I beg to move,
That this House
has considered human rights in Saudi Arabia.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I want to make it clear at the outset that I am Stewart Malcolm McDonald; to my right is my hon. Friend Stuart C. McDonald, whose constituency and first name are entirely different. We are not to be confused.
At just 31 years old, Mr Raif Badawi is currently in a Saudi prison following a sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment, 1,000 lashes and a fine of over 1 million riyal. His “crime” is that he dared to speak out for secular liberalism and to question the authoritarian rule of his country. It is no crime at all. Raif Badawi’s case has captured the hearts and minds of people right across the world—not only because of the brutal and medieval sentence that has been bestowed on him, to which I will return, but because his writings represent the values of freedom and progress that inspire so many across the world.
Human progress takes great strides forward when our ability to think, write, argue and present our ideas in an open discourse is honoured. However, Mr Badawi is being made to fight that battle with his life. Throughout history, people have had to do the same—fight the forces that want to keep silent those of us who believe in liberal progress. Artists such as Salman Rushdie, who is a personal inspiration, thinkers such as Galileo, political leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi, feminists such as Emmeline Pankhurst and gay rights activists such as Harvey Milk—all of them fought for liberal progress and free thinking in order to advance humankind. All of them did so in the face of severe hostility, the threat of imprisonment or sometimes even death.
Raif Badawi and his fearless writings on human rights will surely join those great names in our history books, but he cannot join them just yet: he is too young and still has too much to offer our world and the cause of progress. He also still has too much love to give to and receive from his family. Raif’s wife, Ensaf, and his three children, Terad, Najwa and Miriyam, do not deserve to be robbed of their husband and father. Each and every time I see the photograph of Raif and his three beautiful children, who are happily wrestling for their father’s love, I am haunted to my core. What must they think of their father? What must they think of their country—of the world they live in and their future place in it? I secured this debate not only to give Raif some hope that people in this country and across the world are working to ensure his freedom, but so that his children know that their daddy’s freedom matters to this House and to people across the world, and that we will not stop until they are reunited with him.
The sentence that has been delivered is deliberately evil. Not content with a prison sentence and a fine that he could never hope to pay, the wicked Saudi regime had to go one further: 1,000 lashes to the back. Although the lashes have now been stopped, I want to illustrate the suffering endured by those who receive a lashing. Dr Juliet Cohen, head of doctors at Freedom from Torture, has said:
“When the cane strikes, the blood is forced from the tissues beneath... Damage to the small blood vessels and individual cells causes leakage of blood and tissue fluid into the skin and underlying tissue, increasing the tension in these areas…
The more blows are inflicted on top of one another, the more chance of open wounds being caused. This is important because they are likely to be more painful and at risk of infection, which will cause further pain over a prolonged period as infection delays the wounds’ healing”.
The Saudi regime literally wants to whip Mr Badawi into obedience, believing that to discipline his mind, it is necessary to discipline his body. Although the involvement of doctors has halted the lashes for now, just consider the position a doctor is put in when assessing Mr Badawi’s wounds. The most fundamental guiding principle for any medical professional is that they shall not inflict harm. If a doctor were to declare that his wounds had sufficiently healed, they would do so in the knowledge that they would be sentencing him to another round of the most wicked punishment that he could endure—except he cannot endure it. Make no mistake: Raif Badawi has been served the slowest and most barbaric of death sentences.
More widely, Saudi Arabia is not known for its sympathy towards human rights of any sort or for its balanced approach to criminal justice. It does not matter whether someone is a liberal blogger, a human rights activist, a woman, a gay man or woman, or from a religious or ethnic minority. Last year alone, Saudi Arabia beheaded 90 people; this year, that figure had already been matched by the end of May. It is almost as though the regime has been caught off guard by the new kids on the block, Daesh, and is trying to show them who is top dog in the region when it comes to tyranny.
I want to compare our response to Raif Badawi’s case with our response to the death cult Daesh, which is making the headlines today. We have rightly condemned Daesh for the barbaric way in which it has swept across the middle east and how it has lured young people from this country and others to fight a fanatic’s war, something that has even touched my constituency, but—let us not beat around the bush—everything that Daesh has learned, it has learned from the barbaric regime of Saudi Arabia. The difference is that one group of fanatics has a state and the other has yet to be so successful.
