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Saudi Arabia: Human Rights

Volume 794: debated on Wednesday 21 November 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the outcome of their recent talks with the government of Saudi Arabia about human rights in that country.

My Lords, the UK regularly discusses human rights with the Government of Saudi Arabia, including individual cases. Saudi Arabia remains a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country, as detailed in the annual Human Rights & Democracy Foreign and Commonwealth Office report. The Foreign Secretary travelled to Saudi Arabia to discuss a range of issues, including the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and we work with international partners to raise issues through the international system.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but Saudi Arabia continues to detain people without charge for indefinite periods and—as she said, Khashoggi was murdered in the consulate in Turkey—in addition to that, it continues to oppress people in every sense of the word. Why do we continue to dither and pussyfoot about with this aristocratic, reactionary and despicable regime? Why do we not impose sanctions on it?

My Lords, I can understand there is a range of passionately felt views about Saudi Arabia. Certainly, the United Kingdom has always regarded that country as an important ally for reasons that I know the noble Lord will understand. Equally, as with a relationship with any ally or friend, we feel able to express frankly our concerns. The Foreign Secretary, on his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, made very clear his concerns across a range of issues, not least the very distressing situation of Mr Khashoggi’s murder. We regularly raise with Saudi Arabia our concerns about human rights, and the noble Lord will be aware that the recent United Nations universal periodic review of Saudi Arabia took place on 5 November. He will know that a very strongly worded letter went from the UK permanent representative with a number of recommendations, all of which had at their heart respect for and implementation of human rights.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government, like the United States Government and the French Government, have actually received the tapes of the recording of Mr Khashoggi’s murder in the consulate? What conclusions have they come to about those tapes? Is the Minister aware that the Saudi authorities have named the people whom they think were responsible for Mr Khashoggi’s murder? Will the Government monitor the trial of those people to make sure that it is fully transparent and that those people are not executed as a cover-up for somebody else?

In relation to my noble friend’s first question, we do not comment on intelligence matters, as I think he will understand. Given the recent disclosures by Saudi Arabia in relation to the court proceedings against 11 people, the United Kingdom Government will monitor carefully how that trial proceeds. It is a sovereign, independent country with an independent justice system, but we will watch carefully what takes place. The noble Lord will be aware that we have said repeatedly that we are totally opposed to the use of the death penalty in any circumstances.

My Lords, as revealed in this morning’s news, President Trump has made it clear that, as far as he is concerned, considerations of trade are more important than human rights in Saudi Arabia. Can the Minister confirm that our Government do not share the same callous view?

If the noble Lord is suggesting that, for some reason, the UK would prioritise trade over human rights, that would absolutely not happen. The relationships that we build with countries, including Saudi Arabia, through trade and security links and through bringing together institutions such as educational research establishments allow us to make greater progress with those countries on the issue of human rights.

My Lords, following that question, is the Minister as sickened as I am by President Trump’s position that jobs would be at stake if he held Saudi Arabia to account? Does she see a read-across to the case that we have heard about today of Matthew Hedges, who was jailed for life after a five-minute trial in the UAE? Does she agree that human rights must be defended whatever our apparent economic interest?

Human rights must always be defended, and I have already made clear both in my initial response to the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, and in my subsequent answers the huge importance that we attach to human rights. This is not just a token importance but an importance underpinned by the actions that we take and the discussions that we have and the things that we attempt to do. We are regarded as being a very prominent global player in that respect. It is absolutely vital that we are proud of what the United Kingdom does in that field. We endeavour, whenever possible, to raise these issues and to do so in a constructive fashion.

My Lords, yesterday Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch highlighted the torture of human rights activists in prison in Saudi Arabia. Last night, I met representatives from Reprieve, which announced that the death penalties on 12 human rights activists—people standing up for their human rights—have been confirmed. Will the Minister tell us today that the United Kingdom Government will make a public statement condemning those death penalties, which I understand could take place today or tomorrow?

We have been clear about our concern regarding these 12 men; we are extremely concerned about reports that these executions may be imminent. We have raised these concerns with the Saudi authorities as recently as 20 November. As I say, the UK opposes the death penalty in all respects. The other issue that the noble Lord raises is a very distressing one; I think he is referring to the allegations of torture of female activists. Of course we are concerned about these allegations. It is a horrible situation, and we consistently and unreservedly condemn torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. We have raised these concerns and these cases at ministerial level with the Saudi authorities a number of times, and we will continue to do so following these allegations.