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Saudi Arabia: Torture of Political Detainees

Volume 797: debated on Monday 13 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of Saudi Arabia about recent reports of the use of torture on political detainees in that country.

My Lords, we are concerned by the allegations of torture of political detainees, including women’s rights defenders, in Saudi Arabia. The UK Government unreservedly condemn torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. It is a priority to challenge this behaviour wherever and whenever it occurs. We regularly raise our concerns at a high level with the Saudi authorities, including during the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Saudi Arabia in March 2019.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but I am a little disappointed by it, given the extraordinary and appalling human rights record of the Government of Saudi Arabia, where there are political prisoners suffering from beatings, burns, electric shocks and malnutrition. At the recent mass executions, evidence was allowed in court based on confessions extracted under torture. Could he tell the House a little more about when and with whom his and the Government’s concerns have been raised, what the response of the Saudi Government was, and what the UK Government intend to do next about this appalling situation?

I agree with the noble Baroness: the reports we have seen and the recent events that unfolded with the mass executions of detainees were horrific and of deep concern. Many of the people executed were Shia Muslims. The noble Baroness asked at what level we have raised this issue. As I already indicated, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary raised it during his visit with his counterpart in Saudi Arabia. Most recently, at the end of April, Saudi’s Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, was in London and these issues were raised with him directly.

Turning to the next steps, notwithstanding what we are doing on bilateral relations, the noble Baroness will know that I am Minister for Human Rights and that we are a signatory to the 7 March joint statement from the UN Human Rights Council, which raised significant concerns about not just the reports of the detentions already in play but the arrests that are still taking place. I assure the noble Baroness that we continue to raise this issue at all levels, and we are working through international partners and will continue to do so. I hope to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia later this year in my role as Human Rights Minister.

My Lords, in March 2018, the Minister said:

“We will continue … to implore reform”,—[Official Report, 7/3/18; col. 1173.]

from Saudi Arabia. What progress does he think the Government are making, given the cases of torture and the public executions that we have just heard about? In light of this and of actions in Yemen, is it not time for the Government to stop saying that they are taking adequate precautions on arms sales, and to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia?

My Lords, on the latter point, the noble Baroness will know that we have a very rigid arms enforcement arrangement and process in place. That continues to apply to Saudi Arabia, as well as to any other international partner we engage with on defence contracts. On the specific issue, she is quite right. She quoted my use of the word “implore”. I assure her that in all our engagements we continue to remind Saudi Arabia of its important commitments to human rights. She will be aware of the 2030 vision, which is all about economic and social reform. Notwithstanding the tragic events that have taken place, including the issues surrounding Jamal Khashoggi, we continue to work with Saudi Arabia on opening up society and the country, and its continuing focus on and progress towards greater rights, particularly for women.

My Lords, having spent seven years in the British Embassy in Riyadh, I feel there is something familiar about this discussion. Clearly, we face a very difficult situation there and it is highly unsatisfactory. Does the Minister agree that it is slightly better to avoid a direct head-to-head with the Saudis on these things? They believe, and probably will also say, “These are not British citizens; it’s not your business”. It is much better to tackle it from the point of view of the very strong relationship we have with them in a range of important fields, and to use the flak rightly coming out of Parliament to indicate that it will be increasingly difficult for us to maintain that very important relationship if there is no visible progress on some of the matters mentioned by noble Lords.

The noble Lord speaks with great insight on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and I agree with him. We have a very important and balanced relationship with Saudi Arabia that is realistic in terms of what is achievable and attainable in our exchanges, and that is because of the nature of the engagement. As I said, we do not shy away from raising human rights bilaterally or, as has been demonstrated, in partnership very publicly through vehicles such as the Human Rights Council.

My Lords, the Minister talks about the programme of reform. Certainly, since the incident in Turkey, we have seen a different attitude. The report on torture arose from Saudi Arabia’s own internal examination of these issues, and with a new ambassador in the US and here, the Saudis seem to be on a charm offensive. But the reality is that there are still huge human rights abuses and more executions than ever before. Will the noble Lord tell us a bit more about not only what the Government are saying to the Saudis but what we are doing with our allies to ensure we can exert pressure, so that, instead of the current PR exercise, we confront the reality?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises important points. But the fact that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is deploying a “charm offensive”, as he calls it—I would also call it a diplomatic offensive—to change the way it is viewed on the global stage reflects the important fact that progress is being made. On working to get specific action, it is acutely aware of the action we are taking through international fora such as the Human Rights Council, and we will continue to do so.

My Lords, according to the last figure I saw, we export £80 million-worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and nil to Yemen. Does that not make us complicit in a lot of the work that is going on there?

I have already answered, in part, the question on arms exports to Saudi Arabia, which, as I said, are managed in the most robust manner. The noble Lord mentions that we do not export arms to Yemen. He and all noble Lords will know all too well that the conflict in Yemen is not just about the Yemenis themselves. There are external partners in play, and the last thing we should be doing is fuelling that conflict by exporting arms to a country that is torn by civil war and that has external players who are in part fuelling that war.