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Saudi Arabia: Executions

Volume 768: debated on Monday 1 February 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the government of Saudi Arabia regarding the executions of political activists.

My Lords, the British Government are firmly opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country. We have expressed our concern to the Saudi authorities, most recently during my honourable friend Tobias Ellwood’s visit to Riyadh on 25 January—last week. The British Government do not shy away from raising legitimate human rights concerns, but we believe that we will be more successful discussing cases privately with Saudi Arabia than criticising it publicly.

My Lords, it is widely reported that in King Salman’s first year of office, 2015, Saudi Arabia executed more people than in any of the previous 20 years. Many of those people were executed for political dissent. The last time we discussed this, on 13 January, the noble Baroness was urged from all sides of this House to express those concerns to the Saudi Government. She has just told us that they have done so. What was the Saudi Government’s response, and will they distinguish between political dissent and other crimes?

My Lords, during his visit, Tobias Ellwood had meetings with members of the National Society for Human Rights, the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and members of the Shura Council. He also met advisers, so he covered a wide variety of people with whom he could have this conversation. Naturally, as I explained in my Answer, we prefer to make our points in a private environment. The Saudi Arabian Government and others in Saudi Arabia are clear that we will not stop coming forward with our views on each and every case where someone has been arrested and faces the death penalty.

My Lords, the Minister said that we deplore executions for political reasons in all countries. Have our representations been equally private and powerful with Iran?

My Lords, of course, our diplomatic relationship with Iran has only recently resumed, and it is important that we are able to nurture it. Iran will be under no misunderstanding about the strength of opinion of the British Government—indeed, of all British Governments in recent decades—that the death penalty is wrong in principle, wrong in practice and can undermine a successful society.

My Lords, I cannot understand why we make only private representations to Saudi Arabia. Is not public condemnation much more effective?

No, my Lords, our experience has been that with certain countries that is not the case and it can in fact be counterproductive. We are always careful to ensure that we make best use of our diplomatic voice in private. Saudi Arabia is not the only country that responds better to that kind of exchange. However, that does not stop me from being as public about this matter as I am today.

My Lords, the Iranian and Saudi Governments are both extremely volatile. As we know, what is happening in Saudi spills over into Yemen and if we are not careful, it will also spill over into Bahrain. I ask the Minister to exercise as much pressure as we can on the Saudi Government to understand that it is almost impossible to defend them at times, given the behaviour of their regime.

My Lords, the point lying behind the words of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, is certainly right: all countries must have regard to the fact that their actions may lead to regional instability. It is important in the Gulf and Middle East that all countries recognise the impact their actions can have.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness able to comment on reports that the execution of a young man under the age of 18 was in itself a breach of Sharia law?

My Lords, I am aware that there is a newspaper report to the effect that one person expected to be an adult at the time of his execution may not have been, but there is not yet proof of that. Certainly, with regard to three juveniles being held at the moment under a penalty that includes the death sentence, we have been given assurances, including most recently by the Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister, that those sentences will not be carried out. Of course, whatever we think of Sharia law—we may have different views on it—some countries have the death penalty and we need to work to ensure that it is removed.

My Lords, Saudi Arabia has a substantial Shia minority. Will this Government, in the private conversations they have with the Saudi Government, tell them very strongly that the last thing we want is to see Middle Eastern politics deteriorate into a Sunni/Shia international conflict? The way that the Saudis treat the Shia minority is important regarding whether that will happen.

My Lords, it is important in all countries, whether there is either a Shia majority or a Shia minority, that all those holding the faith are treated with respect. It is worth noting that when Shia members at a mosque were killed so appallingly by a suicide bomb this weekend, the Sunni Foreign Minister not only ensured he made a public statement but commiserated with the Shia minority.

My Lords, it is the turn of the Conservative Benches. I urge noble Lords to allow the Minister to sit down before they stand up to ask the next question.

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend’s preference for private representations in this matter. Would she not agree that megaphone diplomacy is almost always less effective in the long run and is therefore not to be supported? Will she also bear in mind the importance of our commercial relations with Saudi Arabia, not least in the defence field?

My Lords, megaphone diplomacy can indeed be counterproductive. One must consider its use in each and every country. Our trade relationship with Saudi Arabia is important from the point of view of security but also complements our work on human rights. Our work on human rights is never in any way diminished by our trade relationship with Saudi Arabia.

My Lords, while not disputing in any way the efforts made by the Minister in her quiet diplomacy, there is no evidence whatever that that is working—in fact, the opposite is true. Is it not time to speak out clearly and loudly, making it plain to the Saudis exactly how we feel publicly?

My Lords, I have to disagree with the noble Lord when he says that it has not been working. One of the factors is that constant work behind the scenes can lead to some joint understanding of, for example, the introduction of the EU minimum standards with regard to the implementation of the death penalty—that it should not apply to those who are pregnant, who have learning difficulties or who are minors. So with that, and perhaps with women’s rights, it is important to point to where there have been changes for the better.