Gulf States: Human Rights Abuses - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:43 pm on 24 November 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health) 3:43, 24 November 2022

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.