I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights and the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mrs Gillan.
Last week, BBC parliamentary correspondent Mark D’Arcy remarked that I have emerged as a regular Commons critic of the human rights record of Saudi Arabia. I cannot argue with that assertion, and I have no doubt that in securing this debate I will build upon that reputation.
I am certainly no stranger to Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers, and I put on the record my appreciation to the Middle East Minister, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), for having met me privately on a number of occasions to discuss my concerns about specific human rights cases in Saudi Arabia.
I will use the latter part of my speech to discuss the situation in Yemen, but I will focus first on the domestic human rights record in Saudi. Last September, during a debate in this very room, I first spoke of the case of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, a Saudi national. Ali was arrested at the age of 17 back in 2012, during the time of the Arab spring protests. After a trial that has been described as unfair by the United Nations special rapporteur, Christof Heyns, among many others, Ali was sentenced to a barbaric death by beheading and crucifixion. His final appeal, heard in secret and without his knowledge, was dismissed. In the nine months since that debate in Westminster Hall, Ali’s case has significantly risen in prominence, with many other politicians adding their voices to the chorus of international condemnation, and more than 1.5 million people from around the world have signed an online petition calling for Ali’s sentence to be commuted.
The UK Government have also raised Ali’s case, and the similar cases of Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon, at the highest possible level with Saudi authorities, receiving assurances that the death sentences will not be carried out. However, those three young men remain in prison. Although they have seemingly been spared from their ultimate fate so far, their sentences have not been lifted and the threat of execution still hangs over them. I will continue to campaign for Ali, Dawood and Abdullah, and I wish to see them released from incarceration so that they can live their lives and build their futures. I commend the work of the organisations, in particular Reprieve, that are campaigning to secure the release of these young men.
I hope that the Minister who is here today will be able to indicate whether those cases have been raised again with Saudi authorities recently. Although it has been asserted on several occasions that the UK Government do not expect the three death sentences to be carried out, can he clarify whether the Government have officially asked the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to commute them?
Does the hon. Lady know whether, once a decision for execution is made, there are a few days, a few hours or a few weeks before it is carried out? Or do we just not know, and therefore the big problem might be that executions are carried out secretly before we even know that they have happened?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I believe that we do not know. I say that because at the beginning of this year 47 people were executed, and we did not know about those executions until after they had happened. I will talk more about those people later in my speech. I believe that the UK Government do not really have much clout when it comes to stopping death sentences being carried out.
Sadly, the cases I have mentioned are not isolated. There are countless similar cases, and each one points to a corrupt justice system that is being used as a tool for political oppression. Since the Arab spring, Saudi authorities have been purposely targeting civil rights activists and human rights defenders.
Issa al-Hamid, a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, has been sentenced to nine years in prison by the specialised criminal court in Riyadh. The charges against Issa relate to statements published online on a range of civil and human rights issues, such as the right to peaceful assembly. Freedom of speech is easily taken for granted in the United Kingdom, but it has not been afforded to Issa, nor to Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, another member of the association. The charges against Abdulaziz include communicating with foreign organisations, due to his passing information to Amnesty International for use in its reports. He now faces eight years in prison, and after his release he also faces an eight-year travel ban and will be forbidden from using social media. Clearly, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association is being targeted, as the Saudi authorities are determined to crush this movement.
All those things are being done to suppress any criticism of Saudi’s atrocious human rights record. I hope that the Minister will be able to inform me today of whether the Foreign Office has raised with the Saudi authorities the issue of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, and the apparent targeting and imprisonment of its members.
Similarly, the website known as “Free Saudi Liberals” has felt the wrath of the Saudi regime. The man behind the website, Raif Badawi, received 50 lashes in public, purely for exercising free speech. He still languishes in a prison cell, awaiting the remainder of his sentence, which is another 950 lashes. International outcry has so far led to Raif being spared that ordeal, which he would be unlikely to survive and which still looms large over him.
Raif’s punishment has been described as a “gratuitous, violent sentence” by the international representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union at the UN’s Human Rights Council. Fearing for the safety of herself and her family, Raif’s wife Ensaf escaped to Canada with their three children, where she speaks out against the wide-scale oppression in her home country.
Ensaf’s voice is part of a growing international chorus that is extremely concerned at what is seemingly a worsening situation in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has executed almost 100 people this year alone, 47 of them on the same day at the start of the year. One of those 47 people was the uncle of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a well-known Muslim cleric. Last year, the equivalent of one person every two days was executed in Saudi. Sadly, that number seems likely to be surpassed this year. Saudi’s record is ruthlessly regressive.
The UK Government have stressed that, despite not renewing their strategy for the global abolition of the death penalty during this Parliament, there is no change in policy and they continue to work towards its global abolition. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me today when the UK last raised concerns with Saudi Arabia about the number of executions being carried out in the country, and at what level those concerns were raised. Also, in light of the escalation in the number of executions in Saudi and in other countries, do the Government intend to look again at their decision and produce a renewed strategy for the abolition of the death penalty? It is only right that we use our supposed position of influence to lobby Saudi towards having more responsible domestic policy.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful and cogent case. May I tell her, as somebody who has campaigned all over the world against the use of the death penalty, that statements by this country actually mean a tremendous amount, both to those who are campaigning on the ground for the abolition of the death penalty and to the countries that still have the death penalty? Those countries will see any shift by this country away from a strong position on abolition as a move in their direction.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for his knowledge on the matter.
We should also take a tougher stance on Saudi’s foreign policy. As one of Saudi Arabia’s major trading partners—we sell billions of pounds of weapons to Saudi each year—the UK should be bolder in its approach.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Is she as concerned as I am about the recent report by the United Nations called “Children and Armed Conflict”, which set out the escalating position in Yemen, including the increasing number of casualties among children, for which responsibility is ascribed to the Saudi-led regime? Is that not something that our Government need to take extremely seriously?
I will come on to that point later. The UN and others have brought out an extremely important document, and the Government need to take such things seriously.
Is the hon. Lady aware of the inquiry into the Yemen conflict by the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which have heard evidence from non-governmental organisations, the defence industry and Government? The report will be published before the summer recess. As she clearly states, there are serious concerns about violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. Does she agree that the UK has international and domestic obligations on arms export controls and that we have to hold ourselves to the highest standards?
Order. I remind Members that interventions should be short.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important intervention and for his experience from the Committees. These things are important for the UK, and that is why we are here today. We should be an example to the rest of the world, and I would like to think that the Minister will take that on board.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am sorry, but I would like to make some progress.
The Minister will no doubt contest that our relationship with Saudi Arabia is crucial in securing global and domestic security and that the intelligence we receive has helped to foil terror attacks. We cannot, however, continue to trade off our responsibilities like that. With a growing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and mounting reports indicating that international humanitarian law has been seriously and repeatedly breached by all parties engaged in warfare in the country—including the Saudi-led coalition—the Government need to get their head out of the sand.
