Emily Thornberry – 2018 Speech at the International Parliamentary Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, at the International Parliamentary Conference held in Paris on 8 November 2018.

Thank you, your excellencies, ladies and gentleman. It is a very great privilege to stand before you today representing Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the United Kingdom’s official opposition, and to say without equivocation – to Keith Vaz, to Kamal Jendoubi, and to all of the Parliamentarians and NGOs here today – that we not only agree with every word of the pledge you will agree today, but that a future Labour government in Britain will commit to implement every word of that pledge from the first day we are in power.

I want to thank Kamal Jendoubi, and the panel of UN experts he has chaired, for blowing through the smoke which so often clouds these discussions, and making clear that every single day which passes in Yemen is another day when blatant crimes against humanity are allowed to continue, and are going uninvestigated and unpunished.

I want to thank all the NGOs gathered here today for the tireless, dangerous and all too thankless work you do to help the innocent victims of this war, especially the nine million adults and five million children not just facing starvation, but before the eyes of the world, now dying of starvation.

And I want to thank all the Parliamentarians here today, who for the last three years have been trying to turn the heads of the world and the heads of their governments towards this brutal, awful war, and saying: “Do not look away, stop ignoring this war, stop allowing this war, and stop arming this war”.

But I make no apologies for singling out one man, one son of Yemen, who has led that effort in my own country, who I know has inspired others across Europe and around the globe, and who is responsible for gathering us all here today. I want to thank Keith Vaz, who has done so much to drag the crisis in Yemen from two column inches on Page 26 onto the front pages of newspapers all across our world.

But Keith would be the first to admit one thing. The eyes of the world would not be so much on this conference, and the pledge that will be agreed today, if it were not for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and the spotlight that murder has shone on the current government of Saudi Arabia and its total disregard for human rights, the rule of law, and the sanctity of human life.

And this is something that many have been willing to comment on and express outrage about in the last few weeks, but which so many of us in this room have been warning was happening not just once or twice, not just a hundred times over, or a thousand, but millions of times over, during the blockade and assault on Yemen.

And that is why, amid all the acres of news coverage, all the commentary and quotes, that have followed the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, there is one sentence that I cannot erase from my mind. It was spoken to reporters from The New York Times, by Dr Mekkia Mahdi, who works in a health clinic in Northern Yemen crammed with malnourished children escaping the bombardment of Hodeidah. A doctor with dozens of children starving and dying all around her every day as a result of this brutal war and the criminal closure of the supply routes from Hodeidah.

And Dr Mahdi said this: “We’re surprised the Khashoggi case is getting so much attention, while millions of Yemeni children are suffering and nobody gives a damn about them.” And as she said those very words, she sat by the bed of a 7-year old girl – a girl named Amal Hussain – and according to the New York Times reporters who brought the images of Amal’s suffering to the world, Dr Mahdi stroked Amal’s hair, but also tugged at the skin covering her emaciated body and said to the reporters: “Look, no meat. Only bones.”

As many of you will know, Amal Hussain, that 7-year old girl, died last weekend and her mother Mariam said it was not just that her heart was broken by losing Amal but she now had to worry about her other children suffering the same fate.

And yes, we can feel deep sorrow for Amal and her mother just as we did for the parents of the 40 children killed by a Saudi air-strike on their school bus in August, but I have to tell you this: I am sick and tired of sorrow. I am exhausted by crying over what happens one month only to see even worse happen the next.

And when it comes to Parliamentarians and NGOs like us, the children of Yemen have a right to demand more than sorrow and sympathy and tears. They are calling out for action. And we must listen to those voices. We must demand action.

And we must all stand up and condemn governments like Britain’s, governments all around the world, and the UN Security Council as a group, for not listening to the Expert Panel, for not taking action immediately, for not doing everything they can – for not even trying! – to bring this war to an end, and get relief to the children who need it.

Because wherever we are in the world, for all of us who have been involved in these debates for the last three years, the true questions we must all start to ask are these: how bad do things need to get before our governments will take action? And what does the Saudi coalition need to do before our governments will say ‘Enough’.

Because we cannot continue with the same debates that we have been having for the last three years and hearing exactly the same answers, seeing the carnage and the famine get ever worse, and seeing more and more children die, whether from air strikes, from the fighting in their streets, or from starvation.

But that is why today’s gathering matters so much. Because when facing situations like this, it is very easy to become jaded in our horror at what is happening and become pessimistic that it will ever change, pessimism that eventually leads to inaction, and inaction that eventually gives way to inattention.

And yes, the essential role that we must all play: Keith and Kamal, all the Parliamentarians and NGOs, and the journalists who are here today, is to stop our governments, and our parliaments from ever simply turning away. But we must also continually confront our governments and the UN Security Council with the individual faces and stories of the children whose blood will be on their hands if they delay action any longer.

Amal Hussain’s face will live long in my mind but I am also haunted by the story of an 8 year old called Imad interviewed by PBS in America a few months ago. He was just five years old when a missile hit his home and took both his legs above the knee. A year later, he was given prosthetic legs but he finds them too heavy and painful to wear so, he has had to learn to walk on his hands instead.

And PBS talked as well to young girls like 14 year old Gamaa, who had to leave school last year after her father died, and left the family without support. “I loved everything about school,” she said, “but teachers asked for money that I didn’t have. So I had to drop out.”

To try and help her family, she married a 16 year old boy. “I thought that, if I left, maybe it will help.”, she said, “but then I discovered that my husband doesn’t have a job.” Her new husband is kind to her, she says, but his family is just as poor as hers. A 14-year old girl.

And we all know that for every Imad and Gamaa, there are millions more children with stories just like theirs and thousands of others whose stories ended when the air strikes came, or they picked up a cluster bomb, or when the Houthis put a rifle in their hands, or like Amal Hussain, when the deprivation of food became too much.

And when we say there is no military solution to this crisis, let’s be clear what we mean. Because I sometimes say that to people: “There is no military solution”, and they say “Well actually, look at the Saudi advances”. But what we really mean is there is no possible military solution without unthinkable human costs for Yemen’s civilians, the innocent people who ask no more than to be allowed to live their lives.

So, we desperately need an alternative. We desperately need a political solution. And that is why the pledge we will make today is so important. And this is no counsel of despair. This is no retreat into pessimism. If anything, it is the exact opposite. Because the pledge we can agree on today and carry back to all our parliaments and governments is a blueprint for effective action to stop the humanitarian crisis, to achieve a lasting ceasefire, and to enable a long-term political solution: six clear, pragmatic, achievable steps.

And of all the countries represented here today, there is a special responsibility on the United Kingdom as the pen-holder on Yemen at the Security Council, as the country that has had a draft resolution along exactly these lines sitting on ice for the last two years, to immediately stop ducking that responsibility and bring forward that resolution.

So Keith and I will continue to make demands inside the UK Parliament for our government to do its job, and bring that resolution to the table, and I hope you will support us in that.

Because frankly, if we do not, if we do not act on this pledge as a world, then I am afraid we face the prospect of being gathered here again in another year, when tragically it may all be too late, and what Keith has always warned about will have come to pass: Yemen will have been allowed to bleed to death. That is a prospect, which – to me and to all of you – is I believe not just unthinkable, but utterly unacceptable.

The pledge we will sign today sets out the alternative, and it is one we must all embrace together.