– in the House of Lords at 2:50 pm on 24th November 2022.
Moved by Lord Scriven
That this House takes note of the steps His Majesty’s Government might take to address human rights abuses in the Gulf States.
My Lords, I am sorry that we are having to have this debate, but it is clear that it is needed. Let me start by calling out the issue often thrown at those of us who wish to highlight human rights abuses in the Gulf states—that somehow we are naive and seek disengagement. We are not, and we do not. Over the last five years, I have constantly asked to meet the Bahraini ambassador in London, but so far have not been given the opportunity to do so. We seek positive engagement, but when the evidence shows that things are not improving or are deteriorating, we have to say that engagement should be reviewed or in some cases suspended.
The Government seem to refuse to accept that some things are getting worse and are putting trade deals, gas supply and arms sales above human rights with regard to Gulf states. The topic is in sharp focus, as the FIFA 22 World Cup is under way in Qatar, which has rightly been criticised for its treatment of migrant workers and over its repressive laws on LGBT+ rights.
As vice-chair of the APPG on Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf, along with colleagues in both Houses, we scrutinise government’s close relationships with the six Gulf states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council. Last year, the APPG published a report on the integrated activity fund, now referred to as the Gulf strategy fund, which provides UK-funded support to the six Gulf state monarchies. Our report found that after 10 years of British taxpayer-funded assistance to these wealthy regimes, their human rights records have largely deteriorated, often in flagrant violation of international law. All six states that we are discussing today can be described as non-democratic, with severe limitations on freedom of speech, political participation and the media. Migrant workers make up most of the labour force in each state and are often denied basic rights. Women and LGBT+ people face systematic discrimination.
I am concerned about the ongoing trade negotiations between the UK and GCC states, particularly as there is a continued omission of human rights provisions within them. Based on the human rights records of the respective countries, we must not surrender our principles in pursuit of this deal. Last week, the Prime Minister met Mohammed bin Salman at G20, in the latest example of an easing of the diplomatic isolation that MBS faces, after being identified by the US Government as having ordered the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia has responded to the resumption of regular public meetings with western leaders by doubling down on repression. Earlier this year, the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson was due to arrive in Saudi Arabia to negotiate over oil. The Saudi Government executed 81 people, the largest state killing in the kingdom’s history. We are also seeing an increase in digital repression in that country. In August, Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi student at Leeds University who had returned home to the kingdom for a holiday, was sentenced to 34 years in prison for retweeting dissidents and activists on Twitter.
According to Human Rights Watch, despite the soft power campaigns by Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the UAE remains repressive. Domestic critics are routinely arrested and, since at least 2015, UAE authorities have ignored or denied requests for access to the country by United Nations experts, human rights researchers and critical academics and journalists.
Last week, we heard the disturbing news that Kuwait had resumed the use of the death penalty for the first time since 2017 by executing seven individuals. Omani authorities continue to block local independent newspapers and magazines critical of the Government, harass activists and arrest individuals because of their gender identity and sexual orientation.
I turn to Qatar and, in particular, LGBT+ rights. This week sees the beginning of the World Cup where it is illegal to be gay. According to a shocking report from Human Rights Watch, LGBT+ people in Qatar are pursued, arrested, beaten and forced into conversion therapy. This is the appalling reality of life for members of the LGBT+ community in Qatar. Not only is their sexuality illegal and their basic rights not respected, they are also in danger of physical violence and even death as a consequence of whom they choose to love.
Last month, we heard our Foreign Secretary tell LGBT+ England fans who choose to visit Qatar that they must flex and compromise. In plain terms, to the ordinary person, this means to go back into the closet. Why has this become the official policy of the UK Government for British citizens travelling to the World Cup? Despite all the smooth, velvet words from government Ministers, it might shock some Members of this House and of the public to hear that Qatar has received UK taxpayer-funded support to prepare for the World Cup through the Gulf strategy fund. The UK Government’s website from August 2022 stated—this is not parody—that the fund has paid for
“preparations for World Cup 2022, in particular the provision of UK expertise to support Qatar’s football policing capability along with values and legacy initiatives.”
There we have it. The Government are spending our taxes through a discredited fund that has trained and helped to pay for state homophobic policing of the World Cup. Why has this been allowed? Why has government taxpayer funding been used, not to improve policing and uphold British values, but to support the repression of LGBT+ people going to Qatar to see the World Cup?
I have repeatedly raised the relationship between Bahrain and our country in this House. Engagement has not made any real improvements. During the past 10 years, we have seen increased ties between ourselves and Bahrain. The country has become more repressive by nearly every metric. After Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement was crushed in 2011, the country’s limited democracy was abandoned and severe restrictions imposed. Leading opposition activists suffered torture in the aftermath of their arrest. Those included Hasan Mushaima, whose son is here watching this debate, and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. They remain in prison. Dr al-Singace, a leading opposition activist, remains on hunger strike to demand a return of his confiscated academic work. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders issued a statement about Dr al-Singace, calling for his release.
According to Freedom House:
“Bahrain was once viewed as a promising model for political reform and democratic transition, but it has become one of the Middle East’s most repressive states.”
Its Government have intensified their harassment of Shia clerics, imprisoning several of the highest profile, including Sheikh Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of the Shia Muslims in Bahrain. Shias are also overrepresented among Bahrain’s estimated 1,400 political prisoners. More than 500 are serving prison sentences of more than 20 years. Bahrain was given the highest ranking of any Middle Eastern country for imprisoning its population by the World Prison Brief. Its treatment of political and death-row prisoners has been condemned on multiple occasions by the UN.
In 2017, Bahrain ended a temporary moratorium on the death penalty, and death sentences have risen by more than 600%. As of 2022, there are at least 26 prisoners on death row, 12 of them sentenced in political cases. All 26 inmates are at imminent risk of execution. Last month, a report from Human Rights Watch and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy revealed that Bahraini courts have convicted and sentenced defendants to death following manifestly unfair trials based solely or primarily on confessions that have allegedly been got through torture and ill treatment. This includes the application of electric shocks to the chest and genitals, sleep deprivation, beatings and attempted rape.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that the detention of Bahraini death-row inmates and torture victims Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Moosa are in contravention of international law. It calls for the men to be immediately and unconditionally released, stating that
“no trial of the two men should have taken place.”
If this Government are concerned about the continued use of the death penalty in Bahrain, as stated in the most recent human rights and democracy report from the FCDO, can the Minister explain why they continue to support Bahrain—including through money from the Gulf strategy fund—although they say that they will not fund countries that have death penalties, while it continues to have such an approach to the death penalty?
Rather than making any progress towards democracy, Bahrain’s latest elections have been described by a report from BIRD as the most restrictive since the return of parliamentary elections in 2002.
In the Minister’s response, I expect him to refer me to Bahrain’s oversight bodies, such as the ombudsman. I have taken his advice previously and engaged with the ombudsman on multiple occasions. I found it to be particularly ineffective. My assessment is shared by the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which raises concerns that these bodies are not independent or effective, as when complaints are made to them they are passed to Bahrain’s Ministry of the Interior. Can the Minister supply the House with evidence showing that they are truly independent? If not, why does he keep referring people who have concerns to these government institutions?
Despite the Government’s recognition of Bahrain’s human rights issues, listing Bahrain as a “human rights priority country”, my attempts to scrutinise their relationship with Bahrain have not always been welcomed. As one recent example, I asked the Minister on three occasions,
“further to the Overseas Security and Justice Assistance Guidance, published on 26 January 2017, on what dates in (1) 2021, and (2) 2022, they sought an assurance from the government of Bahrain that the practice of the death penalty” would no longer be carried out, and why they continued to provide funding to the Government of Bahrain despite the death penalty still being in place, in contradiction to their own overseas security and justice assistance guidance. The Answers were so pathetic as to be useless: a general statement about the UK not supporting the death penalty. Well, blow me over with a feather. There was no specific answer because it is becoming clear that, in 2021 and 2022, the Government broke their own rules on this.
In fact, the Government have doubled their funding to Bahrain. They announced a doubling of the amount of UK taxpayer money to be provided to the Gulf strategy fund, some of it going to the Qatar World Cup preparations. Will the Minister make public his evidence of the improvements to human rights in the Gulf that can be directly related to British taxpayers’ money? If not, what are the Government hiding? What independent evidence do they have that the oversight bodies which I and others keep being referred to, which are in receipt of GSF funding, are working to international standards?
I end with a direct request to the Minister. Watching the debate today are three victims of torture at the hands of the Bahraini regime: two Bahraini torture survivors, Ebtisam al-Saegh and Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, and Ali Mushaima, the son of torture survivor Hasan Mushaima. I have met each of them on several occasions. Will the Minister commit right now to meeting each of them and hearing what they have to say? I beg to move.
My Lords, I first welcome this debate, instigated so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and thank him for the opportunity to discuss a broad range of issues. With his approval, I do not intend to cover the matters he touched on, but to deal with FIFA, the World Cup and its sponsors, because those who support the events in the Middle East, in Qatar, at the moment are, in effect, supporting Governments there, and it is therefore relevant to raise this subject at this point.
I welcome the unbelievable courage displayed by the Iranian team in their match the other day against England, and also the actions by the German team in covering their mouths to indicate their objections to the silence being forced on teams and participants in the World Cup.
I am not going to pursue matters between one Government and another. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and others will, I am sure, deal with those in detail. I think we should look at the question of the influence that sport can have. We have all been brought up with the attitude that sport and politics should not mix, but the reality is that, for all of our lives, sport and politics have mixed, in terms of the eastern bloc, drug taking, performances at sporting events, and always aiming to prove that their system was the best. As a point of history, it is possibly worth bearing in mind, when the first reaction of many people is to say, “Oh, sportsmen should boycott these events”, that these events come round only once every four years. It is totally unfair to impose the burden on the sportsmen and sportswomen when it is the organising authorities that chose to put these events in Beijing or Qatar, or the like. The first boycott I can trace is that of the Dutch team for the Olympics in 1956, after Hungary was invaded by the Russians.
Sporting events are supposed to be free areas, where things that may not normally apply in particular country are accepted. This certainly applies to the World Cup in Qatar. What do we get just before the World Cup started? The Qatari World Cup ambassador saying of homosexuality that
“it is damage in the mind” and:
“They have to accept our rules”.
There is no indication of the freedom of a world tournament. What was significant about those statements was that FIFA said absolutely nothing. Nor did any of the football associations, as far as I can establish, and nor did any of the sponsors of the event. The response to those comments was utterly supine and there was no question that, when those comments were made, the event had become political.
I think it is worthwhile looking at those companies that sponsor the event, and FIFA: Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Adidas, Budweiser. They too have said nothing, although Budweiser has marginally indicated its embarrassment that the restrictions on beer sales have suddenly been imposed, to its disadvantage. Earlier this week, Coca-Cola held an event at the Two Chairmen. I was invited and I accepted. I went and asked questions of the senior person from Coca-Cola—I have the recording, which they knew I was making. I asked them to comment on the Qatari football ambassador’s observations and on the rant by Mr Infantino, the head of FIFA, just before the tournament started. I asked Coca-Cola to comment in relation to the ban on OneLove armbands. I have it all on my recording.
In response to Bloomberg asking Coca-Cola what it thought of those actions, Coca-Cola’s press statement declared that
“sport has the unique potential to bring the world together and be a force for good”— well, it does if it is followed in the right way. It continued:
“We are a long-time supporter of football and through our event partnerships, such as the FIFA World Cup, we see the potential to inspire and unite people.”
We can all agree with that.
“We strive for diversity, inclusion and equality in our business”— not in some wider community, but “in our business”—
“and we support these rights throughout society … Our experience has shown that change takes time and must be achieved through sustained collaboration and active involvement.”
There was no reference to challenging unacceptable comments.
I probably ought to declare some knowledge in these circumstances because I was, for a number of years, head of personnel for Coca-Cola Bottlers, and I was also head of the British Soft Drinks Association and therefore represented Coca-Cola, among others. It has done and said absolutely nothing.
This takes me to a quote often attributed to Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. In fact, as far as historians can establish, he never ever said it. However, it is a good quote that is well worth thinking about, and it is worthwhile the sponsors in particular thinking about it. In fact, JS Mill said:
“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name”.
The sponsors have a culpability for the events that we are witnessing in Qatar at this moment. They cannot just say, “Oh, it’s other people’s responsibility”. It is their responsibility because they are providing funds. They are providing the support, and if they do not object from a privileged position, is it surprising that FIFA’s absence of comment has to impose on the unfortunate footballers the responsibility of staying silent because they can do nothing else? Given what we are watching, I welcome every act of genuine protest from sportsmen and sportswomen in these circumstances, but it is done with courage and likely very substantial loss. It would be far better if the sponsors and organisers of this event took the courage into their own hands and did and said something.
On that basis, given that we are witnessing a complete continuity of what we witnessed in Beijing only a few months ago, it is about time that we, as an LGBT community and as people who believe in human rights, turned around—I include people in this Palace and in government departments—and said, “We will not purchase Coca-Cola, McDonald’s products or Budweiser”. It is only on that basis that companies that sponsor events in unacceptable locations and circumstances will hear the message. I hope that broadcasters in the media around the world will ask these companies what on earth they are doing and what they should be saying. Above all, it would be easiest in the case of Coca-Cola to answer questions from CNN, because they both have their headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, and they could go just a few miles from one headquarters to the other to broadcast their responses—as long as they are better than the one I have read.
My Lords, it is a real privilege to follow my friend the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, and I agree wholeheartedly with every word that he said. Of course, personal boycott does work. It worked with Miller beer in the United States and with orange juice and Anita Bryant. I also congratulate my friend—I have a lot of friends in this—the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, on the timely debate, and associate myself with his excellent opening statement.
I will highlight abuses against LGBTQ+ people in the Gulf states but express my concerns against all human rights abuses, particularly those outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. Of the 11 UN member states that prescribed the death penalty for consensual same-sex relations, three are Gulf states: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Among the Gulf states, only Bahrain does not formally—I underline formally—criminalise LGBTQ+ people. Across the other states, penalties for same-sex relationships range from three years’ imprisonment to the death penalty. In several of the states being trans is formally criminalised, and in all these states there is evidence that these penalties are rigorously enforced.
Oppression and the arbitrary detention of LGBTQ+ people is a reality across all these states; it is a day-to-day experience of discrimination, exclusion and hate crime. It is worth noting that there are no human rights defenders openly working on LGBTQ+ issues because it is completely unsafe to do so. In Qatar, same-sex relationships are criminalised with a penalty of up to seven years’ imprisonment or stoning under sharia law. These are human rights abuses and we should condemn them without hesitation
It is incredible that, in 2022, Qatar and other countries around the world and organisations such as FIFA are so terrified of diversity and inclusion, and the concept of the universality of human rights, that they ban rainbow armbands, OneLove armbands, rainbow hats and any display of solidarity. It is pathetic. They are terrified of diversity. They are terrified of loving relationships between human beings—loving relationships which are the building blocks of civilised societies. Any Government, theology or culture that denies, denounces and restricts human rights such as these will ultimately fail.
Though I am, as I said, speaking of LGBTQ+ people in the Gulf states, there is a common denominator. Those who criminalise, demonise and misrepresent one minority quickly move on to another. Indeed, in some instances we see the total marginalisation and discrimination against the majority: women.
For me, there is no hierarchy of human rights and civil liberties; the denial of one group or individual is a threat to us all. Human rights should not exist as a ladder of rights, afforded to minorities and women as they are ranked on that league ladder. I believe that human rights and civil liberties exist as a landscape. Imagine that landscape—the one stood beside the other, beside the other, beside the other; and then take one away, and another, and a minority, and another and another; and then look at how the force on that landscape is diminished. Those who are left are made vulnerable by the disappearance and the denial of the rights of those no longer favoured.
All rights are connected; that which happens to the women of Iran, or to migrants fleeing across Europe or across the English Channel, are as important to me as if they were happening to me. That is similarly true of what happens in the Gulf states and around the globe. It is pure chance that we are not in their place, their shoes, their danger. That is why we must always stand with the most defamed and the most disfavoured. We must have the courage to stand in their shoes and imagine that it were happening to us. If we would not want it to happen to us, how dare we allow it to happen to others. This is the defining concept of the universality of human rights, and why the mirror that we hold up to ourselves we should have the courage to hold up to others.
Here I bring my points back home. The mirror that we hold up to ourselves in this country has, until recently, been a positive reflection. Sadly, that mirror has become distressed by culture wars, in which one minority is pitted against another; in which one group is portrayed as deserving while others are defamed, ridiculed and shamefully misrepresented. Culture wars in the United Kingdom have been promoted not only by and within the media but by politicians, who should desperately know better, and by some members of this Government.