Yesterday morning, I attended a briefing kindly delivered by Amnesty International and heard both first and second-hand accounts of the use of cluster munitions in Yemen. Amnesty went on a fact-finding mission to Yemen last month and found evidence of UK-produced BL755 cluster munitions being dropped on farmland in the north of the country. It estimates that the munitions were dropped from the air in the last quarter of 2015 and provides a compelling case to back up that assertion. The Yemen Executive Mine Action Centre moved in to clear the cluster bombs from the farmland, but could not guarantee that it had been able to locate and remove all munitions. The de facto minefield means that the land is now unworkable, and the people who rely on working it have lost their means of providing.
YEMAC is not properly resourced to deal adequately with the problem. Rather than bombs being detonated in situ, they are being transported to a central facility in buckets of sand on trucks traversing uneven roads. Sadly, YEMAC recently lost three workers when a bomb exploded while being transported. The work that it carries out is crucial in helping to prevent deaths and injuries caused by munitions that are lying in wait in dangerous unexploded states. People will recall the fantastic work of Princess Diana in raising awareness of mines, leading to the success of the Ottawa mine ban treaty. Putting herself in danger in the process, she left behind a lasting legacy through her bold activism. If she were still here today, I have no doubt she would be a fierce advocate for the civilians suffering in the growing humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
In stark contrast, the UK goes to great lengths to ensure that the arms trade with Saudi Arabia continues unhampered. Back in 2014, when the Prime Minister could not convince the Saudis to agree to the financing for a multibillion-pound defence deal, Prince Charles was dispatched to the middle east to a festival supported by BAE Systems to perform a sword dance in traditional Saudi attire. The next day, Saudi Arabia and BAE announced that the deal had been finalised. Great effort is put into maintaining our relationship and arms trade with Saudi Arabia.
Less effort seems to be going into supporting such organisations as YEMAC. The training for its workers is outdated—most dates back to 1998. It does not have the means to carry out controlled explosions in situ. Its workers lack proper personal safety equipment and are routinely being put in greater danger than they should be. Perhaps the Minister would care to address that. Has the UK offered to supply any funding, equipment or training to YEMAC? If so, has it been delivered? If not, will an undertaking be made to look at that urgently, taking the matter forward as appropriate with colleagues in the Department for International Development?
The use of cluster munitions in Yemen is scandalous. The country already faces an almost incomprehensible humanitarian crisis. The country has the greatest level of humanitarian need in the world, with 80% of the population in need of assistance.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is almost ridiculous that the Government refused 12 applications for asylum by people from Yemen, given the situation in that country?
Yes, the issue is tied up with the fact that the Government do not want to take that many refugees. With a country such as Yemen, where there is a humanitarian crisis, it would certainly be to the benefit of the people and those suffering children to be brought into our country, away from ever more danger.
The creation of de facto minefields through the dropping of cluster bombs will only deepen the crisis. Yesterday, I joined Amnesty International and Members from all main parties to deliver a petition to 10 Downing Street. Thousands signed the petition, which calls for action on the use of cluster munitions in Yemen. Other Members will no doubt have received many lobbying emails from constituents on this matter, as I have—the public care greatly about this issue.
Just a fortnight ago in the main Chamber, the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise responded to a topical question from the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). On the record, she stated that there is not yet evidence that Saudi Arabia has used cluster munitions. She added that the Government believe they have an assurance from Saudi Arabia that cluster munitions have not been used in the conflict, and that the Ministry of Defence was urgently investigating the allegations. Given the urgency of the matter, is the Minister in a position to give an update on the status of the MOD investigation? When is it expected to be completed, and will the findings be disclosed to Members?
Amnesty International has released photographs of the cluster munitions they claim to be of UK origin. In some of the photographs, serial numbers are visible on the bombs. Will the tracing of the transfer history of the bombs, based on the serial numbers, form part of any investigation? Why exactly are the UK Government so willing to accept assurances from Saudi Arabia without question? What specific evidence has Saudi Arabia provided to the UK or the international community to back up the veracity of the denials? What evidence is there that Saudi authorities are investigating breaches in international humanitarian law in Yemen?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. It is certainly timely. Is she aware of the outcome of the inquiry by the International Development Committee, which suggested that an independent investigation should be undertaken, rather than Saudi Arabia investigating itself?
Yes, it seems crazy for a country to investigate itself. An independent organisation should come in to investigate all those tied up in violations of this sort.
Have any of the UK ground personnel based in Saudi Arabia witnessed the transfer or loading of cluster bombs? Are any of them in possession of intelligence indicating that cluster munitions have been deployed by Saudi in Yemen? The United States has subsequently halted its cluster bomb deliveries to Saudi Arabia in light of those reports. Commenting on that freeze in trade, a senior US official cited reports that
“the Saudi-led coalition used cluster munitions in the armed conflict in Yemen…in areas in which civilians are alleged to have been present”,
as reason for that action.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful point. Does she agree that the failure to hold to account is leading to an “anything goes” attitude? The people who are really suffering are innocent civilians, many of whom are women and children.
It is dreadful to think of the suffering and targeting of civilians. We need to take the matter seriously and move it forward today.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I would like to make some progress.
A report from the UN panel of experts on Yemen published in January notes on page 37 that the military spokesman of Saudi Arabia, Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri, has indicated that Saudi has used cluster munitions on or against armoured vehicles in Yemen. In light of the position taken by the US and the overt admission contained in the UN report, has the UK updated its policy of denial about the Saudi use of cluster bombs? Will the Government put pressure on the coalition to release details, including GPS data, of air strikes involving cluster munitions? The data would be invaluable to organisations such as YEMAC and would allow for the creation of cluster bomb minefield heat maps that could be used to prioritise and deliver a de-mining process.
Furthermore, what information do the Government hold in relation to the stockpiling of cluster munitions? Is there an understanding of what is currently held by other countries that have not yet ratified the convention on cluster munitions? What efforts are being made by the Government to encourage Saudi and other non-signatories to become parties to the convention?
I have mentioned the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and before I finish I would like to expand further.
On that point, may I intervene?
No, I am sorry. I would like to make some progress and lots of Members want to take part in the debate today. I am sure they will give way to other Members.
I have mentioned the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. As I said, before I finish I want to expand further. Action on Armed Violence, a leading charity that charts the impact of explosive violence on civilians, estimates that 82% of those killed or injured by coalition air strikes in Yemen were civilians. A recent UN Security Council report on children and armed conflict documents a verified sixfold increase in the number of children killed and maimed in 2015 compared with the previous year, 60% of which are attributable to the Saudi-led coalition. The same report documents three verified incidents of coalition forces denying humanitarian access.
Save the Children, the largest international non-governmental organisation operating in Yemen, has issued grave concerns about the lack of an adequate Government response to credible allegations of international humanitarian and human rights law violations by all parties to the conflict in Yemen. This assertion is backed up through evidence collated and reported on by Campaign Against Arms Trade in its recent publication entitled, “A Shameful Relationship: UK Complicity in Saudi State Violence”.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I am sorry; I am not giving way.
