Geoffrey Howe – 1986 Statement on Yemen

Below is the text of the statement made by Geoffrey Howe, the then Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, in the House of Commons on 21 January 1986.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the action being taken to secure the safety of British subjects and others in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.

On 13 January fighting broke out in Aden. The ferocity of the fighting presented grave risks to the safety of British subjects. In those circumstances, and with the full agreement of Her Majesty the Queen, the royal yacht Britannia, which was just leaving the Red sea, was ordered to remain off Aden, and Her Majesty’s ships Newcastle and Jupiter, with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Brambleleaf, were ordered to Aden at full steam in case they were needed for an evacuation.

The situation in the country continued to deteriorate and the level of fighting approached that of a civil war. After close consultation with the Russians and French, both in Aden and in capitals, it was agreed that evacuation was necessary and that, as far as possible, our efforts should be co-ordinated. On 17 January, Soviet merchant vessels lifted off from Aden about 1,000 people, mostly their own nationals. On the same day, the royal yacht took off 450 people, 38 of them British—44 nationalities altogether. Eighty-one French nationals were then transferred to a French ship, and the rest of the evacuees were taken on Britannia to Djibouti. The royal yacht then returned to the area and on 19 January lifted off a further 209 people from an area 35 miles from the capital. Eighteen of these were British. These have since arrived in Djibouti, ‘after transferring to HMS Jupiter. I am now very pleased to be able to add that Britannia has this morning picked up a further 15 British nationals from Little Aden. Britannia is maintaining close contact with the vessels of the other nations involved, and remains offshore nearby to take on board further parties of British and other foreign nationals as soon as conditions permit.

So far, no British subjects have been hurt. However, a number of British subjects still remain in south Yemen and we are continuing to work out with other Governments the best ways of evacuating these widely scattered communities.

On the evening of 17 January, when the embassy and residence had been rendered uninhabitable, the ambassador, Mr. Arthur Marshall, decided that he should withdraw all members of the embassy. At the end of the evacuation, he accompanied those on board to Djibouti but then returned on Britannia to the area, where he will remain with a member of his staff while the evacuation continues. Another member of his staff is on board HMS Newcastle.

The success of the evacuation so far would not have been possible without the help given by a number of Governments, and in particular the Governments of Djibouti, the USSR and France. This has been a remarkable demonstration of what can be achieved through close international co-operation, and I take this opportunity to thank them warmly for their assistance.

I should like to express my gratitude to all the staff of the Ministry of Defence and of the Diplomatic Service, at home and abroad, who have been involved in this operation. I should particularly like to thank our honorary ​ consul in Djibouti, Mr. Christopher Reddington. I know too that the whole House will join me in praising the calmness and efficiency of our ambassador in Aden, his staff, and their families throughout this difficult period.

Their example has been matched by the fortitude of the British evacuees, who helped to organise the evacuation of hundreds of other nationals and who set an example of disciplined behaviour throughout.

This is the first time that the royal yacht has been involved in a operation of this sort. It has received magnificent support from HM ships Newcastle and Jupiter, and Royal Fleet Auxiliary Brambleleaf, with its Merchant Navy crew. I should like to pay tribute to Rear-Admiral John Garnier and all the officers and crew involved for the courage and professionalism that they have shown in carrying out the operation in conditions of danger and difficulty. We can all be proud of them.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

We and the British people as a whole can be proud of this magnificent rescue. We rejoice that no British subjects have been injured or killed in spite of the ferocity of the fighting, and we join wholeheartedly with the Foreign Secretary in thanking and paying tribute to those of our people—the military, Admiral Garnier, the diplomatic staff, Mr. Marshall and those with him — who played and are playing such a wonderful part to ensure a successful outcome.

The Foreign Secretary must be aware that the rescue amounts to probably the highest point of British-Soviet co-operation in a practical sphere since the end of the second world war. We hope that the spirit of good will will act as a precedent and will spill over into other fields of our bilateral relationships with the Soviet Union. However, the Soviet Union has learnt the cost, as have other peoples, including ourselves, the Israelis and the Americans, of unilateral intervention in a middle east country.

I ask the Foreign Secretary, to report to the House in specific respects. Was the matter of the rescue raised in his discussions yesterday with Mr. Ryzhov, the Soviet Deputy Minister? On the best estimates available to him, how many Britons remain in South Yemen? Can he say how long it is expected that the royal yacht Britannia will remain close by and available for action? What is the Foreign Office reading of the position regarding who is in charge in South Yemen? Is it the Foreign Office view that the difference between the factions there is essentially on ideological lines, or is it more based on personal and tribal factors?

Finally, are there any anxieties about the troubles in South Yemen spilling over into neighbouring territories, and possibly posing a threat to security in the region as a whole?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the kind way in which he has joined me in paying tribute to all those involved in the operation, and add my word of thanks to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces for his support throughout.

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the degree of co-operation between the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union on this occasion. One cannot presume from that high degree of co-operation that everything else will be handled in the same spirit, but I hope that it will not be the last occasion for improving relationships in this way. I was able to raise the matter with Mr. Ryzhov last ​ night, to thank him for the co-operation that had taken place, and to express the hope that it would continue in practical terms on the spot. It is worth reminding the House of what Admiral Garnier said this morning when he paid tribute to the fine atmosphere of international co-operation. He said that
“the French, the Soviets and us are talking regularly, pooling our information, and everyone here is dedicated to the hope that we can get the remaining people off.”

The hon. Gentleman asked precisely the questions which one would want to ask. It is not possible to be sure about the number of British subjects still left in the PDRY, but our inquiries suggest that the figure is likely to be about 40. Her Majesty has expressed her willingness for Britannia to remain for as long as there is a need for it to do so.

It is not possible for me to offer any clear view on the outcome, because the situation is still very confusing, but it appears that the conflict arises from differences of a tribal kind rather than a political or ideological kind. So far, the problems have not spilt over into other neighbouring countries. If they did, it would naturally be a cause for concern. We are keeping in close touch with all those countries in the neighbourhood.

Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is refreshing to find the whole House able to unite in congratulating all those involved in this splendid operation? Does he agree that it has proved the utility of the royal yacht not only as a hospital ship on this occasion but as a facility which is extremely useful for us to have? It has proved itself in many other ways not only from an ideological point of view but as a fitting facility for the head of a great Commonwealth country?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I agree with my hon. and learned, Friend’s first comments and with his tribute to the value of the royal yacht, with its particular suitability for an occasion of this kind and its value in a much wider representational capacity.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

I congratulate all those concerned, particularly the Soviet and French Governments. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that this shows the value of being able to deploy the Royal Navy east of Suez? In view of the announcement of the 7 per cent. real terms cut in the defence budget, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman use his influence to ensure that the Royal Navy surface ships are not cut back and that their present minimal numbers are fully maintained?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I can well understand the right hon. Gentleman’s interest in this aspect. It illustrates the value of having this kind of capability available in so far as it is compatible with the continuing and difficult task of judging the pattern of priorities on defence expenditure more generally.

Dr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend take note of early-day motions 322 and 323 which refer to Britannia? Will he send a signal to the admiral conveying the sentiments expressed in those early-day motions and pay a warm and generous tribute to the skipper and crew of the Diamond Princess, a British registered cargo ship which is reported to have saved some 600 people in the past 24 hours?​

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I shall certainly be willing to pay tribute to any vessels or individuals for the part that they have played, once that is established. I certainly join in the sentiments to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention in early-day motions 322 and 323. They pay a deserved tribute to those concerned in this rescue. I shall see that that tribute and my hon. Friend’s sentiments are conveyed to the rear admiral and those with him.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I, too, associate myself with the splendid work that has been undertaken. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the faction fighting in Yemen is a sharp warning to the Cabinet not to allow their disagreements to get out of hand?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman can always be relied upon to make an inaccurate observation on almost any occasion.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the whole nation looks with great pride and gratitude on the achievements of the Royal Navy during the past few days? It notes once again the usefulness of the royal yacht, with its supporting small ships. It should be grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary for the way in which he masterminded the whole business.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am even more than usually grateful to my hon. Friend for the generosity of his tribute. The actions and decisions of those on the spot deserve particular thanks on this occasion.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that, as the rescue appears to have been a huge success, some of us are a bit curious about why the Prime Minister has not taken full advantage of it? Have arrangements been made to get her out there on the deck of Britannia with the television cameras?

Perhaps the right hon. Lady could be seen shaking hands with the Soviets—perhaps a member of the KGB or even one of those who associate with the same group that has figured prominently in Jane’s Defence Weekly? What a wonderful picture would be painted!

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Only the hon. Gentleman would have used this occasion to illustrate his capacity to play the game of consequences in a profoundly inconsequential fashion.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Some of the preceding comments look a little odd beside the enormous relief felt by those who experienced the rescue in extremely dangerous circumstances. Was not great courage shown by those in the Diplomatic Service who assisted in getting the evacuees to the beaches and by those in the small boats who came from Britannia to take them off the beaches? Did not the BBC overseas service also play an important and necessary part in the rescue?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for returning our discussion to the proper note of seriousness and thankfulness. He was right to pay tribute to all those concerned and to the BBC world service, which has played an important communication role on this and other occasions.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Britannia’s versatility on this occasion is impressive and welcome to a wide section of our community, which wants Britannia to play ​ a wider role when the Queen does not require her? Does my right hon. and learned Friend have other roles in mind for HMS Britannia?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

It would not be for me to specify other roles. I certainly endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. Britannia is particularly suitable for this type of role, because she is a non-combatant vessel designed to handle a large number of people and well equipped with the necessary boats.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

May I add my congratulations on the successful operation in evacuating so many people from this unhappy territory? Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s desk yet had a chance to analyse the likelihood of whether the Administration likely to take over in PDRY will continue to welcome the opening to the West that the previous Administration were adopting?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I think that it is too early to speculate on the nature of the Administration that may take over or on any difference in its direction. As I said, the dispute appears to arise more from personal and tribal conflicts of a traditional kind than from ideological variations.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in congratulating the state of Djibouti on the speedy help it has rendered not only to the royal yacht Britannia but to the other ships that came in to take off so many people? Will he congratulate those people in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who so speedily commandeered the royal yacht? Will he expand on the relationship with the Soviet Union in this case, because obviously the co-operation was unusual?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I do not think that my hon. Friend has exactly the right insight into the relationships between the Foreign Office and the royal yacht. I join with my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the Djibouti Government for their particularly helpful attitude in receiving and handling thousands of evacuees and assisting in their repatriation. We are particularly grateful to President Hassan Goulad Aptidon for his help. Contact on this matter has taken place sensibly and practically between the embassies on the spot and between Foreign Ministries at this end directed from Moscow and Paris. This is how one would have expected the operation to proceed. One hopes that it will afford an insight into the way in which matters will develop in other respects.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

We are all rightly proud of the courage and efficiency of those involved in the evacuation. Is not the Soviet Union likely to benefit from what has transpired because Mr. Ismail was allowed to return to Yemen as a conscious policy act on its part? Although there may be some short-term turbulence, perhaps even bloody turbulence, the Soviet Union’s influence in that part of the world could be enhanced rather than diminished.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend’s speculation may well be right. However, it would take a relatively optimistic Soviet adviser to perceive any clearly cheerful conclusion from the circumstances in which hundreds of Soviet citizens have been evacuated.