What's Happening in Parliament

The ongoing conflict in Yemen has witnessed a dramatic escalation over the last few weeks. This began on the night of November 4th, with the firing of an Iranian supplied missile from Houthi controlled territory in Yemen at Riyadh airport. The response of the Saudi Arabian government has been both swift and deadly. Saudi bombing sorties in Yemen have increased in their number and their ferocity with a number of NGO’s on the ground asserting that they have targeted vital arteries for aid into Yemen like Sanaa airport.

The Saudi coalition also initiated a full blockade on Yemen. The stated reason for this is to target Iranian arms smuggling into Yemen but the only victims of this decision will be the 20 million Yemeni’s who require urgent humanitarian assistance, 900,000 of which are suffering from the world’s worst Cholera epidemic.

Before the missile attack, Yemen found itself at the cliff edge, with the population facing the triple threat of cholera, conflict and starvation. Well over 10,000 people have been killed by the war and recent figures have suggested that 130 children in Yemen are dying each day due to preventable causes. Now, with the full blockade instigated, aid groups face even greater restrictions on access which is causing the humanitarian situation to become exponentially worse.

Ships with vital humanitarian aid are being turned away and flights to and from the country are being blocked. Save the Children have reported that 13 shipments of aid to Yemen already been refused admission and the International Committee of the Red Cross said last week it was unable to get clearance to ship chlorine tablets used to prevent cholera. Given that the number of those affected by Cholera in Yemen is more than the entire population of Birmingham these supplies must get through. Since November the 6th 32 UN flights have been unable to land at Saana airport. 15 health facilities established because of closure of hospitals have now suspended their services due to a lack of clean water.
Horrific stories are emerging from Yemen about the implications of the blockade for ordinary Yemeni’s. On the first night of imposition, several Yemeni’s awaiting evacuation for life-saving medical procedures were left stranded on runways to die. 5 of Yemen’s cities are now without access to a water source including Saada, Taiz and Hodeidah. 2.5 million Civilians in these cities now lack access to a clean water source.

It is understandable that the Saudi’s are concerned for their security something that has been repeatedly stated by the Saudi Ambassador to UK Mohammed bin Nawwaf bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Since the conflicts beginning hundreds of missiles have been fired into Saudi territory from Yemen’s ungoverned space. At a recent meeting with the Iranian Ambassador to the UK, Hamid Baeidinejad categorically denied that Iran was involved in smuggling arms into the country. However, the weight of international opinion is that Iran is increasingly moving more and more sophisticated weaponry into Yemen. Despite this, the current blockade is a catastrophic mistake. Not only will this cause untold humanitarian misery for the citizens of Yemen but the action has questionable legal status. A blockade is a legal means of war, however, if it is specifically targeted to cause the collective punishment of civilians it is a war crime as specified in Article 33 of the Geneva Convention. With over 75% of the population requiring urgent humanitarian assistance there are grounds to suggest that the current blockade is indeed illegal. The UK government has been painfully slow to react to developments in Yemen however it is welcome that the government has made a statement supporting the reopening of Saana airport and Hodeidah port.

The announcement of the Coalition on the 22nd of November to open access to Yemen to aid agencies is welcome, provided it occurs. Aid agencies need access now. Anything other than a complete opening of Yemen to humanitarian aid would be catastrophic for Yemen’s war-weary population.
The issue of arms sales to Saudi Arabia has increasingly been raised both in the House of Commons and recently in the US Congress. 3 weeks ago In the United States the bipartisan bill H. Con. Res. 81 was introduced by Congressman Ro Khanna a Democrat and Mark Pocan a Republican to stop US support for the Saudi war in Yemen. The Labour Party is calling for an end of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia until they grant full humanitarian access for aid agencies. The SNP have had this position for some time. An unlikely and unprecedented alliance has now been formed between Jeremy Corbyn, the Scottish Nationalists and the United States Congress. There is no other issue in the world where these three would be in agreement.

As we approach the 1000 day anniversary of the conflicts beginning it is clear that they only way to end the suffering in Yemen is with a successful peace process and a restarting of National Dialogue talks between all of the sides involved. A recent meeting of the Quint countries on Yemen, Foreign Ministers of the United States, the United Kingdom, The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman was cancelled without explanation. Since we are dealing with the worst crisis in the world this is shameful. All of the United Kingdom’s political energies must be expended to ensure that this meeting is rescheduled and the opportunity is properly seized.

With the United States agenda in Yemen being dominated by counter-terrorism concerns, the UK must assume the lead in pushing for a ceasefire and ensuring appropriate humanitarian access is granted. Boris Johnson needs to give effective time to this issue and concentrate his mind on matters in the same way that William Hague did while he was Foreign Minister. It is clear that the Minister of State for the Foreign Office Alistair Burt understands the severity of this issue, Boris Johnson must recognise this too.
In the United Nations, it is the UK that has the capability to drive new resolutions and push for a restarting of the peace process. This lack of confidence in our own ability to bring this conflict to an end is indicative of the current government’s view of Britain’s position in the world. We must be aware of our capacity to influence the outcome of this conflict and to end the suffering of the people in Yemen. The United Kingdom is a key player.

The people of Yemen have suffered for too long. The lack of action is depressing and demoralising. We have to do more to bring this senseless and unwinnable war to an end. The Prime Minister was warned recently that just as history judges’ politicians of the 1990’s on their reactions to the humanitarian catastrophes in Rwanda and Kosovo, she and her administration will be judged on their reaction to the crisis in Yemen. So far, we are failing and the verdict of history will be very harsh indeed.
Keith Vaz MP was born in Aden, Yemen and is the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Yemen.