If Daesh had a state to govern, do the Government really think that its forms of punishment would be any different from those being used in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today? Why do we show these people—these fanatics—such respect? Why do we lower our flags when their dictator dies? Why have we become so deferential, almost submissive, when it comes to publicly shaming them—something that the Government freely do with countries such as North Korea or Iran?
Does my hon. Friend think that the refusal to condemn the use of the death penalty might be something to do with the fact that, according to
’s ranking, after China and Iran only Iraq stands between Saudi Arabia in the United States in terms of executions?
My hon. Friend makes my point for me. I was going to put it much more simply: the answer is money. While the Saudi Government value life so cheaply and lash their way to supreme authority over their people, our Government have no problem in doing serious amounts of commerce with them. Not only is Saudi Arabia our largest arms export market, bringing in billions of pounds to our Exchequer, but we co-operate on defence and—would you believe it, Mr Chope—on how it runs its prisons system. Is it any wonder that the Government suffer from such a lack of credibility on human rights in Saudi Arabia?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I am sorry that I cannot stay for the rest of it; the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs is about to meet. On the point about the prison system, it is surely a good thing that the Saudis are buying access to British standards and training to try to improve the very issues in the Saudi criminal justice system that the hon. Gentleman is discussing. That is surely something that we should be involved in.
As a former prisons Minister, the hon. Gentleman is most experienced in these things. I would be willing to accept his point if I could see any concrete evidence at all that our involvement with the Saudi Arabian regime through its prison system was improving human rights. That is not to say that that is not happening, but where is the evidence? I do not see it. That is why the Government face a lack of credibility and a growing scepticism among organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International about whether anything meaningful and vociferous is being done.
I am not intervening simply to demonstrate that there is a McDonnell, as well as McDonalds, in the Chamber. I apologise that I cannot remain in the debate—bizarrely, I have a meeting with the current prisons Minister at 10 o’clock. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that our Government’s co-operation with the Saudi Government, and the fact that they have not condemned the case but only expressed concern about it, are interpreted by the Saudis as Britain condoning their behaviour?
It is almost as though the hon. Gentleman can see my speech. I am about to go on to that very point, which he made so well.
“to recognise that the actions of the Saudi Government in these respects have the support of the vast majority of the Saudi population.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 11 June 2015; Vol. 762, c. 890.]
Will the Minister tell us exactly how the Baroness would know that? Did she, as Francis Wheen suggested in The Independent, commission Lord Ashcroft to conduct a poll of Mr Badawi’s Saudi compatriots to ask what they thought of the lashings and beheadings carried out by their Government? If the Minister were a Saudi national and had witnessed a flogging such as that which Mr Badawi and so many others have been through, how likely would he be to speak out against his own Government? I suggest that the Baroness needs to rethink her words rather urgently.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is referring somewhat tongue in cheek to Lord Ashcroft and polls that might have been conducted in Saudi Arabia. Does he agree that if any such poll were to be contemplated, the prospects for those carrying out the poll would be similar to those of the person he is describing in the debate?
It would probably be the most undemocratic poll ever conducted. We can say a lot about polls in this country, but they are at least honest ones.
For the most part, yes.
Last week, at Foreign Office questions, I asked the Minister about two specific points. I hate to say this, but I received an answer to neither, so I want to press the questions now. First, I asked whether the Minister would instruct the United Kingdom ambassador in Riyadh to request a visit to the prison in which Mr Badawi is being held so that we might get a report on his mental and physical state and on the conditions in which he is being held. Will the Minister undertake to give such an assurance?
Secondly, will the Minister state without equivocation—there is plenty of precedent for this, although funnily enough not in Saudi Arabia—that Mr Badawi should be set free? He is a prisoner of conscience and he should not be in prison. Surely the Government agree with that. If so, will the Minister please state that in his response?
Last week in the main Chamber, the Minister sought to give me some kind of reassurance: he said that the Saudi supreme court was reviewing the case. The Minister is a reasonable man, so I am sure he does not seriously expect me or the House to find any reassurance in the fact that the same justice system that put Mr Badawi where he is today is now marking its own homework to determine whether he should still be in prison. The Saudi justice system is not a normal justice system and the Saudi Government are not a normal Government—and we should stop treating them as such. The Minister might be willing to turn a blind eye, but he cannot expect us to ignore the crimes and brutal human rights abuses of which the Saudi regime is guilty.
