Parliament Debates Motion on Yemen

Posted on March 29th, 2017 in Local News

Keith led a debate in Parliament on a motion regarding the conflict in Yemen. The motion was:

That this House notes the worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen; and calls upon the Government to take a lead in passing a resolution at the UN Security Council that would give effect to an immediate ceasefire in Yemen.

The debate was attended by 45 MPs, including Keith’s co-sponsors of the debate, Flick Drummond MP and Alison Thewliss MP.

Keith’s speech can be read below. To read the full transcript follow this link.



I beg to move,

That this House notes the worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen; and calls upon the Government to take a lead in passing a resolution at the UN Security Council that would give effect to an immediate ceasefire in Yemen.

I am most grateful to all members of the Backbench Business Committee for granting this vital debate. I also thank my fellow officers of the all-party group on Yemen, the hon. Members for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), for leading this debate with me. I commend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the right hon. and gallant Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), for the work he has undertaken on Yemen. He demonstrated to all of us last week what a brave, honourable and decent man he is. I am also pleased to see the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), and the shadow International Development Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), in their places.

We meet today at a time when Yemen, one of the poorest countries on earth, stands on the precipice of an unprecedented tragedy. Two years ago this week, a Saudi-led coalition launched an intervention after the legitimately elected Government of the President of Yemen, Mansur Hadi, had been ousted in a coup by Houthi rebels. We welcomed the action of the coalition, which was mandated by the Security Council in resolution 2216. Earlier today in another part of this House, and thanks to the chairing of the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie), we heard from Major General Asiri, the spokesman for the Saudi coalition, on the coalition action so far and its aspirations for the future. The meeting was extremely useful.

This afternoon, we stand in a very different world from the one of two years ago. The latest figures from the humanitarian crisis in Yemen are unbelievable: 10,000 people have died; more than 1,500 of the dead were children; 47,000 people have been injured, many crippled for life; and 7 million are at immediate risk of starvation, including 2 million children. The United Nations has just announced that Yemen is only one step away from outright famine. In total, 21.2 million people require urgent humanitarian assistance—80% of the country’s population. We have become frighteningly numb to the figures. It should shock us to our very core: 21 million people is more than double the entire population of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

We are very concerned about the blockades by both sides and the inability to get humanitarian aid into the country. I know that other right hon. and hon. Members will, along with me, want to draw attention to the problem of access.

According to a recent YouGov poll, less than half the UK’s population even knows that there is a war in Yemen, a former British colony. It is the forgotten war, which is why the motion has only one objective: to secure an all-important, long-lasting ceasefire. I hope that in this debate we can show solidarity and unity in support of the people of Yemen. Members may of course wish to raise many issues, and rightly so, but the motion is clear, and its focus is on bringing peace to Yemen.

How did we arrive at this point? In the Arab spring of 2011, Yemen and Tunisia stood apart in the region as the sites of the only peaceful transitions to democracy. Particular praise for that goes to the current Minister for Europe and the Americas, who became the Prime Minister’s envoy to Yemen. The UK has maintained stronger links with Yemen than any other western country. Three Members of this House were born there: myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and the hon. Member for Portsmouth South. Members such as the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), who is the vice-chair of the all-party group, have visited the country, and Members including the hon. Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) have served there in the armed forces.

The past two years have chipped away at the Yemeni people’s historical good will for the United Kingdom. Last Friday, I met members of the Yemeni diaspora in Sheffield, with another officer of the all-party group, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss). At that meeting, the community’s message was one of disbelief that the United Kingdom had not acted more strongly to end the fighting. We continue to be one of the largest bilateral aid donors to Yemen, and the Department for International Development is contributing £100 million to the country. I commend the efforts of the Secretary of State for International Development, who has made additional funds available to Yemen as a priority for her Department and taken the lead on Yemen internationally. That work was begun under her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who is in his place and has recently returned from Sana’a. He has described the “appalling scale” of the crisis there. I hope he will be able to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

So far, we have had three failed opportunities for a sustainable end to the fighting: negotiations in April 2016 ended in failure; a UN-sponsored round of talks in Kuwait ended in failure in August 2016; and John Kerry’s initiative last November led to the Saudi-led coalition and Houthis agreeing to the UN special envoy’s terms, but the agreement collapsed when President Hadi refused to sign the deal. The intervention of the Foreign Secretary secured a three-day ceasefire in October, which allowed vital aid to reach the most desperate parts of the country, but that was just a drop in an ocean of despair. The political process has now ended. Talks have not been revived. Will the Minister confirm whether a new round of talks has been planned and what ongoing discussions he has had with the key players in the conflict? Many are now part of a very complicated game of thrones that is the crisis in Yemen, including the Hadi Government, the Houthis, former President Saleh, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Iran, the UK, and the USA. The only winners are Daesh and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Oman has now been invited into the “Quad” of nations seeking to resolve the crisis.

