Gulf States: Human Rights Abuses - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:26 pm on 24 November 2022.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 4:26, 24 November 2022

My Lords, I am in total agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Collins. This has been an insightful, impassioned, emotional and detailed insight into an issue which is—I thank noble Lords for acknowledging this—as I have often said, an important and for me the most valued part of my responsibilities within the FCDO and His Majesty’s Government, but equally the most challenging portfolio that I have.

I was struck by the incredible speech, both in terms of substance and tone, of the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and I thank him. I hope I am right in saying he knows that, as he raises issues, particularly in relation to the LGBT community around the world, I am extremely grateful, because as a Minister you do not always have sight of these issues as they arise. I put on record also my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Collins. He and I sometimes joke that we come across as aligned on many things and I assure noble Lords that we are very much aligned on the issue of human rights, and I am grateful. The same applies to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and indeed his predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. It is important that we have these discussions to highlight these issues and how we unlock them. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, who is right that there are times when you do want to cry out quite publicly. When I am no longer on the Front Benches and return to the Back Benches, I am sure that there will be occasions when I will raise these issues in a much more public manner—but I assure noble Lords that I do raise these issues consistently. I had the opportunity of working with the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, in coalition, and I pay tribute to her work, particularly on how we tackled the issue of equal marriage.

On human rights more broadly, I refer to a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and acknowledge the important work that the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, has done on a variety of issues concerning human rights and the whole role he has played in the APPG on the Gulf. The noble Baroness reminded us that we should never forget our own back yard, and that is—rightly or wrongly; noble Lords will have a view—the lens I apply when we look at human rights around the world. It was 1928 when women got full rights to participate in elections here in our country. It was in 1967 that homosexuality was decriminalised for the first time—just slightly before I was born, but nevertheless it is the reality. Certain countries do make progress on human rights. Some, we hope, would make progress more quickly on this agenda; but, equally, as we look towards different parts of the world, including the Gulf, it is important that we see where progress has been achieved—I will come on to that in a moment or two.

I align myself also with what the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, said. I remember my first occasion as a Minister of State in the Foreign Office, when I met the then Vice-President, now President, of Botswana. I received a briefing that highlighted in its first point, “Minister, do not raise the issue of LGBT, for it is far too sensitive”. I was a new Minister in the Foreign Office, trying to do my diplomatic work. I sat down with the now President of Botswana and the first thing he said to me was, “Minister, we must move forward on the issue of human rights; we must move forward on the issue of LGBT rights”. I looked at my brief, I looked at him and I smiled at him and at the official.

Equally, I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, that five and a half years on, we still raise human rights. In the last week alone, I have raised human rights on specific cases but also more generally with the likes of colleagues and friends in Kuwait and Qatar, and this morning again with the ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I will come on to those in a moment or two.

I was asked about my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. I have known James Cleverly a very long time, and his commitment to human rights is unstinting. We have had very strong exchanges in our ministerial teams over the years, but James is someone who cares about human rights, and of course he will be watching this particular debate for its content and substance very intently. It is important that we stand for scrutiny as Ministers in what we say and what we do. I therefore welcome this particular debate on the issue of the Gulf.

Indeed, it is equally important to me, as the Minister responsible for human rights, as noble Lords pointed out, but also recently, with the new Government in place, as the Minister for the Middle East and north Africa. It is a region I know well. First, as many noble Lords acknowledged—including the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, in his important contribution—it is important to the United Kingdom. British nationals visit and live in the region in significant numbers. Around 1.5 million visit the UAE every year, and a further 120,000 have made the UAE their home. The region acts as a major hub for international travel, with its own airlines and Governments.

We are indeed looking at human rights, and rightly so, but there are also crunch moments when you look to your partners. Indeed, the Gulf was an important partner when it came to our repatriation efforts during the Covid pandemic. There was not a single instance when I did not, as the Minister responsible, pick up the phone to an airline or to a government Minister, and indeed, that was also true with those who worked through the Afghanistan crisis with regard to the important role that both the UAE and Qatar played as hubs in terms of their operations and facilitation of those escaping the wrath of the Taliban from Afghanistan. I put that on record because these relationships matter. We invest in the relationships so that we can then raise the issues on a broad range of human rights directly.

