Interview: Andrew Mitchell

Andrew Mitchell as Secretary of State for International Development in Tunisia, 2011. Photo: Department for International Development/Kate Joseph.Andrew Mitchell as Secretary of State for International Development in Tunisia, 2011. Photo: Department for International Development/Kate Joseph.

Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP served as Secretary of State for International Development from 2010 to 2012, and has since continued to be a leading voice in international development. He is a member of the faculty of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, and a Senior Research Associate specialising in International Development at Jesus College, Cambridge. His visit to Yemen in January 2017, with Oxfam and the UN marks the only trip made by a European politician to the rebel controlled north of the country since the outbreak of the civil war in 2015.

As of February 2018, the Houthis, a predominantly Shia-led sect formed in Sa’dah in northern Yemen in the 1990s, control the northern part of the country, with the support of Iran. The former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, accused of plundering billions of dollars from the country during his rule, had allied with the Houthis, despite fighting a war against the sect during his Presidency. However, Saleh was killed outside Sana’a by the Houthis, his supposed allies, in December 2017, his bloodied body appearing online wrapped in a blanket. The current President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, remains in control despite the expiration of the mandate that named him President transitionally after Saleh’s resignation in 2012. Hadi is currently living in exile, under house arrest in Riyadh. His government, supported directly by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and indirectly by Britain, is based in Yemen’s second city, the port city of Aden. Separatists calling for the reformation of South Yemen, operating under the banner of the Southern Resistance forces (SRF), surrounded the presidential palace of the de facto government in Aden in January 2018. The unlikely alliance between the southern separatists and Hadi’s government against the Houthis seems to have come to an end, and a resolution to the conflict seems as far away as ever.

Ellen: As we are approaching the third year of conflict in Yemen, with separatist forces in the south turning on their former ally of President Hadi, and the Houthis having executed their former ally, ex-President Saleh in December, can you see any kind of an end point to this conflict given how heated it has got in recent months?

Andrew: I was in Saudi Arabia two weekends ago talking to the person who is responsible for the politics of the war, and the head of the intelligence organisation. Giving the view of someone who regards themselves as a friend of Saudi Arabia, I was trying to explain that this was going to end up as an absolute and total disaster for Saudi Arabia. It would damage their short term and long term security, it would damage their regional security, but also their international security. The war is also a battle of the Shia-Sunni divide, a battle with Iran – and the Saudis are losing, the Iranians are laughing up their sleeves. So it is a complete disaster. It is an absolute disaster for Yemen, for the reasons you say, and it is an absolute disaster incidentally for Britain. We are strung out on the wire in entirely the wrong place. In Britain, our government has made the strategic decision that our commercial and security relationship with Saudi Arabia is the most important thing, but by passively supporting, or passively acquiescing in what the Saudis are doing, we are making ourselves both less safe, because tens of thousands of young Yemenis are being radicalised, and also damaging our commercial relationship, because it won’t be long before the pressure for an arms embargo will be unavoidable. So it is a disaster on every single front. The way in which these conflicts finish, as is always shown in history, is by negotiations. The requirement is to have a negotiation that has three rings to it: the negotiation between the Saudis and the Houthis; the negotiations with all the militias and many forces which you referred to; and the bottom up negotiation with all the different parts of civil society. The aim currently of everybody should be to move from fighting into what will be a very long, very messy, very difficult negotiation about the future of Yemen. The regime of President Hadi lacks all legitimacy – he was the only name on the ballot paper when he was elected and his mandate has long since expired. The British hold the pen at the UN on Yemen, but if we carry on like this, the pen will be taken away from us, and another country will craft a UN resolution. The quicker we face up the responsibilities of holding the pen, and have a new resolution, the better.

Ellen: Why is it that Yemen receives so little airtime in the media compared to other international conflicts, like the ongoing conflict in Syria…

Andrew: Well, Syria is not getting much airtime either.

Ellen: True, but I am considering the trend over the past few years, and the output of news stories on Yemen in markedly lower than those on Syria. A lot of the articles that are being published are saying ‘look how terrible this is, why is nothing happening?’ – so I’m interested to see if you think we need to move beyond this exposé kind of media, and how this could be done.

