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Saudi Arabia: Human Rights

Volume 673: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2020

8. What recent discussions he has had with his Saudi Arabian counterpart on the (a) detention, (b) ill treatment and (c) trial of women human rights defenders in that country. (901584)

I travelled to Riyadh on 4 March to 5 March and met senior Saudis, including His Majesty King Salman and the Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal. We discussed a whole range of bilateral issues, and I raised human rights, including detained women’s rights defenders.

I am pleased to hear that the Foreign Secretary raised with the Saudi Arabian Government the women’s human rights defenders. Did he mention Loujain al-Hathloul, who is facing an unfair trial, arbitrary detention, and sexual abuse and mistreatment in custody for carrying out lawful and peaceful campaigning activities? If her case goes to trial, will the British Government observe that trial, and did the Foreign Secretary call for her release?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her championing of this very important issue. I raised a whole range of cases before the Saudi courts in relation to women’s rights defenders, and also the fact that, having lifted the ban on women driving and taken other measures, that was particularly anomalous. Her concerns have been raised, and we will continue to raise those issues with the Saudi Government.

I appreciate that my question is not about what is currently uppermost in people’s minds, but human rights abuses continue to be committed, even while covid-19 is spreading. What active steps are the Government taking to help to secure the unconditional release of human rights activists?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I was not quite clear whether she was talking specifically about Saudi Arabia, but we raise these issues. Obviously the Government and the jurisdictions are very sensitive about their cases, but we raise these issues because that is what international law requires. We have made the points that she and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) have raised, and we will continue to do so.

There has been an incremental and modest improvement in Saudi Arabia’s human rights situation. In the World Bank’s “Women, Business and the Law 2020” report, Saudi Arabia was ranked as the most improved economy for women’s economic opportunities. We want to encourage that positivity, and also, where there are abuses of human rights—whether in relation to the Khashoggi case, Raif Badawi, which was another case I raised, or the women’s rights defenders—to make sure that that is a part of our bilateral relations. We will keep raising these important issues.

This week will mark five years since the start of the war in Yemen. That war has seen the Saudi Government bomb Yemeni civilians in their thousands and starve them in their millions, with callous indifference and complete impunity. After five years, when will the Secretary of State finally bring forward a resolution demanding a full independent UN-led investigation of these appalling war crimes?

We are focused on bringing that terrible conflict—I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that—to an end. We want pressure to be put on the Houthis, and also a positive dynamic. Probably the single biggest issue that I raised with my Saudi counterparts was an end to the conflict in Yemen, which will require all the relevant actors to come together. There is a political dialogue through the UN. We want confidence-building measures that will lead to a proper political dialogue, and to get that issue and the conflict resolved. There is a window of opportunity in 2020 to achieve that, and we will be working very hard with all the relevant actors to secure it.

While we are trying to get somewhere on war crimes in Yemen, may I ask the Secretary of State about another imminent anniversary? It is 18 months since Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul. At the time we were promised, from the Government Dispatch Box, a credible investigation to find out who ordered his murder, with serious consequences to follow as a result. Almost a year and a half on, can the Secretary of State explain why we are still waiting?

I think that the hon. Gentleman will know that there is a certain limit to what we can actually force Saudi Arabia to do. There has been a trial. There have been criticisms and concerns about that, but some have been held to account. We continue to raise the issue. I raised it when I was in Riyadh on 4 and 5 March. We do not shy away from it or, most importantly, from getting the reassurance—as well as the accountability that he wishes—that something like this will never happen again.

I warmly endorse the sentiments of the question asked by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), and I do think the United Kingdom could do more to promote human rights in Saudi Arabia. I am conscious that we also need to deal with the interlocutors we are dealt. On that point, I would be grateful for the FCO’s assessment of the stability of the regime in Riyadh, given very worrying reports of arrests and incarcerations of key members of it. Was that part of the discussions when the Foreign Secretary was last in the capital?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise human rights issues. I have explained all the issues—from Raif Badawi to the women’s rights defenders and Khashoggi—which we will always raise with our Saudi interlocutors. Equally, they are an important partner with us for all sorts of reasons, but particularly in relation to forging peace and trying to secure peace in Yemen. The regime looks entirely stable to me but, of course, given everything else that is going on with coronavirus and with oil production, there is tremendous economic pressure on the whole region. We want to try to reduce that pressure and, particularly on Yemen, to work with all partners in the region to end that terrible conflict.

I am grateful for the answer, and I was struck by the Foreign Secretary’s earlier point that we can only force the Saudis to do so much. However, we could stop selling them guns, tanks and bombs, and we could actually put some ethics into our foreign policy and prioritise the rights of the people in Yemen and the children who are currently suffering so badly as a result of the conflict. I am struck that the Saudis are indeed a partner in that war in terms of promoting the peace, but they are also a partner in that war full stop. I think that the UK could be rather more muscular in our discussions regarding that point.

The hon. Gentleman will of course know about the efforts—in particular with the UN envoy, Martin Griffiths—to bring an end to that conflict, and we have been tireless in supporting, pursuing and supplementing them. Of course a lot of the diplomacy will go on behind the scenes.

The hon. Gentleman mentions arms exports. We have one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. We have carefully considered the implications of the Court of Appeal’s judgment, for example, and we will make sure that we are always compliant. However, the reality is that our focus has been on, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, raising human rights issues when necessary, and also on trying to bring all the parties, including the Houthi rebels, to the table to have a proper political dialogue that can end the conflict in the interests of all the people in Yemen.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that only through constructive dialogue with Saudi Arabia can we hasten progress on issues of human rights and the ongoing conflict in Yemen?

My hon. Friend is right, and we are listened to more because we engage and try to exert positive influence. Equally, however, we will not be shy or retiring in raising those issues. We raised them in the Human Rights Council statement in March 2019, and in other UN forums. As I said, when I was in Riyadh recently, we raised those issues bilaterally with all senior interlocutors.

What is the Government’s latest assessment of the role of Saudi Arabia in promoting radical Islamist doctrines beyond its borders?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s expertise in this area. We have raised that issue. There has been a step change and a reduction in the Government promoting that kind of extremism, and we want to ensure that other private sector or charitable bodies are also compliant. We have raised those issues, and I will continue to do so.