On Thursday 19th March 2020 the Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, asked a question in the House of Lords that he had tabled on the humanitarian situation in Yemen.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans:
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to tackle the humanitarian situation in Yemen.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con): My Lords, the humanitarian situation in Yemen remains the worst in the world. Some 80% of the population require humanitarian assistance. Alongside our diplomatic efforts to end the conflict, we have provided over £200 million in aid this current financial year. This has met the immediate food needs of more than 1 million Yemenis each month during the year. However, we are clear that the only way to address the humanitarian crisis is through a political settlement.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I thank the Minister for his reply and for the hard work that I know he and his colleagues are putting into this situation. However, Yemen is now also suffering terrible outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria, and now Covid-19 has come along as well. So the airports have been closed. What are Her Majesty’s Government able to do to ensure that food supplies, aid and medicines are still actually getting into the country and getting where they are needed?
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: The right reverend Prelate raises an important point. Humanitarian assistance continues to operate through the two southern ports, Hodeidah and Saleef, which remain open. However, there are challenges in the distribution of humanitarian relief. The right reverend Prelate is right to raise the issues of various contagious diseases; 900,000 cases of cholera have been reported this year alone. As far as the Covid crisis is concerned, currently no fatalities from the crisis are shown and the number of cases is very low—but that is reflective of the challenge on the ground rather than there being a very small number of cases. We are operating under very difficult circumstances, and because of the situation around Covid there has also been a drawdown of essential staff, including from the UN, in Yemen itself.
Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab): My Lords, yesterday’s Guardian published a horrific report about the targeting of hospitals and doctors during the conflict in recent times by all sides in the conflict. I understand that that report may even form the basis of evidence-gathering for future war-crimes positions. Can the Minister tell us a little more about how we are securing evidence, and how we are challenging both the coalition and the Houthis to stop these crimes against humanity?
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise that question, but he will also be aware of the desperate situation on the ground. For example, there has been a 70% increase in violence against women since the conflict began, and the issue of documenting such crimes, let alone bringing the perpetrators to justice, is going to be a very tall order. Nevertheless we continue to support the efforts of the UN, including those of the special envoy Martin Griffiths, in this respect. I assure the noble Lord that wherever we have influence, including with those involved directly in the crisis such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we are seeking to bring that to bear.
Baroness Sheehan (LD): My Lords, can the Minister comment on what appear to be large underspends in DfID programmes in Yemen? I will highlight two, which are both scheduled to end at the end of this month: support for displaced people and migrants, which has a budget of £36 million and a spend to date £22.6 million, and the Yemen multisector humanitarian response programme, which has a budget of £92 million and a spend of just under £80 million. What are the reasons behind this? Can the Minister give the House some indication as to what degree it is our friends and allies—I use those words advisedly—in the Saudi-led coalition who are raising obstacles to aid distribution?
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: My Lords, as the noble Baroness may well be aware, the major obstacle to aid distribution is in the north of the country; current estimates suggest that 7 million people are affected in that part of Yemen, which is an all-time high. The situation has been exacerbated because that area is controlled by the Houthis. The noble Baroness will be further aware that they have sought to impose a 2% levy on all distribution of humanitarian aid. As Her Majesty’s Government—I am sure she acknowledges this—we are responsible for every penny of aid that is spent. It is important that this is done in a responsible manner. She should not judge the underspend but rather the effective delivery of aid to reach the most vulnerable that we are seeking to secure through UN agencies. The situation is desperate: 80% of the population are in need of humanitarian aid, but the main situation is exacerbated in the north.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): Can the Minister confirm the figures being given by ACLED that, so far in this terrible war, 100,000 people have been killed including 12,000 civilians, that 85,000 people have died as a result of the famine that has ensued from the war, and that approximately 130 children are dying every single day? Is this not the moment for us to appeal to the Governments of both Iran and Saudi Arabia to urge their proxies to end this war, not least in the current circumstances where people will now be dying of the coronavirus? In this situation, does the Minister really think that anyone will be collecting data on the number of fatalities from the virus?
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: In answer to the noble Lord’s final question, it is extremely challenging to be able to ascertain that data, not least because of the challenges to our ability to access the most vulnerable, which I raised earlier in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan. I agree on the specific statistics. I do not have the detail in front of me, but those figures resonate with the figures we have been using at DfID. When I spoke of 80% of the population, that is 24.1 million people in Yemen who need humanitarian assistance. On calling time, yes, absolutely; we are supporting UN efforts and imploring all sides—including, indeed, those operating through proxies and those with influence, namely the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran—to call time. People are suffering, people need help and it should happen now.
Lord Adonis (Lab): My Lords, does the Minister think it would help the situation in Yemen if the United Kingdom did not sell arms to Saudi Arabia?
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: My Lords, that question has come up before. We operate a very rigorous regime in this regard. I note, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, is in his place, that I have written specifically on that. There was an issue about licences being issued by the Department for International Trade. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Trade has responded and there is a detailed report in that regard laid in the Library of the House.