As my hon. Friend is aware, Saudi Arabia sits on the United Nations Human Rights Council and hosted an international human rights conference that resolved to combat intolerance and violence based on religious belief, even though the country has one of the worst records of abuse in the world today. The number of executions has been rising and stands at a startling rate: 88 people were executed last year in Saudi Arabia. Surely that cannot continue.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Saudi Arabian Government even sought to head the UN Human Rights Council. On the international stage, the Saudis are laughing at us and at human rights, so I hope to see some urgency from the Government. We must not become complacent, although I fear that that is exactly what the Government have become. Worse than that, coming back to the point made by John McDonnell, we need to ask ourselves at what point we start to look complicit because of our own weakness and ability to turn a blind eye.
We have seen no evidence whatever—none at all—that the Government are taking the case of Raif Badawi seriously or that they are raising the issue in the most vociferous and public fashion with the Saudi Government. Our Government are not doing anything that the public or I can see. Instead, we lower our flags to half mast when a dictator passes away. For some, that flag might fly proudly over this building as a symbol of unity and strength, but it is fast becoming a symbol of impotence and obedience to the wrong people.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope, and I thank Stewart McDonald for proposing the motion and bringing the debate forward for consideration. I also look forward to the responses of the shadow Minister, Kerry McCarthy, and of the Minister.
I will speak specifically about the persecution of Christians, to which Margaret Ferrier referred a few minutes ago in an intervention. Many Members know that I have a great passion for the subject and a great wish to speak on behalf of our brothers and sisters, in this case in Saudi Arabia, who are subject to a mind-boggling level of religious persecution. In the background information for the debate, we were given some idea of other abuses as well, such as the number of people executed in the past year and, unbelievably, the fact that Saudi Arabia has employed yet more new executioners. That tells us a wee bit about where the regime is on human rights.
When most people think about Saudi Arabia, the image that comes to mind is of oil-rich sheikhs and beautiful buildings along with desert. As with most stereotypical images, however, there is a lot more than meets the eye. I will speak about the persecuted Church. The desert kingdom is defined by Wahabism, a purist and strict interpretation of Islam. I am the first to advocate freedom for people to practice their religion, as long as it is not harmful to society, but the worrying aspect in this case is that it is forbidden openly to practice other religions. To be a Christian in Saudi Arabia is to face persecution, limited freedom and liberties, and restrictions on what can be done. Apostasy—conversion to another religion—is punishable by death. The kingdom is also widely known to be a breeding ground for radical Islam, with allegations that Saudi funding is a major source of Sunni terrorism in the world.
Behind the idyllic interpretation of Saudi Arabia, therefore, is an underbelly or undercurrent of terrorism and the suppression of liberty and democratic process.
Open Doors UK, an organisation that speaks on behalf of Christian people throughout the world, has said that converts from Islam to Christianity risk being killed or abused by their own families. House churches are often raided by the religious police. Only back in September, our national newspapers were publishing stories about the Islamic police in Saudi Arabia storming a Christian prayer meeting, arresting the entire congregation, including women and children, and confiscating their Bibles.
This week a report published by The Week outlined 12 things that women in Saudi Arabia still cannot do, including going anywhere without a chaperone, driving a car, voting in elections and wearing clothes or make-up to show off their beauty—I could go on. I suspect that a number of female Members would contend those points and would be aghast if we could not all enjoy equality in this nation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the situation in Saudi Arabia is a travesty in this day and age?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and will put on the record that it is not just hon. Ladies who are offended by that; hon. Gentlemen are equally offended, including me. The fact that women are second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia and suffer all the deprivations that they do annoys and angers me greatly. We are holding this debate on their behalf as well.
At the time of the raid on the Christian meeting that I mentioned, it was reported that it was the latest incident in a swingeing crackdown on minorities in Saudi Arabia by the country’s hard-line commission—wait for this one—for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice. Have we ever heard the like—the use of such words to describe the deprivation and restriction of religious liberty? The 28 Christians who were arrested were said to have been worshipping at the home of an Indian national in the eastern city Khafji when the police entered the building and took them into custody. They have not been seen or heard from since, and human rights groups are concerned about their whereabouts.
I know this is short notice for the Minister, but I ask him for a response on the case of those 28 Christians. I doubt it will be possible for him to give one today, but perhaps at a point in the future he will give the House some idea of what is happening to those people, who seem to have disappeared into the ether of Saudi Arabia, as their whereabouts are unknown.
