Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 19 Dec 2018

Vol. 262 No. 7

Conflict in Yemen: Motion

I move:

That Seanad Éireann:

notes that:

- over three years of conflict in Yemen has had a devastating impact on the population of Yemen; resulting in 3.1 million people forced to flee their homes since March 2015 and as many as 21 million people in need of humanitarian assistance;

- 14.1 million people in Yemen have insufficient access to food and are at risk of famine;

- the de facto blockade of Hodeidah port and the economic crisis in the country has contributed to the risk of famine;

- the national healthcare system has been decimated resulting in an escalation of preventable diseases and leaving over 50% of the population without access to basic healthcare;

expresses deep sorrow at:

- the loss of civilian life as a result of the conflict;

- the damage to and destruction of civilian infrastructure due to airstrikes due to shelling by the Saudi Arabia-UAE led military coalition;

- the damage to and destruction of civilian infrastructure, due to shelling by the KSA–UAE led military coalition and by the Houthi forces;


- the resumption of peace talks in Sweden under the auspices of the United Nations and calls on all parties to engage in good faith and work towards peace and stability in Yemen;

and calls on the Government to:

- draw on Ireland’s powerful international reputation as a broker of peace to support and promote the UN-sponsored peace talks between all parties to the conflict;

- call for an immediate cessation of hostilities by all parties to the conflict, including an end to military airstrikes by the Saudi Arabian and UAE led military coalition, and an end to rocket attacks and shelling by the Houthi forces;

- advocate strongly for the upholding of international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict;

- draw on Ireland’s reputation in the area of international disarmament to advocate for a cessation of those aspects of the arms trade which contribute to the conflict, in particular to call on all EU Member States to abide by their obligations under the EU common position on exports of military technology and equipment, including denying an export licence if there is a clear risk the equipment might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law or be used aggressively against another country;

- significantly increase humanitarian aid to Yemen and closely monitor the ability for humanitarian aid to reach the vulnerable populations in most need, including an end to the blockages and blockades which prevent such access.

I second the motion.

I very much thank the representatives present and the Members of all parties and none in the House who signed the motion to ensure it is a message that comes from the Upper House as a whole. I thank the Minister of State for being present and the Government for giving time for this important debate and for giving us the opportunity to send an important signal and message on the importance of peace and humanitarian solutions to the ongoing conflict in Yemen. The conflict has been ongoing for more than three years and had a devastating impact on civilians of all ages. Millions of Yemenis, the majority of the population, are on the brink of starvation. The UN has identified that more than 400,000 children are at risk of severe malnutrition. The impact on their lives has been severe.

Just this week, since the motion was originally drafted, we have had a moment of hope in a very welcome ceasefire. It is important to commend the UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, for his role in helping to secure that ceasefire in the port of Hodeidah. Since June, the port and its population have suffered devastating fighting, and the block on aid due to the important channel cut off in the port has deeply intensified the danger of famine for many in the country. It is hoped the ceasefire will allow for improved access for aid and humanitarian support.

I ask that the Government play an active role not only in supporting the UN talks, the UN special envoy and another UN envoy, Patrick Cammaert from the Netherlands, who will go to the port of Hodeidah today to represent the UN there, but in drawing on our humanitarian reputation and expertise in this area to ensure aid reaches all of those who need it most and that we have a scaling up of the humanitarian effort. We must press for a scaling up of the ceasefire beyond the port and an end to military activities throughout Yemen.

Ireland has an opportunity to support those fleeing the conflict, I note the International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017 put forward by my group which has passed Second Stage in the Dáil is one way for Ireland to support a humanitarian response for those fleeing the devastation of this recognised conflict zone.

I thank everyone in the House. We are sending an important signal. I commend the NGOs who are standing outside in vigil and the peace activists who have kept the issue on the agenda at times when it was not being spoken about enough. I hope we will continue this into the new year and continue our vigilance.

I support and welcome the motion. I congratulate Senator Higgins on bringing it forward. It is no harm to record as quickly as I can the scale of the crisis in figures from the UN and various agencies working with it. A total of 22.2 million people, which is 75% of the population, have a level of need. There are 2 million displaced persons, 89% of whom have been displaced for more than a year. There are a total of 280,000 refugees and asylum seekers. Up to 14 million people are at risk of severe food insecurity. A total of 400,000 children are suffering from severe and acute malnutrition.

