Yemen

11th September 2018
Andrew Mitchell speaks in a debate in the House of Commons on the recent escalation of violence in Yemen.

I draw the House’s attention to my outside interests, which are clearly registered in the House of Commons Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing this debate. The House has shown on no less than three occasions, when you, Mr Speaker, have granted an emergency debate, the deep concern that is felt in all parts of the House about the humanitarian consequences of this dreadful conflict.

The arrival of a new Foreign Secretary is perhaps a good time to take stock of Britain’s position on this matter. Our position very much affects the role we play at the United Nations. As we have heard, this issue is increasingly of salience in a Britain dominated by the Brexit debate, and it is increasingly a matter of concern to our constituents. I do not expect to carry everyone in the House with my remarks today, but the one thing that ought to be able to unite everyone here is the importance of moving from conflict to a ceasefire and negotiations. These conflicts always end either by outright military victory—it is fairly clear that that is not going to happen—or through a ceasefire and negotiation.

I want to look briefly at the position of the three protagonists, starting with the Saudi position. When the Crown Prince came to Britain, I think we were all delighted to see him here. We all thought that he was a breath of fresh air as a result of the changes he was seeking to bring about domestically in his country. It was equally clear, however, that he had a complete blind spot when it came to Yemen. I noticed that there were advertisements for the extraordinary amount of aid that Saudi was giving to Yemen—it is true that it is giving that country an extraordinary amount, as indeed are we—but it was not pointed out that this was basically the equivalent of punching someone in the face and offering them an Elastoplast afterwards. Night after night, the bombing of innocent Yemeni citizens continues, and there is a complete blind spot in that regard. It would be worth while for those leading this war to study closely what happened to America during the Vietnam war.

Let us consider what is happening in Hodeida. In the past few days, and overnight, the fighting there has intensified, and large numbers of United Nations stores and warehouses are now caught up adjacent to whether the fighting is taking place. The UN is bravely trying to take those stores into Hodeida. But just imagine what would happen if the coalition were able to invest Hodeida. Imagine the result of that entirely crackers, bonkers strategy. There is a small number of soldiers on the ground and some naval assets offshore attacking Hodeida, and an almost equivalent number of Houthi fighters dug in in the city resisting them, as well as a population of between 300,000 and 400,000 people. If that crazy strategy were to work, and the coalition were able to take Hodeida, it would then hold the port through which more than 80% of all the food required in Yemen comes in. It would also be responsible for looking after the 300,000-plus citizens there, who would have had their infrastructure smashed and who would be without food and the basic sustenance of life.

My right hon. Friend has served in uniform, as have I, and he knows the complexities of trying to run states that have collapsed. Does he remember, as I do, those moments in Basra after the invasion of Iraq in 2003? Many of us were on the streets, looking around and trying to establish which way was up, and the locals would come up to us and ask us things. Someone responded by saying, “You must ask the Government about that”, to which the response was, “You are the Government. You have removed the Government and now you are the Government.” That is the problem that our Emirati and Saudi friends could face if they continue with this absurd strategy.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He brings to this debate his thoughts and experiences as the Chairman of the Select Committee, and he has served extremely bravely in combat zones in the past.

I am using Hodeida as just one example—

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, my neighbour, in just a moment. I just want to finish this point. I am only using Hodeidah as one example of this crackers, crazy strategy whereby the Saudis are, to use my words and the words of the Minister, on a hiding to nothing. They are going to be humiliated. As for the Shia-Sunni divide, as referred to by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, who started this debate so well, the Iranians are scoring a cheap victory and will be laughing up their sleeves, and the Saudis are playing into the Iranians’ hands. That is what I wanted to say about the Saudi position, so I will now give way to the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), who is my constituency neighbour.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he address whether the Houthis are using their position to steal the food that is being brought in? They are using food as a weapon by depriving anyone who does not support them and making huge sums of money to finance their vicious rebellion.

The right hon. Gentleman may well be right. There are no good guys in this appalling conflict. I am certainly not standing up for the Houthis, but he needs to address the military position that I have described, which is why the Saudis are on such a hiding to nothing. All that I will say on the Houthis is that I met President al-Sammad on my visit to Yemen, and it was probably a mistake for the Saudis to kill him in an air attack when he was one of the doves among the Houthis who might have assisted in the negotiations that I was describing.