Nina Shea, director of the Washington-based Hudson Institute’s Centre for Religious Freedom, told foxnews.com:
“Saudi Arabia is continuing the religious cleansing that has always been its official policy…It is the only nation state in the world with the official policy of banning all churches. This is enforced even though there are over two million Christian foreign workers in that country. Those victimized are typically poor, from Asian and African countries with weak governments.”
If we want to sum the situation up, we can do so in five words—all in a day’s tyranny. That is the situation for Christian people, and in Saudi Arabia it is indeed all in a day’s tyranny.
Voice of the Persecuted has said that in March Saudi Arabia’s top Muslim cleric called for the destruction of all churches in the Arabian peninsula, after legislators next door in Kuwait moved to pass laws banning the construction of religious sites associated with Christianity.
Arabic media have reported that, when speaking to a delegation in Kuwait, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah—my pronunciation of that was not bad going for an Ulster Scot—said the destruction of churches was absolutely necessary and is required by Islamic law. Where is the freedom and religious liberty for those practising Christianity?
Abdullah is considered to be the highest official of religious law in the Sunni Muslim kingdom. He also serves as the head of the supreme council of ulema, which is the council of Islamic scholars, and of the standing committee for scientific research and issuing of fatwas. According to Arabian Business, a news site, Osama al-Munawar, a Kuwaiti Member of Parliament, has announced a plan to submit a draft law calling for the removal of all churches in the country. Al-Munawar has since clarified that that law would apply only to new churches, and that old ones would be allowed to stay standing. If the churches are allowed to stay standing, give people the religious liberty to practise their religious beliefs.
These issues are very worrying when we consider how little it takes to break such strict laws. It seems clear that we must exert what influence we have with Saudi Arabia to ensure that those who want to practise Christianity can do so without fear. In his opening remarks, the hon. Member for Glasgow South referred to contracts we have with Saudi Arabia; I will come to that in a few minutes, but it is important to note that given our business and economic contacts with Saudi Arabia we should have discussions and make efforts on behalf of Christian minorities.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in every context of commerce, including work by private businesses supported by our national Government, every opportunity should be taken to raise with the Government of Saudi Arabia matters such as the persecution of Christians and other minorities, and the persecution of women?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. As the Minister and others who were Members in the previous Parliament will know, back in 2013 the Democratic Unionist party took the opportunity of one of our Opposition day debates to raise the issue of the religious persecution of Christians on the Floor of the House. As a result of that debate, we hoped that Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would use their influence wherever they could across the world when religious liberty, religious minorities and human rights were being abused by countries or by dictators. I wholeheartedly support what my hon. Friend said. We need our Government, and the Minister in particular, to take a more proactive stance.
We hear all this talk about raising the issues at the senior levels of Government, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is perhaps time to take more action, and, like Sweden, to start ending memorandums of understanding, looking at an arms embargo and perhaps even looking at the withdrawal of ambassadors? I am not seeing any progress whatever.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. We should consider the idea he has put forward, and the Minister will respond to his point. I noted from the Library’s background note for the debate that Sweden has taken that proactive stance and decided to stop arms sales. We have to consider all those steps. We want to be an economic ally of Saudi Arabia and trade with it—we cannot deny that—but we also want to influence what is happening there. If we are not having the sort of influence we wish to—at this point in time I do not see that we are—perhaps we need to look at other ways of having that influence.
The world deplores the scenario in North Korea, but we seem to tolerate the same scenario in Saudi Arabia with barely a mention. Mention North Korea and everyone’s hackles will rise; we should be equally angry about the persecution of Christians in Saudi Arabia. Reading a report from someone who had been out there opened my eyes. I will read from it to give Members an idea of what it is like to be a Christian there:
“Visiting persecuted Christians in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it’s the silence that strikes me most. British nurses hide crucifixes from view; Filipino nurses furtively read banned Christmas catalogues; Christian physicians whisper their weekend plans, referring to church services as ‘gatherings’ at diplomatic compounds;”— because they have to try to hide what they are doing and when—
“Christian Pakistani matrons scheduling the nursing rota risk false accusations of blasphemy—charges which could result in death.”
That is everyday life in Saudi Arabia for Christian people.
I will quote something connected to the sense that we are looking the other way and leave the idea with Members as a thoughtful submission. It is attributed to the German Jewish essayist Kurt Tucholsky—I am doing well with the names today:
“A country is not only what it does—it is also what it tolerates.”
