Keith Vaz MP: We cannot continue to stand by and watch the murder of innocent civilians in Yemen
The "forgotten war" must be forgotten no longer. We cannot continue to stand by and watch the destruction of a country and the murder of so many innocent civilians, says Keith Vaz MP.
The conflict in Yemen has now entered its 4th year, locked in a deadly stalemate leaving death, destruction and devastation in its wake. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, between January 2017 and March 2018, over 23,000 combatants and non-combatants have been killed. The war has triggered what the United Nations has recognised as ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.’ Yemen is burning. The country is suffering the worst humanitarian crisis we have witnessed in over half a century, worse even than Syria.
Relentless suffering is devouring innocent people by the hour in Yemen. 22.2 million People need humanitarian protection and immediate assistance, including over 11 million children. Some 3.1 million people have been displaced since the outbreak of the civil war and 2,014,026 people are currently internally displaced. 89% of those who are internally displaced have been displaced for more than one year. According to the World Food Programme, over 18 million people (over 65% of the population) are food insecure, with 6.8 million people severely food insecure and in need of urgent life-saving emergency support. Violence against women has increased 63% since the conflict escalated according to UNFPA. 3 million women and girls currently find themselves at risk of gender-based violence.
Despite the horrific consequences for Yemen’s population, all sides remain wedded to a military solution and progress towards a ceasefire has been limited. Meanwhile, all of the major combatants have been accused of committing egregious violations of international humanitarian law. So long as the war continues, Yemenis will die in their thousands. It was against this backdrop on the 13th of December 2017 that the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Yemen launched its inquiry into the United Kingdom’s policy towards Yemen. The five-month inquiry will end with the launch of the Report on Tuesday 22nd May, 28 years to the day that North and South Yemen were united as the Republic of Yemen.
The APPG’s inquiry has looked to provide tangible policy recommendations to the UK Government which has been lacking in concrete policy towards the country since the conflict began. The United Kingdom has a privileged and unique position in international affairs and in international institutions, stemming from its founding role in many of them. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) the UK has both an opportunity and an obligation to deal with global issues. The UK is valued for its past experiences as a major global power, its administrative competency and its reputation for balanced and pragmatic analysis. When it comes to Yemen, we have the ability to shape and influence events. As the penholder on Yemen in the Security Council, the UK is in charge of drafting resolutions and statements on issues relating to Yemen. However, it has not fully utilised its position as the penholder. We must do more.
The APPG received written and oral evidence for 5 months about the situation in Yemen. The Group is grateful for all submissions that were made by stakeholders including charities, NGOs, academics and politicians. The full APPG report will be available this week on the Human Security Centre Website http://www.hscentre.org/.
Until the investigation and the findings of the OHCHR Eminent Experts have been completed and presented, the report recommends that the UK should, based on current available evidence, immediately suspend arms sales to all parties that have been accused of breaching international law. This is appropriate and necessary in view of the UK’s ethical and legal obligations.
Recalling the strong relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia, the UK should work with the Saudis, publicly and privately and impress on them the need to fully and unconditionally lift the de facto blockade on Yemen’s ports. The UK should remind all the parties to the conflict of their legal obligation to open transport routes for civilians in accordance with Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In particular, allowing unfettered access to all Yemen’s ports – including Al Hudaydah and all Red Sea ports – is necessary to securing the rapid delivery of humanitarian aid, as well as commercial supplies of food, fuel and medical goods necessary to address cholera and prevent famine. All messages in this respect should be underpinned by a humanitarian footing with a focus on the challenges faced by civilians.
The United Nations Panel of Experts confirmed in January 2018, that there is no military reason for the closure of Sana’a airport. Its closure has a direct impact on the work of aid organisations and on levels of access to appropriate medical help for Yemeni citizens. The recent announcement of an air corridor for medical evacuations from Sana’a to Cairo is welcome, but insufficient. The UK Government must unconditionally push for the operational reopening of Sana’a airport to commercial and humanitarian flights.
Military escalation on Al Hudaydah Port would be a catastrophe for the population of Yemen. This would severely limit and even halt the assistance that is able to come through the port. Offensives on the port region would also have devastating implications for peace talks. According to the UN Special Envoy it would ‘’in a stroke, take peace off the table.’’ The UK must continue to urge the coalition publicly and privately not to attack this area, reinforce that there can be no military solution, and instead insist that all parties engage in good faith in peace talks towards a political solution.
All parties should take immediate measures to prevent any damage to the civilian population and infrastructure, and stop any and all potential breaches of international humanitarian law. As a champion of the rules-based international order, it is imperative that the UK government uses its leverage with its allies to demand compliance with international law, and that it continues to champion British values of fairness, justice and human rights in all aspects of its foreign policy. In this light, the UK must maintain support for international inquiry mechanisms including the OHCHR Eminent Experts to undertake independent investigations of potential breaches. The UK should continually review the actions of all parties to the conflict and must condemn breaches of international humanitarian law as and when they occur irrespective of the actor. Potential examples of such breaches include the 10 coalition bombing raids listed by the UN Panel of Experts, and the recent airstrike on a wedding party, as well as ongoing cross-border shelling by the Houthis. It is important that the UK is, and is seen to be, fair, transparent and balanced on such pivotal issues.
It is increasingly clear that UN Security Council Resolution 2216 is outdated and will continue to serve as a block to a negotiated solution. As the penholder on Yemen in the United Nations Security Council the United Kingdom should table a new resolution demanding among other conditions an immediate ceasefire, end to the conflict and an end to any prevention of the passage of emergency humanitarian supplies. Such a resolution should set out an inclusive peace process in which all major actors and representatives of diverse civil society – including women, youth and representation of different regional, tribal, cultural and religious groups – are included.
We as Parliamentarians will be judged on what we do with regards to Yemen. Just like Rwanda and Kosovo in the 1990’s this is the seminal humanitarian moment of our time. The "forgotten war" must be forgotten no longer. We cannot continue to stand by and watch the destruction of a country and the murder of so many innocent civilians. The government must take concrete steps to stop the suffering in Yemen.
Keith Vaz is Labour MP for Leicester East.