Between 1.8 million and 2.8 million children could suffer from severe food insecurity, while 2,500 people have been infected with cholera. These are some of the headline figures that show the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The Minister of State outlined in the Dáil recently that the Irish response to the crisis in financial terms was generous, with €4 million provided this year and €22 million over several years. We ought to support the EU initiatives in that regard. I exhort the Minister of State to continue that level of funding and, if anything, increase it. The Irish people would support such an initiative.

I am strongly in favour of the peace process in Yemen which the Government is actively supporting. There were encouraging developments in Sweden several weeks ago regarding the scaling down of military activity and a move towards peace. The ceasefire in the port of Al-Hudaydah is a welcome part of that process. It is a complex question with many factions involved. There are also factions both within the government and the Houthi forces. Various studies suggest there are war profiteers in both groupings, further complicating the situation.

We support the peace efforts. We cannot escape the fact that it is imperative for the US to keep pressure on in the context of these peace efforts. However, that pressure needs to be stepped up. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates must de-escalate their involvement, cease bombing the civilian population and scale down their military activity in Yemen. The Government needs to be in active pursuit of that, directly with the US and within the EU. We must say to our neighbours in the UK that the sale of arms to the coalition is not appropriate because there are alleged war crimes taking place. It has been stated by several leading individuals in the British Government that if they were to establish clear evidence of war crimes, it would cease to sell arms. That needs to happen.

What is needed is a negotiated settlement. Despite the factionalisation of the conflict and the various subgroups involved, to get the main people involved in the conflict to agree to a ceasefire and a settlement is important. Fine Gael strongly supports Senator Higgins’s motion. We also call for the stepping up of humanitarian assistance and of diplomatic pressure with the UK, the US and within the EU.

I welcome the Minister of State. I also welcome the motion which Fianna Fáil was happy to sign. I compliment Senator Higgins on taking the initiative to table the motion. It has given the Seanad an opportunity to raise its voice in respect of this significant humanitarian tragedy. Perhaps we might be able to lead by example and encourage others to be of practical assistance in that troubled land.

It is welcome that the joint motion is not a political document. I do not know much about the history of Yemen but I read as much as I could in recent days. It is a country that has been bedevilled by factions and warfare over centuries. It would be impossible to establish exactly who is right and who is wrong at any particular point, including now. I am glad that we are concentrating on the humanitarian aspect of the crisis.

It is without doubt that Yemen has experienced the worst humanitarian crisis in the world in recent years. The UN reported that 17.8 million people are suffering from food insecurity, including 8.4 million who are categorised as "severely food insecure". The unfortunate people of Yemen are experiencing the worst cholera crisis in modern history. All of this could be avoided. The famine in Yemen is not a natural occurrence, it is man-made. That is the biggest tragedy of all. It is the result of the behaviour of human beings who are behaving irrationally and who are not thinking about the consequences of their actions.

I welcome what we in Ireland are doing to help alleviate the suffering in Yemen. We have provided €16.5 million in humanitarian assistance since 2015. In 2018, €4 million was contributed to the UN’s Yemen fund. It is obviously a drop in the ocean but, for a small nation, it is a reasonable response. I also welcome the fact that the EU as a whole contributed €438 million to alleviating the crisis.

Fianna Fáil supports the efforts of the UN special envoy Mr. Martin Griffiths. He has succeeded in bringing all sides of the conflict to the negotiating table in Sweden. At least there has been a moment of calm in recent days, even though there was an outbreak of violence almost immediately after the agreement was signed. Hopefully, this calm will continue especially at such a holy and peaceful time.

I agree with Senator O’Reilly about the sale of arms. At a time like this, it is absolutely criminal. All international problems are further worsened by interests from outside. Unfortunately, the large global warfare industry spreads its tentacles everywhere. We in Ireland know all about famine. We were fortunate we got some outside help in the black days of 1848. We did not get a whole lot but whatever we got was greatly appreciated. We need to reciprocate.

As well as the ceasefire, there needs to be economic reform in Yemen in order to address, among other matters, the cost of food and the payments of salaries to tens of thousands of public servants. In addition, every effort must be made to ensure the unhindered flow of humanitarian aid. Fianna Fáil calls on the Government, the EU and the international community to do all they can to assist the people of Yemen. They must ensure that ending the conflict in Yemen remains a high priority until such time as it is satisfactorily resolved.

