What's Happening in Parliament

18/10/16

On Tuesday 18th October 2016, the House of Commons held a debate on the humanitarian situation in Yemen, led by the Chair of the All Party Group, Keith Vaz.

The debate focused on the need for an immediate, lasting ceasefire; the actions taken by the British government to advance a peaceful solution to the conflict; and the issue of humanitarian access into the country.

The full transcript can be found below:

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab)
I am grateful to the House for allowing this vitally important debate. I was surprised that a Minister from the Department for International Development and not the Foreign Office is representing the Government, as this debate is primarily on foreign affairs matters. Observers have always feared that the FCO would like to take control of DFID: perhaps tonight we are seeing a reverse takeover. The Minister’s knowledge of this area, however, is not in doubt and I am pleased to see him in his place.

This debate occurs at one of the most critical moments in Yemen’s long history. In August, UN-backed peace talks in Kuwait between the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni Government broke down, leading to intense fighting and a restarting of the airstrikes. Thousands have died in the following months. Only last week, 140 people were killed and 500 injured in an airstrike on a funeral in Sana’a. The Saudi Government have now apologised for that incident, blaming the bombing on bad intelligence. What a terrible reason to die.

This morning, a 72-hour ceasefire was announced by UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. It will begin at midnight tomorrow. All our eyes may be on Syria and Iraq, but tonight we in the British Parliament invite the world to focus on Yemen’s forgotten crisis. Our message to the Government is quite simple: either we stop the fighting permanently or Yemen will bleed to death.

I have been privileged to serve as chair of the all-party group on Yemen since joining Parliament. I am very proud that there are so many Members who are interested in Yemen and so many Members present today. Several Members of this House were born inYemen, including myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond). She is an officer of the all-party group, along with the hon. Members for Charnwood (Edward Argar) and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). Other Members have served the armed forces in Yemen, including the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). Those who represent constituencies with large Yemeni communities have worked hard on behalf of their constituents, including my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). This includes the late Harry Harpham, who served as the group’s secretary. I am delighted that his successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), is equally dedicated. Tomorrow, the group will meet representatives of all of the major charities to hear from the former Foreign Minister of Yemen, Dr Abu-Baker Al-Kirby.

These parliamentary ties further demonstrate the unique relationship our country has had with Yemen over the past 150 years. When Yemen was last in crisis, during the Arab Spring of 2011, it was the British Government, in particular the current Minister of State at the Foreign Office, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), who was later the Prime Minister’s ​envoy to Yemen, who worked with the Yemeni Government. We supported Yemen through that crisis, which, other than Tunisia, was the only peaceful democratic revolution in the middle east. We continue to be one of the largest bilateral aid donors, and the International Development Secretary has just raised our contribution to a total of £100 million. In turn, Yemenis have a great love of Britain. When the Yemeni Foreign Minister Riad Yassin visited Parliament last year, he brought with him a video. It was not a video of the ongoing conflict, which we were aware of, but of our Queen’s last visit to Aden, where the local hospital I was born in was named after her.

This positive history therefore makes the current situation all the more tragic. Through a sluggish, confused and weak approach to the crisis, the international community as a whole should be measured against a scorecard of shame: over 10,000 people have been killed in the past 18 months; at least 1,200 children have been killed, with another 1,700 injured; 3 million people are now suffering from acute malnutrition; 21.2 million people, four-fifths of the entire population, require urgent humanitarian assistance, 9.9 million of whom are children; 3.2 million people are internally displaced; 19.3 million people are in need of health care and protection services; and 14.1 million people, equivalent to the combined populations of London, Birmingham and Glasgow, are at risk of hunger.

Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
The impact on the most vulnerable in society in Yemen is simply immeasurable. It is our job in this House to stand up against what is wrong. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we are instead enabling that?

Keith Vaz
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady. I commend her party and its Members for the way in which they have raised Yemen on so many occasions. I am grateful, and the House is very grateful, for that. She is right that we need to do much more. Organisations such as Save the Children, UNICEF, Islamic Relief, Médecins sans Frontières and the Red Cross are performing wonders on the ground, but they are struggling to get the funding needed for emergency programmes.

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan (Tooting) (Lab)
My right hon. Friend will be interested to know that I recently travelled to the World Bank with RESULTS UK to put forward the argument that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are vital for their development. This means that even when the conflict ends, the effects will not stop. They will not cease. Millions of children will be left stunted with delayed cognitive development and may still die, despite the conflict ending. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to be doing more to find a peaceful solution?

