My Lords, the British Government are firmly opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country. We are deeply concerned about the execution of 47 people on 2 January. We have expressed these concerns to the Saudi authorities. The British Government do not shy away from raising legitimate human rights concerns and we believe that we would be more successful discussing cases privately with Saudi Arabia than criticising it publicly.
I thank the Minister for that reply and I am pleased that she has taken a stronger attitude in relation to the plans, because there appeared to be a craven silence in relation to them, particularly as this is the largest number since 1980. What view does she take of the opinions that have been expressed that these are intended to derail the Syrian peace process talks taking place in Vienna?
My Lords, throughout my time at the Foreign Office, I have made it clear on every possible occasion the strength of feeling that the Government have about the death penalty. It is wrong in principle and wrong in practice. Clearly, the noble Lord and I agree on that. There is a concern that any changes in behaviour by any country in the region may have a destabilising effect on the important discussions to which the noble Lord rightly alluded. We understand from both Iran and Saudi Arabia that they expect to continue to support the negotiations on Syria.
My Lords, the noble Baroness accepts that Saudi Arabia not only uses the death penalty but uses it against political prisoners, which is a significant point. It also wages illegal wars, as with its neighbour Yemen, and supports jihadi groups in Syria. Will she tell the House how she thinks that the UK Government supporting and collaborating with it to get it elected to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations advances international peace and security or the UK’s interests? Does it advance human rights?
My Lords, there are at least five questions there. Of course, I am supposed to try to address just two. I will choose perhaps the two most contentious. First, with regard to Yemen, it is not an illegal activity. I remind the noble Baroness that the request for support was made by the legitimate President, President Hadi, to the United Nations Security Council.
Regarding the Human Rights Council, I say now, as I have said throughout, that the matter to which the noble Baroness referred was an uncontested election—I know that that has not got into the media, so many people are not aware of it—and therefore the Saudi Arabian place, by the interesting way in which the Human Rights Council works, was taken because it is a member of the Asian group.
My Lords, by any sort of measure the regime in Saudi Arabia, with its beheadings, amputations and public floggings, is one of the most barbaric in the whole of the Middle East, yet our Government continue to look more benignly at that regime than at others in the area. There is a Christian hymn that states:
“They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin”.
Does the Minister agree with this sentiment and agree that the overriding strategic interest for the 21st century is even-handed respect for the human rights of all people?
My Lords, we do indeed subscribe to that very value: there should be even-handed respect for the human rights of all people. But we have to recognise, whether we like it or not, that Saudi Arabia follows sharia law, as other states do, and that the death penalty is part of that. Clearly, we do not support that and we work towards its eradication around the world. Saudi Arabia is a country with which we continue to work strongly. It is an important partner for security purposes. Indeed, it has provided information that has enabled us to avoid serious security incidents in this country.
I am sorry to interrupt. We have not heard from the Conservative Benches, but it would then be right to come back to the Labour Benches.
My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on her reply. Would she not agree that, while megaphone diplomacy is never very helpful, it is important that the Government should make clear privately to the Saudi Government that the indignation and concern felt about their policy crosses all political boundaries in this country and that therefore, if they persist in their present line of policy, it will make it very difficult indeed for the British people, let alone the British Government, to support the continued close relationship that we have enjoyed with Saudi Arabia in the past?
My Lords, given what the Minister said in reply to other noble Lords, and in view of the fact that she and I were on a Speaker’s delegation to Saudi Arabia in December 1997—probably the only time in our lives when our ankles had to be covered because they were considered provocative—and remembering the experience of that visit, would she agree that it would have been much better if the Prime Minister had said something a little more emphatic than that it was “disappointing” that 47 people had been executed?
My Lords, we do not talk about disappointment with regard to individuals—we say that it is wrong for the death penalty to be used and we are deeply concerned when it is—because it is wrong to pick out one individual as against another. Every death is to be mourned and grieved. It is wrong and we need to work together to change the future. Saudi Arabia may be changing slowly, but it is. The noble Baroness reminds me of that visit. However, we may have been the first ladies to visit Riyadh—indeed, even into the mosque in Riyadh, where we were not asked to cover our heads.