Let us think about those words very clearly. In Saudi Arabia there is no toleration for Christian minorities, for those with different views or for those who do not conform to its particular rules and regulations.
What are we tolerating in our relationship with Saudi Arabia? I have great respect for the Minister, but I must put this to him: how can we do better? How can we ensure that our nurses and teachers do not fear discussing church or asking for time off to worship their God in the way that He has ordained they should? What diplomatic pressure can be brought to bear to bring change? If the answer is that we have no leverage and can apply no pressure, we must ask ourselves why that is the case—that goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South both in his opening remarks and in his intervention.
There are more than 200 joint ventures between British and Saudi companies, worth $17.5 billion. Saudi Arabia is the United Kingdom’s primary trading partner in the middle east, and even our Prime Minister travelled to extend sympathy at the death of King Abdullah. I do not for a second say that he should not have done that, but I do ask, given the special relationship that we seem to have, what we are doing for the Christian people and other minorities. Have we no leverage despite that relationship? Some tough questions must be asked about whether we can do more to halt the persecution of Christians, and especially of British Christians, in Saudi Arabia.
I apologise to the House, Mr Chope, for missing the first few minutes of this morning’s debate.
The case of Raif Badawi highlights just how bad the human rights situation is in Saudi Arabia, but it is not the only case. I hope that the Minister will be able to reply to some short, simple points. The UN Human Rights Council has expressed many concerns about human rights, the judicial process and the plight of individuals in Saudi Arabia. That does not appear on the surface to have affected the British Government’s relationship with Saudi Arabia very much. As far as I can work out, it has not led to the Government making many remarks to the Saudi Government to try to bring about change. We need to ask about the link between substantial sales of British arms to Saudi Arabia and our apparent inability to criticise the human rights record there. Will the Minister confirm what controls are applied to the export of arms, how many arms licences have been refused, and how many of the weapons or items of equipment sent to Saudi Arabia have been used for internal repression, to suppress demonstrations or to control prisons?
Saudi Arabia’s activities in Yemen are extremely well known, and it is not a secret that it has been occupying quite large parts of that country to restore the original Government to power. There are also disturbing reports that it has been using illegal cluster bombs during the bombardment of Yemen. I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm whether that is so. If not, will the Foreign Office find out exactly what weapons that would be illegal under international law have been used by Saudi Arabia? The question of arms supplies has troubled both Germany and Sweden, which have at times either suspended or restricted arms supplies to Saudi Arabia because of human rights abuses, and because of their concern about what they would be used for; but apparently that question has not restricted the British Government very much.
The Foreign Office human rights and democracy report of 2014 said:
“Saudi Arabia continued to make incremental improvements on human rights in 2014, as the government carried on implementing its reform programme...but we continued to have concerns over the human rights situation, particularly in relation to the use of the death penalty, access to justice, women’s rights, and restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion or belief. There was some progress in women’s rights and the death penalty, but significant institutional change in Saudi Arabia is needed to protect the human rights of its residents, especially with regards to the guardianship system and restrictions on freedom of religion or belief.”
In fact, the number of executions has gone up, not down, in the past two years. The report continues:
“There were significant changes in the justice sector. On
We need to know from the Minister how many times meetings have been held with the Saudi Government, what has been achieved through that dialogue, and what improvements have resulted in the human rights record of Saudi Arabia as a result.
There are many disturbing reports, particularly about the plight of human rights defenders, who seem to have little protection in law. Often they are brutally silenced when they try to speak out about human rights abuses, particularly away from the big cities and in more remote parts of the country. The guardianship system for women means that women’s rights are extremely restricted all over the country, yet we carry on as though everything were normal with Saudi Arabia.
Government officials in Saudi Arabia have stated their blatant opposition to gay rights and have criticised human rights policies that guarantee freedoms and liberty. Recent police raids have evidently primarily targeted gay people, and several arrests have been made as part of the authorities’ latest crackdown on LGBT people. Does the hon. Gentleman join me in condemning that?
Absolutely; I thank the hon. Lady for drawing the House’s attention to that. The abuse of all human rights in Saudi Arabia is very serious, but the treatment of lesbian and gay people there is particularly appalling. In the UN Human Rights Council, the UK routinely takes up issues of systemic discrimination in many countries all over the world, but there seems to be an unfortunate silence where Saudi Arabia is concerned, and I do not believe that that is the way to act.
