Keith Vaz MP: There has been more coverage of Love Island than Yemen's forgotten war
The Yemen crisis is a 'stain on the collective morality' of the UK, US, the EU and the UN, says Keith Vaz.
As Parliament falls silent during recess and the rest of the Europe enjoys their summer holiday, in Yemen the ‘forgotten war’ rumbles on. In the 15 days since Parliament was adjourned an estimated 2000 Yemenis, men, women and children have died. By the time the Commons returns in September this number will have increased to over 3000. Yemenis are facing the triple threat of conflict, cholera and malnutrition and the impact on the population is devastating.
Out of 100 Yemeni people, 74 would need urgent humanitarian aid, 60 would be food insecure, 58 would have no access to clean water and 10 of the women and children would suffer from acute malnutrition. These unbelievable figures are too shocking to visualise.
For over two years the conflict between the Saleh-Houthi forces and the Coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi has ripped the country apart. Civilian infrastructure is destroyed, millions are refugees or internally displaced, thousands have died and Yemen’s ungoverned spaces have become safe havens for radical Jihadist groups to germinate, plan and grow.
Yemen is a stain on the collective morality of the United Kingdom, the US, the EU and ultimately on the UN itself. It will remain so until we take action to end this man made catastrophe.
The only victims are the Yemeni people. The conflict has created the perfect conditions for diseases to thrive. The wilful destruction of medical infrastructure by continued bombings, the disruption of food supplies and the halt to state worker payments have all aligned to create the world’s worst cholera outbreak. In just 3 months Yemen’s cholera count has reached unprecedented levels with over 450,000 cases, more than the population of Edinburgh and already exceeding the highest recorded yearly levels set in 2011 in Haiti.
At a summit meeting convened by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Yemen in Parliament in July the aid agencies working in Yemen met to discuss their work within the country. We all owe these organisations a debt of gratitude for the work they are carrying out however, as Shinjiro Murata the head of Médecins Sans Frontières Yemen stated ‘Cholera is spreading like a wildfire and we cannot keep up.’
These cholera numbers will only rise during the August-September rainy season. Oxfam has stated there will be 600,000 cases countrywide. The disease has hit the children of Yemen disproportionately with 44% of new cholera cases and 32% of fatalities occurring in children under the age of 15.
The Cholera outbreak has been exacerbated by malnutrition which has afflicted many areas of Yemen since the civil war began in 2015. Yemen is a major importer of food and its supply routes are controlled by the coalition forces. Fearful of weapons falling into the hands of the Houthis the waterways around Yemen are tightly controlled and access for food deliveries has been nigh impossible. The food that does come in from private importers is often too expensive for ordinary Yemenis to access. 17 million Yemenis suffer from chronic food insecurity and have no idea of where their next meal is coming from. Recent figures compiled by Save the Children this week have reported that over 1 million children under 5 years old suffer from malnutrition. If we do not act, we will not save the children.
What happens in Yemen matters to the security of the United Kingdom. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) now own large swathes of territory in Southern Yemen with a defacto capital in the port city of Mukalla. We all celebrated the fall of Mosul last month as IS was defeated by Iraqi forces, however, we must not be blind to the threat of AQAP in Yemen.
The group controls tax and security in South Eastern Yemen and has filled the governance gaps created by the civil war. If the conflict continues the group will further embed itself with the population. AQAP has shown the capacity and the desire to attack targets overseas. The 2009 failed ‘underpants bomber’ and the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris both originated in Yemen with the group. As recent IS attacks on London and Manchester have shown there is no such thing as an isolated Jihadist diaspora and what happens within these regions can easily spill onto our streets.
The United Nations has sent a delegation to Yemen which is holding meetings within the region this week in order to restart the peace process. However, the diplomatic process appears as far away now as it was at the conflict's beginning in March 2015.
In the last few weeks the Saudi Arabian led coalition has escalated its bombing campaign of Yemeni cities in response to the Houthi strikes into Saudi Arabia. On July 28th the Saudis reportedly intercepted a missile fired from the Houthis just 68km from Mecca. The ultimate fear for humanitarian groups is if the Saudi led coalition attacked Hudaydah port, one of few windpipes through which aid can travel exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. The Houthis meanwhile have increased their firepower with the help of the Iranian Republican Guard smuggling them weapons through new routes.
Meanwhile the split between the GCC and Qatar threatens to distract regional states from the peace process entirely. There has as of yet been little movement by both sides here and this promises to be a distraction when looking to find a solution to the conflict.
While peace doesn’t appear on the immediate horizon this conflict is not intractable. Pathways to peaceful solutions exist if the sides don’t close themselves to the political solutions. Dr Abu-bakr Al-Kirbi, the longest serving Foreign Minister in Yemen’s history who also spoke at the Yemen APPG event to a Parliamentary audience, said ‘the National Dialogue of 2014 as the primary roadmap to achieving a lasting peace between all sides.’
Dr Al-Kirbi stressed the need for the sides to come together at the negotiating table to end the conflict.
Astronomical values of aid have been pledged to Yemen with the UN in June pledging a further $1.2 billion to the fractured state. However, without peace in Yemen and a ceasefire between the warring parties this aid will never be sufficient and Yemen will continue to burn.
There are 5 action points that must be taken to address the conflict as a matter of urgency;
- Theresa May must go the UN General Assembly sitting on September the 12th raise the issue of Yemen. The United Kingdom holds the pens on Yemen in the UN, we can make the difference.
- The United Kingdom should build on this and at the next UN Security Council meeting have Matthew Rycroft, the UK’s permanent representative to the UN, table a new resolution on Yemen aiming to end the conflict.
- The rift between the GCC and the Qatari’s cannot be allowed to distract from the process of achieving peace in Yemen. Donald Trump and the US are key here, the UK should work with our American partner and look to avoid another roadblock in the region for Yemen’s peace process.
- We must generate more coverage of Yemen by consistently raising the issue. There has been more coverage of Love Island this summer than on the tragic events in Yemen and we must work hard to ensure the population is aware of the event. If access continues to be an issue, as it was for some BBC reports in July, we must openly question why the Saudi coalition are preventing this from occurring.
- The UK must focus on issues with the Yemeni central bank, in particular addressing public sector payment issues which are hindering current humanitarian efforts and exacerbating current issues.
The people of Yemen are counting on us and we must answer their cries. Whenever we look back on historic humanitarian catastrophes the first question we ask ourselves is why? We can stop the suffering of the Yemeni people if we act now. Anything other than urgent action will be deemed by future generations as a catastrophic failure.
Keith Vaz is the Labour Member of Parliament for Leicester East