Saudi Arabia — Question for Short Debate
Lord Ahmed (Labour)
I have great love and respect for the 27 million citizens of Saudi Arabia, as well as the holy places in both Mecca and Medina. For this reason, I believe that it is imperative to speak out against the oppressive, dictatorial and brutal practices exercised by the regime, which interprets its tribal Bedouin culture into religious doctrine in a way which is, in my view, quite contrary to the Sharia and to the practices of Islam.
Over 1,400 years ago, the Prophet Mohammed-Peace be upon Him-worked for a noble lady called Khadijah, who was an entrepreneur as well as a respected businesswoman in Mecca. His daughter Fatima and his wife Ayesha-Peace and Blessings be upon Them-both practised fully in life with men at work, at war, in the community and in business. They expressed their views and opinions, even sometimes against the khalifas-the rulers, who were companions of the Prophet-without fear of being prosecuted or locked up.
Today, women are not allowed to drive or vote; women remain subject to discrimination both in law and practice; women are not allowed to travel, engage in paid work, participate in higher education, or marry without the permission of a male guardian. I am sure that the Saudi authorities will say that women will be gaining their right to vote, even though there is no democracy or freedom in the country. The consultative Shura Council is still fully appointed by the king. Women "gaining the right to vote" will merely join their male counterparts in being able to elect only half of the local municipal seats-the other half of which are also appointed by the king. Women still do not have the same rights as men.
Some 1,400 years ago, the Prophet Mohammed-Peace be upon Him-said that no Arab is better than a non-Arab, and vice versa. Yet, in modern Saudi Arabia, the practices of pre-Islam are rampant, with white Europeans and Americans treated in a superior manner to Asian and African workers doing the same job. They justify this by stating that people are paid in accordance with the national salaries in the place of their origin. Asian and African people are treated with pathetically low wages, and are held in overcrowded accommodation with few or no basic facilities. Even the hard-working cleaners of the holy places are paid less than £100 per month in the most oil-rich country of the world.
Islam never practised sheikhdoms and kingdoms, the culture of the current Arab countries. Islam was based on democratic elections for candidates with the ability to perform and who had in mind the best interests of society. Even khalifas like Omer, Usman and Ali were elected by the consensus of the people.
According to the latest Amnesty International report, since March 2011, the Saudi Arabian authorities have launched a new wave of repression in the name of security. They have cracked down on demonstrations, protests against human rights violations and calls for reform. The number of people arrested is reported to be between 10,000 and 30,000. According to the Islamic Human Rights Commission, there are more political prisoners in Saudi Arabia today than there were in the USSR at its height. The actions of the Saudi authorities are a cause of concern for us all as they breach basic human rights. Thousands of people have been detained over the past decades on security grounds, many of them held for years without charge or trial, or tried and sentenced in secret with no means of challenging their detention. Some 63 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 1,400 years after the last sermon of the Prophet Mohammed-Peace be upon Him-guaranteeing rights for men, women, children, minorities and the weak, it shocks me that thousands of political prisoners are being held in Saudi Arabia without being charged or convicted.
One of those prisoners is an Islamic scholar who has been detained because he criticised the Ministry of the Interior for its handling of detainees. According to Human Rights Watch, Dr Yusuf bin Abdullah al-Ahmad was detained without charge the day after he published his criticism, apparently as a direct result of his internet post. The Islamic teacher, who is a Sunni and teaches at Imam Muhammad bin Saud University in Riyadh, also criticised the arrest of women who went to the ministry on
There are many illegal imprisonments, including those of British citizens such as Abdul Hakim Gilani, who was recently released from prison due to the campaign run by Al Karama, a human rights organisation, after six years of terrible ordeal due to his political beliefs. Political prisoners include human rights activists, lawyers, members of political parties, religious scholars, bloggers and individual protesters. I can list many names which are all available on the internet and have been circulated by human rights organisations to expose the reign of terror in Saudi Arabia. Since 2001, abusive counter-terrorism methods have been used against political opponents of the regime and anyone expressing concerns in relation to their right to be able to express freely and without fear of prosecution their right to vote and to live in accordance with their traditions.