Andrew: The reason it is getting so little airtime is that Brexit absorbs everything. Even the best government in the world could only do so much, and getting media airtime and the focus of the government on Yemen is difficult in the current climate. There is a bit of it going on, but it is difficult. So that is the answer to your question. Syria did get a good bit of focus for some time. The decision in the House of Commons in 2013 to refuse to endorse government military action did not help. Look at the bloodshed that has taken place, with eleven million of a population of twenty-two million in Syria being displaced. But now, Syria is moving into that second phase which I described to you, where the fighting ends and we see a tentative start to negotiations. The British government needs to do more, in my view, to accept realpolitik. The Russians are in the driving seat on these negotiations internationally, and we need to play our role as part of the international community in making sure those negotiations are as comprehensive and rapid as they possibly can be.

Ellen: Do you think it is also in any way linked to the war in Syria having an impact of the UK with the migrant crisis, and things feeling a lot closer to home through that, whereas Yemen could feel more contained, and like it is someone else’s problem?

Andrew: That’s a good point. Certainly there was the migrant dimension to the Syrian crisis, but Britain was pretty insulated from it. Britain has actually taken in, and granted settled status to more Syrian migrants than most of the other countries in Europe. Britain did more humanitarian relief work in the countries around Syria, and inside Syria itself, for people displaced by the war, than the rest of the European Union put together. So we have been heavily involved. Concerning the physical presence of migrants, it was mainly Greece and Italy in the front line, with some of the Balkan states. There is a very good and moving book by Christina Lamb about a Syrian girl in a wheelchair who made it up through the Balkans to Germany. The problem with Yemen is that not only are we not insulated, we are implicated, because we are loosely part of a coalition that is blockading this country. So certainly it is contained, because the country is being blockaded. There is a danger that we are therefore complicit with the creation – in 2018 – of a famine. There are low levels of cholera there, high levels of malnutrition, low levels of starvation, there has been an outbreak of diphtheria. These things are the result of smashed infrastructure – sewers not working, clean water no longer being available, lack of fuel. Although it is even further away than Syria, and we are less clearly engaged in the politics of it (in Syria we weren’t engaged militarily except some involvement against ISIL), in Yemen we are loosely part of a coalition with the Saudis and we are an arms supplier to the conflict.

Ellen: It is not just the media neglecting the issue of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen – for instance, only around thirty MPs showed up the emergency debate you called back in December 2017. Does it feel like you are one of the only people trying to voice the concerns about what is going on in Yemen?

Andrew: No, it doesn’t – there are lots of MPs who are very concerned and there are lots of different meetings focused on the issue. Also, you shouldn’t judge the number who turned up to the emergency debate – it was on a Thursday; there are many committee meetings of other groups, people dealing with their constituents, people going back to their constituencies on a Thursday. The number in attendance is not in any way significant. The fact that the Speaker granted an emergency debate is the significant factor. There is concern about the situation in Yemen in this country, and interest from the media (the Today programme on the BBC covered the issue on the day after I returned from Saudi Arabia). There is a low level drum beat of concern, but it is a pity the drum beat isn’t a lot louder.

Ellen: Given the safety risks for foreign nationals travelling to Yemen, what made you visit the country?

Andrew: I am the only European politician that has been to Yemen in the last three and a half years, certainly to Sana’a and up to Sa’dah. I went because I was invited by Oxfam and the United Nations – you can’t go in except with Saudi permission, and I am grateful to the Saudis for allowing me to go. I wished to take a journalist with me, but the Saudis were not happy about that. However, they did let me in, something they may have regretted subsequently. No one can go there unless they are allowed in by the Saudis – the country is blockaded by land, sea, and air.

Ellen: What struck you the most on your visit about the state of the country?

Andrew: I was struck by the beauty of the architecture. I was struck by the extent of military engagement that was going on in the country, both the devastation and the bombing. I went to the north to Sa’dah, which has largely been destroyed by bombing attacks. I was struck by the suffering of the people there, the people I met in the hospitals and the schools. I don’t have the temerity to suggest I know what the solutions to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen are, but I know you have to get to a negotiation, and that is what I am trying to help ensure happens in Yemen. My view is always that of someone who is a humanitarian. The people who suffer in these conflicts are not the politicians, or the leaders, the people who have money, it is ordinary people. The ordinary people of Syria, the ordinary people of Yemen, live in a state of terror. Eleven million have moved out of their houses in Syria – if this was Britain, thirty-two million people would be on the move in some way or another. Five million people are displaced within Syria, five million outside the country, and another million are making their way to Europe, placing themselves in the hands of the modern equivalent of the slave trader, putting themselves in a leaky boat in the hope of tipping up on a more prosperous shore. These are the people who suffer, not the people with money and power, ministers, politicians and senior generals. It is the ordinary people, and I saw plenty of evidence in Yemen of their sufferings. I have in my office in the House of Commons a wonderful picture I was given of an elderly Yemeni man. The sorrow, misery, and pain is etched on his face, and I keep it my office to remind me, always, of the humanitarian cost of conflict.