The response to the humanitarian crisis by the Department for International Development has been welcome. However, it highlights the complete and total policy incoherence between Government Departments. UK foreign policy is contributing to the disaster, with resources subsequently being used to deal with the consequences. The most worrying report on the crisis is that of the United Nations panel of experts on Yemen. Its recent 259-page report makes very uncomfortable reading. It claims:
“The panel has observed that not a single humanitarian pause to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people has been fully observed by any Yemeni party or by the coalition.”
The special envoy brokered two separate humanitarian pauses, but within two hours of the announced start of the first pause, UN officials witnessed a coalition air strike in Sana’a. According to some press reports, fighting actually intensified during the second pause. The UN report worryingly contains very well documented evidence that the Saudi-led coalition is violating the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in a widespread and systematic manner.
The panel has documented that the coalition had conducted air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, again in violation of international humanitarian law, including refugee camps, weddings, civilian buses, medical facilities, schools, mosques and markets, and essential civilian infrastructure. The targeting of seaports, an airport and arterial transit routes has seriously hampered efforts to deliver humanitarian aid in the country. In May, the coalition declared the entire city of Sa’dah a military target, and, soon after, it faced systematic indiscriminate attacks, including on hospitals and schools, by the coalition. The UN report also documents incidents whereby humanitarian assistance is denied: something it overtly says is constitutive of a war crime.
Last November, three trucks, on behalf of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Health Organisation, were unable to reach their final destinations owing to insecurity and delays in receiving security clearances from the coalition. The panel also documented coalition air strikes on five storage facilities for holding food aid, and air strikes on an Oxfam warehouse storing equipment for a water project funded by the European Union. Annex 47 of the report lists classified totals of many documented international humanitarian law violations from the coalition, including 41 individual air strikes on residential areas and villages, eight attacks on schools, 22 attacks on hospitals and health facilities, and seven attacks on humanitarian organisations and NGOs.
The Prime Minister is on record in the Chamber on 27 January as saying he would look at the report. Has he followed through on this promise, and what assessment has been made of the report by the Foreign Office? Will the Government support the establishment of an international independent investigation into alleged violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law by all parties engaged in conflict in Yemen? Have the UK Government ever suspended or revoked any arms export licence to Saudi Arabia? Finally, will the Government now, in the light of all this evidence, follow the examples set by Germany and Sweden and impose a ban on the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia while an investigation takes place?
A large number of people have indicated that they wish to speak, and people not on the list are also rising, so I will probably have to impose a time limit. I will start with Sir Alan Duncan and I ask Members to be as brief and as succinct as they possibly can.
I will impose my own time limit, Mrs Gillan, and chuck away my notes. First, I thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for launching this debate. The issue is highly charged and it is important we discuss it. I declare an interest as chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council and I am the Government’s special envoy to Yemen. I have taken an interest in Yemen for 30 years. As a Minister for International Development, I tried to lift the significance of Yemen up the agenda of the National Security Council and in the House. I saw it as a country in serious danger that was at risk of becoming the Afghanistan of the Arabian peninsula. In that sense, one realises what a complicated issue this is.
I totally respect the passion—I refer to the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) and my attempt to complete the sentence in the Chamber the other day—that surrounds this issue. Be assured that all of us in this House are against cluster munitions, which is why the Government have banned them since 1989. We condemn their use totally. Let us park that to one side for a moment.
I have hardly got going, but I will give way, even though the hon. Lady did not give way to me.
I knew the right hon. Gentleman would have his chance to speak. As I said in my speech, YEMAC has photographic evidence of cluster munitions being used in Yemen and they are not from the 1980s. If he wants proof, I have the photographs and so does YEMAC.
If they are not from the 1980s, they are clearly not ours.
I want to try to set the context. We have two important duties in looking at this deeply important issue. We have to set the highest possible standards when we sell weapons and we have to monitor their subsequent use. We also have to understand the real dangers of the region and delve deeply into countries with which people are not wholly familiar. Yemen is probably one of the most complicated countries I have ever tried to get my head round. I have a deep understanding of the Gulf Co-operation Council countries, but anyone who thinks they understand Yemen does not. They only begin to understand when they realise how much they do not understand.
The thing about Yemen—the hon. Lady did not mention this at all—is that we are in conflict for a reason. The conflict started because a legitimate Government were displaced by highly armed Houthi rebels who had raided heavy weapons stores and used those weapons against the legitimate Government. They pushed them out of Sana’a and headed down towards Aden. The hon. Lady did not mention the human rights violations committed by the Houthis. They have rounded up teenagers, put them in rooms and blown them up.
Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the evidence provided by Amnesty International? Is he suggesting for a second that Amnesty International does not understand what is going on in Yemen?
The hon. Lady gets too virulent in the way she puts things. I am not suggesting that Amnesty International does not understand; I am trying to explain the broad political and geopolitical context in which the conflict has arisen. That is not something we have heard in this debate so far—although we may—or that we heard in the main Chamber previously. There is a lot of Saudi bashing, but everyone needs to understand that a legitimate Government have been displaced. This is a coalition: for the first time ever, Arab countries are trying to address their own regional problems without western, co-operative joint intervention. We have been telling them for years to sort out their own problems, but as soon as they try to do so we round on them, as we are seeing in this debate.
Let me explain what is going on in Yemen. We are in the sixth week of some very crucial talks in Kuwait, during which there has been a cessation of hostilities. It has not held entirely—no cessation of hostilities ever does—but, broadly, it has happened. Remember where legitimacy lies: with the Government of Yemen, who have been forced out of the country into Saudi Arabia. The UN-sponsored talks are trying to get that legitimate Government back into Yemen.
Another point that has not yet been made is that, if we do not have the semblance of government in Yemen, we are going to have an enormous country, where there are more weapons than people, that is ungoverned. We know what happens in ungoverned space: the rise of terrorism, which affects the ungoverned country but also spreads elsewhere. Yemen is beneath Saudi Arabia and 350 Saudis have been killed inside Saudi Arabia in Houthi attacks over the southern border. That, too, has never been mentioned. If Yemen disintegrates even further, we are going to see the rise of al-Qaeda and ISIS, going across the Bab El Mandeb into the horn of Africa—
I am astonished that the hon. Lady shakes her head at these points of crucial geopolitical and strategic importance.
I will give way to the hon. Lady one more time, then I shall continue to make my point.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point on his side of the argument, but does that justify the targeting of civilians? Earlier, I said that all parties should be investigated for violations of humanitarian law. He makes a point about the rise in weapons, but the UK is contributing to that rise with the arms sale.
There are very different sorts of weapons. In Yemen, every teenager has a rifle on their shoulder. That is the sort of country we are dealing with. I question the hon. Lady’s bold assertion that there has been deliberate targeting of civilians. That is a very serious accusation.
No, I am not going to give way again. I am trying to say to the hon. Lady and her colleagues that they should appreciate the context in which the conflict has arisen.