The hon. Gentleman is a long-serving Member of Parliament and no doubt over the years has been to many a protest outside the Saudi embassy. Off the top of his head, can he give an example of a meaningful public condemnation of the Saudi regime that has been made in the years in which he has been debating the issue in the House? Can he think of one, or perhaps two?
Ministers have often said to me that they are concerned about human rights in Saudi Arabia. Usually the narrative from the Foreign Office is that constructive dialogue is making progress. It is not obvious to me what progress has been made in the matter, but that is what is often said. The Minister, I am sure, can speak for himself.
My last point is about migrant workers. There are hundreds of thousands of migrant workers all over the Gulf states. They are doing the jobs that nobody else wants to do. They run the economy; they run the oil industry; they clean people’s houses; they fix the roads; they run the railways. They run just about everything. The whole economy relies on them completely. Generally speaking they are poorly treated everywhere, but 300,000 have been deported from Saudi Arabia, and others who have protested in any way about their conditions of work have been summarily removed from the country. We ought to be aware that that is a systemic problem across the region.
British companies are heavily involved in service industries and oil exploration and exploitation in Saudi Arabia and other places. I am not saying that British companies are particularly exploiting migrant workers, but I do say that Britain should not turn a blind eye to what is happening to many vulnerable people across the region. What is happening in Qatar has at last got some publicity, because of the number of migrant workers who have died on construction sites. Things are not that different in every other country of the region.
I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House that tough representations will be made to the Saudi Arabian Government, and that we will suspend arms supplies to Saudi Arabia if it is shown to be using weapons illegally in the Yemen. There is also the question of past weapons use in Bahrain. I hope he will say that we will demand rights for women, an end to the death penalty, and rights and justice for the migrant workers in the region. We cannot just say that because Saudi Arabia is oil-rich and has huge amounts of money with which to buy arms from us and from other places, human rights standards should be lower. We should say that human rights standards should be the same throughout the world. The declaration of human rights is, after all, a universal declaration, not a selective one. We should make that clear in our foreign policy relationships with Saudi Arabia.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend Stewart McDonald on securing the debate; he has been a persistent and passionate agitator on the issue since his election, and remains so. He reminded us of the case of Raif Badawi, a 31-year-old Saudi Arabian writer and activist, who is married with three children. My hon. Friend detailed his trial, conviction, horrendous sentence and punishment for the crime described as “setting up a liberal website”. I should declare an interest as a member of Amnesty International, which has been campaigning on the issue.
Following Mr Badawi’s arrest, Amnesty designated him a prisoner of conscience,
“detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression”, and noted:
“Even in Saudi Arabia where state repression is rife, it is beyond the pale to seek the death penalty for an activist whose only ‘crime’ was to enable social debate online”.
Numerous other campaign groups, such as Free Raif UK, English PEN and other well known human rights groups, also deserve credit for keeping Mr Badawi’s case in the public eye. Doing that retains pressure on the Saudi authorities and provides support for the friends and family of Raif Badawi, Waleed Abulkhair, who I think is Mr Badawi’s lawyer, and various others. By securing this debate, my hon. Friend has made a further contribution to that important task and provided the hope that he spoke about. Whether even more can come from the debate is down to the Government. I support my hon. Friend’s simple requests that the United Kingdom Government call for Mr Badawi’s release and seek permission to visit him in prison. So far, the UK Government have had too little to say publicly about this issue. We wait with interest to hear what the Minister will say today.
None of this is to say that we fail to recognise the difficulties and complexities involved in international diplomacy. Sometimes diplomacy behind closed doors can work—indeed, the suggestion so far from the UK Government is that their approach to Saudi Arabia is to pursue diplomacy behind closed doors. However, in this case, public silence is no longer an option; in reality, it never was.
Concern is not enough because, first of all, people see an inherent hypocrisy that is far too large to ignore. As my hon. Friend Margaret Ferrier highlighted in her intervention, the double standards being applied cannot be tolerated. At the start of this year, in the wake of the horrific Charlie Hebdo attack, our Prime Minister walked with thousands of others along the streets of Paris to protest in support of freedom of expression. Among the marchers was the Saudi Arabian ambassador to France. Both France and the United Kingdom have a strong belief in freedom of expression, but the same cannot be said about Saudi Arabia. Just two days before that march, Raif Badawi had received the first 50 lashes for his so-called offence—an offence of expression.
