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With Yemen on the brink of famine, the UK must not be an accomplice

‘This is Global Britain in global retreat.’

A youth and a man carry food aid on their shoulders in the sun. Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS
Yemenis carry food aid distributed by local NGO Mona Relief at a camp for internally displaced people on the outskirts of Yemen's capital city of Sana'a, on 1 March 2021.

This month marks the sixth continuous year that conflict has raged across Yemen, fuelling the world’s greatest humanitarian emergency, with children and families suffering, and millions at risk of plunging into famine. At a time when the Yemeni people need the United Kingdom’s help most, their cries have gone unmet.

A UN pledging conference last week, which sought to raise $3.85 billion for the UN-coordinated relief response in Yemen, saw Britain’s Minister for Middle East and North Africa James Cleverley announce a cut in UK aid to the country of more than 60 percent.

It was deeply shameful. This is Global Britain in global retreat. A moment when we needed to see clear UK leadership became the moment when the UK government turned its back on the people of Yemen in their darkest hour.

As Labour’s Shadow Minister for International Development, I demand this government rethink its decision. The need for the UK to step up is clear. Previous devastating cuts to aid, alongside multiple life-threatening health challenges and an economic crisis, have crushed what little resilience remains in the country.

The healthcare system has been decimated, with less than half of Yemen’s health facilities now operational. COVID-19 is just one more deadly health challenge alongside others such as the surge in cholera cases and a drop in immunisations against preventable diseases.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said that “the worst famine the world has seen for decades” is knocking at Yemen’s door. Despite the complications of declaring an official famine, we know people are already going hungry – 16 million face daily food insecurity, and 2.3 million children under five are projected to suffer acute malnourishment this year, including 400,000 at risk of starving to death without urgent treatment.

Despite these dire warnings, rather than stepping up when the stakes are grave, the international community resolved to pull back, pledging less than half of what is needed at the Yemen conference.

I have consistently called out the callous approach we see from the UK government. Labour leader Keir Starmer questioned the prime minister, and members of parliament from all political parties, including the Conservatives, have been united in their condemnation and determination to reverse this strategy.

A moment when we needed to see clear UK leadership became the moment when the UK government turned its back on the people of Yemen in their darkest hour.

This cut comes at a time when we are seeing the Conservative government neglect the needs of the most vulnerable around the world. With a slash in the commitment to dedicate 0.7 percent of our gross national income to overseas development assistance, it is failing to recognise the proud life-saving and resilience-building work aid can do globally.

In stark terms, for Yemenis, this means more suffering and more deaths.

To make matters worse, the UK currently holds the penholder role on Yemen at the UN Security Council, meaning it leads the negotiations and drafts any resolutions on the country. Its unique leadership role is supposed to involve encouraging our partners to meet their funding commitments. Last week’s move set a dangerous precedent on what that leadership means.

In February, Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed a G7 statement agreeing to “make 2021 a turning point for multilateralism to shape a recovery that promotes health leadership”. But the UK was the only country among the G7 to cut promised aid to Yemen at last week’s conference.

The cut begs the question: Was the prime minister deceiving our international partners, or has he abandoned his promise after just two weeks? Neither answer is acceptable.

UK Labour has been clear: Through development, we must lead by the power of example. We should lead with values, not vested interests.

Only time will tell what influence these aid cuts will have on both our international partners and regional powers. But as the post-Trump geopolitical recalibration continues, the UK is fast becoming an outlier: While the United States, Germany, and France are renewing their commitments, the UK is slashing our internationally-respected development expertise and aid spending.

And at a time of growing international cooperation, thanks largely to President Joe Biden’s renewal in American diplomacy, it is clear that this UK government is choosing to keep our alliances at arm’s length. At the same time, it courts rogue actors such as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by continuing to supply his country with arms.

The UK cannot be both an arms dealer and a peacemaker.

While Germany, Italy, and the United States have suspended arms exports to Saudi Arabia, the UK government continues to weaponise the conflict and fuel the humanitarian emergency by approving sales to coalition states bombing Yemen. UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia since the conflict in Yemen began topped £7 billion this year. Arms receipts are more than six times the value of our aid to Yemen in the same period.

The UK cannot be both an arms dealer and a peacemaker. The UK government must acknowledge the human consequences of arms sales and take remedial action.

Representing the UK at the pledging conference last week, Minister Cleverley said that ending the conflict was the only sustainable way to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. He is correct.

However, that will require the UK government to end the double standard of stoking conflict and crisis, whilst rolling back our aid commitments. UK Labour remains committed to ending the UK government’s double standards, stopping the global retreat, and halting any attempt to turn our backs on the most vulnerable.

The UK must no longer be an accomplice to carnage.

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