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Middle East: Human Rights

Volume 818: debated on Monday 31 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress was made by the Foreign Secretary at her meeting with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait on 20 December 2021 on protecting and promoting human rights.

My Lords, on 20 December, the Foreign Secretary hosted her Gulf Cooperation Council counterparts. The meeting was primarily focused on foreign policy and trade and investment, and the full communiqué detailing the main discussion points has been published on GOV.UK. I can reassure all in this House that we regularly engage with our partners from the GCC and consistently underline the importance of respect for human rights. We continue to work closely with our allies to tackle any human rights concerns.

My Lords, a month before that meeting, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office published its update on the human rights abuses about which it was concerned in Saudi Arabia. They include enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture. Did the Foreign Secretary raise these issues with the Saudi Foreign Minister when she met him and with what results? If not, why not?

My Lords, no aspect of our relationship with Saudi Arabia prevents us speaking frankly about human rights. Saudi Arabia remains an FCDO human rights priority country, particularly because of its use of the death penalty and restrictions on women’s rights, freedom of expression and religious freedom. We regularly raise concerns with the Saudi authorities through diplomatic channels, including through Ministers, our ambassador and the British embassy in Riyadh.

My Lords, I want to underline the important question that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has just asked the noble Lord. Will he return to the issue of capital punishment that he has just referred to and confirm that, since 2015, there have been over 600 executions? Although there has been a welcome reduction in recent years, did we raise that directly with the Saudi authorities and did we raise with them their obligations under Article 18 of the 1948 convention on human rights, the issue of freedom of religion or belief—comparing them perhaps with the much more favourable disposition of countries such as the UAE in implementing Article 18?

My Lords, the full communiqué has been published on the government website but, in relation to the death penalty, in October last year my noble friend Lord Ahmad—in whose portfolio this sits—raised his concern regarding the use of the death penalty in the kingdom with Dr Awwad al-Awwad, president of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, inquiring specifically into the case of Abdullah al-Howaiti and Mohammed al-Faraj, both believed to be minors at the time of their crimes. He raised a range of other concerns as well.

My Lords, at the time of the meeting, a number of human rights organisations wrote to the Foreign Secretary regarding Dr al-Singace, a human rights defender who is in prison in Bahrain. He has been there for over a decade and has been on hunger strike for over 190 days. Can the Minister tell us whether this case was raised and whether we are seeking his release after this horrendous period?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we continue to monitor and raise the case of Dr Abduljalil al-Singace as well as many others with the Bahraini Government and the relevant oversight bodies.

My Lords, the International Relations Committee found that the Government were on the wrong side of international human rights law in not pausing arms sales to Saudi Arabia while the attacks in Yemen are carrying on. The Minister will know that the UN Secretary-General has condemned the Saudi-led coalition for the recent attack on 21 January that led to 91 civilians dying. This, together with the Houthi rebels who are recruiting child soldiers—primarily from Sudan—shows an escalation of the conflict in Yemen. This is the very wrong time to be cutting our support for women and children in Yemen. Will the Government now reverse this and ensure that those most at risk in Yemen are supported by the Government, rather than the floor being taken away from under them?

As I said, we have a good, full and frank relationship with our Saudi Arabian allies. There are no issues that are off the table in our discussions with them. Saudi Arabia remains a human rights priority country within the FCDO, particularly because of the use of the death penalty. We will always raise concerns with the Saudi authorities when it is felt that we should do so.

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Anelay is entirely right to raise the question of promoting human rights. It is a great cause, but does the Minister agree that along with rights go responsibilities? Will he accept that if these countries are to join properly in the comity of nations and gain our respect, they not only have to improve their own human rights record but have to stand up internationally and vocally for the rule of law and speak out in flagrant breaches of the rule of law—particularly as we now see being proposed by President Putin around the borders of Ukraine?

My Lords, the UK has always believed that reform will be the guarantor of longer-term stability in the region—that we are more likely to bring about change through engagement, dialogue and co-operation. However, of course my noble friend is absolutely right to say that with the rights enjoyed by these countries come enormous responsibilities.

My Lords, some of these states, in contrast with the UAE, have a very patchy record on human rights, particularly in respect of freedom of Christians. Does the Minister believe that gross human rights violations should render a state ineligible for membership of the UN Human Rights Council?

My Lords, if we were to apply—honestly and rigorously—the same criteria, there would be very few members of the Human Rights Council remaining.

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Anelay asked a specific Question about whether these matters were raised in the meeting on 20 December. My noble friend the Minister gave a helpful but general answer and did not answer that specific question. Could he now do so?

I am very pleased that my answer was helpful. I apologise if it was too general, but I am afraid that is the depth of my knowledge on an issue that does not normally sit within my portfolio.

My Lords, some 20 years ago we signed a big contract with Qatar to get liquid natural gas from the North Dome oilfield and take it round to Milford Haven, and that contract was running well. Bearing in mind the current energy crisis and the need for gas, were there any discussions about that? It seems to have tailed away slightly. Where do we stand now on ensuring that provision of LNG?

I am afraid I do not know if there were discussions in relation to access to gas in Qatar, but I will ensure that the noble Lord’s question is followed up in the Foreign Office.

My Lords, do any of the places visited allow those of other faiths, particularly non-Abrahamic faiths, to have their own places of worship and to practise their religion freely, as required under Article 18?

My Lords, I may not have heard the beginning of the question correctly; I think it was about whether the countries visited permit the kind of religious freedom that the noble Lord rightly says should exist in all countries. If that was the question, the answer is no. There are any number of restrictions in place in countries across the region, including Saudi Arabia. In this country, we have always strongly supported the right to freedom of religion or belief across the region and indeed across the world.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Purvis asked specifically about Yemen and Saudi involvement, but I did not hear a clear response on that. Could the Minister comment on the escalation of the war and the humanitarian disaster in Yemen? Also, could he comment specifically on whether, in the discussions, Saudi Arabia is being asked why it is not allowing international organisations to deliver basic food and medicine to people who are starving and suffering in this terrible conflict?

My Lords, to my knowledge, this issue was raised in discussions in Saudi Arabia, particularly in relation to ease of access and transport for delivering much-needed provisions in Yemen. I will encourage my colleague to follow up with a more detailed answer.

My Lords, there is barely a country in the world with which we will not have some differences on domestic policy, but with Saudi Arabia this has spilled over into international affairs—in Yemen, with the kidnap of the former Lebanese leader and in the Khashoggi murder. Will my noble friend the Minister confirm that, in our relations with all GCC countries, we will stress the vital importance of the principles of national sovereignty, territorial jurisdiction and order among nations?

My noble friend is exactly right, and that is very much the view of the British Government. There is no single formula for success or single model of government, particularly in a region with such distinct cultures and differing political systems. It is not for the UK or indeed other Governments outside the region to dictate how each country meets the aspirations of its people, but there are certain principles that we must—and do—continue to stand up for.