If Britain wants peace in Yemen, Saudis must face investigation as well as Houthis

Our presentation of a draft resolution to the UN security council on a truce in Yemen could be monumental, but only if the government proactively condemns Saudi Arabia’s role in fuelling the humanitarian crisis

Emily Thornberry
Monday 19 November 2018 11:30 GMT
Casualties as Saudi-led coalition air raids hit Yemen's Hodeidah

Today marks 770 days since Britain circulated a draft resolution to other members of the United Nations Security Council demanding an end to the war and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

As the “pen-holder” on Yemen at the UN, it was the UK government’s responsibility to present that resolution, and a natural response to the Saudi coalition’s horrific “double-tap” airstrike on a Yemeni funeral in October 2016, which first killed several dozen in their place of worship, and then – in the second wave – dozens more rushing to their aid.

The resolution contained five demands and calls, which must be spelled out again because they remain just as relevant and urgent now as they were two years and forty days ago.

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It required an immediate cessation of hostilities by all parties to the conflict; unhindered access for humanitarian aid; full cooperation with UN-led talks towards a political solution; full compliance from all sides with international laws; and the transparent investigation by all sides into past breaches of those laws.

It was clear, it was tough, and – as I said in the House of Commons shortly afterwards – there was not a single word in it with which anyone could disagree.

Except, of course, Saudi Arabia. No sooner had the draft resolution been circulated than their ambassador to the UN – rather than our own – explained that it had been withdrawn. And why? Because, in his words, his country had reached: “A continuous and joint agreement with Britain concerning the draft resolution, and whether there is a need for it or not.”

Since then, nothing. But in the coming week, we are told that the Foreign Office will put a resolution before the security council, at long last shaken out of its complacency and inaction by a combination of factors: the murderous Saudi air strike on a Yemeni school bus in August; the vicious Saudi-led assault on the port of Hodeidah, which is creating a man-made famine; and of course, the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

In parliament, in the media and in the court of public opinion, the UK government has become increasingly isolated in its support for the Saudi regime, and now even sees the Trump administration wavering in the face of similar domestic pressure. Hence why we will finally see action at the UN this week.

And yet even in those circumstances, CNN reported this weekend that – before a full draft of the resolution had been shown to most members of the security council – Jeremy Hunt took it to Riyadh to seek the approval of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. CNN’s sources say that, on sight of the resolution, the crown prince “threw a fit”, requested changes to its contents, or better still, that it be dropped altogether.

So far, so predictable. But let us be clear: if one word of the UK’s resolution is changed as a result of the crown prince’s objections, or if the overall content is watered down to appease him, it will be a national disgrace.

Indeed, there are only four ways in which the UK’s original 2016 resolution should be updated.

First, the situation in Hodeidah must be specifically and urgently addressed. It is Yemen’s main port, and with 14 million civilians on the brink of starvation, the supply lines of food, oil and medicine must be opened up. If necessary, the port should be put under UN protection and control, without interference from any of the parties, to guarantee those supply lines stay open and are not misused for the smuggling of weapons.

Second, with the civic infrastructure in Yemen in a near state of collapse, the resolution must – as the UN’s humanitarian coordinator has demanded – call for the restoration of the banking system, and the payment of pensions and civil service wages.

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Third, the demand in the 2016 resolution that the parties to the conflict must investigate their own alleged war crimes has been exposed as utterly inadequate, both on the Saudi side, and even more so amongst the lawless Houthi rebels. So this week’s resolution must demand the independent, UN-led investigation of all alleged breaches of international humanitarian law.

Finally, where the 2016 resolution was silent on the issue, the new resolution must contain proper accountability mechanisms to ensure that compliance with its terms – particularly on humanitarian access and the cessation of hostilities – is independently monitored, with clear sanctions ready to be enforced if they are breached.

On which note, if the US, UK and French governments will not pro-actively do the right thing and suspend arms sales for use in Yemen, then at the very least the resolution should make clear that the continued sale of arms to participants in the conflict will cease if they breach its terms.

That is what a comprehensive, robust, and effective resolution would look like, and if that is what the UK produces this week, even if it is 770 days too late, I will be the first to welcome it.

Because there is a stark truth at the heart of that 2016 draft resolution, which is as true today as it was then: “The humanitarian situation will continue to deteriorate in the absence of a peace agreement that leads to a durable solution to the conflict.”

That fear should have been enough to outweigh the Saudi objections two years ago, and with millions of lives now at risk if the humanitarian situation is allowed to deteriorate further, it should be the only consideration on the minds of the security council this week.

Emily Thornberry is the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, and the shadow secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs

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