Let me address something that the hon. Lady did touch on. If the peace talks are not successful and government is not restored to Yemen, we are going to see the most catastrophic combination of economic collapse and humanitarian need that we have seen in any country in our lifetime—even when compared with some parts of Syria. My plea to this House today and to Members present for this debate is that we must understand the dangers of adopting a “we hate Saudi Arabia” point of view.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
The hon. Lady will have the chance to answer back. I am sure that Mrs Gillan will allow everyone who wants to speak to do so. The less time I take, the more chance there is for others to speak.
This issue must be seen in the broader context of regional collapse, regional danger, humanitarian need and complete and total economic collapse in Yemen. That is what we are looking at. It is the duty of us all to understand the realities of the world and to try to ensure that we contribute to the success of the peace talks that are under way in Kuwait. We must not jeopardise them in any way by taking a singular view that does not understand the broader context of how the future of Yemen needs to be pieced together in those talks.
There is a great deal of interest in this debate and some nine or 10 Members have indicated that they wish to speak, so I am terribly sorry but I have to impose a three-minute limit on speeches to try to get in as many colleagues as possible. I am sure the effort will be admirably led by Andy Slaughter.
Thank you very much, Mrs Gillan, for calling me. Given the time constraint, I shall limit myself to one matter and try to bring us back to the topic of the debate: human rights and Saudi Arabia. The front page of The Times today has the headline, “British police accused of helping Saudi torturers”. I should say that the story is based on research by the BBC’s Chris Vallance and a report broadcast on “The World at One” yesterday, and, admirable though the article is, I wish he had been credited. Mr Vallance is admirable because he has done far better than I have in getting information released under freedom of information rules on the College of Policing’s relationship with the Saudi justice system.
As Members will remember—I am pleased to see almost 30 of them present, because it shows the level of interest in the subject—this matter began with the Justice Secretary’s withdrawal from the Saudi prison contract last October. Will the Minister encourage some consistency among Government Departments in their relations to Saudi Arabia? I know consistency is difficult when there is an in or out Minister in almost every Department, but on this issue we should have some. In response to an urgent question I asked last October, the Justice Secretary said to me, quite rightly, that
“the whole focus of the Ministry of Justice will be on maintaining the rule of law, upholding human rights and making sure that our citizens are protected effectively with a justice system in which all can take pride and have confidence.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 182.]
However, within a couple of weeks of his saying that, the Foreign Secretary was in the Gulf saying that it was business as usual with Saudi Arabia.
Following the withdrawal from that contract, I attempted, unsuccessfully, through parliamentary questions and FOI requests, to find out what the College of Policing’s relationship with Saudi Arabia was. Mr Vallance was successful in his FOI request and obtained a referral by the College of Policing to the International Police Assistance Board. It is a very candid application to supply sophisticated forensic aid to the Saudis. It warns that
“the skills being trained are used to identify individuals who later go on to be tortured or subjected to other human rights abuses”.
It also says that the application is motivated by
“achieving ‘value-added’ for the College through providing an income generating business opportunity”.
The sophisticated de-encryption techniques referred to would easily allow the Saudi security forces to trace down exactly the sort of young people we have heard about who are now on death row in Saudi Arabia.
Will the Minister explain what is going on with the assistance that the Government are giving to the Saudi regime? Do the Government intend to continue it, and will they publish the memorandum of understanding with the College of Policing so that we can see exactly what is happening?
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing the debate.
I shall be brief. Will the Minister give some analysis of our relationship with Saudi Arabia and how we might be influencing or moderating its attitude towards human rights?
My concern is this. We have a trading and diplomatic relationship, which necessarily means, I hope, that Ministers are engaged with the Saudis. I have experience not in this particular area, but in conflict areas in the middle east, so I appreciate that having an open door and the ability to influence or moderate behaviour is precious. I seek reassurance because of what has been said about human rights abuses, and because today thousands of people will be saying “#jesuisraif”—I hope that, in this country, Raif Badawi would never have been prosecuted or flogged for expressing his opinions online. I wish to be reassured that Ministers are constantly criticising public beheadings.
I declare an interest as a member of Amnesty International. Recently, we have been concerned about cluster bombs in the area, whether they were made in the 1980s or on the eve of when we signed the convention on cluster munitions. I wish to be reassured that Ministers are using the open door, even if it is open only very slightly, to address cluster munitions. Do we analyse where the stockpiles are? Are we helping to destroy them? If not, I fear that, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said, the open door means that we may be complicit.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the breaches of international humanitarian law, which she referred to, make the relief effort more difficult and dangerous, and conflict with the very good work that the Department for International Development is doing in the area?
I very much appreciate my hon. Friend’s intervention. The UK should promote precision arms, which minimise civilian casualties. Are we complicit in causing more civilian casualties, especially given the humanitarian effort and the people who are clearing up?
I will not take up the extra time that my hon. Friend has kindly given me, but I seek reassurance. Are we complicit, or are we influencing with the open door? I worked elsewhere in the middle east, and I know that, when the negotiations end and the international observers go away, things happen that are beyond one’s imagination—they are so horrific. I am not advocating a closed door, but I need reassurance.
The Government regularly repeat the line,
“the UK operates one of the most rigorous and transparent export control regimes in the world”.
That may be true, but it is clearly not good enough. Since March 2015, no export licence applications to Saudi have been refused due to non-compliance with criterion 2 of the consolidated criteria, which refers to the respect of international humanitarian law in the country of final destination and the respect of IHL by it. Meanwhile, as hon. Members know, £2.8 billion of arms sales have gone to Saudi since the start of the Yemen conflict.
There is mounting evidence from a range of sources that the Saudis have committed international humanitarian law breaches, so either our Government are breaking their own law or their arms export controls are not working. I hope, therefore, that they will look positively at something that is happening in the House of Lords, where one of my colleagues is introducing a private Member’s Bill to create a register of arms brokers, which would enhance transparency and lead to a more rigorous implementation of UK transfer controls.
The evidence about international humanitarian law violations by the Saudis is mounting. During the air strikes on the al-Mazraq camp for internally displaced people, all structures hit, according to the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen, were civilian infrastructure. That must constitute at the very least an indiscriminate attack, and at worst a direct attack on civilians. As hon. Members know, there were also air strikes against the Oxfam storage facility and a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital. Again, they must constitute indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
Reference was also made to Sa’ada and Ma’aran. In answer to a letter from me, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), said that in Sa’ada all the strikes in the city
“could be linked to a plausible military target.”
Clearly, the UN Security Council experts who looked at it think differently. How could a hospital or school be a plausible military target? How high a bar is plausible? Although it is noteworthy that the Saudis leafleted those two cities—the whole of which, as we have heard, were designated military targets—how realistic was it for the citizens to get out? In his reply, the Under-Secretary of State referred to Sa’ada, but not to what happened in Ma’aran. What exactly has the analysis there revealed?