Noble Lords may be aware that Amnesty International has expressed deep concern in relation to a new anti-terror law which has been formulated. It will be used to silence discontent in the kingdom. For example, it will be a terrorist crime if you are said to have harmed the reputation of the state or its position. "Questioning the integrity of the king or the crown prince" will be punishable by a minimum of 10 years' imprisonment, while holding a placard could result in a three-year sentence. Already people are tried and held in secret; people are sent to prison for "re-education" or "positive brainwashing". Torture and other ill-treatment remains rife, and confessions are forced out of detainees using beatings, electric shocks and other forms of torture.
I am fully aware that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has more oil than any other country and that we depend on oil. I am fully aware of Saudi Arabia's financial and political influence in the west and I have occasionally been told by colleagues about our interests, but in my view the principle of defending human rights is and will remain at the very highest level, and higher than any other issue. The Saudi authorities claim that they are now the "Arab moderate camp" and should be supported by the west without much reform or change to their way of governance, just because they claim that they provide consistency and security in the region. But we have supported the Tunisian people, and rightly so. We have just spent over $200 million as well as killing thousands of people in Libya to get rid of the tyrant Muammar Gaddafi. We have supported the people of Egypt even though Hosni Mubarak was a safer bet. We are supporting the people of Syria because of the oppressive tactics of Bashar Al Assad. We must not stay silent in the face of abuses of human rights and lack of political rights in Saudi Arabia by the Al-Saud family. Britain along with other countries should stand up and support the human rights and equality movements which are our basic principles. Our values of defending civil, political, social and economic rights should be universal and one.
Finally, I would like to ask the Minister: how many British citizens are held in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and what representation Her Majesty's Government have made to the Saudi authorities regarding this matter. Would he be prepared to support the isolation of those countries which use torture with impunity? Will Her Majesty's Government support the following requests from Amnesty International, which I support: immediately release all prisoners of conscience, such as those held solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly or association; end all arbitrary arrests and detentions; provide prompt and public trials meeting international standards of fairness without recourse to the death penalty for all detainees charged or held, including on suspicion of terrorism-related offences, or else release them; investigate thoroughly and independently all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment and bring those found responsible to justice?
It is important that we ask for considerable amendment to the draft penal law for terrorism crimes and the financing of terrorism and bring all of Saudi Arabia's terrorism-related laws and practices into line with international human rights law and standards. I believe that we have a duty to uphold international law regardless of the perpetrators and their influences on western society. The people of the Middle East will say that Britain operates a double standard in relation to human rights if we remain silent over our friend's actions. I believe that Saudi Arabia has an important role to play in the Muslim world and that if we fail to encourage wide-ranging reforms and respect for international norms, we will be failing in our long-term duty to create a peaceful world.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Conservative)
My Lords, perhaps I may say, in a personal moment of reflection, that it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, because he has told me that since my appointment to this House he follows me on every list by accident of my surname, which uses the letter "a" as opposed to his which uses the letter "e". Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord in this debate.
The issue of human rights in Saudi Arabia is one that is very pertinent not just to the Middle East and the Arab world, but to the world as a whole. As the Arab spring is upon us, there are opportunities for greater democracy, increased transparency and a need for greater adherence to human and civil rights. Civil rights and human rights are often bandied about as litmus tests of parliamentary democracies and of countries, whichever model they may follow. It is therefore important that when we look around the world, make the challenges and raise the voice of human and civil rights, we do so with equality enjoining justice. Perhaps that role becomes even more important when we look to established states and to our allies. Where we see rights being usurped, we have two options. Do we turn a blind eye and hope it will go away, or do we do the right thing and raise our voices and, as has been shown in recent months, take action where necessary against discrimination and the usurping of human rights? Surely if these countries are our allies, we should play the role of a critical friend with constructive reasoning.
As the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, has said, Saudi Arabia is the guardian of the holy shrines of Islam in both Mecca and Medina. It is the birthplace of Islam, a religion of peace by definition, and it is the birthplace of the noble Prophet Mohammed, Peace be upon Him. Much of what we hear about Saudi Arabia is equated to Islam not only for these historical and noble legacies but also because there are claims made by the authorities that the laws that govern the kingdom are drawn from the Holy scripture of Islam. Let me put this into context.
