Gulf States: Human Rights Abuses - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:05 pm on 24 November 2022.

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Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 4:05, 24 November 2022

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.