I commend Senator Higgins on tabling the motion. This is a good day for the Seanad.

I support the motion. I acknowledge it is put in very neutral and understated terms. What is happening in Yemen is wholly unacceptable. The fact the war there is being prosecuted largely by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, using arms supplied by the British and the American Governments in order to militarise those states, is itself a matter of huge horror to me. The United States Senate recently expressed its views about the royal family in Saudi Arabia, which was a good shot across their bows. I commend Senator Higgins for bringing forward this motion. If I had been drafting the motion, it would have been in slightly more colourful terms.

For Members of this House who are interested in Middle Eastern affairs, there are three very good books, one being The Ottoman Twilight, and the other two written by James Barr, one of which deals with what happened in the northern Arab lands between Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq, and the other, published recently, is Lords of the Desert, which describes the Anglo-American involvement in the Arabian peninsula. To put it mildly, Lords of the Desert does not make pretty reading. It is a long description of exploitation, selfishness, intrigue and viciousness. While the Americans and British are our allies, when President Trump says he is more concerned about €120 billion in arms sales than he is about the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, and, to use a phrase, one trumps the other completely in his eyes, that says more about President Trump and America than anything else. It is great that the United States Senate has rebuffed him on both counts, first, that it is hauling him back under the War Powers Act from involvement in this vicious war and, second, that it is sticking it to President Trump in regard to his moral absolution, if that man could confer it on anybody, in respect of the Khashoggi killing.

On reading Barr's book, Lords of the Desert, one sees the situation as described is far more complicated than any of us can guess. It is not a conflict between the Saudis and the Iranians but a struggle that has gone on for centuries. The disputes between the different factions and tribes in Yemen, north and south, and the former British colony of Aden, are not of Iran's making and should not be considered as such.

Ireland is, by its Constitution, committed to the peaceful settlement of international disputes. This is a very important point; not every country has that written into its constitution but we do. We should be slightly more vocal about the values for which we stand, especially arising out of Khashoggi incident and what was going on in Yemen until recently, where cluster bombs were being used on civilians. Cluster bombs which are now outlawed but which had been manufactured in the United Kingdom and America were still being used from aeroplanes manufactured by those countries and flown by pilots trained by those countries on civilians in Yemen. That really is terrible. We should not be behind the door on this, even if we are not perfect and we are not paragons ourselves. The geopolitical interests of the United States, as now expressed and promulgated by Donald Trump, are amoral, indefensible and wrong, and support for the Saudi-UAE coalition in waging a war in Yemen is wrong. Ireland, as a state, should call it out for what it is. The slaughter of so many civilians and the use of the war crime of mass starvation on the remaining civilians are completely indefensible. I welcome and support the motion tabled by Senator Higgins and her colleagues.

I welcome the Minister of State. I commend Senator Higgins for her work on this issue. It is a significant achievement to get all-party consensus and I know the passing of this motion means a lot to her. Sinn Féin has signed up to the motion. We support the general message it sends, although it does not go far enough in its condemnation of the Saudi Arabian regime, in our opinion. We understand the motion is a compromise of many positions and it was on that basis that we signed up. I just wanted to clarify that in case anyone thought this motion fully reflects Sinn Féin policy.

We have all been utterly shocked at the images of the humanitarian crisis and suffering in Yemen. Thousands of people have died in the conflict and 14 million need food assistance and are at risk of famine. The UN World Food Programme warned that the country faces a full-blown famine in six months unless things rapidly change. I want to be clear on the next point. The humanitarian crisis falls completely at the feet of the Saudi regime. We have seen how it has used its military might to bomb civilian infrastructure, homes and even school buses. Médecins Sans Frontières reported its hospitals have been hit five times by Saudi-UAE airstrikes. They have also blockaded Hodeidah port, stopping vital supplies. They have carried out these war crimes with impunity. Data collected by al-Jazeera and the Yemen Data Project show more than 18,000 air raids have been carried out in Yemen since 2015 by the Saudi and UAE-led military coalition, and almost one third of all bombing missions struck non-military sites.