My plea to the Government is to lead by example: show Britain at its best; bring forward an inclusive ban on the inhumane conversion therapies, include trans people, and end these culture wars in which minorities are being portrayed as undeserving of the equal protection of the law. Stop the defamation, the blatant stereotyping and hate speech against trans women and trans men, and their families. Show that what we expect of others and of other countries we expect of ourselves. We are not equal until we are all equal. Equality does not diminish the rights of the other, it reinforces them. We abide by the same laws without exemption.
Let us ensure that our trade agreements, such as with the Gulf states, enshrine respect for human rights and the rule of law, and the concept of non-discrimination, and that such agreements are accompanied by mechanisms for upholding such principles. EU free trade agreements convey and maintain these principles, and so should we, as with the Cotonou agreement with the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries.
Let us in the United Kingdom make the social and economic case for equal rights, as well as the civilised case. To stay silent, to look the other way, or to do nothing, whether here or abroad, is to condone inequality and abuse. FIFA and world football have placed a spotlight on the Gulf states, but human rights abuses are also happening elsewhere. It is a spotlight that will last long after the final match. It is a spotlight that reminds us that that which is done against people in other countries is as important and as urgent as if it were happening to us. I say to the Government that, on the world stage, we must lead by example. That is the most effective approach that we can take to effect real change elsewhere. We cannot, on these defining issues, face both ways.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cashman.
I came to the Bar of the House to watch your Lordships debate the final part of the legislation on same-sex marriage, which I was the originator and architect of in the coalition Government. I stood on the shoulders of giants, some who fought and died for equal rights and some who are here in this debate today. It made me proud beyond description as I watched your Lordships stand full square in support of LGBT rights, and of many a Lord who said that they were not sure but that their grandchildren refused to ever speak to them again if they did not vote this through. Change and enlightenment comes in many forms.
I went on to be a DfID Minister. Coterminous with that, David Cameron made me national ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls overseas, across the whole world, on my own. The thing that became crystal clear to me, in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Gulf states and beyond, is that where women are oppressed and suppressed, the gay community is imprisoned and killed. So it is in Qatar. Of course, the tournament should never have been given to Qatar, but it has. Given that, and given that it is happening right now, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Scriven on this timely debate and his excellent opening remarks.
Wearing statement armbands is not enough. Under threat of eviction from the tournament, I am not surprised that the England squad decided not to do so, although it would have been excellent if they had. Ultimately, it is not their responsibility. It is national Governments that need to lead on this and to put pressure on FIFA and, as the noble Lord opposite said, the advertisers. I hope that the Qatari Government—or more accurately, Qatari rulers—abide by their public commitment that visitors can be who they are without harassment or intervention. But it does not look so good. Their agreement to allow beer to be drunk outside the stadium has already been changed, and they arrested a guy in a T-shirt they did not like. They are supported by a feeble FIFA, which appears to be led by—I do not know what words could possibly describe the speech of Mr. Infantino: a case of nominative determinism, if ever there was.
It is clear from the way things have gone and are going that money talks. Money bought the event; money bought Beckham and Robbie Williams; and so on. It is the way it is. We may make a few sotto voce criticisms, but that is about it.
I received a letter, as we all did, from the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, about the forthcoming arrangements for the tournament. We have a huge army of personnel there—police engagement officers, Ministry of Defence advisers, even squads tasked with countering terrorism and other potential threats—and I trust that all of them are on alert to protect the freedoms we are told will exist during the tournament.
Peter Tatchell, the fearlessly brave LGBT campaigner, went to Qatar and staged the first public LGBT demonstration in the Gulf state. He said he did that
“to shine a light on Qatar’s human rights abuses against LGBT+ people, women, migrant workers and liberal Qataris.”
He said, rightly:
“FIFA has failed to secure change in Qatar. There have been no legislative reforms on LGBT+ or women’s rights. Improvements for migrant workers have been patchy at best. FIFA is letting Qatar evade many of its pledges when it was granted the right to hold the World Cup”.
The opportunities for Qatar to do that have not been capitalised on, and it would seem that the agreements FIFA did get are not holding. But the real work to change regimes with inhuman and inhumane laws is outside of football; it is in our everyday diplomatic and trade relations, where we have traction. But currently, our desperation for trade deals with anyone is clearly trumping the Government’s commitment—or lack of it—to human rights. The Government are jettisoning their original plan to use Brexit trade deals to spread and enforce human rights around the world, according, apparently, to a leaked letter from the International Trade Secretary. “Principle for sale”: that seems to be us right now.
We in this Chamber are continually told that the Foreign Office frequently raises the issue of human rights with such Governments. Sadly, that is all that we are told. My own experience as a Minister in DfID, when it was a separate entity from the FCO, was that Foreign Office Ministers were incredibly timid and nervous of broaching difficult human rights issues. But you know what happens when you stay silent: “First, they come for…”
You may find allies in unlikely places but you will never know, never facilitate advances, never change the status quo if you shy away from raising challenging issues. I spent two years travelling weekly to Africa and Asia, delivering both FCO and DfID messages to Ministers of repressive regimes; sadly, there are a lot of them. I found that the FCO was extremely reluctant to raise such issues: not individual cases such as we have heard about today—I am sure it does raise those—but the inhumane laws of the land, where FCO angels fear to tread.
I shall cite a couple of my many examples. One was a visit to Nigeria where, in the north, human rights were hideously abused. Prisoners from rebel groups were being kept in cages underground without food or water. There was disease and hunger—it was beyond appalling. I was briefed prior to my meetings with the Nigerian Minister by FCO and DfID officials. The FCO officials suggested that if I raised the issue of abuses, the Nigerian Minister would simply refuse to answer me because I was a woman, that he would get his right-hand man to bat me away, and that it was the FCO’s preference that I refrain from raising such human rights issues. The DfID official, then head of our Nigeria office, said that it was up to me but he saw it as an opportunity. I did raise the issue, the Nigerian Minister did answer me directly, at my third time of trying, and he did not bat me away. He did, of course, deny what was happening. I made the points that needed to be made—diplomatically, obviously. He did not like what I was saying, but he assured me that human rights were important to the Government and that he would ensure that water, living conditions and so on were seen to. It may or may not have changed anything, but the positions were clear. DfID carried a lot of soft power before it merged with the FCO.
Another example occurred in Ethiopia. I went there to meet then President Meles Zenawi. I wanted to raise the issue of gay rights. As in Qatar, being gay is haram and is punishable by prison or death. I would always meet LGBT activists in advance of meeting the potentate, to ask their advice. Sometimes they had to meet me at night and in secret, so dangerous was it. In this case, it was actually at lunch. About half of them felt that I should not raise LGBT issues at all, as local activists were worried about a backlash; the other half wanted me to because they did not want to lose the opportunity.
Meles and I sat on what appeared to be two thrones in a room full of people. The first issue I raised was the expulsion of women’s NGOs from the country. He agreed to revise that order and allow them to operate again in the country—amazing. Then, he made me laugh. He said conspiratorially that they had brought in that law specifically to keep out evangelical women’s groups, so he had actually done me a favour. It was going so well, and I was about to raise the issue of healthcare and support for AIDS victims, as that was a good segue into LGBT issues. I felt the moment was right when, out of the blue, and to the ambassador’s and officials’ shock and my delight, Meles said, “My children don’t think there is anything wrong with homosexuals”—there was a gasp in the room, I have to say—“but then, they were educated in England. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it either. Sadly, my wife still believes it’s an abomination, but it will change over time, I have no doubt.” That was an extraordinary statement, in public, from the president. Perhaps he googled me—I do not know. It was a breakthrough moment but, tragically, he died three months later. I always felt there could have been a way forward, but the next president was not interested.
The point I am making is that we have to go on raising issues diplomatically and using trade deals to support brave LGBT and human rights activists. My plea to the Minister is to ensure that Ministers are actually raising human rights issues, not just the individual horrific cases, and to ensure that we fight the human rights fight at all opportunities and beyond, including by having arguments and discussions about laws.