It is clearly difficult in the limited time I have to make all the points I want to make. Three Departments—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—have played a role in this sorry episode. I think that, once IHL violations are confirmed, a ministerial head is going to have to roll.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to Save the Children and Amnesty International for their most excellent work. I draw the House’s attention to early-day motion 138, which I lodged in relation to the UN annual report on children and armed conflict, which was mentioned earlier.
The right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) talked about understanding geopolitics, but may I remind him that that is not the preserve of just the Conservative party? Nor have Conservative Members demonstrated by their actions in a number of international events that they have any great expertise in that. Mention was made of the realities of the world. Arguably, the influx of Scottish National party Members to the House of Commons has brought a number of realities of the world to the Chamber, which has only added to what we have been discussing.
This is not about whose side anyone is on in war. I cannot believe that anyone in this Chamber is in favour of armed conflict of any nature; we should not descend into a discussion about that. It is simply about whether we have knowledge, based on the evidence, that demonstrates that an investigation should take place.
I was pleased to be granted an urgent question last month, and I asked the MOD to make a statement on this pressing matter. We were told that UK weapons cannot have been used in this conflict because the Saudi Arabian military has told us so. What kind of investigation is that? We are asking a country to investigate itself. Let us bear in mind that that is the same Saudi Arabian Government whose human rights record is so bad that our own Ministry of Justice refused to do business with them.
There are a number of questions that need to be answered today, not least about the conflicting positions of different Government Departments. In Question Time, the Foreign Secretary stated that
“the Ministry of Defence is urgently investigating the allegations”—[Official Report, 24 May 2016; Vol. 611, c. 395.]
Then, in response to my urgent question just 10 minutes later, the Minister for Defence Procurement, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), contradicted that statement by saying that the Government will simply be “seeking fresh assurances” from the Saudi Arabian Government.
It is clear that the UK Government will not conduct their own investigations into the issue. That was confirmed on the BBC World Service in an interview with an MOD official, who said:
“We are not launching an investigation”.
I have written to the Prime Minister to ask what the position is. Are we having an investigation, or are we not? I am waiting for a response from both the Ministry of Defence and the FCO on this matter. There is absolutely no doubt that the evidence suggests that this merits an investigation. I simply do not know what the Government are waiting for to justify that.
It is a pleasure to speak on this matter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing this debate. I will speak, as I always do, on the basis of my beliefs.
The UK has relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The Governments and Oppositions in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia view UK defence sales as a signal of British support for those Governments. When we look at that, we get an idea of where we are. When we read about some of the things that Saudi Arabia does to Christians and other minorities, it is shocking to think that the UK is cosying up to that regime when convenient. I want to touch on some of those things.
Converting from Islam to another religion is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. Despite that, the number of Christians from Muslim backgrounds is growing. In recent years, Christians have been executed by the Saudi authorities for leaving Islam, and some people have been handed over to relatives and vanished, never to be heard of again—leaving Islam is seen as a great source of shame to families and communities in that strongly Islamic nation. Given such serious persecution of Christians in Saudi Arabia, many feel they have no choice but to flee—more Saudi Christians are estimated to be outside the country than in it—but there are still Muslims in Saudi Arabia risking their lives to follow their Lord Jesus. Christians used to make up less than 0.1% of Saudi Arabia’s population, but now 4.4% identify as Christian. We have to look at issues for Christians in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is included on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom list of the nations committing the worst religious freedom violations, comparable with China, Burma, North Korea and Iran. Saudi Arabia is also 14th on the Open Doors list of countries with the worst cases of Christian persecution. Christians are forced to live out their faith in secret. For example, at the end of 2014, Islamist police in Saudi Arabia stormed a Christian prayer meeting and arrested the entire congregation, including women and children, and confiscated their Bibles. They disappeared into the system, although I now understand that they have been deported—they were deported for worshipping their Lord Jesus. That is an example of what happens in Saudi Arabia.
As I have said before, Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate blanket bombing of Yemen, the murder of innocents and the destruction of property rankle with me and many in this Chamber, which is why we are glad to have the debate. The UK alliance with Saudi Arabia in general, and arms sales to the regime in particular, constitute a threat to security, as Saudi Arabia’s aggressive and reckless behaviour in the region contributes to the dynamics of fuelling extremist violence in the middle east and worldwide.
Many have condemned Saudi Arabia, including the UN Secretary-General, Save the Children, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development. We are on the wrong side of humanity if we continue to cosy up to the brutal theocracy of Saudi Arabia, and we will be on the wrong side of history with regard to the region. I and many other hon. Members believe that we need to do the right thing and to make it clear to Saudi Arabia that things will have to change if we are to continue doing any business with it at all.
I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate, Mrs Gillan. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for her determination to ensure that however hard the Government try, the issue will not go away until arms sales to the brutal regime in Saudi Arabia have been stopped.
It is sometimes said that politics is about compromise; I think it is much more important to say that politics is about knowing what is a compromise, and what should never be compromised—some things are absolute. It is all very well to talk about complex geopolitical, diplomatic and international reasons—whatever gobbledegook was used—but there are moral absolutes in this world and, if we lose sight of them, we are on a slippery slope from which there is no return.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, given the short time he has, and I welcome his philosophical stance. Does he agree that where there is Government, there is responsibility, and where there is responsibility, there can be blame? Where there are non-state actors, there is no such locus of responsibility, so it is easy for this House not to allocate blame. Does he agree that although it is essential that we have complete transparency in, and scrutiny of, how our arms are used, we must guard against falling into the moral luxury of blame, when we should be looking at how to stop the biggest source of human rights abuses, which is generally non-state actors?
I was not about to allocate blame, because I am not convinced it ever gets us anywhere. However, I question her assertion that where there is Government, there is always responsibility, because I can think of examples much closer to home than Saudi Arabia where Governments do not act with responsibility in every case.
The point that I was making is that there are moral absolutes in this life. If the killing of children is not a breach of an absolute moral requirement, I simply do not know what is. It is all very well to say that bad things are happening in Yemen, but those who listened to the excellent opening contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West will have heard her say time and time again that other people are committing acts of evil in Yemen as well as the Saudis, and they must be held to account as well. We are asking the Government to ensure that all those who are suspected of war crimes and of crimes against humanity are held to account.
If the killing of children is not an absolutely prohibited act in this world, what is? The Minister claimed last month, as he tried to sweep aside the death of children and other civilians, that bad things happen in war, but the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 93% of the casualties in Yemen are civilians. That is not collateral damage or a few unfortunate missiles that went astray: that is, at its very best, criminally reckless incompetence on the part of those delivering the bombs and, at worst and much more likely, deliberate targeting of civilians, using terrorisation of the population as a means of achieving political ends.
Regardless of the evils being committed by the opponents of the Saudi regime in Yemen—and they have committed evils—the use of child killing to achieve political aims is not something that any of us can ever even consider supporting, be it actively or passively, directly or simply standing by on the sidelines condoning things. It is horrifying that the response from the Government time and again is, “We don’t yet have conclusive evidence, so we will carrying on selling the weapons anyway”, or, “What evidence there is suggests that it’s not our weapons being used to kill the children; it’s someone else’s weapons.”
