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Saudi Arabia

Volume 797: debated on Wednesday 24 April 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Europe and the Americas to an Urgent Question in another place on Saudi Arabia. The Statement is as follows:

“We are very concerned by the 37 executions in Saudi Arabia and the FCO is working to establish the full facts. The Foreign Secretary will be raising this matter with the Saudi authorities at the earliest opportunity. The UK Government oppose the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country, including Saudi Arabia. We regularly raise human rights concerns, including the use of the death penalty, at the highest levels with the Saudi Arabian authorities”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. This afternoon, in the other place, Alan Duncan said that the European Union had issued a very strong statement of condemnation through the European External Action Service, to which the UK had put its name, pointing out that these executions are a regressive step and specifically raising concerns that some of the 37 people executed were minors. If the Government’s position is to support their allies on this issue, what is the next step if the Saudis continue to flagrantly breach international law? Will the Government work with our allies to impose some form of sanctions so that the Saudis listen to our concerns over this flagrant breach of international law?

I thank the noble Lord for referring to the statement from the European External Action Service. It is a very strong statement of condemnation and I understand that my right honourable friend Sir Alan Duncan said that the UK has put our name fully to it. I have looked at the text of the statement, and it does not pull its punches.

On the broader perspective of the noble Lord’s question, it is the case that Saudi Arabia has been an important partner of the United Kingdom and that partnership has a long history in the region. It fosters mutual understanding and that strategic relationship has stood the test of time. However, there is no doubt about the statement’s unequivocal terms. The United Kingdom would wish to consult with its allies and partners on any further response. I said earlier that the Foreign Secretary will raise this matter with the Saudi authorities at the earliest opportunity; I understand that that will be in very early course indeed.

My Lords, according to Saudi Arabia’s official press agency, 37 people were killed yesterday in a mass execution—as rightly said. Most, if not all, were convicted in the specialised criminal court, or SCC, the kingdom’s secretive and widely condemned anti-terrorism tribunal. At least three of those executed were juveniles at the time of the alleged offences. Most of the people executed were from the Shia community. This is a flagrant breach of international standards. I ask the Minister: will she not follow Germany’s example and finally suspend UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia? As a start, is this not also something we should do in relation to Yemen?

I respond to the noble Lord by observing that the UK operates one of the most robust export control regimes in the world. That includes looking at risks relating to human rights violations as a key part of our assessment against the consolidated criteria. I reassure him that defence exports are under careful and continual review.

Would my noble friend agree that there comes a moment in which partnership becomes complicity? There really seems to be a serious issue here. I know it is difficult, but unless the Government give us some idea that there will be a step beyond condemnation, however strong and common in the European Union, it really will begin to look as if the United Kingdom overlooks activities in Saudi Arabia that it would not overlook elsewhere. That is really difficult to stomach.

On the last part of my noble friend’s question, under no circumstances does the United Kingdom overlook this any more than our EU partners. There is no doubt about the strength of feeling reflected in the statement by the EEAS. I reassure my noble friend that we represent our concerns in the very strongest terms. That is one of the benefits of having a partnership: we can be blunt in our comments and on a personal level. A judgment will always have to be made when dealing with other countries, different cultures and different regimes. Is that objective best effected in the public domain, or is it more effectively attained through private conversations where the strength of sentiment and the sense of condemnation of unacceptable practices are crystal clear?

My Lords, a partnership is of no value unless the other partner is listened to. I am grateful to Reprieve for the information it has supplied to me and to other noble Lords. Thirty-seven people have been executed today in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, three of whom were juveniles at the time of their alleged offences. Will the Minister join with others in calling for the release of three others arrested and tortured as teenagers, who are now imprisoned and at very real risk of beheading? Furthermore, will she unequivocally condemn these executions? Otherwise, silence could be perceived as acquiescence.

I think that the Government, particularly through the comments made by my right honourable friend Sir Alan Duncan, have made the United Kingdom’s position crystal clear. We are profoundly concerned by what has happened. We have represented and are representing these concerns. On the allegations of torture, we are aware of reports. We are deeply troubled by these allegations and we certainly unreservedly condemn torture. Again, we raise these issues with Saudi Arabia. The Foreign Secretary expects to be in a position to raise our concerns across a range of matters in the very near future.

My Lords, the UN Human Rights Council is there to promote and protect human rights around the globe. In hindsight, do the Government regret sponsoring Saudi Arabia as a member of that body? Will they lobby to have Saudi Arabia taken off the council?

It is the case that the United Nations is an important forum. There is no doubt about that at all. The UK is a strong supporter of the UN General Assembly’s resolution for the moratorium on the use of the death penalty. We use our position bilaterally to lobby Governments to establish moratoriums to abolish the death penalty. We raise individual cases of British nationals and partner with world-leading NGOs to reduce use of the death penalty. It is important that there is a forum where dialogue can continue, rather than running the risk of just bringing down shutters, closing doors and cutting off any possibility of any exchange of views.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the Saudi Arabian ambassador in London has been summoned to see the Foreign Secretary?

I have no specific information on that point, but I shall investigate and report back to my noble friend.

My Lords, it does not seem so long ago that we were discussing the sad fate of Mr Khashoggi, who was murdered in Turkey by the Saudi Arabian authorities. In making private representations, what difference has there been in Saudi Arabia’s attitude when we see evidence of these executions?

Given the recency of the executions, and given that the Foreign Secretary expects to be in engagement with Saudi Arabia in very early course, I cannot comment specifically on my noble friend’s question. On the broader issue of Mr Khashoggi’s murder, both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary made it clear that action is needed to ensure accountability. However, my noble friend raises a very important point, which I shall look into.

My Lords, I declare an interest. For many years I have sat on the board of a foreign-owned company in Saudi Arabia. Therefore, I am well aware of the problems of doing business in that country, and the problems with its Government. I have friends who are currently in jail in Saudi Arabia. However, I caution the Government that the alternative to the current royal Government in Saudi Arabia could be considerably worse.

This Chamber always welcomes the opinions of members with personal experience of the cultures and countries we are discussing. Earlier, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, I said that it is important we create an environment where dialogue can continue, rather than cutting off all communication and contact, and I think that the observation of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, is wise.