Finally, will the Minister say—he can obviously write to me—how often in the past 12 months FCO Ministers have raised the issue of laws in countries that punish LGBT people, women and human rights in general? How do those conversations go? What sort of responses does the Minister get? Can we have examples? Does he see any opportunity for change in any of those conversations? Is there annoyance? Is there reference to our colonial past? Do we point out that we have moved on, and so should they? I would be delighted to find that this is a priority and that all Ministers do indeed raise these issues, particularly on individual cases and, just as importantly, in terms of human rights. Given that we are part of the United Nations of the world, I hope the Minister will be able to be specific to a degree in his response. There can be nothing more important than human rights.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for securing this debate and for his very powerful and clear introduction. Like the noble Lord, I begin by paying tribute to the Bahraini human rights defenders and torture survivors who are observing in the Gallery today. I also pay tribute to all those who are languishing unjustly behind bars and face unspeakable repression and the death penalty, both in Bahrain and across the Gulf region. They of course are unable to watch today.
In August the Times reported that the UK Government had doubled their funding to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia under the controversial Gulf Strategy Fund. That completely disregards serious human rights concerns and the knowledge that the recipients of GSF funding in both countries have been repeatedly implicated in the perpetration and whitewashing of serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Bahrain received £1.8 million in support while Saudi Arabia, which has executed a horrifying record number of people this year—something that I will come back to—received £1.8 million and the UAE received over £1.5 million. We have to look at that in the context of the ODA cuts, where we have seen massive collapses in British assistance for women’s and girls’ reproductive rights and to many other crucial human rights and public health issues.
I can partly answer the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, about when the Government are raising these issues. On Saturday the Secretary of State, James Cleverly, gave a speech at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain that served to greenwash Gulf abuses by congratulating the states on green energy and touting the upcoming UK-GCC free trade agreement—an agreement from which the Government have removed all human rights objectives. The Secretary of State failed to mention human rights or democracy once—that is all on the record—despite the region’s abysmal rights record. That speech was given at the same time as Bahrain held sham elections and Saudi Arabia continued with the execution spree to which I referred.
I am sure the Minister is aware that cross-party parliamentarians have repeatedly called for the Gulf Strategy Fund to be suspended. In October, Human Rights Watch and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy published new evidence implicating GSF beneficiaries in Bahrain in the use of the death penalty against torture victims such as Mohammed Ramadan, Husain Moosa, Maher Abbas and Zuhair Abdullah, who are all currently on death row and at risk of execution. On top of that, it was extremely concerning to see a report in the Telegraph in October that the Government may have
“broken its own rules by allegedly not properly assessing its financial support to Bahrain’s judicial system, whose use of capital punishment should have attracted the highest level of government scrutiny.”
That of course is required under OSJA guidelines.
In August 2019 the governance board of the GSF, under its previous name, identified the need to “rebrand” the fund and reported that a “root and branch overhaul” was needed. A key area for improvement that was identified was to strengthen the
“transparency, accountability and governance of the fund”.
Despite that, the Government continue to run the GSF with high levels of secrecy and refuse to disclose OSJA assessments of its programmes.
In response to a freedom of information request submitted by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, the Government confirmed that they had
“neither sought nor received written assurances from the Government of Bahrain”, since they did not consider that GSF-funded projects delivered to Bahrain over the periods in question presented an enhanced risk of the imposition or use of the death penalty. But the Government have refused to disclose the OSJA reviews of those same projects. I ask the Minister directly to explain to the House why the Government are so sure that the GSF programmes provided to that body run no risk of facilitating the imposition of the death penalty. Why did they not even bother to seek assurances from Bahrain, in accordance with their own policy?
Can the Minister help us understand how the UK Government can possibly justify the doubling of these funds, particularly in the context of the slashing of so much other official development assistance and despite serious concerns over its recipients’ involvement in horrific rights violations? Can the Minister explain how the Government have not violated their own guidelines? Will the Minister commit to sharing with this House the OSJA assessments conducted on the GSF programmes in Bahrain, so that Parliament and the taxpayer can be sure that the right decision was made?
I mentioned the horrific spree of executions currently ongoing—possibly right at this moment—in Saudi Arabia. I am going to raise one specific case of the utmost urgency, which has been drawn to my attention by Reprieve. Hussein Abo al-Kheir is at risk of imminent execution. He is an elderly Jordanian man from a very poor socioeconomic background who was tortured into confessing to drug offences after being arrested in 2014. He has now spent seven years on death row and at the weekend was moved into what is known as a death cell. His execution could happen at any moment.
There have been 20 drug-related executions in the past fortnight in Saudi Arabia. My understanding is that Ministers received assurances from the Government of Saudi Arabia that there was a moratorium on executions related to drug crimes. So I have direct questions for the Minister. Have the Government specifically called on the Saudi Government to reprieve Hussein Abo al-Kheir? What steps has the department taken in this specific case? Will the Minister condemn the spate of executions in Saudi Arabia, which is being conducted in defiance of the assurances that the UK Government received? Will the Minister acknowledge that Saudi Arabia has broken promises made to the UK Government?
In light of that, I have to raise the fact that Saudi Arabia is an enormous customer for UK arms sales. We are pumping weapons into a state that is one of the world’s most repressive of human rights. Will the Minister justify to me today how we can continue Saudi arms sales?
Finally, I associate myself entirely with all the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Hayward and Lord Cashman, about the situation in Qatar. They have covered this very powerfully and extensively, so I will not go into it at great length. But I will raise an issue related to the Saudi arms sales: the extremely close military co-operation between Qatar and the UK Armed Forces, particularly the RAF in the form of joint squadrons. British air forces are working with the Qataris in a joint operation over the skies of Qatar.
We all want to ensure that the crowds, players and everybody at the World Cup is kept safe, but what is going to happen after the World Cup is over? Will there be a continuation of this incredibly close military co-operation? I do not think most people in Britain are aware of this and would be quite shocked if they were aware of it. Will the Government reconsider this close co-operation with a regime that has such an appalling human rights record?
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Scriven on securing this important and timely debate and thank him for his excellent contribution, in which he laid out the issues and why it is so important for His Majesty’s Government to take clear action, both publicly and privately, with those states that are, absolutely evidentially, breaching human rights. I also thank the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and the Lords Library for their helpful briefings.
All the previous speakers have set out the background to the six countries in the Gulf states that form that political and economic alliance and why they are important to the United Kingdom—but also why the UK has a responsibility to press these states where individual human rights are at risk or, worse, clearly and outrageously infringed. We have already heard of many cases which demonstrate that that is the case.
It is important to say right at the start that the United Kingdom—its Ministers, parliamentarians and wider public—has to constantly look at our own human rights record. There are always questions and debates in your Lordships’ House to remind us that fighting for human rights here at home must and will remain a priority, whether for asylum seekers and the past victims of the Northern Ireland Troubles or LGBTQ people facing discrimination, harassment and hate crimes. The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, was so right to talk about us holding up a mirror to ourselves—and so we should. I particularly echo his endorsement of abolishing conversion therapy, from which a young friend of mine suffered very badly some years ago and was thrown out of his church for being gay. Also, we should remember particularly the trans women and men in our community, who have become an object of absolute hate and derision—only by a minority, but it is a vocal minority. This is completely against the principles by which our society operates. Picking out people because of something about them and then deriding them or trying to remove their rights to access daily services must stop.
This debate seems to go to the heart of the tension that every Government face in trying to assess their relationships with these six states and in telling individual states that the infringement of the human rights of their citizens and residents, especially state-sponsored infringements, is just not acceptable. The Minister has spoken on many occasions about different issues in different countries, and everyone in your Lordships’ House knows that he speaks with absolute good faith. Members of this House understand the tensions between the public and private debates that need to happen. In his usual helpful way, the Minister made it plain at the Dispatch Box earlier today that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will inevitably have to have those difficult conversations in private. But we are hearing in this debate that we would like more to be said in public, which is why it has been rather disappointing that the issues relating to Qatar and its treatment of LGBTQ people and their allies, including football fans, have not been robustly responded to in public by the Foreign Secretary or the Government.
I appreciate the balance between blunt words behind the scenes, hoping to influence another state, and what can be said in public. However, in advance of the World Cup, the Government said that supporters going to it would not be bothered, but we know that that is no longer true. So will the Government follow the Minister from the Government of Germany’s example in a public statement, whether by wearing a OneLove emblem in front of or beside Qatari Ministers or by publicly saying that we value all LGBTQ people, celebrate them and believe that they should be treated the same way across the world, and supporters of LGBTQ people should not be harassed in the way that they are being harassed not just at World Cup venues but on the streets?