On a personal note, there are some who say that we should disengage on human rights. I am a Muslim by faith and belong to the Ahmadiyya community. I am a Muslim and recognised as such here in the United Kingdom. There are parts of the world I travel to where, simply for being part of a particular community, if I was not a UK Minister I would face a charge of blasphemy just for being who I am. I would be imprisoned for years on end without charge simply for being who I am. So I assure your Lordships that I am committed to this agenda; it matters to me because I recognise it and live it, and I assure your Lordships that I own it within the FCDO. It is right that I make the case as Minister for Human Rights across government to ensure that these issues are raised quite directly.

The Gulf matters. Even from an Islamic perspective, as a practising Muslim, what is the lens we apply there? In the discussions I have with my Gulf counterparts, I say, “Come on. This was the religion that gave rights to women, not took them away at that time, over 1,500 years ago. This is the religion which taught respect for every citizen.” In the Holy Koran, 29 out of 30 chapters begin:

“In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.”

If God is of those qualities, apply them in practical terms to what you do. That is the conversation I have with our colleagues across the Gulf and the wider Islamic world. It is important that we apply the lens—a lens which is also understood by those communities and individuals.

There is a real sense of divergence, of course, on the death penalty. It remains a key challenge across the region and is something that Ministers, ambassadors and officials regularly engage with. We are clear with Gulf interlocutors, as I was only this morning with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that the UK stands firmly against the death penalty in all cases, in all circumstances and in all countries. There have been positive changes. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, referred to drug offences in Saudi Arabia. I assure her that the case she raised, that of Hussein Abo al-Kheir, is one that I am following very closely. I raised it this morning and hear what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, says. I am due to speak to interlocutors again in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and I made the case quite specifically in my conversations with the ambassador this morning.

I will continue to raise these cases. I am not saying, regrettably or tragically, that my intervention or that of other colleagues will stop things, but we should be consistent and persistent in ensuring that, particularly when it comes to the death penalty and those countries which have declared and given assurances on moratoriums in areas such as juveniles, and indeed drug policy in the case of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we raise these issues quite directly. Since 10 November, Saudi Arabia has executed, reportedly, 19 individuals for drug-related crimes. This brings us, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, reminded us, to its moratorium. Does it still exist in relation to executions for drug-related crimes? Unfortunately, as other noble Lords noted, this also follows the executions of 81 individuals that took place on 12 March in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While the number of executions may be lower elsewhere, we raised the issue quite directly recently. I had a conversation with the Kuwaiti ambassador in advance of the execution of seven individuals only last week. This remains a focus. Our opposition to the death penalty is clear, and we will continue to raise the issue.

I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Londesborough. He talked of Iran and issues of media freedom. We have tragically seen what is happening currently in Iran, but even as a broader issue across the Gulf, it is important. When you look at media freedom across the Gulf, it is very limited. Indeed, media freedom remains such a challenge, as borne out by the 2022 Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

Worryingly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, pointed out, we are seeing increased efforts to restrict freedom of speech on the internet as well. There are two recent examples in Saudi Arabia with the sentencing of Leeds PhD student, Salma al-Shehab, to 34 years. Clearly, the sentence does not match the crime, if it is indeed perceived as a crime, as they would see it. I assure the noble Baroness that I raised that consistently and will continue to do so. There is also the case of Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani. She was given 45 years for social media activity. I will continue to raise these issues and have also raised them directly with our ambassador. He has also raised them, including with the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh.

Turning to Qatar and LGBT-specific issues, the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, asked about the Peter Tatchell protest. I was in a meeting and I took myself away from that and dealt with it directly. While I cannot go into all elements of the case, he was not actually arrested. He also publicly—and it is not often that happens—thanked FCDO and in particular our consular team for the assistance. As I said earlier, it is right where issues are arising, particularly during the focus on Qatar with the World Cup. The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, reminded us that there are issues. My noble friend Lord Hayward in a very detailed and expert speech also talked about the responsibilities not just of Governments but also of sponsors.