The Holy Koran recognises the right to religious freedom and all civil and human rights in the case of all-that is, in the case of other believers but also in the case of non-believers as well. In the context of human rights and the need to exercise religious freedom-or any freedom-it is important to mention a verse in the Holy Koran:
"Let there be no compulsion in religion".
That has application not only to Muslims and non-Muslims alike but also those who perhaps renounce their faith after professing it. The Koran does not prescribe punishment-as is sometimes erroneously interpreted-for the renunciation of faith alone. Ultimately, according to Islamic doctrine-the right and true interpretation of Islam-that decision and a person's ultimate destiny lie in the hereafter in the hands of God almighty.
Muslims believe that the Holy Koran contains the first and foremost universal declaration of human rights in the history of mankind. Let us refer to that for a moment. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as we know it, stands as a milestone towards the goal of freedom, justice and equality. Adopted in 1948, it contains the broadest consensus of contemporary civilisation on the subject of human rights. It contains all the important political and civil rights, such as equality before the law, the right to a fair trial, the right to own property, freedom of opinion and expression, and of thought, conscience, and religion:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief".
The broad values and standards laid down by Islam endorse these values that were adopted in 1948, which teach respect and tolerance for all people and all faiths.
Let me go forward to the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights. This was something to which Saudi Arabia subscribed in 1990. It offered a somewhat parallel declaration-an Islamic conception of human rights. With this objective, many Muslim countries, under the aegis of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, signed the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights. That also sought to provide protections for the rights of women and religion but there were limitations. Perhaps when you look at the two declarations side by side those are glaringly obvious. The important thing is that it was a step in the right direction. Yet the Cairo Declaration refuses to give the most fundamental of human rights: the freedom of conscience and the right to change ones religion or belief. The Cairo Declaration is deafeningly silent about the right of a Muslim, for example, to renounce Islam in favour of other religions or atheism. We sometimes see the interpretation of that in its very ugly form in certain Muslim states.
I now move forwards to 2002, when the United Nations published the Arab Human Development report, which noted that the Arab region has the least freedom compared to six other key regions of the world, in areas that include the rights of women, civil liberties, political rights, the independence of the media and religious freedom. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, has already referred to many of those with direct examples of the current state of play in Saudi Arabia. This culture of intolerance gnaws at the social fabric of the Muslim world. It gnaws at the moral conscience of Muslims not just across the Muslim world but Muslims-and anyone-with human and civil rights at their heart.
I return to the Arab spring-a time of opportunity to build a new vision, for countries to embrace change and look again. For those Muslim countries-Saudi Arabia is an example-which seek to build a new vision of Islam and show that Islam recognises opportunities and the civil and human rights of all irrespective of religion, creed, colour or gender, it is important that they show leadership. It is then for these countries-for Saudi Arabia-to provide human and civil rights coupled with religious and political freedoms, where women do not play a peripheral role but a rightful, full and active role in not just partial elements of society but in all elements.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced recently that women will be able to participate in municipal elections in 2015 and become members of the consultative Shura Council. That is a welcome step. It is about the greater participation of women in life in Saudi Arabia. Yet the statement, which was made not so long ago in September, made no reference to other areas of discrimination against women, such as the guardianship system that has been referred to or-one that often hits the headlines-that women still cannot drive in Saudi Arabia on their own. That is not Islam. It is far removed from Islam. I can assure noble Lords that if I, as a Muslim, told my wife that she could not drive on her own, I would get more than just an earful.
On a more serious note, this is not reflective of the origins of Islam. The noble Prophet of Islam, Mohammed, laid down the principles of equal rights for women. Inheritance rights-the rights of daughters to inherit-were previously unheard of, and not just in the Arab world. So the Muslim world was a leading example of those rights. What has gone wrong? It is time to reclaim the true traditions of Islam. I reflect, perhaps appropriately, that this year's Nobel Peace Prize is being awarded to three women. One of those is an Arab woman, Yemen democracy activist Tawakkul Karman, who will receive the Nobel Prize in Oslo. Indeed, I believe we will welcome her to this House over the next few days. Her example should act for Saudi women, for Muslim women across the Islamic world and for women across the world wherever they are-and for all people who suffer any kind of discrimination. It says that if you persevere, if you stay at it, you can ensure that your voice will be raised and recognised. It is important that we support those voices.
