Andrew Mitchell calls for change in direction in UK policy on Yemen.
It is right to congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on securing this debate, and on his powerful and compelling contribution. He and I have known each other for very many years, and there are not many political issues on which we agree. On the question of Yemen and Britain’s role, however, you cannot get a cigarette paper between his opinion and mine. He set out clearly for the House the profound jeopardy of what is going on in Yemen, and Britain’s complicity in it. He spoke of the tens of thousands of young Yemenis who are being radicalised, and who know where the death and destruction that rains down from the skies night after night comes from.
I welcome the new Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), to his position. He will cast a fresh pair of eyes on the problems of Yemen and Britain’s role in tackling them. I hope that he will speak out in the Government if his fresh view suggests that there are other ways of handling those problems. The purpose of my speech is to pose four questions to him, although I do not expect him to answer them from the Dispatch Box. I must apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I have already done to him, for the fact that I may not be able to stay until the end of the debate, because I have a very important engagement in my constituency.
I hope that the Minister will consider what he hears today. Britain is a beacon of light in some very dark places in the world, standing up for values that really matter to us and around the globe. On Yemen, however, I believe that Britain has lost its moral compass, and I say that with deep regret. I praise the new Foreign Secretary—he is not that new—who, immediately on taking office, went to Riyadh and Tehran. He has made it very clear that Britain’s contribution to solving the problem is right at the top of the agenda. That was made rather easier by the profound change of sentiment towards the war after the murder of the journalist Mr Khashoggi in Turkey. The values that were displayed in that despicable act led to considerable rethinking.
I also praise Martin Griffiths, a distinguished international civil servant. As the UN special representative, he is clearly giving everything he can to finding a solution, and his energy and endeavours on the ground are helping. I pay tribute to Sir Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and former DFID permanent secretary, who has been equally tireless in his efforts to help. Above all, this debate is a good opportunity for the House of Commons to pay tribute to the bravery and effectiveness of humanitarian workers. Many in the sector are very young, and they often put themselves in harm’s way to assist their fellow human beings who are caught up in such jeopardy.
I went to Sana’a and Sa’dah, as the right hon. Member for Leicester East mentioned. I think I remain the only European politician who has been into Sana’a and Sa’dah. Many have been into the comparative peace of Aden in the south, but you have to go to the north, Madam Deputy Speaker, and see for yourself the extraordinary damage that the bombing has caused to infrastructure and people’s lives. When I was there, I met British aid and humanitarian workers from Oxfam, in particular, who were doing brilliant work for some of the most dispossessed and miserable people in the world.
My purpose today is to encourage the Government in their apparent change of emphasis, and to urge them to move away from their former position of complicity in what is happening in Yemen. The blockade of the country by land, sea and air with British support has effectively created a famine, which is on Britain’s conscience. It is incredibly important that the Government move away from a partisan position and towards a neutral one by seeking to achieve a ceasefire, a negotiated settlement and an end to the violence.
I echo the urgent concern that the World Food Programme raised yesterday about corrupt Houthi leaders blocking humanitarian access to civilians. The arbitrary denial of humanitarian access is an unconscionable violation of international humanitarian law, and everyone should condemn it. It is no less concerning to see an intensification of violence in Yemen, including aerial attacks by the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition. When I recently asked a Yemeni human rights defender about the well-being of her family in Sana’a, she replied that
“in Yemen we are only safe by accident”.
That reflects the position of millions of men, women and children on the ground who suffer these air attacks, which I heard and saw for myself when I was in Sana’a, night after night.
Last week, on Thursday 16 May—I think the right hon. Member for Leicester East also referred to this incident—at least five children were killed and 33 civilians, including 15 children, were injured by coalition airstrikes in Sana’a. That attack was on a residential area with no military targets anywhere near—another clear violation of international humanitarian law. One of the houses belonged to journalist and writer Abdullah Al-Sabri, who lost two of his children. He and his parents are now in hospital in a critical condition. My first question to the Minister is: what conversations has the Foreign Secretary had with his Emirati and Saudi counterparts about potential violations of international humanitarian law, specifically during the airstrikes in Sana’a on 16 May?
I approach this matter more as a humanitarian than as a politician. In spite of the discomfort of this position, I have never called for an arms embargo. That is because, first, I do not think it is for politicians individually to make judgments about the sales of arms. It is for the Committees on Arms Export Controls to reach judgments in accordance with the laws that are made by this House. Secondly, quite apart from the undesirability of politicians waving their moral consciences around at the expense of high-quality jobs in the north-west of England, I think it is likely that the Saudis will continue to procure weaponry from some in Europe. Saudi Arabia is a rich country surrounded by opponents and enemies, and it will be able to secure such weapons. When it comes to protecting the people on the ground—the children in the school I saw in Sa’dah—an arms embargo from Britain will not have a direct effect, and it may not even have an indirect one.
I know exactly what the hon. Gentleman is going to say, and I fully accept that my position is an uncomfortable one. The point I make to the Government is that those of us who have resisted the lure of calls for an arms embargo have done so in the hope that the Government will change their policy, as I have suggested, and make an arms embargo unnecessary. The longer the situation goes on, the more likely it is that an arms embargo will follow.
For SNP Members, the question of an arms embargo, or stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia, is more about messaging. I know that there are jobs at stake, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that we have to give a special message to the people in the region? Arms sales are part of the problem, and we should be trying our very best to ensure that they do not contribute further to the existing heartache and humanitarian crisis.