I am afraid that my right hon. Friend cannot get away from the fact that there is a perfectly sensible alternative analysis here. Hodeidah is the vital ground in this conflict, and it is the control of Hodeidah that finances the Houthi rebellion through all that it rakes off from the international aid coming through the port. If Hodeidah is secured by the coalition, the conflict will be on the way to being sorted. It is our responsibility to help the coalition to deliver that objective. There have been endless opportunities for a political process, and the Houthis simply did not turn up to the latest one, which was the last of a long list of efforts.​

My hon. Friend is a distinguished former soldier, but he is not addressing the military aspects of how that point would be reached. Even if he is right that whoever controls Hodeidah is in a strong position, the coalition will nevertheless have to take and look after Hodeidah, and my submission is that there is no chance of it being able to do so.

Turning to the Yemeni position, the country is in complete and total chaos. A famine looms, and I described to the House in a previous emergency debate what it is like watching a child first starve and then die as a result of famine. This is a man-made famine, and we are part of the people who are creating it. The infrastructure that has been destroyed by the coalition and the advancement of medieval diseases that have been eradicated throughout most of the world underline that point. Bombing by the Saudi air force happens night after night, killing innocent civilians. The people of Yemen know that the UK and the US are involved. It is written all over the walls in Sa’dah, which I had the chance to visit. They know who is to blame. Equally, British-led groups are also trying to clear mines, which shows the confusion. All that means that a younger generation of Yemenis see what is happening and hundreds and thousands of them are prey to the immoral advances of terrorists. They are prey to those who tell them who is causing the situation and then radicalise them.

Wanton damage is so prevalent in Yemen. I went to the location of the funeral where so many innocent mourners were killed by the Saudi air force. We heard about the murder of innocent children dressed in the blue colour of UNICEF while out on a picnic—40 of them killed in what has quite rightly been described as a war crime.

The right hon. Gentleman is giving an excellent speech, and I completely agree with him. I am sure that, like me and others, he has had contact with senior military officials in the Saudi Government, so does he share my frustration that, despite repeatedly discussing avoiding targeting humanitarians, hospitals, schools and civilians out in the open as he described, they keep on making these terrible mistakes? We are so fearful of an all-out assault on Hodeidah because they have shown repeatedly that they cannot avoid killing civilians

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but my point is that it would be hard to find a more eloquent and effective recruiting sergeant for those who wish to do us ill than the policy that is being pursued by our Government.

Finally, I come to the position of the British Government. We hold the pen on Yemen at the United Nations, and we know that a presidential statement, drafted by Britain, had to be suppressed by the Norwegians, the Russians and the Swedes. We are increasingly nervous—let us not beat about the bush—about a diminution of Britain’s influence at the United Nations. My submission to the Government is that the UK needs to move from outright support through the coalition for our friends in Saudi Arabia to a much more neutral position, using our moral authority not to protect the Saudis, but to save them from the ignominious fate that so clearly awaits them in Yemen.​

The right hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time and is making some powerful points. Will he join me in urging our Government to support the UN High Commissioner for Human rights, who said last week:

“It is crucial that there be…international and independent investigations into all allegations of violations of international humanitarian law”?

We know that such violations are happening, and we need an international investigation. Will the British Government please do that?

The hon. Lady is right on that point, not because a Saudi-led investigation will necessarily be false, but it simply will not be trusted. If I may use a wholly inappropriate analogy, people will think that the Saudis are marking their own homework. It would therefore be much better to have an international investigation.

The Minister agrees that the Saudis are on a hiding to nothing, so surely it is the duty of the Saudis’ friends and allies to move them to a better place. Some time ago, the British Government took a judgment through the National Security Council that our economic and security relationship with Saudi Arabia took precedence over everything else. I believe that that judgment is now fundamentally flawed, because both our economic and security relationships are being greatly damaged by what is happening in Yemen.

In trying to persuade the Government that we need to move to a position of much greater neutrality, using our power and influence at the United Nations, I hope that the Minister, who understands such things, will reiterate today the importance of supporting without qualification the work of Martin Griffiths, a distinguished British international civil servant, as he tries to move this whole awful experience from fighting to a ceasefire and then to talks. My understanding is that the reason why the Houthis were not in Geneva was because there were no adequate guarantees of safe passage, and Martin Griffiths has specifically said that he wishes to address that point and ensure that the next round of talks, to which he is absolutely committed, are more inclusive and therefore more comprehensive.

The important thing is that we move to a ceasefire and to talks. The talks will be difficult, halting and slow, but as the extremely impressive work of the UN group of eminent experts on Yemen has so clearly stated, the present position is the worst of all worlds for all involved. We must now get a ceasefire and move to talks, which are the route through to the end of this dreadful catastrophe.

Hansard