I travelled to Oman in February to meet the Foreign Minister, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah. I thanked the Omani Government for the assistance that they gave me locally. The Minister told me that there is hope. He said that the road map of the UN special envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, was firmly on the table. He was also clear that the political road map can and should begin immediately, implementing a ceasefire while the economic and security issues are resolved. When the Minister replies, can he inform us whether, subject to the immediate obstacles being overcome, he believes the political road map can now be implemented?

I am not aware of that report. That would be extremely damaging to the process that I am talking about today, which is the need for all parties, including the United States, to support a ceasefire. I will certainly look at that report. Perhaps the Minister who has heard what the hon. Gentleman said will have an opportunity to reply.

When I was in Oman, I also had the opportunity to speak to President Hadi. The President, speaking to me from Aden, was focused on addressing the humanitarian crisis, but he was no closer to agreeing to the UN special envoy’s proposal. If President Hadi signs up to this agreement, he has an opportunity to be remembered as the man who brought peace to Yemen, and who stopped the suffering of his people. He should take it. I am grateful to him for accepting an invitation to address the all-party group in June. Can the Minister confirm whether President Hadi is any closer to agreeing to the terms of the special envoy’s road map?

The UK can and must be the honest broker. That means putting pressure on all parties, including those who receive British support. Can the Minister tell us whether the UK is prepared to sanction the Yemeni and Saudi Governments, if they allow the next round of negotiations to fail?

Tomorrow may be one of the most critical days in the history of Yemen. At 10am in New York, the United Nations Security Council will hold a full session on the conflict in Yemen, where they will hear directly from the special envoy. It will be chaired by our excellent ambassador, Matthew Rycroft. The United Kingdom is the current President of the Security Council, as we are, of course, the “pen holder” on Yemen at the United Nations, which means that we lead on all issues relating to Yemen. This is a unique opportunity to make a case to the Security Council, and to secure a new resolution that would enable a ceasefire.

Stephen O’Brien, the outstanding UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, and a former Member of this House, made a stunning announcement this month that the world faces its worst humanitarian crisis since 1945. He focused on Yemen. The French Government, who previously took a backseat on Yemen, announced last week the need for an immediate ceasefire. I have met both the Chinese and Egyptian ambassadors to London. On behalf of their Governments, they told me that the first priority was the cessation of hostilities. Most importantly, it is very clear that nobody is winning the war on the ground, and that nobody will ever win by military means. The only solution will come from the negotiating table. That point was forcefully made by the UN panel of experts.

I spoke to Matthew Rycroft yesterday, and he explained that the political process needs to begin moving in the right direction. It is clear to me, and I hope that it will be clear to the House, that a resolution adopted tomorrow would commit all sides to guarantee the ceasefire. Will the Minister ensure that the United Kingdom proposes such a resolution at tomorrow’s session? That will really help the peace process. If it is not to be tabled tomorrow, what is the timetable for putting forward that motion? Quite simply, these efforts cannot wait.

While we push for peace, Yemen continues to face myriad challenges. Organisations such as Save the Children, Islamic Relief, Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontières, UNICEF, CARE, Christian Aid and the Red Cross are performing wonders on the ground, but there are still chronic humanitarian access issues. Despite the generous contributions to the UN appeal, which is only 50% filled, serious damage to the port of Hudaydah has, as we have heard, created a monumental blockage for aid delivery into Yemen. If Hudaydah cannot function, we cannot stop famine in Yemen. Has the Minister considered proposals by the Yemen Safe Passage Group, led by a former British ambassador to Yemen, that the UN takes over the running of the port to allow aid to flow into the country? I am sure that other officers of the all-party group will speak further on the humanitarian crisis.

 I was at the same meeting, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is why we need a ceasefire, and why we need the UN going in there to monitor the delivery of aid. As we heard, the aid was being hijacked and used for other purposes, which is why the ceasefire is so important.

To conclude, what we do know and what is beyond all doubt is that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Daesh have exploited the crisis that has grown in Yemen as a result of this conflict, and that they now de facto control swathes of territory. My interest in Yemen is not political; it is deeply personal. Aden, the city of my birth, was once the jewel of the Arabian sea. It was once a centre of British influence and of global trade, as ships passed through the Suez canal. The people of Yemen do not deserve to be condemned to suffer one of modern history’s greatest human catastrophes. I see a crisis that is not intractable. I see that there is a path to peace.

I began by warning that Yemen stood on the precipice of an unprecedented tragedy. This is true, but we have the chance in New York tomorrow morning to save this beautiful country. We are part of this conflict, and the time for waiting, watching and failing to act must end. Nero fiddled as Rome burned. The presidency that we hold tomorrow gives us the opportunity to demonstrate leadership, and leadership is exactly what the Yemeni people need. Let us bring light back to a country that otherwise will be consumed by darkness, starvation and evil.