Supporting Yemen to reach peace must remain in the consciousness of the UK

Gill Furniss MP *  

The conflict in Yemen has been waged for far too long and has been the principal contributor to a humanitarian crisis on an unprecedented scale. The immense suffering many Yemeni people face daily is a source of great shame for the global community. We can, and must, do more to support the Yemeni people, both using diplomacy and humanitarian support. The key to ending the humanitarian crisis is to end the war. In this article, I hope to convey the support for achieving both those aims that are expressed by Members of the House of Commons in Britain from across the political divide.

Some would ask why the UK shoulders responsibility for ending this almost decade long conflict. There are three main reasons why I believe it is incumbent on the UK to play a leading role in ending this conflict. First, the UK has a long and proud history as a leader on the global stage, our voice is important, and we have a unique ability to bring other countries along with us. We have done so over many decades as a leading contributor to humanitarian and international development funding. I do, however, believe that in this respect we can and must go further and honour our international obligation to contribute 0.7% of our GDP to international development funding. This is not currently the case and many MPs, from across the House but particularly colleagues from the UK Labour Party, have called for spending to be urgently increased back to 0.7%.

Secondly, as a major supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia the UK has contributed to this war and the suffering because of it. Since becoming an MP in 2016 I have been vocal in my opposition to this and have called for an immediate and indefinite ban on arms exports to Saudi Arabia. In contributing to this war, we have to shoulder responsibility when innocent lives are taken by British supplied arms. We have heard all too often of schools, hospitals and other civilian population centres being targeted in airstrikes. This is unacceptable and the UK's continued role in this is shameful.

Thirdly, the UK is the ‘penholder’ for Yemen on the UN Security Council. This means we shoulder responsibility for leading the UN Security Council’s response to the situation in Yemen.

Those are the reasons why I believe that the UK should have a leading role in ensuring a peaceful outcome to the conflict in Yemen which allows for people to escape the humanitarian crisis and begin to rebuild a democratic country.

In Parliament, many colleagues share my view and are regular contributors to debates and questions on Yemen in the House of Commons. I am proud to be the Chair of Labour Friends of Yemen, which includes over 30 Parliamentary members from the Labour Party.

During the most recent Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office questions, Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Bambos Charalambous MP, welcomed the UN-sponsored truce in Yemen and commended the release of 14 foreign captives, including UK nationals, and the opening of roads to allow fuel through Hodeida and commercial flights from Sanaa to Jordan and Egypt. He asked the Government what they were doing to support Hans Grundberg, the UN Special Envoy, to keep peace and prevent a return to conflict in Yemen. The Minister recently appointed Amanda Milling, said that she welcomed the two-month truce and that the Government will continue ‘to support the UN special envoy and co-ordinate closely with international and regional partners.’

The truce is undoubtedly good news and follows months of calls from British Parliamentarians for the UK Government to pressure parties into a truce. I have asked this of Ministers several times and was told time and time again that there were issues getting the Houthis around the table to begin talks. This must be an opportunity to ensure Yemeni citizens are accessing humanitarian support and that it can access them. The UN had said in January 2022 that participants were ‘doubling down’ on military options and that this had led to ‘the worst we have seen in Yemen for years.’

This ray of hope follows disappointing news that the UN Human Rights Council voted to shut down the body’s mandate to investigate war crimes in Yemen. MPs voiced their outrage at the time and in response to a question I asked of Ministers I was told the UK Government was also disappointed by this outcome and had voted to retain the mandate. It is incumbent upon MPs to seek the reinstatement of this mandate at the earliest possible opportunity. A message must be sent around the world that human rights abuses and violations of international law will be investigated and pursued.

Shortly after he was elected President of the United States of America, Joe Biden announced the US would stop selling offensive weapons to the Saudi-led coalition. This move was welcomed by Parliamentarians in the UK and led to renewed calls for the UK to stop our sales to the Saudi-led coalition. During Prime Ministers' Questions on 3 March 2021, Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Labour Party, asked the Prime Minister if he agrees with President Biden’s decision. The Prime Minister refused to answer, noting that the UK ‘scrupulously followed the consolidated guidance’.

Starmer followed up noting that over three months in 2020 the UK sold £1.4bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. He said ‘given everything we know about the appalling humanitarian cost of this war, with innocent civilians caught between the Saudi coalition and the Houthi rebels, why does the Prime Minister think it is right to be selling these weapons?’ The Prime Minister answered ‘we continue scrupulously to follow the humanitarian guidance—among the toughest measures anywhere in the world—in respect of all arms sales.’

This is likely the highest profile exchange of questioning in Parliament about Yemen and our nation’s role in the war. That is not to say that Yemen is not raised in Parliament frequently, a quick search of the written questions submitted to ministers shows a great array of Parliamentarians from all parties ask questions of ministers around the year. MPs ask frequently about the humanitarian funding, progress in peace talks and the current assessment of arms sales.

Several MPs, including members of Labour Friends of Yemen, are regular faces at questions and debates on Yemen. I have as recently as January asked questions of Foreign Office ministers, calling for the Group of Eminent Experts to be re-established as a matter of urgency following horrific airstrikes in Hodeidah and Saada that saw 60 people killed. Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Middle East also spoke at this session about the atrocities of the airstrike and asked what the Government were doing to bring about a peace conference and end the blockade to allow humanitarian aid to the people most in need. The Minister relayed their commitment to end the war by bringing all parties around the table for a negotiated peace settlement.

Many other LFY Parliamentary members are regular participants in questioning government and convening debates. In April 2021, Kim Johnson MP, Member of Parliament for Liverpool Riverside and long-time LFY Member, led a debate on the arms trade and Yemen. Members from Labour, Conservatives, the DUP and SNP took part in the debate, and all shared a sense of horror at the war and a need for urgency to bring a peaceful resolution to the war. In October 2021, I led a debate in Westminster Hall on the humanitarian situation in Yemen, highlighting the plight of millions of Yemeni people who are in desperate need of help. Many members of Labour Friends of Yemen attended the debate and intervened in my speech. Valerie Vaz, Member of Parliament for Walsall South, who was born in Aden, called on the UK to work closely with the UN Special Envoy. Anna McMorrin, Member of Parliament for Cardiff North, called for greater intervention by the UK at the UN to address the potential devastation of the abandoned oil tanker in the Red Sea. Tahir Ali, Member of Parliament for Birmingham Hall Green, highlighted the impact of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the region.

All of this is to say, that UK Parliamentarians and particularly Labour Friends of Yemen Parliamentary Members are ensuring Yemen is kept present in the consciousness of the House of Commons and the Government. We are determined to continue to do so in the hope of achieving a lasting peace in Yemen and a strong commitment to ensuring the Yemeni people receive the humanitarian support they need.  

* Chair of Labour Friends of Yemen, MP for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsbourgh. Shadow Minister for Roads.