Gulf States: Human Rights Abuses - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:34 pm on 24 November 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 3:34, 24 November 2022

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?