Many would say that this is an example of modern empowerment, that it is what Islam did not allow. No: if we go back to the origins of Islam, as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, pointed out, in the traditions and history of Islam, in the examples of Hazrat Khadija, Hazrat Ayesha and Hazrat Fatima, we find that those women who laid the basic foundations of Islam were great proponents of equality: the rights of women and equality within Islam. Perhaps those who lead Saudi Arabia today should reflect on the origins of Islam for the solutions that they need to provide.
Lord Avebury (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, has given us the opportunity of discussing human rights in Saudi Arabia today, and I congratulate him on his very forthright speech introducing the debate this evening. In spite of its egregious human rights record, it is seldom discussed on the Floor of the House. I looked back over the present Session and found only two occasions. The first took place when the noble Lord himself introduced a debate at Question Time in terms very similar to the one that we are having this evening; the second was introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, at the end of October. On that occasion, by the way, my noble friend Lady Falkner asked the Minister how the UK voted when Saudi Arabia was elected to the board of UN Women; the Minister has not yet complied with the undertaking to write to her on that matter. Perhaps he could tell us now, and at the same time explain how Saudi Arabia came to be a member of the UN Human Rights Council when human rights are non-existent at home.
The Foreign Office's annual report on human rights and democracy shows that in Saudi Arabia the rule of law does not apply because judges apply their own interpretation of Sharia law, including their own arbitrary variations in punishments for the same offence. The death penalty is applied to many different offences, including sorcery, drug-smuggling, homosexuality and apostasy. Minors are not exempt, as we see from the case of the 17 year-old Sri Lankan housemaid, Rizana Nafeek, who was wrongly convicted of the murder of an infant left in her charge. Torture is widespread, but the FCO fails to mention the frequent use of the cruel and unusual punishment of flogging, as in the case of the Australian, Mansor Almaribe, who was on hajj when he was arrested and convicted of insulting companions of the Prophet and sentenced to 500 lashes and a year's imprisonment, although he suffers from diabetes and heart disease and is very unlikely to survive that punishment. The US State Department gives details of reported cases of torture and flogging. Freedom of expression is strictly limited. Newspapers can be closed down without appeal. A journalist was sentenced to 50 lashes for reporting a protest against electricity price rises. There is absolutely no freedom of religion.
The Shia minority, which amounts to 20 per cent of the population, is severely repressed. Unfortunately, the FCO only devotes one short paragraph to this problem and gives no details. There is now major unrest among the 2 million Shia in the Eastern Province, and, as in Syria, demonstrators are being shot dead by the police. A 20 year-old student, Nasser al-Muhaishi, was killed on
In April 2009, Bill Rammell MP, then Minister of State at the Foreign Office, wrote to me saying that we were,
"engaged with the Saudi Government to encourage their tolerance of, and respect for, the Shia community".
Well, we have been singularly unsuccessful in this aim, because there is a constant stream of complaints from the Eastern Province about the prohibition on the building of mosques, arbitrary arrests of leading community dignitaries, raids on private houses where the Shia meet for prayer, and the prohibition on Shia worshippers joining in prayers at Sunni mosques.
As we have already heard, women are allowed to work only in a very few occupations, and then only with other women. All women are subordinate to a male relative, contrary to an undertaking given by Saudi Arabia to the UN Human Rights Council that it would abolish the male guardianship system. Girl children can be married off at the age of 12. I expect that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, will have seen the report in the Sunday Telegraph a week ago about the cleric who said that if women were allowed to drive, they would be "driven to lust". The highest religious council chipped in and said that it would be the end of virginity in the country, and a young mother convicted of persistently flouting the ban on women drivers was sentenced to 10 lashes in Jeddah in September in spite of the king's promise to grant her a pardon.
Anti-Semitism is rife and foreign workers, of whom there are almost 8.5 million in the kingdom, are often the victims of violent abuse by their employers, who enjoy almost total impunity. The FCO says that this issue is raised frequently with the Saudi Government, the Shura Council and the media, but it has nothing to say about the success or otherwise of all these representations. The FCO appears to think that we can alleviate the horrendous violations reported in its annual report and covered in far more detail and more effectively in the State Department equivalent, by remonstrations and cosmetic bits of aid which are supposed, for example, to encourage reforms at the Ministry of Justice, promote discussion in the Shura Council on the minimum age of marriage and adulthood, and to sponsor talks about the regulation of foreign workers' rights.