If I applied for a shotgun licence and there was credible evidence that I had used a knife to carry out violent attacks on children, I would not get that shotgun licence. Those responsible for issuing the licence would not say to me, “Go and investigate the allegations against yourself. As long as you can persuade us that any crimes committed have not been committed with that shotgun, we’ll allow you to keep the shotgun.” If the situation is as simple and as obvious as that in the case of awarding one licence for one gun, why do we choose to make it more complicated when we are awarding licences to supply weapons capable of annihilating entire streets at the press of a single button? Those arms sales are immoral and indefensible, and they must stop now.
I will keep my comments very short. I urge the supporters of the motion—which was moved very eloquently—to distinguish between weapons of concern. We must identify where such weapons are coming from, and we must talk about all weapons.
Let me give the House an example. In my constituency, the biggest employer by quite some way is BAE Systems. Over in Hull, it is also a huge employer. It is building the Eurofighter Typhoon for export to the Gulf, as well as the Hawk trainer aircraft. Were I to speak to my local trade unions today, they would be despondent at the thought that the training aircraft that their members are building could in any way be caught up in an arms export ban, because—to put it mildly—that would result in the closure of those factories. The United Kingdom cannot sustain advanced aircraft manufacturing on its own, even as part of the European coalition. Were it not for export orders, which are checked carefully in a rigorous process, tens of thousands of highly skilled men, women and apprentices would not be in their jobs. There would be economic devastation in large parts of north-west England.
The hon. Gentleman identifies the tension in the debate. I, too, have a major defence contractor in my constituency, General Dynamics. If there were some such ban, my constituency would lose 800 jobs. Does he agree that that is the crux of the tension in this debate?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I urge caution in language; it is easy to make generalisations and get swept up in what is clearly an important debate, but we risk losing tens upon tens of thousands of people’s livelihoods in this country, as well as apprenticeships and skills. If it were as simple a proposition as the weapons or aircraft in question not existing as the result of a ban, then that would make for an interesting debating point—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way, because I do not have much time—forgive me.
In the highly competitive global export market, our French and American colleagues—even before we get to the Russians, Chinese and so on—would be queuing up to replace us. We have to be abundantly clear that we do not sell lightly the means for a country to defend itself. Nor do we do so in a way that abdicates any responsibility, because we have an extremely robust export licensing programme in this country. [Interruption.] I will not give way, because I do not have time.
We have heard from two hon. Members the loose language of, “Let’s ban all arms exports regardless of how they are used”. They should go around and see the economic devastation that that language causes, including in Scottish constituencies—shame on you! They would cause hardship to many people, needlessly. That is not something that I could have on my conscience, but it is lucky that they can have it on theirs.
I am going to have to move to the wind-ups, so I apologise to Members who did not get to speak. I have tried hard to get Members in, but I am afraid that time is pressing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Gillan. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing it and on her powerful and thought-provoking speech.
Human rights and arms deals may seem like strange bedfellows, but it is quite right that we should view them together. Just yesterday in this Chamber we debated the important work done by UN peacekeepers in seeking to instil peace and protect human rights in troubled countries. This morning we confront the reality that by continuing to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, a country with a dreadful record on human rights domestically and on links to terrorism and extremism internationally, we are helping to sow the seeds of conflict and undermine human rights.
I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on reports today of UK police training the Saudi Arabian regime on high-tech detection that could be used to track down those who dissent from the regime. The Government must clarify their position on that.
Internally, Saudi Arabia imposes a harsh interpretation of sharia law on citizens and visitors, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. While we rightly recoil at the beheadings and barbarity of Daesh, we appear to look the other way as public beheadings continue to take place in Saudi Arabia, with perhaps 100 already in the first five months of this year. By its actions, and given its status as the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia gives comfort to those who would spread such barbarity across the region—indeed, across the globe—in the name of religion, even though in no way do those actions ever represent Islam.
My hon. Friend spoke powerfully about young men languishing in Saudi jails under threat of death. As she explained, and as the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) indicated, we simply do not have the clout either to get full information about those death sentences or to stop them. As the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) said, such sentences are imposed on grounds that cause us huge concerns about human rights and freedom of speech.
The targeting of anyone who raises civil rights concerns is a real concern. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West spoke powerfully about a number of cases, including that of Raif Badawi, and the broader impact on families in Saudi Arabia who live in fear or are forced to flee. Like her, I am keen to hear from the Minister how and when concerns from the UK about the death penalty in Saudi Arabia were last raised.
The hon. Lady will know that Ministers have said in the Chamber that the UK’s alliance with Saudi Arabia and arms sales to it are among the things that give the UK influence when it comes to talking about matters such as the death penalty. If it is quite clear that the House of Saud does not take the UK Government’s stance and communications seriously, why should the House of Commons?
The hon. Gentleman makes his point very well indeed. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) pointed out, the voices of people in this place speaking against the death penalty can be powerful. We should expect to hear that message clearly from the Government.
As we have heard many times in the House in recent months, there is widespread and legitimate concern about the actions of the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West talked about information from Amnesty International that described cluster munition drops late last year and the indirect and direct dangers faced by those on the ground.
Just to be clear, may I ask the hon. Lady what her party’s policy is on trying to restore legitimate Government in Yemen and resisting the violent takeover and displacement of the legitimate Government?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his somewhat surprising intervention. I think he fails to grasp the point of the debate. We are delighted to see legitimate Governments in place in countries across the world, but that does not mean that we support the indiscriminate actions of the Saudi Arabian regime. When I last raised Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen in the Chamber, it was against the backdrop of the UN panel’s report, which revealed widespread air strikes on populated areas and documented more than 100 coalition sorties that could have been in violation of international humanitarian law. Estimates at that time suggested that more than 8,000 people had been killed in Yemen in less than a year, at least 1,500 of them children. A number of hon. Members have mentioned that today. Reflecting on the information presented in that last debate, I was disappointed and a bit perplexed to read that the UN had removed Saudi Arabia from a blacklist of countries guilty of serious abuse of children’s rights, all the while confirming that many of the concerns highlighted in its panel’s report were justified.
Human Rights Watch accused Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, of giving in to political manipulation by the Saudi authorities. Has the UN lost the plot on this issue?
I share my hon. Friend’s concerns. I understand that when discussing that the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the UN stated that
“the most up-to-date equipment in precision targeting”
is used. However, as we have heard so often in the House in recent months, some of the armaments used are almost certainly those sold to Saudi Arabia by the UK. Precision armaments would be far better used to bolster international efforts against Daesh than to destroy the civil infrastructure of Yemen.
Yemen was already a poor country by the standards of the region even before the Saudi-led campaign started. Now, even more of its people are dying from preventable diseases, apparently because high-precision weapons have decimated hospitals, medical supplies and infrastructure. With difficulties in distributing aid, its people face malnutrition, with a massive increase in acute malnutrition among children.
