Speech on Yemen Crisis Opposition Day Debate

The text of Stephen's speech is below.

'Last Saturday in Liverpool, I helped to organise a vigil for peace in Yemen, at which we launched the “Liverpool Friends of Yemen”. The scale of the humanitarian crisis is truly appalling. Thousands have been killed. Three million are acutely malnourished. As the motion says, it is a country “on the brink of famine”.

More than 21 million Yemenis require humanitarian assistance—80% of the population. Over 1 million children are internally displaced. More than 14 million are in need of basic healthcare.

I pay tribute to DFID and the Government for their humanitarian relief work. This country has committed £100 million at a time when the UN appeal, according to my latest figures, is only 47% fulfilled. I also pay tribute to the many NGOs that are doing fantastic work in relieving the appalling crisis.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many describe the situation as a forgotten crisis—although I welcome the fact that this is the second debate on Yemen in this House in the space of just a week.

The International Development Committee’s inquiry into the Yemen crisis reached a number of conclusions. The first thing to say is that the evidence is clear that appalling atrocities have been committed by both sides in the conflict. We heard not only that over 62% of the killings have been caused by the Saudi-led coalition, but that Houthis have recruited children to armed groups and have sieged towns such as Taiz, denying basic access to humanitarian aid and medicines. There is no suggestion in the motion or in my Committee’s reports that we are taking sides with the Houthis; this is about a balanced approach.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is clear that negotiations and a peace process are needed, that we need a lasting ceasefire and that humanitarian work and civilian protection must be prioritised. The International Development Committee started with the view that this was a humanitarian crisis, but as we took evidence it became clear that we simply could not divorce the humanitarian position from the alleged violations of international humanitarian law by both sides. In turn, we could not divorce that position from the fact that we are arming one of those sides.

There are widespread reports of violations of international humanitarian law. The UN documented 119 abuses, and Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented substantial numbers more. The Government, however, have been rather dismissive of the evidence from such organisations. Saferworld told the Committee:

“In other contexts, the Government will cite their reports. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty will be cited in Syria; they have been cited in Libya and Sudan in support of the Government position. Here, they are referred to as not good enough to be considered evidence compared with a reassurance from the Saudis, one of the belligerents to the conflict, that there are no violations of international humanitarian law.”

I welcome the fact that at the recent UN Human Rights Council the UK position did shift and we signed up to an EU common position that enabled there to be a greater independent element in the investigation of abuses, but I support what this motion says, which is that there should be a fully independent UN-led investigation into abuses by both sides. My Committee reached agreement that in the meantime we should suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The scale of arms sales—

The hon. Lady is an excellent member of the Committee and she is right that in our earlier report we did indeed say that, but in the later report in September, after the CAEC discussions, we then agreed report, jointly with the then Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, that advocated a suspension of arms sales while the independent investigation was undertaken.

I wish to finish on the following point—the clock seems to be being rather generous to me and I thank it for that.

I am even more grateful to those human forces. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee spoke about intent, and this issue is vital. What European Union, United Kingdom and international arms trade law says is that licences cannot be granted if there is a “clear risk” that the arms may be used in the commission of violations of international humanitarian law. This is not about intent; it is about there being a clear risk. That is the test we face, and my major concern is that the approach that the Government have taken is inconsistent with the UK’s global leadership role on the rule of law and international rules-based systems.

A point was raised earlier about reputation, which is very important. Our reputation as an upholder of international humanitarian law is very important. We can be proud of the active role this country played in the shaping of the arms trade treaty, and I simply do not believe that that test of “no clear risk” is the one being applied. I agree with colleagues on all sides of this debate who have said that we want a ceasefire and a political process, and that this conflict will be settled diplomatically, not militarily. However, crucially, the reason why I support this motion is that I really do believe that we need a fully independent UN-led investigation into all of these appalling alleged violations of international humanitarian law—on both sides.'

More than 21 million Yemenis require humanitarian assistance—80% of the population. Over 1 million children are internally displaced. More than 14 million are in need of basic healthcare.
 
Our reputation as an upholder of international humanitarian law is very important. We can be proud of the active role this country played in the shaping of the arms trade treaty, and I simply do not believe that that test of “no clear risk” is the one being applied.