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Saudi Arabia: Executions

Volume 783: debated on Tuesday 18 July 2017

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government what representations they have made to the Government of Saudi Arabia about the imminent execution of fourteen people, including two juveniles.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice and declare my interest as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Abolition of the Death Penalty.

My Lords, the UK’s opposition to the death penalty is clear: we condemn its use in all circumstances and in all countries. It is particularly abhorrent when applied to minor crimes and to juveniles in disregard of the minimum standards set out in the EU guidelines on the death penalty of 2008, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Arab Charter on Human Rights. Saudi Arabia remains a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country, in part due to its use of the death penalty, and it is aware of our position.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. She will accept that the UK is an important defender of human rights and the rule of law across the world. Given our close relationship with Saudi Arabia, can she explain what the Government are doing to stop these executions? There is a precedent; David Cameron as Prime Minister personally intervened to stop the execution of three juveniles in 2015. What is our Prime Minister doing now?

I can confirm to the noble Lord that we are urgently seeking clarification of the position from the highest levels of Saudi leadership, reiterating our profound concerns about these reports. My right honourable friend Alistair Burt, the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, was in contact yesterday with the Saudi ambassador, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf Al Saud, and raised these concerns.

My Lords, 10 days ago the Foreign Secretary visited every regional capital. Of course, he met the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. I think we all share the horror at these potential executions, particularly of juveniles, but we must not forget that in the week the Foreign Secretary visited Saudi Arabia eight people were beheaded on one day. When will this Government decide that it is time to publicly condemn these abuses of human rights? Our silence is deafening.

I beg to differ with the interpretation of the noble Lord, Lord Collins. The United Kingdom’s insistent and consistent upholding of human rights is acknowledged and respected. We have been both consistent and insistent in our condemnation of the use of the death penalty in all countries that still use it, including Saudi Arabia. Our position is very clear, is known internationally and it is known domestically within the United Kingdom. We have profound concerns and we raise them. We exhort Saudi Arabia to have respect for human rights and for the organisations to which I referred that state clear views on the issue of the death penalty.

My Lords, why are the Government so quiet about trade with Saudi Arabia? Why do we export billions of pounds-worth of arms to Saudi Arabia when it is probably the greatest abuser of human rights in the world, against not only neighbouring countries but also its own people, including juveniles?

My Lords, in diplomatic affairs a balance must always be struck. Those Members of the Chamber who have found themselves in government here and in other Administrations acknowledge that difficult balance. Saudi Arabia is an important ally of the United Kingdom. It is in our interest to support Saudi Arabia in its efforts to tackle regional challenges and create more stability. That helps to keep us safe both at home and abroad. We should not forget that intelligence we received in the past from Saudi Arabia has potentially saved hundreds of lives in the UK. Saudi Arabia is an important ally. That does not gag or inhibit us from expressing our strongly held views about abuses of human rights or deployment of the death penalty.

My Lords, the noble Baroness said that one of the Government’s objectives is to have Saudi Arabia in alliance in order to promote stability in the region. The threat to stability is extremism. The ultimate battle against extremism is one of hearts and minds. How can this sordid, uncivilised behaviour possibly help in the battle for hearts and minds? Is it not time for us to reassess the balance in our policy towards Saudi Arabia?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. He clearly feels passionately about the issue—as do many. As I said earlier, the difficult issue is always to preserve balance in the conduct of international affairs and diplomatic relations. We condemn the use of the death penalty. We condemn the abuse of human rights. We have made our views clear and continue to make them clear to Saudi Arabia. There are other areas where we think it is better for the United Kingdom to engage with Saudi Arabia and have dialogue. As I said earlier in response to the noble Lord on the Cross Benches, in that way we not only perform a service to the United Kingdom but also preserve an arena of influence in order that we may try to convey to Saudi Arabia the sort of emotions and sentiments expressed this afternoon in the Chamber. Saudi Arabia will understand the potency of these feelings.

My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register of interests in relation to Reprieve, the anti-death penalty charity. In a recent speech to the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Prime Minister spoke about the rules-based order. Would the Minister accept that Saudi Arabia’s use of torture to extract false confessions and execution of juvenile offenders—if it were to do so—would put it outside the rules-based order? Given the Prime Minister’s recent speech, will the Minister convey to her that this House thinks that she should follow the example of her predecessor, David Cameron, and make an intervention at prime ministerial level?

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, will be aware, the United Kingdom Government utterly condemn torture. Again, we have been clear and articulate in saying that. The Prime Minister discussed human rights during her visit to Saudi Arabia in April this year. As I indicated in my response to the initial Question, the right honourable Alistair Burt, the Minister in this area, has made clear directly to the Saudi Arabian ambassador our profound concerns about these recent reports and has represented our profound anxiety about the possibility of the use of the death penalty. We continue to make these representations in the most robust and clamant way that we can.

My Lords, in supporting the very balanced and judicious answers that my noble friend has given, should we not have a thought to what the implosion of Saudi Arabia would mean for world peace and stability? We have only to take the example of Syria and Iraq to be conscious of that.

I thank my noble friend for a very helpful observation. Saudi Arabia is indeed in a position to influence, to assist with stability in the Gulf area and to help in the fight against Daesh. Saudi Arabia itself has been the victim of attacks by Daesh. As Saudi Arabia is an important ally of the United Kingdom, it is right that we do not hesitate to condemn when we feel that wrong things are happening. The use of the death penalty is wrong; we make that clear. Abuse of human rights is wrong; we make that clear. Equally, as my noble friend has indicated, it is very important that we maintain these communication channels.

My Lords, as the trustee of a mental health charity for young people—the Brent Centre for Young People—I welcome the strong concern the Minister has expressed about juveniles being executed. I ask her to speak to her colleagues about looking at the treatment of young people in this country. We have the lowest age of criminal responsibility among our European peers. I ask her to ask her colleagues to support the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, to raise the age of criminal responsibility. Those who look at issues around children’s rights continually raise concerns about the low age of criminal responsibility in this country.

I thank the noble Earl for his question. It is perhaps a little wide of the area that we are currently discussing, but I am sure that my noble friend Lady Williams will have paid close attention to his remarks.

My Lords, as the noble Lord said a few moments ago, we have heard some very balanced and judicious answers, with considerable condemnation and very clear statements. However, surely the depth of our relationship with Saudi Arabia in trade and finance, and the presence of many Saudi Arabians in this country—the long-standing way in which we have been together through war and peace—would indicate that we have the options for significantly more leverage than mere condemnation. I wonder what other measures the Government are taking which involve action as well as condemnation, particularly over this question.

I thank the most reverend Primate for his question. There always has to be a mix of representation of view and opinion and certainly condemnation of activity, where, in the opinion of the United Kingdom Government, that condemnation is justified. Saudi Arabia is aware of our concerns. We have continued to represent these concerns at all levels, as I said earlier to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, in the most robust and clamant way we can. At the end of the day, Saudi Arabia is a sovereign state and it is not possible for us to interfere with either its judicial system or its constitutional approach to these matters—but we can make clear, as we do, our profound disapproval of and opposition to abuses of human rights and the deployment of the death penalty.