UK defends cuts in aid funding to Yemen

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned 'cutting aid is a death sentence'

A Yemeni medic checks on cancer patients at the National Oncology Centre in the capital Sanaa on March 3, 2021. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday defended his government's plan to halve humanitarian aid for war-torn Yemen.

An international aid conference on Yemen this week pledged less than half of the funds needed to prevent what the UN warns is a looming famine.

"Cutting aid is a death sentence," UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, in remarks echoed in the UK Parliament by opposition leaders grilling Mr Johnson at the weekly prime minister's questions.

Britain pledged £87 million ($122m), about half the amount it offered at last year's Yemen conference, and only 40 per cent of the total funding it provided to the country during 2020.

Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour party, said Mr Johnson could not justify cutting the aid, and questioned continued sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia.

He spoke of last month's decision by the new administration of President Joe Biden to pause US arms sales to Saudi Arabia pending a revew.

The kingdom, at the request of the internationally recognised government of Yemen, is leading a coalition against Iran-backed Houthi rebels who overthrew it in 2015.

"It is true that current straightened circumstances, which I'm sure the people of this country understand, mean that temporarily we must reduce aid spending," Mr Johnson said, noting the Covid-19 pandemic's impact on UK finances.

"But that does not obscure the fact that when it comes to our duty to the people of Yemen, we continue to step up to the plate."

He said Britain had given about £1 billion in the past five years.

"It's a record of which this country can be proud," Mr Johnson said.

"Given the difficulties that this country faces, I think the people of this country will think we've got our priorities right."

He said the government continued "scrupulously to follow the humanitarian guidance, which are among the toughest measures anywhere in the world in respect of all arms sales".

The UK government is planning to scrap a legally enshrined target for its aid budget this year, leading to accusations even from its own ranks that it is abandoning some of the world's poorest and most vulnerable people.

Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell said cutting the UK's overall aid commitment was a "strategic mistake with deadly consequences".