Although we know this, I need to point out that the US provides logistical and weapons support for the Saudis. US contracted military planes leaving Shannon regularly travel to states belonging to that coalition. Hundreds of permits for military munitions of war were approved by the Irish Government last year, with many of these planes heading to these same destinations. Let me clear: the Government's hands are not clean when it comes to this horrific war. Britain and the US alone have sold more than $12 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia since it entered the war in 2015.

Sinn Féin has repeatedly called on the Government to join the calls to impose an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia due to the war crimes committed by its forces and its brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul. Regrettably, the Government continues to fail to do this. If we are serious - I have heard very positive comments across the Chamber about the need for Britain and the US to stop supplying arms - surely we need to make the call to impose the arms embargo.

I welcome the news of a breakthrough in the peace talks on Yemen in Sweden, which has led to some localised ceasefires. However, there are very real worries and concerns about how the agreed measures will be implemented. I hope this breakthrough in the talks will lead to a wider and sustainable ceasefire, and, ultimately, the end of this devastating war caused by Saudi Arabia. However, we cannot take that for granted.

The motion also calls on the Government to significantly increase humanitarian aid to Yemen and closely monitor the ability of humanitarian aid to reach the vulnerable populations in most need, including an end to the blockages and blockades which prevent such access. I hope the Government takes this call seriously and Sinn Féin will support any measure the Government takes in this regard, but if it does not, we will also hold it to account.

I want to finish on the point in regard to Shannon Airport. How can we find it acceptable that we are aiding this war through our civilian airport in Shannon Airport? How is it that nobody seems to want to talk about this point? If we are serious about being peace brokers - I acknowledge the good work done by the Government - surely to God we have to stop supporting this war through the US use of Shannon Airport.

I support the motion on behalf of the Labour Party Senators. I commend Senator Higgins on her leadership in initiating this important cross-party motion about what has been referred to many times as a forgotten conflict. The appalling conflict in Yemen has been going on for more than three and a half years. All colleagues would wish to express in stronger terms our condemnation of the Saudi and United Arab Emirates, UAE, regimes which are backing the military coalition that has carried out flagrant breaches of international law and appalling attacks upon civilians. Having authored cross-party motions on Syria in this House, I know how difficult it is to get cross-party support. In the past, I have had opposition to strongly worded condemnations of the Syrian regime, which was committing barbaric acts against its own citizens. I commend Senator Higgins because I am conscious of the difficulty of achieving consensus. It is very important that we have cross-party consensus on a motion like this. We must seek to make an impact on Government policy.

I wish to condemn the Saudi-UAE-led military coalition, which is named in the text of the motion. I also condemn the continued sale of arms to the Saudi regime by the US and Britain and, like Senator McDowell, I commend the US Senate, which has taken a stance and put it up to the US President in respect of the continued sale of arms. I also agree with Senator McDowell's comments about the appalling murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul at the behest of the Saudi Government. We have to be cognisant of that and certainly may build on this motion in the future with further motions concerning any support our Government may be seen to be giving to that regime, even tacitly. We have a strong reputation for upholding international humanitarian law and in the area of international disarmament, as the motion points out. As a neutral country, we can play an important role as a peace broker, which should be emphasised.

Like others, I was pleased to read the Médecins sans Frontières, MSF, briefing document on Yemen. I commend the very important work of that NGO, which has sent such brave doctors and medical personnel into many conflict zones, particularly into Yemen. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence has been privileged to hear from MSF doctors and staff on various occasions about their work in Yemen, Syria and other countries. It is always humbling to hear of their work and the incredible need they are meeting. Others have spoken about the great number of children at risk of malnutrition in this man-made famine. It is shameful to see a man-made famine occurring in 2018 in a country that was, in fact, well developed. I recall meeting a wonderful politician, a woman, from Yemen many years ago, long before the conflict. She spoke to me of the great progress that was being made in her country at the time towards greater equality for women and a more democratic system. It is heartbreaking to see this huge step backwards and the dreadful suffering of so many civilians as a result.

It is my hope, that of the Labour Party Senators and of all of us that the ceasefire brokered since this motion was drafted will hold, that we will see some peace for the people of Yemen, and that we will see stronger action taken against Saudi Arabia in particular. I urge the Minister of State to do all he can within the EU and on our own behalf to express strong condemnation of Saudi Arabia and its support for the regime in Yemen. I ask him to express the wishes of this House to see this conflict end.

