Urgent Question: Yemen

Yesterday Mark responded on behalf of the Government to an Urgent Question tabled by Emily Thornberry MP regarding the situation in Yemen. Mark's statement and response to Mrs Thornberry can be found below. The entirety of the debate can be found on Hansard by clicking here.

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab) (Urgent Question)

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the situation in Yemen.

The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I hope you will indulge me for just one moment, Mr Speaker, while I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who has left office and, in a normal state of affairs, would have been answering this question. He is a very old friend of mine. We have shared offices not just in the Foreign Office but in Portcullis House. I know that he will make a great contribution to international affairs and elsewhere, not least in the middle east, in the rest of his time in Parliament.

Today is the fourth anniversary of the intervention by the Saudi-led coalition into the conflict in Yemen, at the invitation of the Government of Yemen, which began when the Houthi rebels captured most of the capital, Sana’a, and expelled the internationally recognised Government. Since then, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, the largest in the world, has continued to worsen, as many hon. and right hon. Members know. We call on both sides urgently to implement the agreements made at the Stockholm peace talks and bring an end to this dire conflict.

The United Kingdom is at the forefront of work towards a political solution to this conflict—there can only be a political solution, in the long term—and we will continue to show leadership as part of international efforts to end the appalling suffering that millions are facing. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited the region at the beginning of the month in a display of the UK’s support for efforts to secure peace. During this time, he visited the port city of Aden, becoming the first western Foreign Minister to visit Yemen since the conflict began. He also attended the peace talks in Stockholm last December. This year—the tax year 2019-20—we have committed an additional £200 million of UK aid, bringing our total commitment to over £770 million since the conflict began. This support will save, and indeed is saving, lives by meeting the immediate food needs of more than 1 million Yemenis each and every month of the year, treating 30,000 children for malnutrition, and providing more than 1 million people with improved water supply and basic sanitation.

The UK continues to support the work of the UN, and the UK-led UN Security Council resolutions 2451 and 2452 were unanimously approved by the Security Council in December 2018 and January 2019 respectively. Those resolutions enshrined the agreements made in Stockholm and authorised the deployment of monitors within the UN Mission to Support the Hodeidah Agreement, thus bolstering the peace process further. We believe that the Stockholm conference was a landmark point, as the first time that the parties had come to the negotiating table in over two years, but we all know that there is a serious risk that this window of opportunity to make progress towards lasting peace may slip away. The UK therefore urges both sides to act in good faith, to co-operate with the UN special envoy and General ​Lollesgaard, and to implement the Stockholm agreements rapidly. We have been clear that a political settlement is the one and only way to bring about long-term stability in Yemen and to address the worsening humanitarian crisis. We shall continue to make every effort to support the UN-led process to get to the solution that so many Yemeni civilians so desperately require.

Emily Thornberry

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

Let me begin by completely agreeing with the Minister about the terrible loss from the Foreign Office Front-Bench team of the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who might well have been answering this question today were it not for his decision on a matter of principle. Labour Members applaud the right hon. Gentleman for that today, as we do the equally principled stance taken by the Minister for Asia and the Pacific. We will miss both the substance and the tone that the right hon. Gentleman has brought to our debates from the Front Bench over the past two years.

Unfortunately, however, the former Minister is one of several Foreign Office and Defence Ministers who have told us repeatedly from the Dispatch Box, in written answers and in evidence to Committees that Britain is not a party to the conflict in Yemen. Most crucially, for the past three years, that phrase has been used time and again by Ministers to explain that it is impossible to assess alleged individual violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen because we are not a party to the conflict. Yet this weekend we read reports in The Mail on Sunday that members of British special forces had been engaged in gun battles with the Houthi rebels in Yemen while providing support to the coalition forces.

I am not for a second expecting the Minister of State to comment on the activities of our special forces—something that the Government never do—but I want to ask him two important questions of principle. First, in the light of these reports, do the Government still stand by their long-standing statements that Britain is not a party to this conflict? We already know about our support for the Saudi air force and our supply of billions in arms for the Saudi coalition. If, in addition to all that, our forces are engaged in actual gun battles with the Houthi rebels and that does not constitute being a party to the conflict, I really do not know what does.

The second question of principle is this. It is an equally long-standing position of the Government that there is no military solution to this conflict. Indeed, the Minister has reaffirmed that today. So I simply ask this: why, if these reports are accurate, are British forces being put in harm’s way trying to deliver that military solution?

Finally, there was one especially disturbing allegation in The Mail on Sunday report that our forces are providing support to locally recruited, Saudi-funded militia and that many of the fighters—up to 40%, it was alleged—are children as young as 13 years old. Is that in any way true? If it is, that would confirm that our forces are not just a party to this conflict but witnesses to war crimes.

Mark Field

I thank the right hon. Lady for the tone of her contribution. She will appreciate—indeed, she expressly appreciated—that in relation to special forces we do not comment either to confirm or deny any ​involvement. Clearly, she is well aware that we have liaison officers who are based in Saudi Arabia, and have been routinely. I am very keen not in any way inadvertently to mislead the House on this matter, and therefore I will, if she will forgive me, ensure that she has a written response, liaising with the Ministry of Defence, about the issue of other engagement or involvement of British personnel in Yemen at the moment. We still hold to the firm view that we are not a party to the conflict. Clearly, we are supportive of Saudi Arabia, which has been a long-standing ally, as she is aware. There is no military solution to this matter.

I have never been to Yemen myself, but my late father’s first engagement out of Sandhurst was in Aden, in a different time. He had the fondest of memories, as indeed many people living in that country have of this country. That is why we have been a pen-holder at the UN Security Council.

I have also, of course, read the article in The Mail on Sunday, if perhaps slightly later than the right hon. Lady did—only this morning. It makes some very serious allegations. I am keen that we get to the bottom of those allegations. Again, I am very keen not in any way to mislead the House, but allegations made in relation to any engagement that involves bringing child soldiers on board would be appalling. I very much hope that the journalist will be in a position, within the sources that he can reveal, to make it clear what knowledge he had on the ground. Clearly, that will be investigated as a matter of urgency.