BRITAIN is “dangerously complicit” in an “almighty catastrophe of biblical proportions” unfolding in Yemen, the House of Commons was warned last week.
Despite the partial lifting of the blockade by the Saudi-led coalition (News, 17 November), the country remains “on the cusp of one of the largest famines in modern times”, UN officials said on Saturday. It is estimated that more than 20 million people are in need of humanitarian aid.
In an emergency debate on Thursday of last week, the Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield, Andrew Mitchell, a former Development Secretary, warned: “There is deep concern that an almighty catastrophe of biblical proportions is unfolding in Yemen before our eyes, and a considerable fear that Britain is dangerously complicit in it.”
Describing the inadequacies of the easing of restrictions, he warned that at least seven cities had “run out of clean water and sanitation, and aid agencies are unable to get food to starving families”. Almost one million cases of cholera had been reported, and at least 400,000 children were suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Britain had failed to condemn the blockade, and “throughout this conflict our ‘quiet diplomacy’ has failed to curb outrage after outrage perpetrated by our allies as they destroy bridges, roads and hospitals,” Mr Mitchell said.
In his reply, the Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, attempted to clarify the origins of the conflict: the request for international support from a “legitimate government, fighting against an insurgency”.
“I do not want to dance on the head of a pin when it comes to the word ‘blockade’,” he went on. “That is what colleagues have called it in the House, and that is what it is. . . The publicly made statement by the Saudis was that their intent is not to cause starvation but to ensure that missiles do not enter Yemen.”
He sought to assure colleagues that the Government was “straining every sinew” in its efforts to bring about an end to the conflict and that it had called for an easing of restrictions. Visiting Saudia Arabia last week, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, said that “the flow of commercial supplies, on which the country depends, must be resumed if we are to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.”
Among the NGOs working in Yemen is Tearfund. Sarah Newnham, who is overseeing the response, said this week that Yemenis relied on imports for 80 per cent of their food: “It is imperative that humanitarian and commercial shipments are not prevented from offloading if famine is to be averted,” The charity is distributing food, building cisterns to store clean water, and working to prevent cholera, which has already killed more than 2000 people.
Last Friday, officials, including the heads of the World Health Organization and World Food Programme, warned that the partial lifting of the blockade had done nothing but “slow the collapse towards a massive humanitarian tragedy costing millions of lives”. The statement was issued amid an escalation in violence on the streets of the capital, Sana’a, during which more than 230 people were killed, according to the Red Cross. It was reported on Monday that the first President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had been killed by Houthis after he abandoned their side in favour of the Saudi-backed government.
On Wednesday of last week, the SNP leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, said that the UK had received £4.6 billion from selling arms to Saudi Arabia since the start of the war in Yemen, and urged the Government to follow the example of the Netherlands, and suspend sales. Standing in for Theresa May, the First Secretary of State, Damian Green, said that such a policy would “entail job losses”. The UK had “one of the most rigorous and robust defence-sales regimes in the world” and was the fourth largest donor of humanitarian aid to Yemen.
In his speech the next day, Mr Mitchell described Britain’s policy as “riddled with internal inconsistencies”.