Government do not accept the report’s assertion that our actions on arms exports are,
“narrowly on the wrong side”,
of the law. The UK will not export items if there is a clear risk they may be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law.
I assure my noble friend Lord Jopling, among others, that all export licence applications for Saudi Arabia are assessed rigorously on a case-by-case basis, using much fuller information than is available to others. In addition, to answer my noble friend Lord Howell, we have provided training and advice to support Saudi compliance with international humanitarian law. We also regularly raise the importance of compliance on this issue directly with the Saudi Arabian Government and other members of the coalition.
My noble friend asked what tests and factors we apply. In the interests of time, I will write to him specifically on this but, to give an insight, our forward-looking assessment looks at the situation in the round. We include: Saudi attitudes to compliance with international humanitarian law; how the key principles of international humanitarian law such as military necessity, distinction and proportionality are implemented; how incidents of concern are investigated; and, importantly, how those responsible are held to account and how lessons are learned. My noble friend will be aware that, in response, the Saudis set up the Joint Incidents Assessment Team on 29 February 2016. The Saudi Arabian Government have also publicly stated that they investigated reports of alleged violations using this vehicle, and that they act on lessons learned. To date, the assessment team has made over 100 statements from its investigations.
I assure noble Lords once again that the UK Government continue to review all arms exports and take our arms export control responsibilities very seriously; we remain confident that our arms exports are consistent with our licensing obligations. To be absolutely clear, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, we continue to raise these issues regularly and will continue to review all applications according to these criteria.
Turning to humanitarian aid, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have raised the important role played by DfID and Her Majesty’s Government in this regard. I share totally the sentiment of noble Lords that this is a tragedy beyond all scope; anyone who has visited, reviewed or been involved with the crisis in Yemen—seeing children deprived of vital food and medicine—will know it to be heart-rending. I am therefore proud of the role the United Kingdom Government are playing. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that, for Her Majesty’s Government and the Foreign Office, this will remain at the forefront of our priorities on the world stage, notwithstanding the domestic issues of what is happening with Brexit and the Foreign Secretary’s recent engagement. I returned from another United Nations meeting on important issues regarding peace- keeping and the role of women, which I will come on to, only last week. My travel schedule probably reflects the fact that this will remain a high priority on the world stage.
The noble Baroness was quite right to ask for reassurance that aid is reaching those in need. The statistics cited on Hodeidah and Saleef concern the aid that has been delivered, but I fully acknowledge that there is a real challenge in the distribution of aid within the country. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about additional support; that is why additional support is going in. The UK has a zero-tolerance policy on the diversion of UK aid funds, and all the UK Government’s partners and programmes are subject to rigorous and regular due diligence. However, I fully admit that this remains a major challenge for all Governments, not just the United Kingdom. We will continue to work with all parties to ensure that this happens. This concern about how we are ensuring the distribution of aid was also expressed by my noble friend Lord Jopling. At the moment we are working stringently with the UN and NGO partners to ensure that we get full reports of any delays in accessing necessary permits and agreements to deliver vital assistance. I will continue to inform the House regularly on how this situation is unfolding.
At the UN’s Yemen pledging conference in February, we committed an additional £200 million of support for the next financial year. The noble Baroness, Lady Amos, asked about its distribution, which will start shortly; this figure will build on the aid that has already been distributed from our previous year’s commitment. As noble Lords have acknowledged, this takes the overall commitment of the UK to Yemen to over £770 million since the conflict began in 2015. Our support will continue to focus on providing life-saving aid to millions in a country where a staggering 80% of the population are now in need of direct humanitarian assistance. I pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, in this regard; I will continue to look to her deep insight and expertise as we provide support and assistance on this programme.
As my noble friend Lady Anelay also mentioned, the conflict in Yemen has further exacerbated the vulnerabilities faced by women and girls. It is unacceptable that the number of incidents of gender-based violence, for example, have reportedly risen by more than a staggering 60% since the start of the conflict. The UK fully supports women and girls across Yemen through our funding of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration. My noble friend is absolutely right; women have to be involved at the table—not in some corner room or a room in some remote part of a conference centre or hotel. They must be present. As the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, rightly pointed out, they have been absent. This was a key area of focus at the UN Commission on the Status of Women recently, where I represented and led the delegation. We continue to implore both parties through the good offices of the special envoy to ensure that women play their rightful role at the heart of conflict resolution. It is not an option. It is a necessity, and we will play our part to try to make it happen.
I also assure noble Lords that we are working with special envoy Martin Griffiths. In acknowledging his work in this respect, we ensure that his priorities in support of the initiatives we have already set up, such as those acknowledged by noble Lords, including the Yemeni Women’s Pact for Peace and Security, continue to be strengthened. We are also extremely concerned about the recent increase in cholera cases, and are working closely with all levels of the UN response, which is currently being scaled up to the 38 most affected districts in Yemen. Last year the UK contributed 25% of the costs of the first ever cholera vaccination campaign in Yemen through our funding for the global Vaccine Alliance. We will continue to prioritise these schemes as we support humanitarian efforts across the country.
The committee report also recommended a further UK contribution to the UN, including support for the UN verification and inspection mechanism, or UNVIM. I can confirm that we will provide a further £1.3 million to UNVIM this year to support its work in facilitating commercial imports into Hodeidah and Saleef ports and ensuring that weapons are not smuggled in on commercial ships. We have also deployed UK experts to Djibouti, whose presence has increased the number of ship inspections more than tenfold. This has helped to stabilise the level of vital imports going into the ports of Hodeidah and Saleef. In February, for example, the total commercial and humanitarian imports into Yemen met 114% of the country’s monthly food needs. However, I totally acknowledge that distribution is a vital part of that—it is not just about getting it through the ports but about ensuring that it is distributed.
Noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Luce, and my noble friends Lady Anelay and Lord Jopling, raised the important issue of the political process. We note that the committee called on the Government to redouble our diplomatic efforts to achieve peace. I assure noble Lords that we continue to believe—as all noble Lords have pointed out, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Hannay—that a political settlement is the only way to address the worsening humanitarian crisis and bring long-term stability to Yemen. Important progress has been made in this regard. The December talks in Stockholm were a landmark—the first time the parties had come together in over two years. The significance of that cannot be overestimated. The ceasefire in Hodeidah has largely held; challenges remain, but it has led to a significant reduction in military activity across the governorate.
I assure noble Lords that we continue to engage with all parties. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, raised the issue of keeping dialogue open, not just with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other parties, including the Houthis, but directly with Iran. I stress that Her Majesty’s Government continue to engage in relationships across the piece to ensure that all parties to the conflict are engaged and play their part in bringing a resolution to it. I also assure noble Lords that there has been sustained British diplomatic effort in support of the political process at both ministerial and senior official level, including urging parties to refrain from provocative action in Hodeidah and to maintain the ceasefire.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, rightly raised the unfolding issue of the humanitarian crisis. I assure him that our diplomatic efforts are beginning to pay dividends. The situation is vulnerable and still fragile, but we are encouraged by recent steps that have been taken, at least with regard to the increase in humanitarian aid on the ground in Yemen itself.
This year, visits to the region have been made by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, and the former Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, my good friend and former colleague in government, the right honourable Alistair Burt. I join the tributes that have been made from across this House and elsewhere to the unstinting work, focus, dedication, application and expert knowledge that he has shown in the discharging of his duties. He is a colleague and friend who will be sorely missed, and, as someone who led several initiatives in the Middle East, his expertise and insight were vital. I hope that, whatever prevails, in the near future we will see him return to the Government Benches.
I assure noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, whose insights on the UN I always welcome, that we continue to use our seat on the UN Security Council to good effect. Indeed, following the Stockholm agreements, we recently put forward proposals for a mandate to establish a UN mission in support of the Hodeidah agreement. Our work at the Security Council on resolutions has galvanised international support, and it was no small feat to get unanimity behind those resolutions.
I assure noble Lords that the Government have also carefully considered the committee’s recommendation, raised by my noble friends Lady Anelay and Lord Howell and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, to appoint a London-based special representative on Yemen. At present, in light of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary’s personal efforts to advance peace in Yemen, it has been decided not to make such an appointment, but we will keep the situation under continual review.
The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, asked about the Government’s position on southern inclusion. Governance arrangements for southern Yemen are ultimately a question for the Yemeni people, but I assure the noble Baroness that the UK’s position on southern inclusion is clear: their voice must be heard to ensure lasting peace in Yemen, and the UN special envoy has publicly acknowledged this important role. He has advised his office to help to support the work by including all southern groups, including, as the noble Baroness rightly noted, the STC.
In conclusion, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords for their contribution. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, gave his perspective. I know that he believes strongly in the attributes of the United Nations, and I listened carefully to his words. On the sentiments raised with regard to arms sales, I assure noble Lords that we take that seriously. I strongly believe that the committee’s report is both timely and important, and we will certainly take note of the contributions made in this debate to ensure that they are also reflected in the formal government response.
I assure noble Lords that the UK is doing all we can to bring parties to the table, to sustain the delivery of humanitarian and fuel aid into Yemen and, ultimately, to find a way to end this devastating conflict. We are at the forefront of diplomatic efforts, including at the UN Security Council, to find a political solution to the conflict—as I know from direct experience—and we are leading on the humanitarian response. I assure all noble Lords, and indeed everyone across this House and the other place, that we are putting our full weight behind the work of the UN special envoy Martin Griffiths—to which I pay tribute—and the UN-led peace process. We are constantly engaging with him to ensure that our efforts are aligned, and we will continue to show leadership as part of international efforts to end this appalling conflict, which has gone on for far too long and has caused millions to suffer.
My Lords, it only remains for me to express my warm gratitude to all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate, and I express gratitude to the Minister for his summing up and customary skilled handling of what is undoubtedly a difficult situation, full of grave dilemmas and indeed tragedies. Several of us have expressed sorrow that Alistair Burt has gone; this seems to happen rather often nowadays, but no doubt he will return. I also thank the members of my committee, not only for their speeches but for their enormous expertise and experience, which quite often out-trumps some of the experts sent to brief us—that requires careful handling at times.
I am particularly grateful that the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, was able to join us today—we all admire enormously what she has done at the United Nations. I always admire the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, on the world arms situation, which he gave today. We got a sharp and devastating position from the noble Lords, Lord Alton and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, which added to the spice of our debate. The noble Lord, Lord Luce, said that the bigger issues behind all this—the Saudi-Iranian and Sunni-Shia rivalries, and the thousands of tribes fighting against each other—create an impossible context.
Finally, I think it was President Obama who once observed that he had been briefed that “everything in the Middle East relates to everything else”. The whole thing is a gigantic, connected puzzle of difficulty, tragedy and turmoil. We cannot solve all this, but the message from this afternoon’s debate to the Minister, if I may say so, is perfectly clear: the position needs constant and rigorous attention so that it does not get out of balance. It is not quite right in the public view, and there are horrors and dangers here; we are doing our best to meet the horrors, but are we doing our best on the political, strategic and trade sides to make sure that this conflict does not burn up into a dreadful horror in the Middle East, which it might yet do? Again, I thank all noble Lords involved in the debate.