If the Saudi Government had the political will, they could perfectly well undertake these initiatives themselves. It is not at all clear whether any of the glacially slow reforms that are actually or potentially occurring are in fact accelerated by the UK's initiatives. On the contrary, it could be that the authorities play along with our no doubt well meaning attempts to influence them in the direction of human rights and democracy as a means of averting stronger criticism of the kind they have to put up with from human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It would be very interesting if my noble friend the Minister could say something about the incongruity of spending UK taxpayers' money on these puny initiatives when the Saudi hereditary dictatorship is rolling in billions of dollars of oil money. I would also like to hear from my noble friend what the Government's attitude is to the use of those billions to fund the Salafist ideology which is being promulgated in mosques and madrasas throughout the Arab world and in south Asia that are the mainspring of terrorism and the indirect cause of the deaths of hundreds of British servicemen in Afghanistan. This ideology which sanctions the use of violence against all who think differently is the reason why the Christians of the Middle East are being squeezed out of the region, as the most reverend Primate said in your Lordships' debate on Friday. He might have added that they are being squeezed out of Pakistan and other Islamic countries as well.
However, not only Christians are under fire throughout the Islamic world. Last Wednesday, 55 worshippers, celebrating the festival of Ashura, were killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul, while in the Pakistani city of Lahore, 93 worshippers at two separate Ahmadiyya mosques were murdered in terrorist attacks in May 2010. Dozens of assassinations of persons belonging to minority Islamic sects as well as attacks on their places of worship have been reported in recent years and yet there has been hardly any attempt to examine the ideological sources of terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda or al-Shabaab, or even to analyse the literature being used in the madrasas where the leaders of these movements were educated. I would like my noble friend to say what the FCO is doing, together with the European Union and others, to counter the hate-filled propaganda which motivates terrorists and to expose those who are funding it.
Finally, I request my noble friend to use whatever influence we have with the Saudi regime to persuade it to withdraw its troops from Bahrain, where they are propping up another hereditary despotism. In 1956, when the Hungarian Communist Party invited Soviet troops in to quell unrest, the international community rightly decided that it was a breach of the UN charter. The same verdict was passed on Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1958, and on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, which followed an invitation by President Babrak Karmal. These incursions were violations of Article 2(4) of the UN charter because the Governments of the states concerned were manifestly not representative of their people, and the same is true of the situation in Bahrain. The Saudi troops there may have been used solely to guard critical installations but in so doing they released the local security forces to attack and murder demonstrators and to arbitrarily arrest and torture thousands of Bahraini citizens.
The Saudi regime cannot last indefinitely, any more than the dictatorships of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt or Syria. The ideal would be a managed transition over a period to a constitutional monarchy, or an elected shura with legislative power, and a Government of the majority with the right to appoint Ministers. However, if that is going to happen, I think it will be as a result of internal and regional forces and not because of the worthy but ineffectual attempts to reconcile Wahhabi absolutism with international norms of human rights and democracy. Whatever influence we do have should be directed towards preventing the spread of the pernicious ideology of the Saudi clerics to the rest of the Islamic world.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (Labour)
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will speak on behalf of my noble friend Lord Triesman who is still engaged in Grand Committee. I thank my noble friend Lord Ahmed for introducing this short debate and all those who have made invaluable contributions to it. I can think of no one better than my noble friend to speak out against human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. He is a true friend to the 27 million people of that country.
I share the deep concern that has been expressed all around the Chamber about torture; about those who are at risk because they question the integrity of those in authority; about those who have sought to speak freely or associate politically; about those who wish to follow religions of their choice; and, of course, about the women of that country who are subjugated and, as so many have said, not even allowed to drive. As the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, said, the Prophet, peace be upon him, was a proponent of equality, and the traditions of Islam celebrate equality and the rights of women.