Keith Vaz
I do, and I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I agree wholeheartedly.

When faced with a crisis of these proportions, one would have expected, as my hon. Friend has said, that the international community, led by the UK, would be urgently bringing the conflict to an end, and putting this at the very top of the agenda at the United Nations. Instead, when faced by this reality, the world has failed Yemen. We failed to stop the escalation of violence in ​March last year, and we failed to stop the fighting over the last 18 months. We have had two clear opportunities for a sustainable end to the fighting: a brief ceasefire for negotiations in April this year ended in failure; and the UN-sponsored round of talks in Kuwait ended in failure in August. Will the Minister confirm whether or not the UK Government were invited to these negotiations? Were we actually in the room?

Edward Argar (Charnwood) (Con)
The right hon. Gentleman’s knowledge of, and care for, the country of Yemen is well known. Does he agree that what would make the greatest difference to the humanitarian situation in Yemen would be a stable ceasefire followed by a long-term sustainable peace settlement, and that while that settlement must originate from among the Yemeni peoples themselves and not be imposed from outside, the unique historical relationship that the UK has with Yemen, to which the right hon. Gentleman was alluding, makes us well placed to help facilitate the delivery of that settlement, building on the work of the Minister for Europe and the Americas, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan)?

Keith Vaz
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is vice-chairman of the all-party group. He is right to highlight, as I have done, the role of the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton. There is a vacancy for a special envoy for the Yemen, and if I could persuade the Prime Minister to send him there, among all his other duties, the right hon. Gentleman would make a very good contribution.

Amid this lack of diplomatic progress, the intervention by the Saudi-led coalition has become central to the crisis. This coalition intervened at the request of the legitimate Government of Yemen. However, 18 months on, the airstrikes, which are heavily impacting on the civilian population, have become counter-productive—so counter-productive that it has become the eye of a storm of intense criticism, which overshadows every other element of the crisis. These airstrikes, which Save the Children believes to be responsible for 60% of all civilian deaths in the conflict, are breeding hostility inside and outside Yemen.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
My right hon. Friend is making a strong speech. He will be aware of the reports of the International Development Committee and the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee on this very matter, but is he aware that yesterday a number of us, along with UK Government Ministers, met the Saudi Foreign Minister? While we had a frank and candid discussion about the terrible attack on the funeral hall, the Saudi Foreign Minister refused to give any clarity about when and to what level investigations would take place into the hundreds of other incidents reported by leading non-governmental organisations. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is imperative that the Saudis are clear about what has happened in those incidents and allow an independent investigation?

Keith Vaz
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I commend him for the work he has done. I know he has a large Yemeni community in Cardiff South and Penarth. It is right to bring this to the attention of the Saudis—a theme I hope to develop later in my speech.

Douglas Chapman (Dunfermline and West Fife) (SNP)
We all recognise and welcome moves for a ceasefire. However, two Select Committees have endorsed the view that UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia should cease. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should respect the findings of those Committees and stop arms sales until a proper investigation into the atrocities in Yemen takes place, or indeed a permanent ceasefire is put in place?

Keith Vaz
I agree. When I come on to look at the implications of the ceasefire, I shall certainly make that one of my asks to the Minister.

Dr Philippa Whitford (Central Ayrshire) (SNP)
It is the issue of the extra petrol that we are pouring on the flames that is key. I have raised on a number of occasions the bombing of Médecins Sans Frontières hospitals, particularly in Sana’a last autumn. We are always told that “Saudi Arabia will investigate”, but that is not good enough. We should not be selling arms in this situation.

Keith Vaz
I agree with the hon. Lady wholeheartedly. That is something on which we must press the Government if we are to achieve a peaceful solution.

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con)
rose—

Keith Vaz
I give way to the Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls.

Chris White
I know that a couple of questions have been asked by Members who have served on the Committees—

Chris White
I did not know that I had that effect on the House—[Laughter.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle)
It is known as the 7 o’clock effect.

Chris White
I am aware that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) is familiar with a report in which the Business, Innovation and Skills and International Development Committees called for an independent United Nations-led investigation and a pause in the sale of arms exports until that had taken place. Does he agree that that could only assist in alleviating the humanitarian crisis?

