Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of media reports of the disappearance and possible murder of the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.
My Lords, we are very concerned by reports of the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi. The Permanent Under-Secretary to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office conveyed this message to the ambassador yesterday, as did the Foreign Secretary earlier today. We are working urgently to establish the facts and co-operating with our international partners. We call on the Government of Saudi Arabia to support a thorough investigation into Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance and to share the outcome of that investigation.
I thank the Minister for her reply. The Government have rightly responded very strongly to Russia’s recent actions. Does she agree that the disappearance and possible murder of the Saudi journalist within the Saudi consulate in Turkey raises equally important issues? What assurances on critics’ freedom of expression and on the use of diplomatic premises are now being sought from the Saudis? What action will be taken if no satisfactory assurances are received?
An attempt is still being made to ascertain the facts, and I would not want either to speculate or hypothesise without knowing those facts. Let me make it clear that we would be very concerned if the allegations were to be substantiated. I believe that violence against journalists worldwide is rising, and that is a grave threat to freedom of expression. If the media reports prove correct, we will certainly treat the incident seriously. I make it clear that friendships—we have an established friendship with Saudi Arabia—depend on shared values and respect for those values.
It is a fact that it has taken four days for the Foreign Secretary to respond to this incident—unlike the other examples that the noble Baroness cited. We have seen action in Yemen from the Saudis, the roughing up and forced resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister, the increased use of capital punishment and more laws repressing people in Saudi Arabia. It is precisely that repression and open interference in other countries’ affairs that makes this incident seem more likely. The Opposition condemn it absolutely, and I hope that the Minister will today, on behalf of the Government, condemn this outrageous act.
I respect the passion exhibited by the noble Lord, but I repeat what I said to the noble Baroness: there is an investigation. We do not know the facts. We are anxious to establish them, and we are working with Turkey and the United States to try to ascertain them. We need to establish the facts and then determine how we should respond to the situation, whatever it may be.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Does the Minister agree that the changing nature of the Saudi regime is a matter of regret? Does she further agree that, given the economic, political and strategic importance of Saudi Arabia, we should tread gently in public and speak firmly in private?
The noble Lord gives wise counsel. Saudi Arabia is the United Kingdom’s second largest trading partner in the Middle East. Indeed, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates together are the UK’s second biggest export market outside Europe, after the United States. Let me make it clear that it is that strong bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia which means that we can—and do—discuss a wide range of issues frankly and openly with it. I share the noble Lord’s view: these conversations are most effective when they are held privately.
My Lords, the Minister said that there have been some discussions. Has there been any explanation why a man, Jamal Khashoggi, who had already expressed fear for his life and had been critical of the Saudi regime walked into an embassy and never came out? There is footage of him going in; no footage has been produced of him coming out. In fact, there are now reports that he went to the embassy in Washington for the papers he required because he wanted to get married, and he was directed to the embassy in Istanbul. Obviously, we do not have proof yet, but it seems that he was lured there. What robust discussion is taking place to say that it is simply unacceptable for a journalist to walk into an embassy and just not come out again?
I repeat what I said: at the meeting this morning, the message was conveyed to the Saudi Arabian ambassador that we are very concerned about the reports—essentially, media reports—that we have heard. We have called on Saudi Arabia to support a thorough investigation. We need to find out what has happened. Saudi Arabia is obviously well placed to contribute to that investigation. We have also made it clear to Saudi Arabia not only that we want that investigation to be undertaken and that it must be robust and thorough, but that we want it to share the outcome. People understandably wish to know what has happened.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in addition to this case, a recent BBC documentary listed several possible examples of illegal rendition of people from Europe to Saudi Arabia by Saudi forces or elements? In addition to this case being investigated, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, has requested, could the allegations made in this BBC programme be considered? They too were extremely serious.
The Government would be concerned about allegations of illegal renditions, and I have noted what my noble friend has said. I am sure the department will pay close attention to his remarks.
My Lords, is the case building to question the whole issue of conveyance either through pouches or vehicles by diplomatic means, for whatever reason? Is there any suggestion that any state might be abusing the system whereby this whole regime might be looked at more carefully?
The protocols and conventions surrounding the status of diplomatic presences in different countries are well established, and I think the noble Lord will be as well aware as anyone of what these conventions are. Clearly, if there were any suggestion that these conventions were being abused, that would be a very serious issue indeed. But I repeat: in relation to this case—the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover—we do need to ascertain the facts.