As true friends of Saudi Arabia, I think it is our duty to speak honestly about what is happening in that country because that is the role of a true friend. This was always going to be a difficult debate in some ways. On one hand we are discussing an important ally in global and regional security, but we are also discussing a nation with whom we have very important trading relations, and those relationships impact on our most advanced, technically most sophisticated, areas of manufacturing. It is not surprising in these circumstances that the UK is cautious about the language it uses and the subjects it chooses to talk about in respect of its relations with Saudi Arabia. Those of us who are used to the warm and productive relationships with the diplomatic representatives of the country would always wish to avoid gratuitous or discourteous language even when discussing the most difficult issues.
However, those issues cannot and must not be avoided in a world where values truly count and where it is impossible to suppress news of the international events in any country. With almost every citizen with a mobile phone now a kind of news reporter and cameraman with the world wide web an instant and almost unstoppable publishing medium, all of our actions are available for inspection and comment. In short, everything is visible, not least the human rights and political landscape of almost every country. One of the values that I wish to endorse is the transparency that is created in the new world of media.
Before I ask your Lordships to consider some of the facts about repression in Saudi Arabia-a country with which, as I have said, we have friendly relations-I would like to deal with the two main arguments as to why we should be honest in our relationship with our friends in Saudi Arabia. As the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, said, we have to be critical friends. Closing one's eyes to real misdeeds by a friend is no basis for any set of shared values. We have to have shared values in order to nurture the friendship between our two countries.
The first argument for refraining from criticism is that it is nothing to do with us; it is a matter for any nation to determine its internal affairs without interference. Clearly that is not correct. Human rights in Saudi Arabia are specified in the basic law, Article 26. The basic law is grounded in Sharia law and it has been argued by Saudi representatives at the UN Committee Against Torture, for example, that law and sentences reflect local traditions, which have been adhered to since the inception of Islam. However, as we have heard clearly this evening, those are not the real traditions of Islam. Indeed, when criticised, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz told the third millennium summit of the UN that:
"It is absurd to impose on an individual or a society rights that are alien to its beliefs or principles".
Without any wish to be offensive to Saudi Arabia or to Islam, such a position is patently untenable. The nations of the world have moved on from defending atavistic brutality as a matter for each sovereign state.
This is not a matter which is advocated only in modern or liberal societies but it is the binding conclusion of the principal multinational bodies. It is the DNA of the responsibility to protect peoples from oppression, which is central to the UN doctrine. It is the purpose of the UN Committee Against Torture, the purpose of multinational bodies charged with protecting the rights of women, minorities, people in gay and lesbian relationships, and it is focal in international efforts to foster democratic practice. In short, these values have become as global as the communication systems that discover and report the denial and breakdown of such values. The world is entitled to comment. Under international law, there is an obligation to comment, whether in Parliaments, the International Criminal Court or the media. We have a duty to uphold international law.
The second argument against criticism is the case that progress is being made, slowly but surely, against the weight of tradition. Some things are changing. People cite the Association for the Protection and Defence of Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia of 2002, recent announcements on women's participation in elections-but, as we have heard, that is indeed a chimera-the funding of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association in 2009, and the ratification of the Arab Charter on Human Rights in 2008. Of course, these small moves in a better direction are welcome but progress is self-evidently painfully slow and if even these changes fly in the face of legal traditions and are alien to Saudi Arabia's beliefs and traditions, it is likely that they will not be fully implemented and that they will appear to be more token than real.
Inevitably, we must look at the realities. Where political freedoms are concerned, including freedom of expression, dissent is routinely prosecuted as evidence of terrorism. In the past six months of galvanic change in the wider region, and at a time of opportunity and new vision, as noble Lords have said, Amnesty reports a wide-ranging crackdown targeting many thousands through arrests and detentions, and that these methods replicate those used in allegations of terrorism. Many are held without charge or are charged with offences such as inciting public opinion, which is what most of us in this Chamber do every day. Months spent in prison do not result in trials. Torture and ill treatment are rife. There is so much more that should not be tolerated by the global community-all those countries that signed the Declaration of Human Rights, whose anniversary we celebrate today. Where trials occur, there are authoritative reports of defendants in court being blindfolded, handcuffed and without legal representation. We cannot allow this to go on.
