The speech made by Tim Loughton, the Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, in the House of Commons on 24 September 2020.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the situation in Yemen.
I am delighted to move the motion, and I am aware of the very great interest in this debate, so I will make my comments as quickly as possible. If people would not intervene, that would be helpful, and I do not propose to take the few minutes at the end to respond to give as many Members as possible the opportunity to come in. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate. We have tried many times—it was aborted some six months ago because of lockdown—but now, at last, we are able to debate this situation.
The trouble is that the situation has not got any better. I am not surprised that there is so much interest in Yemen today, because it has become the victim of the most lethal and complex cocktail: an extended and ostensibly insoluble civil war with international ramifications; various other man-made disasters; numerous natural disasters and potentially catastrophic environmental ones; an economic meltdown; and now, on top of it all, a deadly pandemic that Yemen was least prepared and equipped to deal with.
There is also great interest beyond Parliament; I gather that more than 210,000 people have signed a petition calling for a ceasefire, and that that petition has been tagged to this debate. Alas, in the six months spent trying to secure this debate, the situation has deteriorated yet further on multiple fronts. It is vital that, despite all the distractions at home and across the world in dealing with the pandemic, we neither forget nor neglect the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, which Yemen remains.
I chair the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen, and I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), who I am glad to see will be participating in the debate, and to the secretariat provided by Jack Patterson, who has kept members updated and arranged briefings, including just this Tuesday with the British deputy ambassador in Yemen, Simon Smart, the military attaché and representatives from Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières, which, with many other agencies, are doing such an amazing job in almost impossible conditions in Yemen. I pay tribute to all those agencies and workers
To deal with the political and military situation first, 2020 marks five years of a devastating conflict in Yemen and almost 10 years of chaos since the Arab spring in that country. Yemen desperately needs an effective and lasting ceasefire. Out of a total population of some 30 million, 24 million people rely wholly or partly on aid, and they desperately need protection now.
Yet ceasefires and peace agreements in Yemen have a reputation for being broken almost as soon as they are brokered. The comprehensive Stockholm agreement, brokered in December 2018, set out a comprehensive peace plan. It was backed in January 2019 by the United Nations’ unanimously adopting the UK-drafted resolution 2452, which established a special political mission and special envoy, Martin Griffiths, who has worked tirelessly to secure a settlement.
The agreement promised the withdrawal of Houthi and Government-led forces from Hodeidah, a large-scale prisoner transfer, UN observers and various other urgently needed measures. The United Arab Emirates, which had been very involved with the conflict, ostensibly stepped back and withdrew its troops from Yemen. The position has been complicated, though, by the emergence of the Southern Transitional Council, who have taken control of Aden, fragmenting the Government position in trying to present a united resistance to the Houthis.
Great importance has been placed on the Riyadh agreement, signed in December 2019 between the Yemeni Government and the STC, outlining a series of measures to bring peace to the south of Yemen; but the agreement broke after just eight months, although Martin Griffiths and others work hard to revive it. The fragile pause in the conflict in 2019 broke down in 2020 after an attack in northern Yemen. A unilateral ceasefire by the Saudi-led coalition in April 2020 in the light of covid-19 expired in May, but The Guardian reported that the Houthis had broken a truce no fewer than 241 times in the space of just two days.
I could talk about abuses on all sides: the 42 airstrikes in July alone, which particularly impacted and killed civilians; drones dropping grenades on civilian targets; and Houthi missile strikes on Riyadh in Saudi Arabia just earlier this month. The catalogue of abuse, devastation, destruction and mistrust on all sides goes on. As a result, 10 new frontlines have emerged since the beginning of 2020, with particularly intense fighting in the past four months, especially around the strategically important areas of Ma’rib, which controls access to the oilfields, Taiz and in the Hodeidah governate on the west coast.
Peace is as elusive as ever, yet death and suffering are worse than ever. More than 250,000 Yemenis, at least, have died since 2015, including 100,000 as a result of combat and 130,000 from hunger and disease. That is probably a very conservative estimate. It includes an estimated 1,000 civilians killed or seriously injured in the conflict in the first six months of this year, including 100 children. There are more than 2 million internally displaced people, with a majority in and around Ma’rib, which is currently under siege from the Houthis, who are throwing everything at that city, despite suffering very high casualties. Clearly they view the lives of their troops as cheap.
Some 24.3 million people need humanitarian aid—24.3 million out of a population of 30 million. That includes 12.2 million children. A total of 20.1 million people are food-insecure, and 20.5 million people lack clean water or sanitation. There have been more than 2.3 million cholera cases since 2017, as a collapsed health system has been woefully inadequate even before covid hit.
The exact impact of covid is unknown; the 1,000 cases reported in Sana’a is surely a woeful underestimate of the reality. We all saw the images on the news of mass graves being dug in the capital. The International Rescue Committee projects that the most likely scenario is that covid could infect nearly 16 million people and kill more than 42,000, making the fatality rate in Yemen one of the highest in the world. There is little chance of testing. We might think we have a problem with testing in the United Kingdom, but there are just 118 tests for every 1 million people in Yemen, compared with 41,500 in the UK. Just 0.01% of the population stands a chance of being tested, and there is no clue about how they will cope if they are hit by a second wave.
Since 2015, air raids have hit water and health facilities more than 200 times. Oxfam reports that those remaining often lack electricity and fresh water, and even if a hospital is operating, fuel is so expensive that people in remoter areas cannot get transport to hospital, and their conditions worsen untreated. Médecins sans Frontières, whose volunteers have done incredible work under fire, reports that many medical staff—if not most—have not been paid for years, and they struggle to survive and carry on their jobs in the most extraordinary circumstances.
The water shortage has brought big challenges for food supply, as farmers cannot irrigate their crops, and more than 90% of Yemen’s food is now imported. With a collapsing currency and an economy that has shrunk by 45% since 2015, UNICEF forecasts that the number of malnourished children under the age of five will grow by 20% over the next six months, to reach 2.4 million—2.4 million malnourished children.
Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)
I thank the hon. Gentleman for leading the debate; he is making it clear just how heartbreaking the situation is for the people on the ground in Yemen. Does he agree that that is why we should stand proud and firm by the 0.7% of gross national income that this country gives in aid to other countries? It is so sorely needed, especially during this pandemic.
I agree with the hon. Lady, and I will finish on the figures about the United Kingdom. We have been the third largest donor and are one of the most important donors at the moment. The reasons are obvious, and the results are so important.
To cap it all, ironically, recent floods in Hajjah and Amran have destroyed crops, and they have now been hit by swarms of locusts—truly a human tragedy of biblical proportions. Added to that, the Red sea faces a potential environmental catastrophe from the FSO Safer, a 45-year-old oil tanker loaded with more than 1 million barrels of crude oil, anchored 60 km off the rebel-held port of Hodeidah and left to decay for the last five years, with no agreement over access for engineers.
So we can see why the country is almost totally dependent on aid from the international community and the heroic efforts of aid organisations and their staff, who are working in extremely dangerous conditions as a result of conflict and disease, with the added challenge of getting aid in through blockaded ports under fire or via the main airport, which has now closed again, as well as the everyday problems of corruption and bureaucracy on all sides using access to aid as a military weapon. Indeed, the Houthis tried to impose a tax on aid supplies coming in. NGO buildings have been looted and aid workers arrested.
The aid itself is now seriously in question. So far this year, only 37% of the requested funding in the humanitarian response plan has been met, as some of the most generous donors previously—including the US, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—have reduced or withdrawn their funding at the worst possible time. As the International Rescue Committee points out, it was that funding that narrowly prevented famine two years ago, but now more than 9 million Yemenis have seen their aid cut, driving them to the brink of starvation; 12 of the UN’s 30 major programmes have already been scaled back; and a further 20 programmes could be reduced or closed completely if funding fails to emerge urgently.
Yemen is facing a perfect storm of a crumbling economy, reducing aid, restrictions placed on humanitarian access by warring parties, the continuing impact of an intractable conflict and now the additional pressures of covid. Amid all this, the support and financial aid from United Kingdom has been a rare, but desperately needed, constant. We are the third largest donor behind the US and Saudi Arabia. The UK has committed nearly £8 billion of assistance since the conflict began, including £160 million at the recent pledging conference. UK support has met the immediate food needs of more than 1 million Yemenis every month. It has treated 70,000 children for malnutrition and provided more than 1 million people with improved water and basic sanitation. The new money in the latest round will provide medical consultations, train 12,000 healthcare workers, boost 4,000 crumbling health centres and help in the fight against covid. The Education Cannot Wait campaign has helped girls, especially, who are missing out on education and helped programmes against the rise in violence against women and girls in particular, and against child labour. These are all problems affecting Yemen, as if it did not have enough problems already.
As the penholder on Yemen at the UN Security Council, the UK is in a crucial position. It is leading the international community to do more to respond to the Yemen crisis, and Martin Griffiths is doing an extraordinary job. We have a proud record of support and I hope that when the Minister speaks, he will confirm that that support will continue. However, there can be no real progress without a sustainable ceasefire leading to peace talks that are broad and inclusive, not just with Government forces, the STC and the Houthis but with all aspects of civil society and with the support of the regional powers, who will hopefully return to the donor table. Again, I hope the Minister can update the House about the UK continuing to play a leading and proactive role to help to bring this about.
Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, and the world’s preoccupation with fighting covid at the moment cannot be an excuse for sidelining the unfolding tragedy that continues to engulf the Arab world’s poorest nation. It is difficult to think of a more tragic combination of circumstances affecting a nation and its people quite as toxically and systematically as is happening now in Yemen, and it has been going on for far too long. It is time for peace. It is time for the world to put pressure on the warring factions and their backers, and time to rally around the people of Yemen to regroup, recover and rebuild. I am sure that the whole House will want to show its support for that.