What's Happening in Parliament

18/06/18
Yemen stands on the precipice of a humanitarian catastrophe. These words could have been uttered at any point over the last 3 years and been accurate, but today they are especially prescient. While it may seem extraordinary to describe a country that has 22.2 million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance and 8 million people on the brink of famine as on the ‘precipice of disaster’, the truth is that things could be about to get worse. A lot worse.

Fighting along Yemen’s west coast has intensified in 2018. Now the key port of Hudaydah is in sight. It appears clear that the United Arab Emirates, who have been an active member of the coalition since its entry into the conflict in 2015 now see an assault on the port as necessary. Over the past week, we have heard reports that the UAE supported National Resistance forces are now stationed in the Ad-Durayhimi district. This marks their most northerly position since the coalition’s entry into the conflict in 2015, around 15km from the port. In a televised address on Sunday, Abdul Malek Al-Houthi called for a mass mobilisation of his forces to counter the advances that were being made.
Hudaydah port’s importance to the population of Yemen cannot be overstated. It has been the last lifeline for Yemen’s population since 2015. Throughout the war, when access to aid and commercial imports have been limited through the port, for example during the full blockade of November-December 2017, the suffering of Yemen’s population has increased exponentially. Over 80% of all humanitarian aid passes through the port. This includes significant amounts of the £139 million that DFID pledged to Yemen for the financial year 2017/18.

The humanitarian impact of fighting impacting or shutting down the activity of the port would be monumental. This would lead to an unconscionable loss of life. The APPG has been told by partners with a footprint on the ground in Yemen that in a worst-case scenario, an attack on the port would cause upwards of 250,000 civilian deaths. Mass displacement of civilians would also occur. In evidence received by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Yemen (APPG) in the recently concluded inquiry into UK policy towards Yemen, we received submissions from a number of aid agencies who predicted that an attack on Hudaydah port would, directly and indirectly, lead to the displacement of 600,000 people. The disruption on commercial and aid supplies would put millions of Yemenis at risk. 22.2 million who are in need of humanitarian aid could be left without it and the already crippling inflation of food prices would skyrocket.

The hour is now late for Hudaydah port. This week Martin Griffiths headed to Saana to speak with the Houthi leadership. It has been suggested that he was looking to broker a deal with the Houthis to allow Hudaydah to be controlled by the International Community. Following the meetings, Mr Griffiths said "Apart from the avoidable humanitarian consequences of such a battle, I am also very concerned about the impact on chances of a political settlement of this conflict"

For the coalition, the port has long been seen as a white whale. Riyadh says the Houthis use Hudaydah to smuggle Iranian-made arms into Yemen, accusations denied by the group and Tehran. While we do not doubt that the Iranians have provided material assistance to the Houthis the United Nations, with UK assistance, has initiated the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM) for the facilitation of commercial imports to Yemen. These inspections should quell fears of mass Iranian smuggling. If this is not the case then greater financial contributions should be made to UNVIM to allow for thorough inspections of imports while still allowing for the smooth and speedy flow of vital commercial and humanitarian aid.

All of the aid agencies that gave written and oral evidence to the APPG’s inquiry impressed upon members the importance of the port to Yemen’s population. One of the key recommendations that the Group made based on the evidence received was:

‘Military escalation on Al Hudaydah Port would be a catastrophe for the population of Yemen. This would severely limit and even halt the assistance that is able to come through the port. Offensives on the port region would also have devastating implications for peace talks. According to the UN Special Envoy, it would ‘’in a stroke, take peace off the table.’’ The UK must continue to urge the coalition publicly and privately not to attack this area, reinforce that there can be no military solution, and instead insist that all parties engage in good faith in peace talks towards a political solution.’

Yet we have not, at time of writing, seen a statement by our Government calling on all sides for de-escalation around the port and directly condemning fighting in the region. The United States has beaten us to the punch, going on record and suggesting that it could not support actions that destroy key infrastructure or that are likely to exacerbate the dire humanitarian situation that has expanded in this stalemated conflict. Losing the moral argument to the Trump administration is shameful indeed. We know that this week Theresa May had a phone conversation with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. However, from the account given of the call by number 10’s press secretary there was no indication that the Prime Minister spoke to him about Hudaydah port directly.

I have long been on record saying that sadly the Government has lost its way on Yemen. This is despite the outstanding efforts by the Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa Alistair Burt who has been a consistent champion for Yemen. I fear his voice has been drowned out by the Government's obsession with Brexit. Concerted international pressure has averted an assault on Yemen’s most vital port previously. Last year the coalition moved away from their plans to attack Hudaydah. It is not too late for the Government to stand up and warn all combatants that it will not endorse or tolerate military action on Hudaydah port. Fighting in Hudaydah would wipe peace prospects off the table and would put millions of Yemenis at risk. We must not stand idly by and watch this conflict continue to ravage Yemen and its people. I implore the Government to stand up and be counted.
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