Gulf States: Human Rights Abuses - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:23 pm on 24 November 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Featherstone Baroness Featherstone Liberal Democrat 3:23, 24 November 2022

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.