On human rights issues, the picture is still more bleak. The death penalty, including public beheading, stoning and occasionally crucifixion, can be imposed for a wide spectrum of offences which still include apostasy, witchcraft and sorcery. It is in the area of rights for women that it is argued that the greatest progress has been made. For example, 70 per cent of those enrolled in universities are women, yet women make up under 5 per cent of the workforce. Religious restrictions continue to be imposed on Christian, Jewish and Hindu peoples, and on Shia Muslims. I look forward to the Minister's response to many of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, about the ideology that is taught in some of the madrassas around the world and about the hate-filled propaganda that permeates them and emanates from them. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender groups are defined as criminals under the criminal code. While public execution on conviction is a possibility, courts may impose sentences of flogging and imprisonment. This is outrageous.
All these repressions go well beyond what can be justified by tradition. They lie wholly outside international human rights law and they could all be changed. Sometimes it falls to us, as critical friends, to say so. That is what we in this Chamber are doing this evening. We should strongly but respectfully urge the Saudi Arabian Government to respect in full international human rights and standards. The international community would greet with congratulation the immediate commutation of death sentences and a moratorium on this and other forms of judicial corporal punishment. We need to try to engage Saudi Arabia in discussion of a tangible programme to end capital punishment and corporal punishment of all kinds, movement to wider and durable political rights and involvement, and an end to discrimination against all segments of Saudi society. I have no doubt that these will be difficult discussions that require diplomacy. The movement towards modernity and basic values that are central to the world community will do Saudi Arabia no harm and great reputational good.
Nobody gives up tradition readily. Culture is a deep force-I recognise that-but future regard is an invaluable asset, economically, commercially and politically, and it is an asset worth having. We should not forget, as noble Lords have said, that the culture and traditions which are currently adhered to have no basis in Islam. I trust that today's very welcome debate will assist our Government in their role as a critical friend.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Whip, House of Lords; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, very much for introducing this debate. I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, in the place of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, who I also now welcome. I am speaking in the place of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who was speaking in the Moses Room as she came up. Much mention has been made of the Arab spring and of change across the Arab world, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and we hope perhaps in Syria. The question is how this affects Saudi Arabia.
One hundred years ago, Saudi Arabia was, with Yemen, the most traditional, tribally based society in the Arab world. As a Christian from a country which has slowly moved, over 10 to 15 generations, from a traditional society to a modern, liberal society, I have to recognise that Saudi Arabia has been moving at immense speed-in two to three generations-from a very conservative, traditional society to one which is facing up to the challenges of modernity. It is, after all, still being governed by the sons of the founder of the kingdom.
I am not qualified to discuss what the authentic Islamic approach is to human rights. I am uncomfortably aware that the Christian tradition has advanced and embraced highly diverse assumptions about the toleration of minorities and of other faiths, the acceptable rights of women, and freedom of expression and dissent. I am conscious that the rights of women were very limited in Britain until less than 150 years ago. We have gradually reformed our laws and social attitudes over several generations since then, and we press the Saudis to pass through the same evolutionary process, but at a much faster pace. The progress that the Saudis are making with education, and in particular the education of women, carries its own dynamic. It is very praiseworthy that they are educating women: educated women are not going to accept, for themselves or their children, the continuing denial of their rights.
We therefore have to recognise that the human rights position in Saudi Arabia reflects widely held conservative social values, but there are indications that the Government and the media are trying slowly to encourage Saudi society to open up. The interfaith initiative that the Saudis are sponsoring is a good example, but it comes up against many Saudis of a more conservative tune, who are not supportive of this. We are attempting to work with those in Saudi society who are advocating reform in order to build support for a full application of human rights standards.
Her Majesty's Government have serious concerns about the current human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. We have made our views well known, and continue to do so through the universal periodic review process. We make those concerns clear to the Saudis at the highest levels, just as they are frank with us on issues that concern them.
In 2011, we have maintained this frank dialogue, working both bilaterally with the Saudis and with the EU. We have encouraged progress in four priority areas, which for us are women's rights, the death penalty, the rights of foreign workers, on which the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, spoke with particular concern, and judicial reform. We funded a number of projects in 2010, including training for Saudi security forces in forensic analysis and investigative methods, including DNA analysis, which has helped to improve the treatment of suspects.
The British Council trained female entrepreneurs through its springboard training programme. On the question of funding, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury that of course the British Government use our money, as do other wealthy countries, including the United States, to encourage what we value so highly and to encourage others to see Britain as a friendly country.
