Peter Spurway reports from the South Asia & Middle East Forum Special Session in the House of Commons
Khalid Nadeem, Chair of the South Asia & Middle East Forum, opened the session with an address emphasising the need to put pressure on the UK government to not allow Brexit to detract from its focus on Yemen. The crisis is now at a critical juncture. With its humanitarian situation at breaking point, and the Stockholm ceasefire showing signs of fragility, the special session on Yemen could not have been hosted at a more poignant time.
Bringing together a panel of experts positing multidimensional perspectives of the internationally invested conflict, the current environment in Yemenwas set out by Andrew Mitchell MP, former Secretary of State for Overseas Development, who, disobliging to all parties involved in the conflict, recounted some horrifying experiences of visiting Yemen. Giving his perspective on the difficulty, but necessity, of a political negotiation, he set a positive tone for the UK’s future involvement in bringing peace.
The severity of the unfolding humanitarian crisis was then highlighted by Helen Lackner, author of Yemen in Crisis, with up to 24 million in need of humanitarian aid and 16 million at risk of starvation, even with the current provision of aid. The growing war economy, weaponisation of food and fuel, high national inflation, and the non-payment of government workers were said to present a considerable challenge to the humanitarian situation, despite considerable funding from the UK, EU and UN. Private sector representatives in the audience highlighted bureaucratic hurdles with the failure to provide credit letters for supplies, and panel members acknowledged issues with the manipulation of beneficiary lists, diversion of supply trucks and food rotting in warehouses. Agreeing that the conflict has been repeatedly underexaggerated in statistics – in particular the rebounding figure of ‘10,000 combat deaths’, which has perpetuated for three years – it was clarified that current estimates are up to six times this figure.
Lord Dubs, former Minister for Transport, joined Mrs Lackner in an appeal to re-focus efforts on understanding the extent of the refugee problem. The added complexity caused by a continued flow of refugees from the Horn of Africa stuck in Yemen, and the unknown standard of treatment of refugees in Saudi Arabia, Omanand the many countries they have fled were of great concern.
The historical tribal structure of Yemen and its increasing fragmentation with the rise of separatist influences in the south were highlighted as further difficulties. Differences in opinion began with the very nomenclature used, with disagreement on usage of the terms ‘civil’ or ‘proxy’ war, the latter strongly preferred by HE Dr Yassin Saeed Noman Ahmed, Ambassador of Yemen to the UK. Divisions continued in the perceived legitimacy of the Hadi government, but it was described as pragmatic to see the Hadi government as legitimate, considering its recognition in the UNSC resolution 2216; comparatively, it was agreed that the Houthis, having taken power by force, are no more legitimately in control of the country. Tentative conclusions were made on the level of Iranian support of the Houthi movement, with Dr Ahmed expressing significant involvement, but with Dr Noel Brehony, the former UK Chargé d’Affaires to Yemen and Chairman of the British-Yemeni Society, determining that while there was irrefutably some level of low-risk proxy involvement, the relationship between the Houthis and Iranwas a purely pragmatic relationship, and there was a lack of tangible evidence of the recent supply of arms.
USanalyst Jonathan Paris, Senior Adviser to Chertoff Group, discussed the legitimacy of Saudi and Emirati involvement in the conflict. Begun by invitation from the Hadi government, this necessarily entailed some mixed opinions, but the panel was unanimous in its criticism of the extent of Saudi attacks on soft targets. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which received multiple mentions in discussion, was deemed by many panellists to have created space for criticism of Saudi Arabia, after which point the international community began more ardently rebuking Saudi aggression. Audience pressure on the panel to justify a lack of western arms embargoes against Saudi Arabia was met with reasoned arguments for Saudi right to defend its sovereign territory, and a suggestion was posited for more focused criticism on specific breaches of law by all actors involved.
The role of the wider international community was also criticised, with Dr Jack Caravelli, Former Special Adviser to President Clinton on Nuclear Affairs, noting that there was a clear priority of other issues for US policymakers and media, both locally, and in the foreign policy machinations of Russiaand China. Unbeknownst to the panel, US lawmakers had simultaneously confirmed this suggestion, voting to end support for the coalition the same day as the conference. The EU was painted by Dr Brehony in a slightly more positive light, but it was remarked that there was a noted shift away from focus on the terrorism threat from AQAP after 2015.
Sir Mark Lyall Grant, former British Ambassador to the UN and former National Security Adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May, expressed positivity at the continued agreement of UNSC permanent members on the best courses of action for Yemen – something not found in the UNSC response to crises in Syria, Libyaand Afghanistan. He was however critical, alongside other panel members, of the inaction of the British-led UN response in the first few years of the conflict. The stalemate in the UK government for almost two years following UNSC resolution 2216 was acknowledged by Ivan Lewis MP, Former Minister for the Middle East at the FCO, who stressed that Britain was now in a good place to lead mediation efforts; both speakers gave praise to the work of UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and agreed this was the best way forward. Mr Lewis reverberated comments made by Chair Khalid Nadeem in stressing the need to guard against UK insularity post-Brexit and maintain our international responsibilities.
The questionable progress on the agreements reached for Taiz, and ‘limited alacrity’ shown since December to move forward to a more comprehensive peace agreement, have undoubtedly wavered confidence that a more meaningful ceasefire can be established. Nevertheless, the conference agreed that fledgling success of Hodeida’s demilitarisation is promising. A delicate ceasefire established over the port was deemed key to both opening a humanitarian aid path to the highly populated Tihama coast, and to pacifying Saudi concerns about access to the Red Sea corridor. The forum’s speakers joined chair Khalid Nadeem in unanimously concluding their hope that these provisions will restore confidence in UN efforts to bring the beleaguered belligerents to the table. A multi-tiered political agreement between local, regional and international actors seems now the only way to ensure a brighter future for Yemen.