As Saudi Arabia pursues a conflict that appears to owe more to its fear of Iran than any legitimate interests in Yemen, it demonstrates the gap between the sophistication of its arms and the callous disregard it has for the people of Yemen. Children are used as pawns by both sides in the conflict. With millions out of school, another lost generation is more likely to fall prey to the call of the extremist. How can we conclude that Saudi Arabia, the most powerful force directly engaged in the conflict, is not abusing children’s rights?
The Saudi Arabian Government seem hellbent on exacerbating the desperate plight of the Yemeni people. There have been reports of serious violations of the laws of war by all sides, and Human Rights Watch has documented several apparently unlawful coalition air strikes. There are serious legal questions to be answered about the UK supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia in support of its military intervention and indiscriminate bombing campaign.
In recent months, we have noted the re-emergence of the practice of siege or blockade as a weapon of war. The Saudi-led coalition has been operating a de facto siege of the whole of Yemen, a country that relies almost entirely on imports for its food. More than 14 million Yemenis have been identified as food-insecure, but the aid effort is able to cope with only a fraction of that, leaving many Yemenis unable to tell where their next meal is coming from.
I was pleased to receive confirmation in a recent debate that the UK Government view the imposition of starvation and the deliberate destruction of the means of daily life for civilians as a matter for the International Criminal Court. If that is the case, perhaps the Minister will explain why we are still selling arms in large quantities to a country using that tactic against not a town or city but a whole country. The blockade must be stopped. Instead of selling arms, we should be providing support to ensure that supplies and humanitarian aid can be distributed to the Yemeni population.
Does the hon. Lady not agree that having a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia gives us an opportunity to ask questions directly and put pressure on the Government to address our concerns? We must do that thoughtfully, recognising the importance of stability over chaos in the region.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments, but I wonder how long we will continue to put these points thoughtfully to the Saudi Arabian regime because it clearly has not worked so far. By continuing to arm the Saudi Arabians, the UK compromises its own standing and the legitimacy of its foreign policy. The Government must use their influence to change the dynamic. They must consider the terrible impact of the bombardment of populated areas with British-made bombs.
Whatever the justification for the Saudi determination to influence the presidency of Yemen, that cannot be at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of the Yemeni people. I say to the Minister there are no bad countries, only bad leaders. The Government have been willing to put the Yemeni people through what they have endured for the last year, but it seems that Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi falls into the category of bad leader. If he is successful in returning to power, it will be a hollow victory, and our Government need to think carefully about their actions in that regard. We need to come clean about the specific involvement of the UK military in arms sales training and logistics in relation to the military operations in Yemen, and we need to answer questions about international and humanitarian law in the case of that conflict.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing today’s debate. This is an important subject and a timely debate. Her opening remarks ranged widely over domestic and international human rights issues.
There is much to be said about Saudi Arabia’s domestic human rights record, but because of time constraints I will, as many other hon. Members have done, concentrate my remarks on Yemen. It is clear that human rights are not being upheld in the conflict there. A leaked report in January found “widespread and systematic” targeting of civilians in the Saudi-led strikes and identified 2,682 civilians killed in such strikes.
I am particularly concerned about the position of children, which was highlighted by the excellent report on Yemen by the Select Committee on International Development, released earlier this year, and by last week’s release of the UN Secretary-General’s 2016 report on children in conflict, which particularly focused on Yemen, and which my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) mentioned in an intervention. The report found that children represent one third of civilian casualties in Yemen. According to UNICEF, child casualty rates have increased sevenfold from 2014. Both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis are listed for the killing and maiming of children and attacks on schools and hospitals.
There is no doubt that the Houthis have committed egregious breaches of international law, which the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) referred to. I am aware of his background as the envoy to Yemen on behalf of the Government, and he obviously speaks with great knowledge of the area. However, the position of the Saudi-led coalition also poses particular problems for us in Britain. Saudi Arabia is a friend and ally and we should expect higher standards of our friends, particularly when we have sold them £2.8 billion-worth of arms since the start of their action in Yemen.
The groups listed in the report for grave violations against children include the Syrian, Sudanese, South Sudanese and Somali Governments, as well as ISIL/Daesh and Boko Haram. Although the Saudis appear to have got themselves removed from that list, their inclusion on it in the first place should cause the Government to think again. We would never sanction arms sales to any of the other groups or Governments on that list, or to the Houthi militia. So the question we must ask ourselves is why we are sanctioning arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Last year, the Justice Secretary took the decision that human rights standards in the Saudi justice system were so low that it could not be considered a proper partner for the British Government, and he withdrew the UK from the Saudi prisons contract. Today, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) has mentioned, the front page of The Times refers to work being done through British police and forensic support. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), the shadow Home Secretary, has called for that contract to be ended, in the light of concerns about human rights abuses that have been raised. There is therefore a similar question for the Foreign Secretary to answer. Is a country that the UN listed, albeit temporarily, alongside Daesh a proper partner for the UK?
That is not just a moral question for the Foreign Office, but a legal one. Arms sales must not be sanctioned when
“there is a clear risk that they may be used in violation of International Humanitarian Law.”
It is the view of the Opposition, and has been since last year, that the evidence is sufficient to constitute a serious risk that UK-provided arms may be used in violations of international humanitarian law.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am going to carry on, because I want to give the Minister sufficient time to respond to everything that has been raised today.
The Government have steadfastly rejected the view I have set out, and the evidence that supports it. They make two claims in support of Saudi Arabia: first, that the Saudi-led coalition’s actions are not in breach of international law, and secondly, that Saudi Arabia has a proper process in place to investigate alleged breaches. Indeed, the Government rely on the second argument to assert the first. I have consistently challenged the Government to explain why they believe Saudi Arabia is in the best position to conduct an investigation, and I have never had a proper response from any Minister. I challenge the Minister again today to explain why he believes that the best course of action is for Saudi Arabia to conduct the investigation itself, and how that can be seen to be thorough, impartial and transparent. What assurances have the British Government received that that will be the case? Are the British Government providing any practical support and assistance to the Saudis in their investigation?
I want to challenge the Government on that point: that the evidence against the Saudi-led coalition is insufficient to constitute a risk that British weapons could be involved in breaches of international law. That is the case the Government have been making to the International Development Committee and to the Committees on Arms Export Controls. However, it is not a convincing case, as has been pointed out in an excellent letter from the director of Human Rights Watch UK to the Foreign Secretary. That comprehensively dismantles the Government’s case. I do not want to read out long extracts, but I ask the Minister to look at that letter again.
It is certainly the view of the Opposition that the available evidence meets the test to suspend arms sales until the Committees on Arms Export Controls have completed their hearings. That position has for some time been consistently expressed by me, the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), and the Leader of the Opposition. It is time now, in the light of all the evidence cited in the debate, for the Government to concede that the evidence simply does not support their position. I call on the Minister to be brave and bold, and show some courage—the same courage that the Justice Secretary showed in standing up to Saudi Arabia over the prisons contract. That would certainly be a case of putting British values into action.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing today’s debate and on the passion with which she put her case. I apologise to her for missing the first few seconds of her remarks. I also want to express the regret of the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), for not being able to speak here today. He is actually travelling on middle east business today.
