The situation in Yemen -Adjournment Speech

11 September 2017

I rise to draw to the Senate's attention to a massive humanitarian crisis whose consequences have for two years ricocheted across the Middle East. Since March 2015, Yemen, the second largest country in the Arabian Peninsula and home to some 28 million people, has been ravaged by civil war. Protracted conflict between the Houthi rebels and a coalition of forces supporting the recognised president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, has riven the nation, tearing families and livelihoods to pieces. Three million Yemenis have been internally displaced and forced to flee their homes, and over 8,400—or even, perhaps, 10,000—have been killed. At least 5,100 were civilians and almost 1,200 of those were children.

Even before the conflict, the situation in Yemen was dire. The national general acute malnutrition rate was 16 per cent for children under the age of five and the severe acute malnutrition rate was 5.2 per cent—both above emergency levels. The UN has estimated that two-thirds of the Yemeni population now faces shortages of food and clean water. Four million Yemenis, including 462,000 children, are currently suffering from acute malnutrition. That's close to the equivalent of the entire population of my home state of Tasmania. On top of all of this, the population's lack of access to food and clean, safe drinking water has caused more than half a million people to contract cholera, making Yemen the site of the world's largest and fastest-growing cholera epidemic. When treated, cholera has a 99 per cent recovery rate, but in Yemen, without the supplies or the facilities required for treatment, more than 2,000 of the disease's victims have died so far.

The ideals and the goals of international humanitarian law and international human rights law have been ignored and completely breached in Yemen. The International Committee of the Red Cross describes Yemen as 'the world's single largest humanitarian crisis':

The situation in Yemen is dire, with less than half of the hospitals and clinics still open. Medical staff and Yemen Red Crescent staff and volunteers continue to carry out their tasks as best they can despite acute shortages on all fronts.

So tonight I want to pay tribute to the efforts of the Red Cross, but I particularly want to acknowledge the recent sad news about the death of Dr Abdulah Alkhamesi, the founder of the Yemen Red Crescent Society and its leader for nearly three decades. The death of Dr Alkhamesi was hastened by a lack of essential medical supplies—a direct consequence of the conflict and of the debilitating restrictions on imports such as much-needed drugs and medical supplies into Yemen. As The Washington Post recently highlighted:

The conflict in Yemen, the Arab world's most impoverished nation, is a calamity by any measure.

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Yemenis are confronted by a brutal war, conducted by a patchwork of opportunistic factions, and the simultaneous collapse of the country's long-fragile state.

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The lack of a political solution has exacted a hideous cost …

How can this be allowed to continue? I do acknowledge the Australian government's commitment of $10 million in assistance, announced in April, in response to this worsening humanitarian situation in Yemen. But this alone is not enough. Indeed, our capacity to meaningfully contribute to the international response to humanitarian crises, providing vital assistance to those most in need across the globe, has been curtailed by this government's relentless determination, since 2013, to reduce Australia's aid budget. Since coming to power, both the Abbott and the Turnbull governments have relentlessly hacked at our aid budget, abandoning Australia's bipartisan commitment of GNI growth and overseeing a 24.2 per cent cut to the development budget since 2013. This has taken Australia to its lowest level of spending in overseas aid as a proportion of GNI since records were first kept. The 2017-18 budget further weakened Australia's overseas aid spending, with the Turnbull government cutting an additional $303 million over the forward estimates. Over the next decade, our aid program will continue to weaken, and the Turnbull government has set on a course for an ever-diminishing contribution of our national income to development assistance.

This is simply unacceptable. We as Australians are incredibly lucky to live in a prosperous and peaceful country where we enjoy steady and sustainable economic growth. Our lives and our families will not be torn apart by war. I call on the Turnbull government to commit to the reversal of cuts to our aid and development budget, because we can and we must do more to ensure that the work of agencies which provide critical assistance to the world's most vulnerable people, like those in Yemen, is supported, promoted and made visible. Indeed, just last month, I had the pleasure of relaunching the Parliamentary Friends of UNICEF group with my co-chair, Andrew Broad MP. UNICEF of course works in more than 190 countries to promote and protect the rights of children. But it was when I was seconded to the UN last year that I had the opportunity to engage closely with UNICEF at its headquarters. I learnt that, in the conjunction with the World Health Organization, they have provided aid to 3.5 million people across Yemen, Africa and the Middle East as this crisis has unfolded. By July this year, UNICEF had vaccinated some 4.8 million children in Yemen against polio and treated nearly 82,000 children for severe acute malnutrition. Nearly 2.2 million people gained access to water through UNICEF's rehabilitation and support for operation of systems, while its hygiene kits reached over 170,000 people.

But UNICEF's work in Yemen is not finished. It will deliver life-saving health, nutrition, WASH, education, child protection and social protection services to nearly 17.3 million people, including 9.9 million girls and boys. Some 8.1 million children will gain sustained access to education through UNICEF's rehabilitation of schools, establishment of temporary learning spaces and distribution of school materials. To achieve this, UNICEF has revised its appeal from US$236.6 million to US$339 million. As of 4 July this year, it has received US$170.3 million.

It's important to recall that UNICEF does not receive any funding from the UN. It relies on voluntary contributions from individuals, foundations, governments and businesses. Therefore, I call on all Australians to remember the crucial importance of international aid and cooperation and to strive for a safe and harmonious community for all people by supporting organisations like UNICEF and their Change for Good program, a program we all know if we often travel on international and even domestic Qantas flights. I also call on the Turnbull coalition government to commit to the reversal of these relentless cuts to Australia's international aid budget, which is predicted to fall to its lowest level in history by this time next year, and for them to work closely with other donors, countries in the region and humanitarian partners to ensure the safe passage of aid to the most vulnerable people on this planet.

Finally, I urge all parties in Yemen to remove the barriers that are preventing the importation and distribution of food and medical supplies to civilians. Indeed, I hope for an end to this tragic humanitarian crisis.