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Saudi Arabia: Death Penalty

Volume 802: debated on Wednesday 26 February 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they intend to take in response to the report by Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, A perverse and ominous enterprise: the death penalty and illegal executions in Saudi Arabia, published in July 2019.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, for her report. The United Kingdom strongly opposes the use of the death penalty in all circumstances. The former Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa raised our concerns with the Saudi Deputy Justice Minister earlier this month. In September 2019, the UK was also a signatory to the UN Human Rights Council statement encouraging Saudi Arabia to end its use of the death penalty and to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

I thank the Minister not just for his reply but his personal commitment to international human rights. I tabled this Question because the report, published in July last year, indicated that there had been an acceleration of the use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, including mass executions —beheadings—of as many as 37 people at a time, the majority of whom had been involved in a protest and were of the Shia minority. The abuse of human rights in Saudi Arabia should be a real scandal to all of us in this House. I visited Turkey with the rapporteur on extrajudicial killing to hear the tapes of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist. We have now had an opaque trial, where it was impossible for the International Bar Association, for example, to have persons present during the trial. We now know that six people have been given the death penalty as a result. Are we inquiring as to what is happening and who those people are? Do we know enough about the outcome of that trial and whether any due process really took place?

My Lords, first, I am glad that we were finally allowed to take this Oral Question after the publication of the report. I can assure the noble Baroness that, since then, we have been taking quite specific action. She rightly raised the mass execution of 37 men in April 2019; there were a large number from the Shia minority. We clearly expressed our grave concern at that time. Indeed, when I visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, at its request, in my capacity as Human Rights Minister, we raised all issues, including the death penalty. The noble Baroness raised the specific issue of the Khashoggi trial. In that regard, our diplomats on the ground did gain access to the trial and were able to observe it directly. As to what happens next, as the noble Baroness will be aware, there is an appeal process under way for those people who were given the death penalty in that regard, and there is little for me to add as it is an ongoing process. On the general point about the use of the death penalty, for minorities but also for minors, we continue to raise the issue regularly with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

My Lords, as I have remarked before, the noble Lord has been in his post for some considerable time. Last May, after the executions, he talked about progress being made and positive engagement. Of course, underpinning these executions are further human rights abuses; it is not simply executions. Can the Minister tell us, with his positive engagement, what progress is really being made, and, if progress is not sufficient, will the Government use the powers they have to impose selective sanctions against those responsible for these human rights abuses?

The noble Lord refers to my time in post, and I am delighted to return to the Dispatch Box. My noble friend from the Treasury has just left the Chamber, but I am sure he will be reassured by the fact that longevity in office is perhaps—as I look toward my noble friend Lady Williams—a trademark of Ministers in your Lordships’ House.

On whether progress is being made, in July 2018 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia passed a codifying law on the age of criminal majority at 18 for some crimes within sharia law and capping the punishment for crimes committed by minors to 10 years’ imprisonment, so we have seen specific progress in this regard. There are exceptions to this on issues of national security. On action taken, particularly against people alleged to have been involved in the Khashoggi murder, I assure the noble Lord that we have taken action. I am delighted that my noble friend the Minister of State from the Home Office is here. The Home Office did act and we took action against a number of individuals in that respect.

My Lords, I have given informal notice to the Minister that I wish to ask a question about arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Does he recall that on 26 September there were Statements in both Houses on behalf of the Government to admit a breach of an undertaking given to the High Court on 20 June that there would be no export licences granted to Saudi Arabia for military equipment that might be used in Yemen, and that there would be a fully independent inquiry? Why have the results of that inquiry not yet been published—if not for the courtesy of the House, for that of the High Court?

My Lords, I do indeed recall that, and I have followed it up with colleagues at the Department for International Trade. I will come back to the noble Lord on the specific issue of the inquiry. I can reassure him that, since the review of that decision and the decision on the three conditions—one in particular that went against the Government—there have been no new arms licences issued to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I spoke in support of this report at the United Nations in Geneva? A whole audience unanimously agreed that only Governments could shift the Saudi Arabians’ atrocious use of the death penalty. Some of the people under sentence of death are students who took part in a demonstration; that is all they did. Although I commend Her Majesty’s Government for their efforts so far, what further efforts are they making to ensure that all the other Governments who care about human rights can make a concerted front against the Saudi Government on this matter?

The noble Baroness raises an important point. Collaborative efforts on matters of foreign policy and on issues such as the death penalty do have an impact; we have therefore made a collective effort. I alluded earlier to the efforts the United Kingdom Government have made at the Human Rights Council, and we were pleased to support Australia on the broad concerns raised about human rights in Saudi Arabia. I add to an earlier point made to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that we are seeing change and positive steps are being taken, as I saw when I visited. Notwithstanding that engagement, I assure the noble Baroness and your Lordships’ House that we continue to make an issue of a moratorium on the death penalty—as a first step, perhaps, to its prohibition—not just to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but elsewhere in the world. Our strategic alliances are important and allow us to make that case forcefully.

My Lords, for 10 or 20 years we have been hearing Ministers say that they have made representations to Saudi Arabia, and nothing happens. The Minister just said it is very important that we keep our strategic alliance going, so would it be wrong to suggest that if Saudi Arabia did not have oil and did not buy so many of our arms we would be declaring it a pariah state by now?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about my longevity in office: I was not here 12 or 15 years ago, as the noble Lord may know. On his general point, while we hope for better progress, progress is being made. Although small steps are being taken in the human rights space, we have seen progress on the issue of gender and an easing of restrictions on the ground, particularly in places such as Riyadh. Can more progress be made? Of course. While we continue to raise these issues, the fact that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a strategic partner helps us make this case, and I assure the noble Lord that we will continue to do so.