Will the Minister also put on the record that the Government are dismayed at FIFA’s behaviour in selecting Qatar? Everyone warned that this would not work. When Qatar broke the rules that it set with FIFA, FIFA delayed telling national teams what was and was not acceptable until it was too late for the England team and the FA to do anything. For FIFA to suddenly threaten Harry Kane, two hours before a match, with a yellow card and suspension if he wore the OneLove armband was totally inappropriate, especially as the FA had asked FIFA this exact question weeks ago. FIFA’s behaviour is disgraceful.
Sitting behind this are the very poor human rights abuses of LGBTQ people in these six Gulf states. Although prison sentences and even the death penalty for same-sex relationships—the latter under sharia law—may be a very visible breach of human rights, the problem is that this permeates every part of daily life for citizens in those states, meaning that LGBTQ people cannot live freely.
This affects women too. While there have been improvements in some of the Gulf States, notably, and most recently, women being allowed to start driving in Saudi Arabia, and, for example, higher percentages of women being allowed to work or drive, providing their family member—husband or father—gives permission, the reality is that for most women their lives are still heavily controlled. While Iran is not a Gulf state, the brave women who have been demonstrating against the morality police and the regime by cutting their hair and removing their veils in public have been curbed by an appalling response from the Iranian authorities, so it was heart-warming to see the very brave Iranian football team not sing their national anthem.
Women also face problems in the Gulf states. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say that women still experience discrimination in marriage, family, and divorce, and it is a very particular problem in Saudi Arabia. From Bahrain, female human rights worker and defender Ebtisam al-Saegh is here today. She is known for her work in reporting and publicising human rights violations, and in May 2017 she was detained, sexually assaulted and tortured by security officers at the National Security Agency. A BBC Arabic documentary “Breaking the Silence” found that institutions in Bahrain, which received UK support through the GSF’s predecessor and continue to receive that support today, were implicated in her abuse. Can I ask the Minister if the Government will now review the doubling of the Bahrain grant under the GSF in light of that evidence?
I referred to the discrimination that women more generally face in their families. In particular, the treatment of most women is not visible to us, but one Gulf state leader, the ruler of Dubai, has shown appalling coercive control of his former wife Princess Haya, sister of the King of Jordan. She fled to the UK in 2019, fearful of her safety, and had to go to the High Court to get the campaign of fear, intimidation and harassment to stop, which included threats, surveillance, phone hacking, buying properties opposite hers and his behaviour in litigation. The High Court judge found him to have been
“abusive to a high, indeed exorbitant, degree”.
There have also been serious concerns about the wellbeing of his two daughters by another wife, the Princesses Shamsa and Latifa, who were abducted on his orders. We only know of these three appalling cases because these brave women fled, or tried to flee, and their stories were heard because they were high profile. My point is that the power of husbands and fathers in these states is not visible: women denied the chance of the education that they want, the marriage that they want, the job that they want, and the threats that can be made, and not acted on by others, in keeping them silent.
This is human rights at absolute grass-roots levels. Many forms of human rights are either being abused or are under threat: access to democracy; putting personal views on social media; criminalisation for people just being themselves, or having to spend their lives under the control of others. I want to applaud all of those, visible or invisible, for trying to uphold their own and others’ rights, and I thank particularly the witnesses here today and the organisations like Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. I hope that the Government will take their evidence and make it plain to these six states that financial support will be under threat unless human rights improve in these six states.
My Lords, I also would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for bringing this timely debate to the House. When I say timely, I refer to the World Cup currently being staged in Qatar, which though highly controversial, has at least brought the world’s wider attention to systematic human rights abuses not just in Qatar but across the Gulf.
Sadly, the World Cup has demonstrated that, even with a world-wide audience of 3 billion people, an extraordinary and grotesque spend of $220 billion to stage a four-week sporting event, its impact on human rights looks set to be very modest: notably for immigrant workers, women’s rights, and the LGBT community, despite the claims of a much-discredited FIFA. I will return to this subject later.
First, I have a quick word of introduction, as I am relatively new to this place. I do not claim to be either a Middle East or human rights expert, but I lived and worked as a journalist in Iran for a year back in 1978, which turned out to be the last year of the Shah. While Iran is not a GCC state, I learned at first hand that in this region, neither freedom of expression nor a free media was considered a human right. Indeed, one ill-judged word as a journalist and you were put on a one-way flight—if you were lucky. I also witnessed the extraordinary concentration of wealth, power, patronage and corruption, as well as the brutal suppression of opposition. Arbitrary arrest was commonplace in Iran—it still is—and there was next to zero accountability. Above all, the nation’s culture was dominated by a combination of absolute monarchy, or dictatorship, and the strong culture of religion—Shia Islam in the case of Iran, which even the Shah underestimated, leading to his downfall and the Islamic revolution.
In my subsequent years, I founded and ran a country risk information service on all developing regions around the world, which included Middle East Monitor and quarterly reports on every country in the Gulf. Interestingly, there was a very strong demand for these reports from national businesses in each GCC state, but the censors and customs officials ensured that delivery was virtually impossible, most notably in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Turning to the Gulf states and human rights in general, the culture and wealth of this region make it formidably difficult to make the sort of progress that we would all like to see. Culture is deep-rooted and resistant to change on many fronts, whether family, hierarchies, race, women’s rights, education or sexuality. We are also talking about six of the world’s richest states. In terms of GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity, five of the six are in the world’s top 20 wealthiest countries, with the exception of Oman, which sits in 27th place. Thanks largely to their huge energy reserves, they do not need our financial assistance. GDP per capita actually understates the issue, because the GCC’s distribution of wealth is one of the most uneven in the world. The top 10% of the region’s 54 million people own more than 75% of assets—this in a region that has an annual GDP of £1.2 trillion. That makes it all the more challenging for our Government and others to exert influence on their approach to human rights.
Returning to the richest of those states, Qatar, we are reminded of the concentration of power and money by two relatively trivial developments in the World Cup. I say trivial only in relation to other far more serious human rights issues, but they are illustrative. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, highlighted, we had the sudden ban on sales of beer at football stadiums, despite a $75 million sponsorship deal between FIFA and Budweiser. This turned out to be a last-minute decision from Qatar’s ruling emir, which, it is stated, is “non-negotiable”. FIFA, representing 200 footballing nations, simply caved in. We then had the absurd ban on European team captains wearing OneLove rainbow armbands, and Welsh supporters even having their official rainbow bucket hats confiscated at the turnstiles. As the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, put it so eloquently, they are terrified of diversity.
In terms of buying influence, we also have the profoundly disappointing sight of David Beckham, England’s former football captain—an incredibly wealthy man in his own right—being paid a reported £15 million per year to be an ambassador for Qatar, and declaring on a promotional video that this will be the first ever carbon-neutral World Cup. That is a ludicrous claim that has been emphatically dismissed by a chorus of scientists and climate experts—first sportswashing, now greenwashing.
As we know, Qatar is a country whose workforce is 90% dependent on immigrant labour, working on low pay and often in appalling conditions. Both Amnesty International and the Guardian have estimated that 6,500 migrant workers have died since 2010, the year Qatar was awarded the World Cup, in building World Cup-related infrastructure. When I raised the issue of migrant labour deaths in a supplementary question to the Minister last November, the Qatari head of the World Cup claimed, at that time, that the real number of such fatalities was a barely credible three.
I finish by addressing the challenging question raised by this debate: what steps might be taken by His Majesty’s Government to address human rights abuses in the Gulf? It is especially challenging in this economic climate. The UK’s trade with the Gulf stood at a significant £33 billion last year. At a time of declining trade with Europe post Brexit, the UK is in dire need of economic growth and an export-led recovery, and should be signing free trade agreements across the world. We are led to believe that signing an FTA with the GCC would add some £6 billion to our trade with the region and some £1.6 billion in net added value to the UK economy. However, the key question remains: do we want more trade at the expense of human rights? I ask the Minister: if we sign such an FTA, what priority would we give, and which terms or conditions would we apply, to human rights as part of the deal—or is it true that human rights have simply been dropped from the list of objectives?
The Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, said:
“The UK has a strong history of protecting human rights and promoting our values globally and we continue to encourage all states, including our friends in the Gulf, to uphold … human rights obligations.”
I ask the Minister what this statement actually means in relation to the Gulf, specifically in relation to the FCDO’s £10 million per annum Gulf strategy fund. Like the noble Baronesses before me, I ask him why, in the financial year 2021-22, the UK has more than doubled its allocated funding from the GSF to both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, two of the region’s worst human rights violators, at a time when we were cutting our global overseas aid budget by some 30%. I appreciate that the GSF does not come out of the ODA budget, but the thrust of my question, and those of others, remains.
My Lords, I will speak about Qatar because I recently visited it as part of a parliamentary delegation of seven European countries, comprising the UK, France, Italy, Ireland, Finland, Serbia and Romania, on the invitation of the National Human Rights Committee of Qatar to look at Qatari reforms in this field, particularly with regard to foreign workers. We noted the introduction of a basic minimum wage for foreign workers on top of free accommodation, including lighting, heating and three-times daily cooked food. As I calculated, Qatar’s basic minimum wage works out to be slightly better than that of the UK after paying for living costs and food.
We visited a huge housing complex for 60,000 workers in Doha, with medical and sports facilities on-site. The accommodation is not five-star, but we considered it good enough for any one of us to live there. We visited the International Labour Organization’s office in Doha and received a briefing from its members. They were quite content with the progress that Qatar has made in recent years in its human rights reforms.
We also learned that Qatar has signed a memorandum of understanding with the European Union on human rights. That is encouraging to note. At the end, the visiting group unanimously agreed that Qatar has made huge progress in its reforms, although it is far from being perfect. However, the progress it has made in recent years has to be appreciated and welcomed. The visiting group’s Governments may want to continue to work with Qatar for further improvements.
My Lords, I warmly commend my noble friend Lord Scriven on securing this debate. It is not only timely but of extreme importance for our relationship with this important region.
As my noble friend and others have said, the breadth of the relationship between the UK and the members of the GCC ranges from trade and strategic interests to areas where the UK needs a strong voice on serious concerns about breaches of international norms and values. He raised very specific issues in his comprehensive opening of this debate and I hope that the Minister, who is highly regarded in this House as Human Rights Minister, will respond in detail today.
As the noble Lord, Lord Londesborough, said—I valued his contribution greatly—we have an extremely long-standing and deep historical relationship in this geopolitical region. It includes security, trade interests and cultural links, but increasingly energy and commercial dependency in many key sectors. That has to be the context in which we consider our relationship going forward.
There are many positive aspects to this relationship, but today we rightly raise the significant concerns about the sometimes egregious human rights issues. We need to pause and reflect on our relationship, given that the Government are seeking a full free trade agreement with the GCC. This is the time to do that, before it is too late with an FTA brought for ratification.
I have raised many concerns about the lack of a comprehensive trade and human rights policy. Amendments to the then Trade Bill that this House passed, which were rejected by the Conservative majority in the Commons, are still valid. We should be looking at our trade relationships starting from our human rights and our wider interests and then focus on the commercial.
Reading the Foreign Secretary’s contribution to the Manama Dialogue, I also felt that some elements were jarring. References were made to Syria, Lebanon and Yemen without the nuance that it was a committee of this House that said that the UK was on the wrong side of international humanitarian law with the supply of arms for that conflict. Concerns were raised in this House about Gulf relations within the Syrian conflict, the use of child soldiers, and the horrific impact on civilians in the Yemen conflict. It is jarring when the British Foreign Secretary ignores entirely the other side of the debate.
I recently had long discussions with a female Afghan MP in exile. She implored me and our Parliament to raise concerns with our friends in Qatar and the Gulf about their impact on the ongoing issues in Afghanistan. This is where we need to debate and be frank that our values and interests going forward for democracy in the world are not always aligned with our allies in the Gulf. In fact sometimes, they are diametrically opposed.
Since we are debating football I should say that I noticed in the press, as no doubt other noble Lords have, that in the Afghan capital a sporting ground was used in the last few days as the site of a public flogging for those in breach of the human rights restrictions of the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Questions were rightly raised about the UK relationship through the Gulf strategy fund and leading up to the values component of the World Cup. I hope that the Minister can respond to my noble friend in clear terms. This is an event for which the majority of awarding members are now either indicted or have been struck off because of corruption. We seem to have learned nothing from the concerns of the previous World Cup, hosted by Russia.
A joint RAF and Qatar squadron is currently in the skies overlooking sporting grounds of a global event run by an extremely wealthy global organisation closing its eyes to global norms and freedoms. It has somehow debased itself into considering that love is a political statement. I looked at the 2018 Foreign Affairs Committee report on the World Cup and was struck by the Government’s response to the committee, in the stance that the Government took then to Russia. They stated in clear terms:
“We disagree strongly with the Russian government over their attitudes towards LGBT+ rights and will continue to raise our concerns”, and went on to say that they sought continuous assurances for the protection of those rights during the sporting event. The Government said:
“We remained in touch with FIFA during the tournament to ensure that those assurances, for example on flying the rainbow flag at matches, were being met.”
Why are the Government so reticent now when they seemed so assertive then? If the flying of rainbow flags was something that the Government then had not only lobbied for but sought assurances that they would be protected, I hope that every British representative will wear that representation when they attend the sporting tournament in 2022.
Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, is absolutely right—we need to look at home. I felt slight distaste that the then Minister, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, was almost giddy when the Saudi investment fund, directly controlled by the Crown Prince, bought Newcastle United Football Club. As we have heard, in the past three weeks there have been 17 beheadings, and there have been 130 executions this year, in direct contradiction of commitments that had been provided to the UK Government that there would be a continuing moratorium on executions for drugs. There is now significant concern about assurances for those under 18. What reassurances are the Government seeking in those areas? I hope that the Minister, in his capacity as Minister for Human Rights, will meet those people whom my noble friend Lord Scriven mentioned—and I repeat the calls that others have made with regard to Husain Abo al-Kheir in Saudi Arabia.
A significant document that we have to rely on is the US Department of State report of the country’s human rights practices, published in April 2022, which lists all six GCC countries as having multiple, significant and credible human rights violations in a range of areas. Abuses common to all included arbitrary arrest and detention; serious restrictions on freedom of expression and media, including censorship and criminal libel laws; and interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association. Other abuses included torture and cases of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; harsh or life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy and restrictions on internet freedom; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious government restrictions or harassment of domestic and international human rights organisations; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex persons; and significant restrictions on workers’ freedom of association—and this notwith-standing some progress that has been made with the removal of the sponsorship system and improvements in human trafficking and forced labour.
We were promised the FCDO’s Human Rights and Democracy report, covering 2021, before the Summer Recess. Can the Minister say when we will receive it? My noble friend Lady Featherstone, who is remarkably tough, indicated that this goes wider than the Commonwealth, and she is absolutely right. We should not restrict this to the Gulf, because such views are commonplace.
I have a significant concern going forward. In many key areas, the UK is now dependent on energy, arms sales, investment and securing purchases of sovereign debt. We have seen this dependency with the importation of goods from China. Our ability to raise serious concerns and to suggest triggering mechanisms as consequences is therefore limited. If we are to have a free trade agreement, it must start with clear chapters, published in advance, on human rights, with triggering mechanisms through which we can raise our concerns. Otherwise, the UK will be in a position not of strength but of weakness.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for initiating this debate. It is timely not only because of the events in Qatar at the World Cup, but because we have had the state visit of President Ramaphosa. When the Lord Speaker greeted him after he had addressed both Houses, he remarked that we are all neighbours. I spent many years working for a trade union. Cyril Ramaphosa was a trade unionist in South Africa, and we gave him detailed support. I was struck by those words, “we are all neighbours”. That is what this debate is about.
I hope that everyone who watches the World Cup will be much more aware of workers’ rights and the human rights concerns that persist in the Gulf region. The noble Lord, Lord Londesborough, said something that I also said at Oral Questions today: that each match we watch should be a brutal reminder of the 6,500 migrant workers who have died building the infrastructure for this tournament since 2010. We must remember that for each one of those 6,500, there is a family who needed that income. As I said earlier today, I hope we press really hard for the proper compensation due to these family members.
As we have heard, there are 2 million migrant workers in Qatar and, while some progress has been made on workers’ rights, there are huge problems with the implementation of reforms. Wider concerns also remain about the investigation of workplace deaths and accidents involving migrant workers. I raised the issue of the ILO report from October last year. What assessment has the Minister’s department made of plans for a permanent centre in Qatar to provide advice and help for migrant workers? This appears to have been somewhat stonewalled.
The risks facing migrant workers in Qatar have been highlighted in recent weeks, but we need to consider the situation elsewhere in the Gulf, as we are doing in this debate. The ILO Regional Office for Arab States is tasked with promoting decent work throughout the region. It has warned, for example, that in Kuwait female migrant domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Multilateralism, global civil society and in particular the ILO can be credited with recent progress, but there is much more to do.
At last week’s G20, the ILO and the Islamic Development Bank signed a memorandum of understanding to increase co-operation on labour market concerns. Has the Minister’s department assessed whether this will be a useful vehicle for improving workers’ rights in the region? Are we engaged with the ILO on its implementation?
Unfortunately, in Qatar and across other Gulf states, migrant workers are not the only group whose human rights are consistently violated. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Cashman, the noble Lords, Lord Hayward, Lord Purvis and Lord Scriven, and the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone. It is absolutely right that we focus on LGBT rights because, as has been highlighted, this tournament is a community of nations coming together, and those rights will be focused on. Fans going to the World Cup are going to a country where their sexuality is criminalised.
The UK Government have said they will continue to work with Qatar to ensure all fans are welcome, but there remain serious concerns about their safety. We should remember that when the tournament draws to a close, people across the Middle East will still be persecuted for their sexuality—when fans go home, those people will still be there—including in the United Arab Emirates, where being gay is still punishable by death. I hope the Minister can update us on what steps the Government are taking to build relationships with civil society and groups working to protect those individuals across the Gulf states.
As the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, reminded us, the Foreign Secretary recently urged LGBTQ+ fans in Qatar to show
“a little bit of flex and compromise” and to
“respect the culture of your host nation”.
We have heard about scarves, hats and armbands, but what does the Minister think the Foreign Secretary meant? I think he meant that behaviour that he thinks is normal and acceptable for him and his family is not normal for my family. To kiss or hug my husband is punishable by death. That is what we should face up to. It is not just about hats and scarves, but basic human behaviour. I will not go back into the closet or hide who I am, and I will not deny the love I have for others. That is what we have to face up to.
It is not just LGBT people. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, was right to highlight women across these states, who are still deprived of many basic human rights. Human Rights Watch has said:
“No country restricts the movement of its female population more than Saudi Arabia.”
Women in Oman are still denied equal rights for marriage and divorce, according to Amnesty International. Next week we have the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative Conference, where we will hear from civil society. A major issue for women’s rights in these countries is the increase in or maintenance of domestic violence as a way of controlling women. I hope we can continue to raise this issue.
I echo one of the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Scriven: the executions that have taken place in Saudi Arabia. In the last two weeks, 19 people have had their heads chopped off for drug offences. The noble Baroness raised the case of Hussein Abo al-Kheir, who could be executed at any moment. He has been moved to a death sentence cell. I echo her questions to the Minister and plead with him to make a personal plea to the authorities in Saudi Arabia to stop that execution and save that man’s life.
I led an Oral Question this week on human rights defenders, and the Minister has played a terrific role as human rights Minister, but I have raised with him on a number of occasions—and I joined the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, in this—the situation in Bahrain. I too pay tribute to those human rights defenders who are here, particularly the son of Ali Mushaima, the imprisoned opposition leader, who is watching this debate. We want to hear how we are going to speak out strongly about those abuses. I would like to highlight the case of the Bahrain human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who recently received the Martin Ennals Award and is now facing a series of criminal charges in Bahrain in reprisal, in the form of judicial harassment, for his protest activities within prison. I hope that the Minister will take this case up strongly with the Bahraini authorities.
I have run out of time. I think this has been an excellent debate. It has proved that we are all neighbours, and we are concerned about human rights everywhere.
My Lords, I am in total agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Collins. This has been an insightful, impassioned, emotional and detailed insight into an issue which is—I thank noble Lords for acknowledging this—as I have often said, an important and for me the most valued part of my responsibilities within the FCDO and His Majesty’s Government, but equally the most challenging portfolio that I have.
I was struck by the incredible speech, both in terms of substance and tone, of the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and I thank him. I hope I am right in saying he knows that, as he raises issues, particularly in relation to the LGBT community around the world, I am extremely grateful, because as a Minister you do not always have sight of these issues as they arise. I put on record also my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Collins. He and I sometimes joke that we come across as aligned on many things and I assure noble Lords that we are very much aligned on the issue of human rights, and I am grateful. The same applies to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and indeed his predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. It is important that we have these discussions to highlight these issues and how we unlock them. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, who is right that there are times when you do want to cry out quite publicly. When I am no longer on the Front Benches and return to the Back Benches, I am sure that there will be occasions when I will raise these issues in a much more public manner—but I assure noble Lords that I do raise these issues consistently. I had the opportunity of working with the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, in coalition, and I pay tribute to her work, particularly on how we tackled the issue of equal marriage.
On human rights more broadly, I refer to a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and acknowledge the important work that the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, has done on a variety of issues concerning human rights and the whole role he has played in the APPG on the Gulf. The noble Baroness reminded us that we should never forget our own back yard, and that is—rightly or wrongly; noble Lords will have a view—the lens I apply when we look at human rights around the world. It was 1928 when women got full rights to participate in elections here in our country. It was in 1967 that homosexuality was decriminalised for the first time—just slightly before I was born, but nevertheless it is the reality. Certain countries do make progress on human rights. Some, we hope, would make progress more quickly on this agenda; but, equally, as we look towards different parts of the world, including the Gulf, it is important that we see where progress has been achieved—I will come on to that in a moment or two.
I align myself also with what the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, said. I remember my first occasion as a Minister of State in the Foreign Office, when I met the then Vice-President, now President, of Botswana. I received a briefing that highlighted in its first point, “Minister, do not raise the issue of LGBT, for it is far too sensitive”. I was a new Minister in the Foreign Office, trying to do my diplomatic work. I sat down with the now President of Botswana and the first thing he said to me was, “Minister, we must move forward on the issue of human rights; we must move forward on the issue of LGBT rights”. I looked at my brief, I looked at him and I smiled at him and at the official.
Equally, I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, that five and a half years on, we still raise human rights. In the last week alone, I have raised human rights on specific cases but also more generally with the likes of colleagues and friends in Kuwait and Qatar, and this morning again with the ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I will come on to those in a moment or two.
I was asked about my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. I have known James Cleverly a very long time, and his commitment to human rights is unstinting. We have had very strong exchanges in our ministerial teams over the years, but James is someone who cares about human rights, and of course he will be watching this particular debate for its content and substance very intently. It is important that we stand for scrutiny as Ministers in what we say and what we do. I therefore welcome this particular debate on the issue of the Gulf.
Indeed, it is equally important to me, as the Minister responsible for human rights, as noble Lords pointed out, but also recently, with the new Government in place, as the Minister for the Middle East and north Africa. It is a region I know well. First, as many noble Lords acknowledged—including the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, in his important contribution—it is important to the United Kingdom. British nationals visit and live in the region in significant numbers. Around 1.5 million visit the UAE every year, and a further 120,000 have made the UAE their home. The region acts as a major hub for international travel, with its own airlines and Governments.
We are indeed looking at human rights, and rightly so, but there are also crunch moments when you look to your partners. Indeed, the Gulf was an important partner when it came to our repatriation efforts during the Covid pandemic. There was not a single instance when I did not, as the Minister responsible, pick up the phone to an airline or to a government Minister, and indeed, that was also true with those who worked through the Afghanistan crisis with regard to the important role that both the UAE and Qatar played as hubs in terms of their operations and facilitation of those escaping the wrath of the Taliban from Afghanistan. I put that on record because these relationships matter. We invest in the relationships so that we can then raise the issues on a broad range of human rights directly.
On a personal note, there are some who say that we should disengage on human rights. I am a Muslim by faith and belong to the Ahmadiyya community. I am a Muslim and recognised as such here in the United Kingdom. There are parts of the world I travel to where, simply for being part of a particular community, if I was not a UK Minister I would face a charge of blasphemy just for being who I am. I would be imprisoned for years on end without charge simply for being who I am. So I assure your Lordships that I am committed to this agenda; it matters to me because I recognise it and live it, and I assure your Lordships that I own it within the FCDO. It is right that I make the case as Minister for Human Rights across government to ensure that these issues are raised quite directly.
The Gulf matters. Even from an Islamic perspective, as a practising Muslim, what is the lens we apply there? In the discussions I have with my Gulf counterparts, I say, “Come on. This was the religion that gave rights to women, not took them away at that time, over 1,500 years ago. This is the religion which taught respect for every citizen.” In the Holy Koran, 29 out of 30 chapters begin:
“In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.”
If God is of those qualities, apply them in practical terms to what you do. That is the conversation I have with our colleagues across the Gulf and the wider Islamic world. It is important that we apply the lens—a lens which is also understood by those communities and individuals.
There is a real sense of divergence, of course, on the death penalty. It remains a key challenge across the region and is something that Ministers, ambassadors and officials regularly engage with. We are clear with Gulf interlocutors, as I was only this morning with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that the UK stands firmly against the death penalty in all cases, in all circumstances and in all countries. There have been positive changes. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, referred to drug offences in Saudi Arabia. I assure her that the case she raised, that of Hussein Abo al-Kheir, is one that I am following very closely. I raised it this morning and hear what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, says. I am due to speak to interlocutors again in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and I made the case quite specifically in my conversations with the ambassador this morning.
I will continue to raise these cases. I am not saying, regrettably or tragically, that my intervention or that of other colleagues will stop things, but we should be consistent and persistent in ensuring that, particularly when it comes to the death penalty and those countries which have declared and given assurances on moratoriums in areas such as juveniles, and indeed drug policy in the case of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we raise these issues quite directly. Since
I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Londesborough. He talked of Iran and issues of media freedom. We have tragically seen what is happening currently in Iran, but even as a broader issue across the Gulf, it is important. When you look at media freedom across the Gulf, it is very limited. Indeed, media freedom remains such a challenge, as borne out by the 2022 Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
Worryingly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, pointed out, we are seeing increased efforts to restrict freedom of speech on the internet as well. There are two recent examples in Saudi Arabia with the sentencing of Leeds PhD student, Salma al-Shehab, to 34 years. Clearly, the sentence does not match the crime, if it is indeed perceived as a crime, as they would see it. I assure the noble Baroness that I raised that consistently and will continue to do so. There is also the case of Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani. She was given 45 years for social media activity. I will continue to raise these issues and have also raised them directly with our ambassador. He has also raised them, including with the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh.
Turning to Qatar and LGBT-specific issues, the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, asked about the Peter Tatchell protest. I was in a meeting and I took myself away from that and dealt with it directly. While I cannot go into all elements of the case, he was not actually arrested. He also publicly—and it is not often that happens—thanked FCDO and in particular our consular team for the assistance. As I said earlier, it is right where issues are arising, particularly during the focus on Qatar with the World Cup. The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, reminded us that there are issues. My noble friend Lord Hayward in a very detailed and expert speech also talked about the responsibilities not just of Governments but also of sponsors.
I assure your Lordships that I and other Ministers, including the Foreign Secretary, have raised inclusion, in conversation with our Qatari counterparts. I invited Stuart Andrew, as Sports Minister, into a meeting with the Qatari ambassador. The Qatari authorities have repeatedly reiterated their public statement that everybody is welcome to the tournament, including LGBT+ visitors. We have consistently encouraged the equal treatment of all fans. As I said earlier, any issue that has been highlighted I will follow up and take forward with the Qatari authorities. We were talking of equalities and rights. One of the leading Ministers in Qatar is Lolwah al-Khater, who plays a phenomenal role. She did so in the Afghanistan evacuation and continues to engage as a key interlocutor.
I acknowledge the positive changes, on women’s rights, for example, which the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Featherstone, alluded to. Women are playing an important role across the Gulf. Qatari women make up about 40% of the country’s workforce. The World Bank has repeatedly commended Saudi Arabia for improving economic opportunity. Therefore, it is important, to come back to my earlier point, that although some noble Lords may disagree, we should continue to engage effectively.
The noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Hussain, raised workers’ rights. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that, as the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, pointed out, the ILO is present. We are working very much with it, as we have on the 2021 report. The ILO is still making its final assessment on migrant workers who have lost their lives. I look forward to discussing how we can take some of these issues forward, particularly working with international trade union groups on this important agenda.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raised the Gulf strategy fund. I will write to her on the questions that she raised.
In the interests of time, I will move on to Bahrain. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for raising this. Again, I recognise that my inbox when it comes to Bahrain—as I often joke with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, happens with him in relation to all things human rights—is often populated by what the noble Lord, Lord Scriven is doing.
I say at the outset that we should engage, and I have always said so. Regarding the two questions put to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, yes, I will meet with the representatives and with those who are present today. I have always said that human rights needs to be informed by practitioners. I may not agree with them or have the same process or methodology for taking forward representation, but I will arrange to meet with them at the earliest opportunity. I assure the noble Lord that while he rightly challenges me, on the death penalty in Bahrain, according to the figures that I have, 17 people have been executed in Bahrain since independence in 1971. Bahrain last used the death penalty in July 2019. The previous executions were in 2017.
We are working through some of these issues in terms of the investments that we make. The noble Lord asked for specific things that are being achieved. Women in Bahrain have equal rights and access to work, education and healthcare. However, I accept that there are clear areas where inequalities exist. Bahraini women cannot pass on their nationality to their children, for example. Again, these inequalities are being addressed.
For the fourth year in a row, Bahrain has made progress on issues of human trafficking and modern slavery, where the UK has also played an important role as a partner. Bahrain is the only country in the region to achieve tier 1 status, fully compliant with the minimum standards for elimination of severe forms of trafficking. That assessment was made by the US. In recent weeks, there have been calls for us to cease support. I disagree and have already alluded to why it is important. Our close relationships with the Bahraini Government include how we engage effectively with civil society. We continue to engage directly with NGOs and civil society representatives here. I also meet formally and privately with the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to get a specific insight on certain issues which cannot be raised publicly, to protect those individuals whom we seek to support.
A key focus of the Gulf strategy fund in Bahrain has also been governance reform in the justice and security sectors. The UK programme has helped to establish a number of human rights oversight bodies, which the noble Lord alluded to. A hundred security personnel have been prosecuted or faced disciplinary action since 2014 because of investigations carried out by these bodies. Our comprehensive engagement was also instrumental in the introduction of the child restorative justice law in 2021, which increased a child’s defined age to 18, and the age of criminal responsibility to 15, in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
We also supported the implementation of the alternative sentencing legislation, which has provided alternatives to incarceration and resulted in the release from detention of more than 4,380 prisoners since 2018. The Bahraini authorities have recently developed an open prison concept, supported by us, which will improve further rehabilitation of prisoners and their reintroduction to society.
There are other examples, but I hope that those that I have given show at least an insight into why our support to the Gulf continues to be important. It is a critical region for the UK and is in our strategic interest, but I assure you of this: it does not mean we detract from raising the important issues of human rights. I am grateful to all noble Lords, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for tabling this debate today. I assure him and indeed all noble Lords of my continued commitment on this important agenda. I agree with all noble Lords who have spoken in this important debate today: when it comes to human rights it is easy when you stand up to defend your values at home and abroad—to defend what you believe and stand for—but the real litmus test of human rights is your ability to stand up for the human rights of others.
I thank the Minister; I know we had a big of argy-bargy at Oral Questions. He has clearly had a bit of a lonely job this afternoon in answering many questions. It is important to say to him that it is not his personal integrity that is ever in question: it is the effectiveness of government policy on the engagement that has been had to improve human rights which we question. I also thank the House of Lords Library for an excellent briefing, and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, which I think has given many noble Lords a briefing. I also thank particularly the three brave members of the public who are attending who have, or have parents who have, been detained or tortured in Bahrain.
I particularly thank all speakers, who in one way or another have all said the same thing: we are better than this as a nation when it comes to human rights in the Gulf. We are better than spending UK taxpayers’ money on World Cup preparations that have ended up with homophobic policing and our values not being ingrained or helping to improve LGBT and human rights issues in Qatar. If government policy does not change, I think we will be on the wrong side of history. It is not in our long-term interests as a nation to continue in this way. Engagement for a purpose, yes, but when most independent observers say that things are not improving in the GCC with regard to human rights, and if all that we are left with is a meaningless moral vacuum of a free trade agreement that is not using our soft and hard power for improvement of human rights here and abroad, the Government will have failed.