Keith Vaz
I do agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I commend him for the work that he and his Committees are doing. We look forward to seeing the report when it is finally published, but I think that the Government will note his comments very carefully.

Mrs Flick Drummond (Portsmouth South) (Con)
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the United States Congress recently passed the Justice Against Sponsors ​of Terrorism Act, which is aimed at the Saudis? Does he think that that is why the Saudis are starting to scale back some of their attacks?

Keith Vaz
My fellow Yemeni—by birth—is right. I think that the pressure in the United States Congress, to which I shall allude later, is making a difference, especially given recent events. I think that it takes more than the United Kingdom to do this and that Congress has a very important role.

Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (SNP)
The right hon. Gentleman is being extremely generous in giving way to all of us. He is probably aware of the use of cluster munitions in Yemen and the problems that they have caused for civilians by lying unexploded, thus creating de facto minefields which can kill or maim. Will he join me in calling on the Government to review the support that they are giving to the organisations involved in clearing those munitions?

Keith Vaz
Yes, I will. We do need to support those organisations. I think that I am able to give way so often thanks to the BBC debate running a little short. Whether we like or hate the BBC, we should thank it for allowing us this extra time.

A generation of Yemenis now risk learning how to hate Saudi Arabia and the west. At a recent meeting organised by the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, journalists Nawal al-Maghafi and Peter Oborne, who had recently returned from Yemen, said that the long history of goodwill towards Britain was almost eroded. The strength of that criticism means that when we are critical of Russia’s actions in Syria, it is now pointing at Yemen and claiming moral equivalency. That is not sustainable. Yemen is now the Achilles heel of western diplomacy. Quite simply, it is in everyone’s best interests, including Saudi Arabia’s, for the airstrikes to end permanently.

Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP)
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on initiating the debate. Does he agree that if the United Kingdom Government’s review of its arms sales uncovers breaches of international law by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, there should be not only an end to the sales of arms to Saudi Arabia, but a root-and-branch review of our relationship with the kingdom?

Keith Vaz
That is a very important point. The Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said. I think that this is one of the issues that the Committees, and other Committees of the House, will have to examine—indeed, they are doing so as we speak.

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab)
Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Keith Vaz
I will.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle)
Order. No, you cannot.

Emily Thornberry
Am I not allowed to intervene?

Mr Deputy Speaker
No.

Keith Vaz
I have never been able to shut my hon. Friend up.

Mr Deputy Speaker
I have succeeded where the right hon. Gentleman could not.

Keith Vaz
I will put that in my diary, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Let me return to the serious issue of Yemen. The issues of the investigations of the bombings, which have been mentioned by a several Members, and the UK’s sale of arms to Saudi Arabia have been raised here tonight, and also outside Parliament. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as Oxfam, Amnesty International and others, have identified, as have hon. Members this evening, the human rights violations committed by all sides. The latter of those organisations argues that DFID’s good work is being undermined by £3.3 billion of aircraft and bombs sales to Saudi Arabia in the 12 months from March 2015.

The Saudi Arabian Government have investigated incidents, but these investigations have been criticised for not being independent. They must understand that continuing the bombing campaign will lead only to more incidents and criticism, and calls for further investigations.

We are joined by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), and I am grateful to him for reinforcing the Government’s position tonight. Only one of the Ministers present will be able to speak in this debate, but I would like them both to clarify a number of points. What support is the UK providing Saudi Arabia with regards to both preventing and investigating human rights violations, including through providing personnel? What is the UK’s policy on an independent investigation into possible human rights violations by all sides in the conflict? What is the current status of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and will this be subject to review?

Just as it is darkest before the dawn, the international community is finally moving in the right direction. After the Houthis fired on the USS Mason last week, the Americans fired back, into Yemen, for the first time in this conflict. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump talked about Syria at length in their last debate; it is hoped that they will be asked about Yemen tomorrow. Let us not forget that Secretary Clinton was the first Secretary of State in history to visit Yemen.

On Sunday, in London, US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Foreign Secretary met Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and the UN special envoy to discuss this conflict. At the meeting, they made a very clear call for a ceasefire “within hours”. An hour is clearly a long time in diplomacy, but at last today a 72-hour ceasefire has been announced. This is most welcome, but it is not the end. Seventy-two hours is not enough for the Yemeni people. It is vital that our Government ensure that the ceasefire becomes permanent.

