Gulf States: Human Rights Abuses - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:50 pm on 24 November 2022.

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Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat 2:50, 24 November 2022

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.