I must start by expressing my deep sadness, regret and, quite frankly, abject frustration that we have seen so little progress on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, so much further decline into misery and chaos, and such a failure to grasp the nettle by the international community, the UK Government and the parties to this conflict, who must ultimately bear full responsibility for the shocking scenes that we have seen in recent weeks of emaciated bodies wracked by the preventable, treatable disease of cholera, along with the further needless civilian deaths from bombing, blockades and siege tactics.
The UK Parliament is already significantly occupied by Brexit, and vast parts of our diplomatic and civil service apparatus have been turned to its machinations, but I fear that it will only exacerbate our apparent lack of focus on Yemen and so many other humanitarian crises around the world.
I welcome the steps that the UK has taken in securing a recent presidential statement on Yemen, but at this stage words are now simply not good enough. I fear that the lack of progress we have seen is not only morally lacking, but fundamentally not in Britain’s national or security interests. We know all too well the consequences of leaving vast ungoverned spaces, from Libya to the deserts of Helmand, to descend into poverty, misery and death, and those who would exploit such spaces.
The crisis in the country is now even worse than we could have imagined a few months ago, with the disastrous failure in governance and the decimation of the Yemeni economy. The United Nations has estimated that it is only a matter of months before Yemen faces total and utter collapse. The sheer scale of the devastation is astounding. At least 18.8 million people, almost two thirds of the population, are in need of some kind of humanitarian aid or protection. Close to one third of the population are in acute need of assistance – that is 10.3 million people. Some seven million people do not know where their next meal will come from or are at risk of famine. One child under five in Yemen dies every 10 minutes. Cholera has now spread to every part of the country, with more than 200,000 suspected cases and 1,300 deaths, according to Oxfam and other agencies.
The UN’s humanitarian chief, Sir Stephen O’Brien described the situation in Yemen as a “man-made catastrophe”. The UK is responsible for a clear failure in our foreign policy and the moral approach we have taken to our arms export policy. No humanitarian response can adequately meet the increasing needs that the ongoing conflict is causing, and there needs to be an immediate cessation of hostilities by all sides.
We need to look at the causes of the humanitarian situation. More than half the health facilities that were open pre-conflict have either closed or are now only partially functioning, leaving 40 million people without basic healthcare. A similar number are also facing a daily struggle to access clean water and adequate sanitation facilities, both of which continue to pose significant risks to public health and are contributing to the cholera outbreak. The naval blockade that has been imposed by the Saudi-led coalition is having an impact on food and humanitarian supplies reaching those who need them. Save the Children have reported three ships containing its supplies that were turned around, delays in secondary screening and 17,000 medical items that had to be re-routed.
The fear is that a future battle over the main entry port might lead to a full-blown famine, as nearly all Yemen’s food is imported through it. There is also the crucial issue of wages. According to UNICEF and the World Health Organisation wages have not been paid to health and public services staff for nine to 10 months in many areas, meaning a complete collapse in waste collections and water and sanitation facilities, let alone health facilities. That, of course, leads directly to the crisis we see with cholera, which has now surpassed 200,000 cases with the number growing by 5,000 a day. Cholera is a disease that is entirely preventable and easily treatable with the proper resources. It is a symptom of a totally failing state and of the parlous situation that Yemen finds itself in. It is also due in part to the direct bombing of water supplies in the country and the hits on those who aim to help. Shockingly, Oxfam say that their own water and sanitation warehouse facilities were hit by bombing, and the Houthis have precipitated a further humanitarian crisis in Taiz by siege and blockade tactics that have left some people, it has been alleged, with only leaves to eat.
UNHCR field teams have observed a huge spike in humanitarian needs, with displaced people now living on the streets and many of them seeking shelter on the pavement. Some of the most vulnerable people, including women and children, are turning to approaches such as begging and child labour, which is now rampant across Yemen. The situation on the humanitarian front is utterly disastrous and we all need to step up as an international community to play our part.
There are too many arms in Yemen. However, we are selling arms to one side in that conflict, which is Saudi Arabia, and we have heard many times of the allegations of Saudi Arabia’s violations of international humanitarian law during its operations in Yemen. Hundreds of attacks have been documented. The Saudi-led coalition has failed to provide answers about those attacks and the investigations into them. Indeed, we have had hardly any reports of investigations by the Joint Incident Assessment Team and certainly not reports of an independent investigation.
Licences have continued to be authorised in huge quantities. New statistics show that new licences from October to December 2016 to Saudi Arabia totalled a staggering £1.2 billion. Overall, in spite of the grave humanitarian situation in Yemen and our obligations under these treaties, the UK have supplied arms worth a total of £3.4 billion to the Saudi Arabian military during this conflict. Moreover, British companies, contractors and citizens are at the heart of what is happening.
This conflict in Yemen has profound consequences for the entire balance of power in the Middle East. Despite its superior firepower, the Saudi-led coalition has not been able to achieve much progress in recent months and the military situation can at best be described as a hot stalemate. The coalition has air superiority but it does not have the ground troops to drive the Houthi-Saleh side out of the territory that it holds, and some observers are rightly worried that Yemen might become, or is already, a destination for Daesh fighters or others associated with Daesh who have been expelled from other locations around the Middle East.
I can understand it when operations are being conducted against legitimate and tightly defined targets, including those potentially linked to al Qaida, Daesh and others, but I cannot understand how these operations, which seem to have had widely loosened rules of engagement, can be conducted in a place that is already enduring significant civilian casualties and significant disruption.
A grandfather from the village of Yakla, where the first US military operation in Yemen took place in January, said: “In the… morning, after the operation ended, I went to the scene and saw the volume of destruction. I saw… dead bodies everywhere. While I was searching among the bodies, I found my daughter Fateem lying dead in the street with her child in her arms. She was covered with blood. I did not imagine this could happen. I cannot forget those painful moments… The child was slightly injured in the hand by a bullet that hit and left his mother’s body. Such a scene no one could imagine nor comprehend – this level of criminality and killing.”
The war in Yemen has destroyed the institutions that keep society running, such as utilities, banks, food systems, hospitals and, most importantly, water and sanitation supplies. We are failing the people of Yemen more than ever. Time and time again, research has shown that it is not only violence and bombings that are the killer of civilians in conflict, but the illness, hunger and poverty that come after that.
Yemen is a case in point. The deliberate targeting of humanitarian assistance, warehousing facilities and humanitarian operatives, and the blockades are all violations of international humanitarian law and are, in my view, tantamount to war crimes.
Stephen Doughty is Labour-Co-operative MP for Cardiff South and Penarth. This article is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate