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Saudi Arabia: Human Rights

Volume 799: debated on Wednesday 4 September 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made on human rights issues working together with the Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia.

My Lords, the United Kingdom regularly engages with the Saudi Human Rights Commission. In July, I met the then president of the commission, Bandar Al-Aiban, and raised human rights concerns, including the detention of women’s rights activists. The commission played a key role in drafting the new regulation allowing women to apply for a passport and to travel without a guardian’s permission. This development followed sustained engagement by the United Kingdom and other countries.

My Lords, I welcome the work that my noble friend is doing on human rights generally, and particularly with Saudi Arabia. I also welcome the fact that the Government were prepared to make a public statement at the Human Rights Council criticising Saudi Arabia for arbitrarily arresting and detaining human rights defenders such as Loujain al-Hathloul, who campaigned to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia. She was arrested over a year ago for her peaceful campaign and is still in prison. Translating words into deeds, how will my noble friend ensure that Loujain al-Hathloul, who suffered torture in prison, can be freed, and that others do not suffer her fate?

My Lords, first, I pay tribute to my noble friend’s exemplary work in this area when she served as Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. On the specific issue that she rightly raises, between May and August 2018 the Saudi authorities arrested a number of women’s rights defenders as part of a wider clampdown on political opposition. Currently, 12 women’s rights defenders are on trial, 10 at Riyadh Criminal Court and two at the Specialized Criminal Court. Two of the 12 have been held in solitary confinement since their arrest in August 2018. We continue to make representations. I recently held a bilateral meeting, and I plan to visit Saudi Arabia soon, where human rights, and specifically human rights defenders, will be on my agenda.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what discussions the Government have had with the Government of Saudi Arabia about the very large numbers of people held in detention without trial and the large number of executions that have been taking place, including of children, or at least those who were children when they were arrested? What has been the response of the Government of Saudi Arabia to these discussions?

The noble Baroness is quite right to raise this issue. Previously, the Government—and I from this Dispatch Box—have expressed deep concern about the execution of detainees, some of whom were of a very young age. I assure the noble Baroness that we continue to raise these issues with the Saudi authorities. There has been some progress—the establishment of an albeit semi-autonomous commission has seen some traction—but clearly there is a great deal of work to be done on the issue of detention. We are also making representations to attend the trials of those detainees; we will continue to make those representations through our embassy and through bilateral engagement.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of reports that two days ago the Saudi-led coalition launched an air strike in Yemen which killed more than 100 people in a detention camp? If he is, does he not think that that has something to say about Saudi Arabia’s respect for humanitarian law?

I am aware of the attack on the site in Dhamar on Sunday, and we are deeply concerned about the civilian deaths. I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say that our thoughts are with the victims. We are urgently seeking more information, and are in touch with both coalition partners, who have referred the incident to the joint incident assessment team. They have publicly stated that the strike was targeting a weapons depot, but I assure the noble Lord that we will follow up on this issue.

My Lords, following the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, does the Minister recall that, following the decision of the Court of Appeal of 20 June, the Government announced that they would appeal against that decision but in the meantime refuse to grant any new licences for the export of arms to Saudi Arabia? How many new licences have been refused? What is the financial value of arms exported to Saudi Arabia since 20 June under existing licences?

I shall write to the noble Lord on his second question, but he is quite right to raise the judgment. There were three rulings: two were in favour of the Government and one, as he rightly articulated, has gone to appeal. We disagree with the judgment. However, due process is being followed and I stress again that we have adhered to the undertaking to grant no new licences. On how much has been exported under existing licences, I shall write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, have the Government monitored the trial of those who have been arrested and prosecuted for the murder of Mr Khashoggi in Turkey? Is that trial being held in public? Are the accused being given lawyers and are we satisfied that they are the real culprits and not carrying the responsibility for someone else?

My Lords, as my noble friend knows, the Government have condemned Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in the strongest possible terms and we have continued to raise our deepest concerns. As referred to by my noble friend Lady Anelay, at the most recent Human Rights Council, as Human Rights Minister, I asked for the issue to be put into the UPR—universal periodic review—of Saudi Arabia. It was clearly understood that the detention and, as in this case, the murder of journalists is taken very seriously by the United Kingdom Government. As I said earlier, we continue to make representations to attend trials as part of an international observer group. Trial observation demonstrates to host Governments not just our continued interest in but adherence to legal procedures. I assure my noble friend that the United Kingdom has been clear that we need accountability for the horrific murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and we expect Saudi Arabia to take action to ensure that such violations are never repeated.

Does the Minister not agree that the separation hitherto of arms dealings and human rights is no longer sustainable in light of the example referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay? Should there not be further consideration of the way in which these two issues are handled in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence?

I assure the noble Lord and all noble Lords that our arms export licences are reviewed continually. A specific case is currently on appeal. We respect judicial decisions in this regard. We will await the outcome of the trial, but existing arms controls are rigidly applied to every licence request that we receive.