I assure your Lordships that I and other Ministers, including the Foreign Secretary, have raised inclusion, in conversation with our Qatari counterparts. I invited Stuart Andrew, as Sports Minister, into a meeting with the Qatari ambassador. The Qatari authorities have repeatedly reiterated their public statement that everybody is welcome to the tournament, including LGBT+ visitors. We have consistently encouraged the equal treatment of all fans. As I said earlier, any issue that has been highlighted I will follow up and take forward with the Qatari authorities. We were talking of equalities and rights. One of the leading Ministers in Qatar is Lolwah al-Khater, who plays a phenomenal role. She did so in the Afghanistan evacuation and continues to engage as a key interlocutor.

I acknowledge the positive changes, on women’s rights, for example, which the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Featherstone, alluded to. Women are playing an important role across the Gulf. Qatari women make up about 40% of the country’s workforce. The World Bank has repeatedly commended Saudi Arabia for improving economic opportunity. Therefore, it is important, to come back to my earlier point, that although some noble Lords may disagree, we should continue to engage effectively.

The noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Hussain, raised workers’ rights. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that, as the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, pointed out, the ILO is present. We are working very much with it, as we have on the 2021 report. The ILO is still making its final assessment on migrant workers who have lost their lives. I look forward to discussing how we can take some of these issues forward, particularly working with international trade union groups on this important agenda.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raised the Gulf strategy fund. I will write to her on the questions that she raised.

In the interests of time, I will move on to Bahrain. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for raising this. Again, I recognise that my inbox when it comes to Bahrain—as I often joke with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, happens with him in relation to all things human rights—is often populated by what the noble Lord, Lord Scriven is doing.

I say at the outset that we should engage, and I have always said so. Regarding the two questions put to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, yes, I will meet with the representatives and with those who are present today. I have always said that human rights needs to be informed by practitioners. I may not agree with them or have the same process or methodology for taking forward representation, but I will arrange to meet with them at the earliest opportunity. I assure the noble Lord that while he rightly challenges me, on the death penalty in Bahrain, according to the figures that I have, 17 people have been executed in Bahrain since independence in 1971. Bahrain last used the death penalty in July 2019. The previous executions were in 2017.

We are working through some of these issues in terms of the investments that we make. The noble Lord asked for specific things that are being achieved. Women in Bahrain have equal rights and access to work, education and healthcare. However, I accept that there are clear areas where inequalities exist. Bahraini women cannot pass on their nationality to their children, for example. Again, these inequalities are being addressed.

For the fourth year in a row, Bahrain has made progress on issues of human trafficking and modern slavery, where the UK has also played an important role as a partner. Bahrain is the only country in the region to achieve tier 1 status, fully compliant with the minimum standards for elimination of severe forms of trafficking. That assessment was made by the US. In recent weeks, there have been calls for us to cease support. I disagree and have already alluded to why it is important. Our close relationships with the Bahraini Government include how we engage effectively with civil society. We continue to engage directly with NGOs and civil society representatives here. I also meet formally and privately with the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to get a specific insight on certain issues which cannot be raised publicly, to protect those individuals whom we seek to support.

A key focus of the Gulf strategy fund in Bahrain has also been governance reform in the justice and security sectors. The UK programme has helped to establish a number of human rights oversight bodies, which the noble Lord alluded to. A hundred security personnel have been prosecuted or faced disciplinary action since 2014 because of investigations carried out by these bodies. Our comprehensive engagement was also instrumental in the introduction of the child restorative justice law in 2021, which increased a child’s defined age to 18, and the age of criminal responsibility to 15, in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We also supported the implementation of the alternative sentencing legislation, which has provided alternatives to incarceration and resulted in the release from detention of more than 4,380 prisoners since 2018. The Bahraini authorities have recently developed an open prison concept, supported by us, which will improve further rehabilitation of prisoners and their reintroduction to society.

There are other examples, but I hope that those that I have given show at least an insight into why our support to the Gulf continues to be important. It is a critical region for the UK and is in our strategic interest, but I assure you of this: it does not mean we detract from raising the important issues of human rights. I am grateful to all noble Lords, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for tabling this debate today. I assure him and indeed all noble Lords of my continued commitment on this important agenda. I agree with all noble Lords who have spoken in this important debate today: when it comes to human rights it is easy when you stand up to defend your values at home and abroad—to defend what you believe and stand for—but the real litmus test of human rights is your ability to stand up for the human rights of others.