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con)
I have been listening with interest to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech. He made reference to the Houthis firing on a US naval ship. Does he agree that one of the things that is so worrying about the conflict is the possibility of threating some of the key shipping routes that pass through Aden, which might destabilise the whole region?

Keith Vaz
That is absolutely right. As I will say towards the end of my speech, that has an effect on the humanitarian aid getting into Yemen.

I spoke last night with the UK’s permanent representative to the United Nations, the excellent Matthew Rycroft, who made it clear that the UK leads on this issue at the Security Council. He also confirmed that the UK had already drafted a Security Council resolution. It will call for an end to hostilities, investigations into human rights violations and a restart of the negotiations. It is in response to this that Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states have put together their own pre-emptive ceasefire. That is clearly welcome, but will the Minister confirm that if the coalition’s ceasefire breaks in 72 hours’ time and violence resumes, the UK will immediately demand that the draft resolution is tabled? Will he also confirm that when Yemen is discussed by the Security Council in New York on 31 October, the United Kingdom will demand a joint statement calling for a permanent diplomatic solution?

Now that the ceasefire is in place, we must take a central role in the peace talks. Will the Minister confirm who will be in the room for these talks? Will the talks include the United Kingdom, the United States, the Saudi Government, the Houthis, former President Saleh and the Yemeni Government? It needs to be made clear at the talks that concluding without an agreement is not an option. As her predecessors have done, will the Prime Minister herself call on both King Salman of Saudi Arabia and President Hadi to press for peace?

Despite the criticism that the United Kingdom has faced in recent months, we can still be the honest broker, and that means putting pressure on all sides, including those who receive British support. Is the United Kingdom prepared to sanction the Yemeni and Saudi Governments by withdrawing support, suspending arms sales or in other ways if they allow the next round of negotiations to fail? We also need to give the UN special envoy all the tools that he needs to do his job. Will the Minister tell the House what support, including staff and finances, we have provided to the special envoy?

Another step that we need to take relates to humanitarian access. This is vital not only to address the humanitarian crisis, but to show that the United Kingdom wishes to act for the Yemeni people. In the scorecard of shame that I mentioned, I have set out the reality in Yemen, which is an extraordinarily dangerous place for aid agencies to work. Some parts of the country, particularly in the north, are practically unreachable. Following the closure of Sana’a airport, the cutting off of major roads and bridges and the withdrawal of safety assurances, UNICEF has informed me that many aid agencies have withdrawn from Saada and Hajjah. The increase in aid is welcome, but what are we doing to ensure that it gets through? We must do more, and this must be included in the UN resolution.

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has once again brought this subject to the House for debate. It is important that these issues are raised. He talks about access for aid agencies, which is absolutely crucial. Médecins sans Frontières is finding it very difficult to maintain hospitals in the country and reports that, even where there are hospitals, the situation is so unsafe and people are so frightened to leave their homes that by the time they ​reach the hospital, they are often seriously ill, with some of them sadly dying. Will he impress on the Government that we need to act in support of those medical facilities as well?

Keith Vaz
The hon. Lady has just done that very eloquently. The worst part of the bombing of the funeral was that there were two bombs. The first killed the people at the funeral and the second was intended to deal with the first attenders. To say that such incidents are the result of bad information is a terrible excuse and that must never happen again.

I would like to end by telling the House that my interest in Yemen is not just political, but deeply personal. Yemen was once known as Arabia Felix, or “happy Arabia”, and that is how I remember the country. The first nine years of my life were among my happiest. Every night when I go home from this place, I think of Aden, and I light frankincense just to remind me of it. Yemen is an easy country to fall in love with. It has incredible beauty, enormous history and wonderful people. Its geography and its architecture are among the most stunning in the world. It is renowned as the home of the legendary Queen of Sheba. It breaks my heart that incredible cultural heritage sites are being reduced to rubble by the fighting and that we will never be able to recreate them. We are part of this conflict; we cannot walk by on the other side. This is a crisis crying out for leadership. Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni Government, the Houthis and the Yemeni people all need a way out of this conflict. We are in a unique position to show them the way, and to take them there.

It has been said to me that we hold all the pens on Yemen. We need to use every ounce of our considerable influence. Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm. To allow millions of people to die from hunger in the 21st century would consign Yemen to being one of history’s great tragedies. Let us seize the momentum of the past few days and prevent a humanitarian crisis from becoming a humanitarian catastrophe. I beg the Minister to act now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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