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Gulf States: Human Rights

Volume 788: debated on Thursday 8 February 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the governments of the Gulf States regarding human rights abuses in those states.

My Lords, the United Kingdom Government regularly discuss human rights with the Governments of Gulf states, covering topics such as reforms and individual human rights cases. Our objective is compliance with internationally accepted human rights standards while understanding cultural and religious differences which affect implementation. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are FCO human rights priority countries, where we prioritise UK efforts including funding specific programmes and helping Bahrain establish independent oversight bodies.

The Minister will be aware of the Bahrain Government’s crackdown on human rights activists and of their families being targeted in an attempt to silence them. One such case is that of Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, who is present here today. Sayed’s family have been tried and sentenced on the basis of coerced confessions. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has repeatedly told Sayed to report the issues to the ombudsman of the Ministry of Interior, who the UN Committee Against Torture has repeatedly said lacks independence. What significant actions will the Government take to hold the Bahrain Government to account for the escalation of violence and reprisals against human rights activists in the UK and their families in Bahrain?

The noble Lord raises an important case, and of course there are other specific cases that we have raised directly, on a bilateral basis, with the Bahrain authorities. I assure all noble Lords that we continue both to monitor such cases and to raise them on a bilateral basis. We have also extended support and training to ensure greater independence of oversight bodies, so that those issues of human rights can be dealt with domestically. I reassure the noble Lord that we take these matters seriously and consistently raise them directly with the Bahrain Government.

My Lords, in last year’s Foreign Office review of and report on human rights, Bahrain was identified as a country of interest. It reported progress, with the Government confident that the reform agenda would be followed, but, as we have heard from the previous question, there is now a backward trend. Can the Minister reassure us that the steps for progress outlined last year will be fully taken up and that we will see some change in terms of reform?

The noble Lord is quite right to raise this issue as outlined in the human rights report. As I said in my original Answer, Bahrain is not just a concern but one of the priority countries when it comes to a range of human rights concerns. I can reassure the noble Lord that we will continue to focus on the very priorities that he has highlighted to ensure that Bahrain remains true to the commitments that it has made with the international community and in its bilateral exchanges with members of our Government.

My Lords, I know that my noble friend is a huge advocate of the human right of freedom of religion and belief. Can he update the House in relation to specific representations that the Foreign Office has made in the Gulf states on the rights of minorities there?

My noble friend of course speaks with great expertise in this area. She will be aware that we discuss these matters with Governments across the Gulf, including with key countries that I have highlighted already and specifically Bahrain. How the Shia majority is dealt with by the Bahrain authorities is a matter that we have raised regularly. We have also regularly raised with other countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait not just minority rights but the rights of religious minorities in those countries, so that they are able not only to profess and practise but to propagate their faith. Among the other areas that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has highlighted, freedom of religion and belief is a specific priority on our human rights agenda.

My Lords, when will the Government—in fact, all Governments in this country—stop being so hypocritical on the matter of human rights in continuing to trade with countries that abuse human rights? Of course, I give the example of Israel which abuses the human rights of the Palestinian people, whose land they occupy, but it applies to many countries all around the Middle East. It is time that it was stopped and we applied sanctions until it stopped.

The noble Baroness raises an important point about human rights. Looking at the record of successive British Governments, irrespective of political colour, we can be proud of the fact that we have been instrumental in raising these issues. The noble Baroness shakes her head; I do not subscribe to that. I am a passionate believer in human rights across the piece and when you look at the progress we have made, where there have been challenges—at the Human Rights Council, for example—that has not meant that we stepped away from our responsibility, including with our friends. The noble Baroness named Israel. We continue to impress our views upon the Israeli authorities, and it is because of our constructive relationship with Israel that we do have traction. We raise the issue of Palestinian communities within Israel and particularly in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and urge that a solution is sought on the basis of what has been agreed internationally, which is a two-state solution.

My Lords, I have here a map showing the worst countries in the world for attacks on journalists and press freedom. Most of them are in the Middle East. What representations, specifically, have our Government made in relation to press freedom and attacks on journalists in the Middle East?

We have mentioned Bahrain, but I have been focused personally on the issue of human rights defenders, particularly in the area of press freedoms, in another country, which is Turkey. I can reassure the noble Lord that we have been working very closely with organisations such as Amnesty International to ensure that the important principle of press freedom is very clearly understood as part of the human rights priorities that the UK Government articulate across the world.

My Lords, Bahrain is the major British base in the Gulf now. The Government of Bahrain have paid for the expansion of that base. I must say that I think it is a rather odd relationship, which makes Britain, in many ways, dependent on the Government of Bahrain. How far does that inhibit our Government in criticising the Government of Bahrain for the way they treat the majority of their population?

We have, as the noble Lord knows, a range of relationships and we build alliances. On Bahrain, I think that relationship is strong. Yes, we do have a defence alliance with Bahrain, and it is an ally in the Gulf, but because of the strength of that relationship we are not deterred from raising the issues of human rights, whatever the abuses may be, candidly, very clearly and in a very honest manner with our Bahraini counterparts.