Ellen: Did you see aid being effective in alleviating some of this suffering for ordinary people?

Andrew: Yes, I saw the work of Oxfam in two camps, looking after five thousand people in very difficult terrain. Basically Oxfam had done a deal with the neighbouring towns that they would make the water work in these two towns as long as they would accept people who had been displaced living just outside the towns themselves. British NGOs were providing healthcare, clean water, medicines, and food. The humanitarian services of the UN have been run by Jamie McGoldrick who has given so much of his time and career to helping the suffering people of Yemen through his work at the UN.

Ellen: As someone with a lot of experience in humanitarian work, aid, and development work before you became Secretary of State for International Development, how important do you think it is for those working in development for the government to have experience in the developing world, and what have your experiences taught you?

Andrew: I had an unusual and utterly wonderful apprenticeship because for five years I was the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. Being in opposition is absolutely ghastly, but one thing you can do is prepare for the time when you might be in government. So for five years, I went around the world sitting at the feet of the people who know the most and have the greatest experience, learning from Professor Yunus about microfinance, from Bill Gates about the brilliant work the Gates Foundation does, learning about the capacities of the World Bank, visiting the development banks such as the African Development Bank, when it was run by the former finance minister of Rwanda. So I was able to hoover up all of these experiences and arrive in government after five years of studying it all, with a coherent view, approved by the Shadow Cabinet, of what Britain’s contribution should be. We have stood by the 0.7% [commitment of national income to be used for international development]. I’m incredibly proud to have been part of a government, that despite the austerity in Britain chose not balance the books on the backs of the poorest people in the world, but stood by Britain’s promise and commitment and implemented the 0.7%. I think it is a matter of immense pride, not pride for politicians, but for Britain that we stood by this commitment.

Ellen: Do you think there is an opposition in views with the government being dedicated to this 0.7% being earmarked for aid, and the thoughts and feelings of the general population? Is there an anti-aid narrative in Britain at the moment?

Andrew: Of course opinion is divided. We did some polling when I was Secretary of State for International Development which showed that despite austerity, support for the government’s development policies had increased to around fifty per cent. There is a powerful lobby against, which is articulated by the Daily Mail and others, and a powerful lobby of people who support investment in development, particularly young people. The point I make is this – it is very important the government stands up for it, that government ministers at all levels make it clear that this is not some sort of rich person’s slush fund, which government ministers dispense. It is a key area of national interest. Every penny of Britain’s development budget is spent in the interest of Britain, because it makes the world safer and more prosperous. It is also, I would submit, one of the best investments in the younger generation. For your generation, which incidentally heavily supports international development, it is a key way of ensuring you inherit a world that is safer and more prosperous. So, it is very important that the government stands up for it. I think that by pandering to the Daily Mail and suggesting that the money isn’t being well spent undermines the policy and therefore the respect with which Britain’s development work should be endowed.

Ellen: This feeds into my next question of how far is aid about national security, and how much is it about ‘doing the right thing’, more of a moral consciousness issue?

Andrew: You are, if I may say so, setting up an artificial distinction, because by investing British taxpayer’s money to make the world safer and more prosperous, you are doing both. Helping people such as women in Somalia, one of the most dysfunctional countries in the world, helps elevate the condition of the life of people there, which is a moral point, but equally it is not so long ago that there were more people with British passports training in terrorist camps in Somalia than there were in Pakistan or Afghanistan. So by helping Somalia be a more functional state, we are making ourselves safer as well as improving life for them. I would argue that it is not one thing or the other.

Ellen: Looking back towards the conflict in Yemen more specifically, how vital is it for the West to sort of keep Saudi Arabia ‘on our side’?