In September, the Saudi Government announced that women would be allowed to participate in both voting and standing in the next municipal elections. This is another small, but, we hope, constructive step forward and, as such, should be congratulated. Of course there can be further improvement. The next one is the rights of women moving around, including, of course in driving. That underlines the wider issue of the guardianship system, on which the UK consistently calls for modification to allow women fully to participate in society.
The Saudi Arabia All-Party Parliamentary Group recently visited the kingdom-last week, I think-led by Daniel Kaczynski, and discussed with the Saudi Government a draft law on terrorism, which is, I emphasise, only a draft law. A number of amendments have been proposed from within the Saudi Government and society. It reported back to the British Government that it sees the process of reform as slowly moving forward. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred to the pace of reform as glacial. We would of course like it to go a great deal faster, but we think it is slowly moving forward.
A number of other questions were asked in the debate: how many British citizens are there in Saudi jails? I understand that there are currently four British nationals in Saudi jails. We are in regular contact with both them and the Saudi authorities to ensure that they have access to legal advice and to ensure their welfare. We are currently in the process of negotiating a prisoner transfer agreement with the Saudi authorities. This agreement will cover any British nationals held in our respective countries and, of course, the return of some Saudis in prison in British jails.
The rights of foreign workers are a major concern. I think that there are nearly 8 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia and, as the noble Lord has remarked, many of them come from south and south-east Asia. They are clearly denied rights. The rights of maids and women workers are of particular concern. We have made our case to the Saudis on this, as do a number of other Governments, including the Governments of the countries from which those workers come. It is a matter of universal concern. The human trafficking law which the Saudis have just introduced provides some small progress in that direction, but it has still not been enough to move Saudi Arabia off the worst trafficking in persons rating. External pressure is still there, not only from NGOs but from international organisations, and the Saudis are responsive and deeply conscious of criticism which comes from the outside. I stress that the anti-terror law which the Amnesty International report focused on is a draft. It is highly likely that it will be considerably modified before it is introduced.
On the question of the Salafist ideology, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, it is correct to say that 10 to 15 years ago, a considerable amount of Saudi money was flowing through Zakat to Islamic charities which were funding madrassahs promoting violent views of Islam. I am told that those flows of money are now a good deal less; that they do not come from Saudi governmental sources; and that the Saudi Government are co-operating actively in attempting to promote a more non-violent and modern-oriented version of Salafism.
The noble Lord said that there has been very little attempt to analyse this movement and its motivation. I can assure him that, since 2001, there have been a number of active attempts to analyse the nature of Salafism and the various movements that we are now facing. It is not the case that it is a matter entirely of Saudi leadership and drive; there are now indigenous forms of Salafism in a wide range of Muslim countries. Part of what is driving the growth of Salafism among the young is, very often, reaction to modernity and what are perceived as incursions by the West.
On the death penalty, torture and mistreatment we continue to raise our concerns with the Saudi Government. On Bahrain, we were very concerned but we understand that the Saudi troops who arrived in Bahrain under a Gulf protection treaty have not themselves been involved in human rights violations. We are doing everything we can to promote dialogue between the Bahraini regime and its Shia minority and others.
We have an honest relationship with Saudi Arabia-we are a critical friend. We all know that it is not always easy to be a critical friend. Her Majesty's Government have critical friendships with a number of other Governments with very different circumstances; these range from Israel to Pakistan. Many of the Governments with whom we have these critical dialogues do not like the things that we say, but we continue to be honest and frank. We share inseparable and intertwined interests with the Saudis, and we do our best to build on our long-standing relationship.
We wish to encourage evolution rather than revolution. The aftermath of the revolution in Iran, which some at first hoped would lead to a more open and liberal society but which has led instead to a narrower, more authoritarian and theocratic regime, strengthens our view that evolution through reform is preferable to pushing for the sort of revolution which would lead to destabilising what is still a relatively stable regime.
We recognise the steps that the King has already taken to widen discussion of key social, political and human rights issues through the national dialogue initiative. Through our Arab partnership, we stand ready to work together with Saudi Arabia as partners in building and increasing citizen participation as the only way, we assure them, to ensure long-term stability and prosperity.