I will try to focus my remarks on answers to the many points that came up during the debate. I am deeply conscious that in the limited time available I am almost certainly going to give incomplete replies, and that I may be unable to touch on some points at all. I was disappointed when the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) questioned the case for Saudi Arabia even to be considered a fit and proper partner for the United Kingdom. That would certainly be a major departure from the position taken by previous Labour Governments, including the one in which she served in the years before 2010. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia is a very different culture, with different political traditions from those of the United Kingdom or other western democracies. However, we need to bear it in mind that it plays an increasingly important part in securing regional stability.
It is important that the big regional players should be at the heart of discussions about finding solutions to regional challenges. The Saudis have been and remain at the forefront of international efforts to defeat Daesh. Saudi was one of the first countries to participate in air strikes in Syria, and it is fully engaged in the fight to cut off Daesh’s access to finance, through its co-chairmanship of the counter-ISIL finance working group. In relation to Syria, Saudi Arabia has played a leading role in bringing together the Syrian opposition—a key element of finding a solution to the conflict. I want to say a few words about Yemen in due course, but I want to turn to the questions that were raised about some other human rights topics.
The Government remain committed to advancing the global abolition of the death penalty. That means opposing it in every circumstance, in every country. We encourage Saudi Arabia certainly to abolish the death penalty, as we do with every other country that has the death penalty on its statute book. We also encourage Saudi Arabia, so long as it has the death penalty within its law, to uphold minimum international standards, such as ensuring that sentencing is in line with article 6 of the international covenant on civil and political rights. Among other things, that means the death penalty should not be applied to minors and should only be applied to the most serious crimes.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited Saudi Arabia last week in the course of a tour of the Gulf region, and he took that opportunity to raise with senior Saudi counterparts our concerns about human rights issues in the generic sense and a number of individual cases that I will come to in a moment. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West asked about a number of cases. On that of Mr Ashraf Fayadh, our understanding is that the Saudi Arabian courts have overturned the death sentence passed upon him, although he remains in detention. We continue to follow that and similar cases closely.
During his visit on 29 May, the Foreign Secretary raised the case of Ali al-Nimr and the two others who were juveniles when they committed the crimes of which they were subsequently convicted. Our expectation is that Ali al-Nimr and the two others will not be executed, but we will of course continue to raise those cases with the Saudi authorities. The hon. Lady asked about Raif Badawi. We remain very concerned about that case. We continue to express that concern at both official and ministerial levels to the Saudis. Our understanding is that the case is still under consideration in the Saudi supreme court, but we do not expect further lashes to be administered.
A number of hon. Members asked questions about the alleged use of cluster munitions by Saudi forces in Yemen. The situation as regards the United Kingdom is this: we have not supplied cluster weapons of any kind to Saudi Arabia since the 1980s. The United Kingdom signed the convention on cluster munitions in 2008 and ratified it in May 2010. Since 2008, we have not supplied, maintained or supported those weapons anywhere in the world.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I am not going to give way.
The Government take the allegations that have been made about Yemen very seriously. We are seeking clarification from the Saudi-led coalition about those allegations, and in line with our obligations under the convention on cluster munitions, we have always made it clear to the Saudis that we cannot support the use of cluster munitions in any circumstances. We continue to encourage Saudi Arabia as a non-party to the convention to accede to it. Accession to the convention will then oblige Saudi Arabia, as it obliged the United Kingdom when we ratified the convention, to take steps to not only identify but dispose safely of any stocks of cluster munitions that it may have, either on its own territory or anywhere else within its jurisdiction.
Much of this debate has focused upon Yemen. I should say, in response to the questions about the Yemen Executive Mine Action Centre, that we are supporting United Nations Development Programme-led efforts to rebuild the capacity of Yemen’s national de-mining institutions, including YEMAC. That is part of our wider humanitarian help to Yemen. We are contributing just over £1 million to that work in 2016 from the cross- departmental programme expenditure within Whitehall.
On the Yemen situation more broadly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) set out the overall geopolitical position with both succinctness and skill. The fact is that the Saudi-led coalition is present in Yemen at the invitation of the legitimate Government of that country. I do not think we can simply wash our hands and say, “We wish they weren’t there, but we don’t want to express any view about the Houthis, the fate of Yemen or the wider region.”
Will the Minister give way on that point?
No, I am not giving way. In fairness, the hon. Lady intervened many times during the course of the debate. I have little time available, and I think her hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, wants some time to reply to the debate at the end of our proceedings.
The coalition is there at the invitation of the legitimate Government. Saudi Arabia, whatever criticisms we make of it, is actively helping the United Nations supervision of humanitarian assistance in Yemen, and my understanding is that Saudi Arabia is also the largest single bilateral donor to the humanitarian relief taking place in Yemen. Those things, too, need to be weighed in any overall judgment we make about the activities of the coalition within Yemen.
In respect of the allegations about breaches of international humanitarian law, the Ministry of Defence makes assessments of how the Saudis are acting and whether the coalition is observing international human rights obligations. The MOD assessment is that the Saudi-led coalition is not targeting civilians; that Saudi processes and procedures have been put in place to ensure respect for the principles of international humanitarian law; and that the Saudis both have been and continue to be genuinely committed to compliance with international humanitarian law.
Will the Minister give way?
Order. It is quite clear that the Minister is not going to give way.
That is the overall frame within which we move on to judge some of the particular and detailed allegations that have been made. I do not want for one moment to dismiss the importance of such allegations. It is important that any allegation is properly and rigorously investigated.
As the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East, said when he gave evidence to the recent investigation of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), we press the Saudis to carry out such investigations and to do so with all possible speed. It is the responsibility of any country, where allegations are made against its military, to take action to investigate those allegations. That is what we do and what we did when allegations were made against our forces in Iraq and in Afghanistan. It is what we expected of the United States when comparable allegations were made.
It is important that Saudi Arabia, in the first instance, conducts thorough and conclusive investigations into incidents where it is alleged that international humanitarian law has been breached. Saudi Arabia did conduct such an investigation following the October Médecins sans Frontières incident in Sa’ada, and the results of that investigation led to a number of important steps being taken by the Saudis to avoid any such incident happening again. There were changes to procedures. I do not say we need to be uncritical of Saudi Arabia, but we need to bear it in mind that it showed, in respect of that significant incident, that it was willing to look at where things had gone wrong and to take steps to improve matters for the future.
I will write to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) about the points he made on the Home Office and the story in The Times today. That is clearly a matter the Home Office leads on. The Government’s judgment remains that a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia helps us to keep this country both prosperous and safe. It is in working with Saudi Arabia that we can encourage the changes we would like to see in that country.
I thank Members of all parties who have taken part in today’s debate, including those who made important interventions—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).