Gulf States: Human Rights Abuses - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 24 November 2022.

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Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 4:15, 24 November 2022

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for initiating this debate. It is timely not only because of the events in Qatar at the World Cup, but because we have had the state visit of President Ramaphosa. When the Lord Speaker greeted him after he had addressed both Houses, he remarked that we are all neighbours. I spent many years working for a trade union. Cyril Ramaphosa was a trade unionist in South Africa, and we gave him detailed support. I was struck by those words, “we are all neighbours”. That is what this debate is about.

I hope that everyone who watches the World Cup will be much more aware of workers’ rights and the human rights concerns that persist in the Gulf region. The noble Lord, Lord Londesborough, said something that I also said at Oral Questions today: that each match we watch should be a brutal reminder of the 6,500 migrant workers who have died building the infrastructure for this tournament since 2010. We must remember that for each one of those 6,500, there is a family who needed that income. As I said earlier today, I hope we press really hard for the proper compensation due to these family members.

As we have heard, there are 2 million migrant workers in Qatar and, while some progress has been made on workers’ rights, there are huge problems with the implementation of reforms. Wider concerns also remain about the investigation of workplace deaths and accidents involving migrant workers. I raised the issue of the ILO report from October last year. What assessment has the Minister’s department made of plans for a permanent centre in Qatar to provide advice and help for migrant workers? This appears to have been somewhat stonewalled.

The risks facing migrant workers in Qatar have been highlighted in recent weeks, but we need to consider the situation elsewhere in the Gulf, as we are doing in this debate. The ILO Regional Office for Arab States is tasked with promoting decent work throughout the region. It has warned, for example, that in Kuwait female migrant domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Multilateralism, global civil society and in particular the ILO can be credited with recent progress, but there is much more to do.

At last week’s G20, the ILO and the Islamic Development Bank signed a memorandum of understanding to increase co-operation on labour market concerns. Has the Minister’s department assessed whether this will be a useful vehicle for improving workers’ rights in the region? Are we engaged with the ILO on its implementation?

Unfortunately, in Qatar and across other Gulf states, migrant workers are not the only group whose human rights are consistently violated. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Cashman, the noble Lords, Lord Hayward, Lord Purvis and Lord Scriven, and the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone. It is absolutely right that we focus on LGBT rights because, as has been highlighted, this tournament is a community of nations coming together, and those rights will be focused on. Fans going to the World Cup are going to a country where their sexuality is criminalised.

The UK Government have said they will continue to work with Qatar to ensure all fans are welcome, but there remain serious concerns about their safety. We should remember that when the tournament draws to a close, people across the Middle East will still be persecuted for their sexuality—when fans go home, those people will still be there—including in the United Arab Emirates, where being gay is still punishable by death. I hope the Minister can update us on what steps the Government are taking to build relationships with civil society and groups working to protect those individuals across the Gulf states.

As the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, reminded us, the Foreign Secretary recently urged LGBTQ+ fans in Qatar to show

“a little bit of flex and compromise” and to

“respect the culture of your host nation”.

We have heard about scarves, hats and armbands, but what does the Minister think the Foreign Secretary meant? I think he meant that behaviour that he thinks is normal and acceptable for him and his family is not normal for my family. To kiss or hug my husband is punishable by death. That is what we should face up to. It is not just about hats and scarves, but basic human behaviour. I will not go back into the closet or hide who I am, and I will not deny the love I have for others. That is what we have to face up to.

It is not just LGBT people. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, was right to highlight women across these states, who are still deprived of many basic human rights. Human Rights Watch has said:

“No country restricts the movement of its female population more than Saudi Arabia.”

Women in Oman are still denied equal rights for marriage and divorce, according to Amnesty International. Next week we have the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative Conference, where we will hear from civil society. A major issue for women’s rights in these countries is the increase in or maintenance of domestic violence as a way of controlling women. I hope we can continue to raise this issue.

I echo one of the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Scriven: the executions that have taken place in Saudi Arabia. In the last two weeks, 19 people have had their heads chopped off for drug offences. The noble Baroness raised the case of Hussein Abo al-Kheir, who could be executed at any moment. He has been moved to a death sentence cell. I echo her questions to the Minister and plead with him to make a personal plea to the authorities in Saudi Arabia to stop that execution and save that man’s life.

I led an Oral Question this week on human rights defenders, and the Minister has played a terrific role as human rights Minister, but I have raised with him on a number of occasions—and I joined the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, in this—the situation in Bahrain. I too pay tribute to those human rights defenders who are here, particularly the son of Ali Mushaima, the imprisoned opposition leader, who is watching this debate. We want to hear how we are going to speak out strongly about those abuses. I would like to highlight the case of the Bahrain human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who recently received the Martin Ennals Award and is now facing a series of criminal charges in Bahrain in reprisal, in the form of judicial harassment, for his protest activities within prison. I hope that the Minister will take this case up strongly with the Bahraini authorities.

I have run out of time. I think this has been an excellent debate. It has proved that we are all neighbours, and we are concerned about human rights everywhere.