I thank all Senators for their contributions. In particular, I thank Senator Higgins for her initiative in tabling this all-party motion. The Government welcomes the opportunity to state our position on the conflict in Yemen. As has been mentioned by many, the cross-party support for the motion reflects the importance that Ireland attaches to Yemen and the widely felt concern of the Irish people about the risk of famine that hangs over millions of Yemenis.

Let us not underestimate the very significant task that lies ahead. Yemen is still reeling from a conflict that is multifaceted, as Senator McDowell pointed out, and incredibly complex, with roots that extend far deeper than the current dispute between the Houthi rebels and the internationally recognised government. Yemen is in the grip of a humanitarian disaster that is man-made and is taking its toll on the most vulnerable. Yemen has long suffered from underdevelopment and the conflict has exacerbated that situation, all but destroying the economy and severely impacting on the delivery of basic public services. It has long been clear that there can be no military resolution to the conflict. We are relieved by the positive developments in recent weeks as the UN special envoy, Mr. Martin Griffiths, brought representatives from the internationally recognised Government of Yemen and the Houthi de facto government to Stockholm for negotiations. Agreements were reached on a ceasefire in Hodeidah and on prisoner exchange. We are anxiously waiting to see how the implementation of these agreements proceeds. Most importantly, there was agreement to meet again in the new year. We all hope the talks will make substantial and rapid progress when that happens.

Senators have mentioned the very significant humanitarian crisis that is now presenting in Yemen and Ireland's response to it. Our humanitarian aid programme in that region will continue to be of the utmost importance. Since 2015, Ireland has provided almost €17.5 million in humanitarian assistance to Yemen, including contributions of €5 million to the UN Yemen humanitarian fund this year. This fund provides assistance in the areas of education, logistics, food security, nutrition and health. Ireland also supports Yemen through annual contributions made to the EU and, since the beginning of the conflict in 2015, the EU has allocated €438 million in humanitarian aid to the Yemen crisis, which includes humanitarian development, stabilisation and resilience support. Ireland also contributes to the UN central emergency response fund, the World Food Programme, UNICEF and the international committee of the Red Cross, all of which are active in Yemen. However, it is clear to all of us that much more will be needed and Ireland remains committed to helping to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people in any way we can. Ireland will continue to prioritise humanitarian aid contributions to Yemen next year in view of the appalling level of need.

Many Senators referred to the role that arms supply plays in continuing this crisis. The motion recognises how foreign weapons, both legally traded and illicitly smuggled, are prolonging the war in Yemen and thus the humanitarian crisis. There have been calls from some quarters for an arms embargo. I must state, first, that Ireland does not produce or sell military weapons, thankfully. A number of countries within the EU have taken the decision to suspend their sale of weapons to the Saudi and UAE-led coalition. However, a full EU arms embargo would require an EU consensus and I regret that this is currently not possible. Therefore, Irish efforts have instead concentrated on ensuring the effective implementation of agreements to which EU member states have signed up, namely, the export control regimes and the implementation of the 2014 arms trade treaty. It is often more effective to press for the implementation of commitments made than to seek agreement on new measures. These obligations require all EU states to assess the potential that arms exports could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law and to consider measures to mitigate the risk of these violations.

I assure the House that Ireland will continue to take every opportunity to press for a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Yemen, as well as for respect for human rights and international humanitarian law and improved humanitarian access. The UN process is the only game in town right now. I will take this opportunity to state again Ireland's full support of the UN special envoy and his team as he continues to engage with all parties to the conflict and to work towards a sustainable solution for the people of Yemen. The negotiations at Stockholm were but the beginning of what will likely be a long and complicated process. Nevertheless I hope 2019 will mark the beginning of an improvement for the Yemeni people building on the fact that the parties are now at the negotiating table. Through our humanitarian aid, Ireland will continue to provide support to the Yemeni people in ensuring as best we can that their most basic needs are met.

I thank Senator Higgins and all speakers for the unity they have shown on the motion and allowing me the opportunity to restate the commitments of the Government and Irish people. I also reiterate the Government's support for the motion.

On behalf of the House, I commend the Minister for making himself available at short notice and changing his schedule to be here this evening at 5.30 p.m.

Question put and agreed to.