Well, I am going to come back to some aspects of that point, but I think we can agree that the case for an arms embargo is going to get stronger and stronger unless Britain moves to a position of neutrality in this dreadful conflict.
It has been just over two years since I stood in a funeral parlour in Sana’a where more than 100 people were killed by a Saudi airstrike. It is shameful—a profound political and moral failure—that Britain has been unable to convince our Saudi and Emirati allies to end the bombing of innocent Yemeni civilians. On that occasion, the aircraft that killed the mourners in the parlour came around again for a second attack after the devastation of its first strike. In my view, the Government continue to take an imbalanced approach, rightly criticising Houthi transgressions but wrongly remaining silent when our Saudi and Emirati allies commit violations. There has been no response by the British Government to the strikes on Sana’a last Thursday that killed five children—not even an expression of concern.
Quiet diplomacy with the Saudis is clearly the Government’s preferred approach, but the continued bombing of civilian areas demonstrates that this approach is simply not working. That brings me to my second question to the Minister. Does he not agree that incidents in which innocent children are killed warrant a public expression of concern and condemnation by the United Kingdom? An imbalanced approach to the conflict in Yemen risks undermining efforts to bring parties to peace negotiations. The idea that the Hadi Government hold true democratic legitimacy in Yemen is clearly fundamentally flawed. President Hadi was elected on a ballot paper with only one name on it, his term has long expired and he spends most of his time in Saudi Arabia, so I do not think that the British Government should camp on the legitimacy of President Hadi’s Government.
It is high time for the UK to correct this imbalanced approach—not just in our public statements, but in our capacity as penholders on the UN Security Council. Resolution 2216 is widely seen as imbalanced and unhelpful, yet it still underpins efforts towards a peace process. The United Kingdom should demonstrate strong leadership to unite the United Nations Security Council and ensure that Yemeni civilians do not pay the price for increased tension between the US and Iran, which threatens to undermine Security Council unity on Yemen.
Let me be clear: I am no apologist for the Houthis. Violations are being committed by all parties to the conflict and all violations should be condemned, but it is the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led coalition that the UK is backing, and this is where we can yield serious influence in order to prevent needless civilian casualties and push for revitalised peace negotiations. That brings me to my third question. Does the Minister agree that the UK should urgently lead action at the UN Security Council to call for a nationwide ceasefire and a swift move to inclusive peace negotiations?
The United Kingdom can play an important role supporting impartial investigations of violations by all sides in Yemen, and promoting accountability for perpetrators. Relying on the Saudi-led coalition’s Joint Incidents Assessment Team to conduct credible investigations into incidents is like trusting children to mark their own homework, and it simply will not carry any international credibility. That brings me to my fourth and—the Minister will be relieved to hear—final question. Does he agree that we need a strengthened UN mechanism for investigating human rights violations in Yemen, and that the UK should support the creation of a commission of inquiry in September’s session of the Human Rights Council at the UN, so that a truly independent body is established with a strong mandate to collect and preserve evidence of possible war crimes and other violations of international law?
As I said at the outset, Britain needs to be seen at the United Nations as a force for the constructive conclusion of these dreadful events in Yemen, moving to a comprehensive ceasefire on the ground and meaningful peace negotiations at all levels in Yemeni society. Britain’s reputation at the United Nations is challenged at the moment, and this situation is one part of that. The Minister will have noticed that only six countries supported Britain on last night’s vote in respect of the Chagos Islands, which was a very significant change of tone by the UN. He will also be aware that Britain was unable to procure, for the first time since 1947, the election of a judge to the International Court of Justice—a position formerly held by the highly respected jurist Sir Christopher Greenwood.
In spite of the quite outstanding work that the current British permanent representative to the UN, Dame Karen Pierce, undoubtedly carries out, our reputation is damaged. If we are to hold the role of penholder on Yemen, we owe it to the United Nations and the international community to be in a far more a neutral position. It is unsatisfactory that the Russians and the Scandinavian countries had to amend the British-drafted presidential statement on these matters. For as long as we are maintaining the planes that are used for the bombing runs, supplying the armaments and advising the targeting cell in Riyadh, Britain’s complicity is unavoidable. Britain’s role is also still quite extraordinarily confused. When I was in Sa’dah, I had the opportunity to meet the very brave unit that was demining and defusing armaments, some of which were British. The unit was largely paid for by British taxpayers’ money and led by a former British major. That seems to put the confusion of the matter in very clear sight indeed.
I want to end with the words of the chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights, Radhya Al-Mutwakel, who visited Britain recently and met the Foreign Secretary and the Chair of the International Development Committee. She is a very powerful and independent Yemeni voice on what is happening, and she said:
“Since March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates…have led a coalition of countries in a military campaign against…rebels in Yemen. As documented by multiple human rights organizations as well as the UN, the Saudi/UAE-led Coalition has consistently attacked civilians and critical civilian infrastructure—including hospitals, schools, school children, weddings, farms, and water wells—in violation of the laws of war…Four years into the conflict, around 20,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed or wounded and half the population—14 million people—are at risk of famine, according to the UN. Other estimates, however, range much higher: ACLED”—
the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project—
“has recorded over 50,000 reported deaths as a direct result of the fighting, and according to Save the Children, 85,000 children may have died of hunger and preventable disease.”
That is the situation. Britain’s position needs to move and intensify, away from what it was, to a new place.