Andrew: Well it is important for Saudi to keep us on their side and it is important for us to keep them on our side as well. It cuts both ways. I think what the Crown Prince is doing in Saudi Arabia is enormously impressive; he is trying to move a society which is very different from ours, with very different values, into a better place, as he sees it, and as we would see it. I think he should be strongly supported, and credited, with that. On Yemen, Saudi Arabia has legitimate defence and security interests which it should pursue. But they are driving the Houthis yet further into the arms of the Iranians; the Houthis occupy the ground, and they are waging a war from the air which can never be successfully prosecuted. This is gravely damaging Saudi national interest, and our interests with it. In my view, we do not do our friends in Saudi Arabia any service by not spelling out what we think are the difficulties and concerns. They can ignore us, and they can disagree with us, but we would be failing in our duties as candid friends if we did not spell out what we think the dangers are of the policy they are pursuing.

Ellen: Is Iran a threat to British national security right now, or is it a danger more as a regional threat to the Middle East?

Andrew: I think Britain’s national interest, and the world’s interest are best served by trying to bring Iran in from the cold. I think we need far more contact with Iranians – this is a very sophisticated, interesting society with a big middle class, who have got lots to lose. An ancient civilisation. A little humility is needed from Britain too, as we destabilised and destroyed the legitimate government of Mosaddegh, engineering the coup d’état, when he was the legitimately elected prime minister of Iran. I think the best interests of all would be served by bringing Iran into the comity of nations, and engaging with them to stop support proxy militias and forces around the world, persuading them that there is a better way. And that can only be done through engagement.

Ellen: It doesn’t seem very useful for the British media, or Donald Trump on his Twitter account, to be labelling Iran as a sort of ‘centre of evil’, as no country is going to respond well to being labelled so sweepingly negatively.

Andrew: No, but foreign interests of Iran, as they perceive them, are not the same as ours, let’s be clear about that. Nevertheless, our interest is in trying to bring them in, trying to make sure the nuclear deal works, and not to undermine that deal.

Ellen: Earlier last year, you said that you were not in favour of an arms embargo to Saudi Arabia, as you believed Britain could retain more control by selling the Saudis weapons directly.

Andrew: That’s not quite what I said, but I know what you mean.

Ellen: After Trump’s $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis, and no real sign of the conflict in Yemen cooling, do you stand by what you said?

Andrew: Yes, I am not calling for an arms embargo by Britain on Saudi Arabia. Why? Because Saudi has legitimate defence interests, they are surrounded by their enemies and they are a very rich country – they are going to get the weapons anyway. If we sell arms to them, we have some chance of making sure they use them in accordance with the rules of war, as indeed we did when we stopped them from using cluster bombs sold to them in 1986, which are way beyond their usage and date – weapons devised in a different era for defensive activity. They should not be used in these circumstances, or indeed in any circumstances which I could envision. We were able to persuade the Saudis not to use them. When we sell them weapons, we have some influence, and I think that is important. There is also something I find rather repulsive about Westminster politicians salving their moral conscious at the expense of good quality jobs in the northwest of England.

Ellen: Do you think it is a matter of Britain having to trust the Saudis to use responsibly weapons we are providing them with, and can they be trusted to do this?

Andrew: A strong and candid relationship between Saudi Arabia and Britain would be one that insists on the international rules of war being obeyed, and a commitment not to break international humanitarian law, and commit human rights abuse. With every country we should always have a zero tolerance of breaches of that. I think that from our wider relationship, which includes the fact that we do have a strong commercial relationship with Saudi Arabia through the sale of arms, we do have an ability to influence them in the ways I described.

Ellen: Will Norway’s pledges to stop selling arms to countries involved in the conflict in Yemen, and the recent announcement by the German government in its coalition agreement to stop providing arms, impact the war in any way?

Andrew: Well I think it puts greater pressure on us, and it underlines the fact that strategic decision taken by Britain, that the security and commercial relationship with Saudi Arabia trumps everything else, is fundamentally flawed. The current situation is making us unsafe because of the radicalisation of tens of thousands of young Yemenis, and is also making our commercial relationship less secure, because of the decisions taken by our allies such as Germany and Norway. This inevitably affects the perception of what we are doing. It shows you that the decision that has been made is wrong.