Thanks to Stephen Twigg MP a very important series of questions and answers took place in the House of Commons last Tuesday, beginning with a Question from Stephen: “To ask the Minister of State for International Development to update the House on the humanitarian situation in Yemen”. His question was answered by Harriet Baldwin who began by stating: “The UK is deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. More than 22 million people—over three quarters of the population—are in need of humanitarian assistance. The UN estimates that 17.8 million people in Yemen do not have reliable access to food and that 8.4 million face extreme food shortages. Last year, the country suffered the worst cholera outbreak ever recorded in any country in a single year.” Whilst there was no deviation from this tone of concern in the responses from Mrs Baldwin throughout the hour long session, every time a question related to how to improve matters the answer stopped short from a change to our foreign policy or arms sales. One of those asking questions was Ann Clywd whose question included “We have debated this many times in the Chamber over the last three years, and things have just got worse in Yemen”. The big question is how will matters change, bearing in mind that every 10 minutes a child is dying from a preventable cause!
One of the vital issues that arose during the session was the sale of weapons by the UK and it was clear that to move this issue forward and respond in a meaningful way, other Government Departments should have been present. To fail to respond to these questions in an effective way is a poor use of the time of MPs and those many organisations which seek to meet the needs of the 22 Million people. It may well be the case that some of these organisations have even played a part in helping to set out some of the questions which MPs were asking. Another issue which came through was the vital role being played by the United Nations which is fascinating given how critical other Ministers have been of the UN in the recent past. Several references were made to the UN resolution 2216 which justifies Saudi Arabia defending its territory, but the fact that since the conflict began a third of these 1700 so called defensive actions have ended up hitting non military targets was barely responded to.
Harriet Baldwin explained that we have pledged £170m to Yemen this year and that last year, the UK was the second largest donor. ”We are aware of reports over the weekend of significant civilian casualties resulting from coalition airstrikes… The Saudi-led coalition has confirmed that it will carry out an investigation….. A political settlement is the only way to bring long-term stability to Yemen and to address the worsening humanitarian crisis.” However the purpose of this sort of questioning is to hold the Government to account and each time she was asked a question about arms sales to Saudi Arabia she simply reiterated sentences she has already used and ignored the question. Ann Clwyd asked her “The Minister keeps talking about political dialogue, but who are we having the political dialogue with? ….What exactly is the Minister doing and who is she talking to?” yet there was no meaningful answer. Henry Smith, the only Sussex Conservative MP to participate asked “In addition to diplomatic pressure being brought to bear on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, what pressure is being brought to bear on the allies of Tehran and that side of the conflict?” Harriet answered “I reiterate that the UK is trying to work with the United Nations to prevent that…..It is important that all parties call on those supplying the arms to cease.” Which is totally bizarre bearing in mind that we are one of the parties supplying arms to the conflict!
A question from Caroline Lucas picked up on that thread “The Minister acknowledges that Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, so why are the UK Government via their arms sales choosing to make that awful situation even worse?” and Russell Lloyd Moyles “The UK is not meant to sell weapons to countries when there is a clear risk that they will kill innocent civilians or break international humanitarian law.….What is the Government’s red line on breaking international humanitarian law? When will we stop licensing the killing of innocent civilians?” yet both received inadequate answers. It may seem acceptable to deny our MPs decent answers, but the rest of our society and the 22m people in Yemen deserve a proper response!