Secondly and even more importantly, to citizens of this country looking in from the outside the process of diplomacy behind closed doors just does not appear to be working or achieving anything, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South pointed out. The softly-softly approach is seen as amounting to not very much at all. It is simply untrue to suggest that there has been a substantial improvement in human rights in Saudi Arabia through that approach, as my hon. Friend explained. This year, the country has already executed more than 100 people. That surpasses the total for last year.
The slow burn of British diplomacy might even appear to be encouraging an aura or attitude of impunity in the Saudi Government, nurturing the idea that they can get away with human rights abuses if they talk a good game on human rights. As my hon. Friend highlighted, Saudi Arabia is considering seeking the chairmanship of the UN Human Rights Council next year, yet two months ago it advertised for eight new executioners, as Jim Shannon pointed out. Recently, it hosted a regional human rights meeting just three days before the supreme court upheld the sentence against Raif Badawi. When called out on its human rights record by the media, the Government of Saudi Arabia claim that it is
“one of the first States to promote and support human rights” as if those words on their own are enough.
The case of Raif Badawi has proved to be a rallying point, casting light on problems that, as many hon. Members said, go much further than his own. He is a man whose bravery puts a human face on the statistics that we hear about the scale of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, but those statistics and the other stories that we have heard today continue to provide grave cause for concern.
As the hon. Member for Strangford highlighted, the persecution of Christians is extremely concerning. As my hon. Friend Angela Crawley set out, the situation for women is also terrible. The few rights that do exist in Saudi Arabia essentially do not extend to women—in fact, “human rights”, in so far as they exist in Saudi Arabia, really means men’s rights. My hon. Friend also highlighted the persecution of LGBT people in that country. Jeremy Corbyn highlighted concerns regarding Saudi activities in Yemen and the exploitation of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.
Worse even than the failure publicly to criticise and condemn has been the United Kingdom Government’s tendency almost to excuse. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South highlighted, it was recently suggested in the House of Lords that the treatment of Raif Badawi largely meets with public approval in Saudi Arabia. That is an objectionable argument on so many levels. Not only should we, as hon. Members have said, take such assertions with a large pinch of salt; most significantly, we can never say that human rights abuses are all right and should be ignored if a majority in a particular country agrees with them.
We argue for a new approach, and in Europe, as we have heard today, there are glimmers of hope. The hon. Members for Strangford and for Islington North pointed out that Germany and Sweden have started to speak out, with Sweden withdrawing from a security and trade agreement with Riyadh, effectively blocking arms exports. Meanwhile, Germany has ended an export deal for Leopard tanks because of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and it warned that the sentence against Mr Badawi was damaging relations. We were just speaking of opinion polls, and opinion polls there show that the German public are against any form of trade with the Arab state, with a large majority against arms sales.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about Sweden’s trade deals with Saudi Arabia being ended and Germany’s refusal to sell tanks to the Saudi regime. Does he share my concern that the United Kingdom Government have not so much as refused to sell a single bullet to the Saudi regime?
I absolutely agree. In coming to a conclusion about what my hon. Friend has asked for today, I will say that we recognise the complexities of international diplomacy, but back-room bargaining is no longer enough—indeed, it never really was. At the very least, as my hon. Friend suggests, we require the UK Government to call for Mr Badawi’s release and to seek permission to visit him in prison. That is not much to ask. As the hon. Member for Islington North said, the United Kingdom Government need to rethink their approach to Saudi Arabia altogether. Our requests are modest, and we look forward to hearing what the Government have to say in response.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate Stewart McDonald on securing the debate. Understandably, he focused on the case of Raif Badawi, as did his Scottish National party colleague, Stuart C. McDonald. Sometimes a case assumes totemic status in the human rights catalogue. We know that there are many horrific cases of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, but sometimes it takes a case such as that of Raif Badawi to capture public attention and focus people’s minds, so it is right that the hon. Member for Glasgow South raised it.
We heard from Jim Shannon about the persecution of Christians in Saudi Arabia. He has been a strong advocate for many years on the issue of freedom of religion and, in particular, the persecution of Christians, and he made a compelling contribution again today.
We heard from my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn about a number of issues, which I will come on to, such as arms deals, the memorandum of understanding with the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Justice, and migrant workers. However, it is important that as well as focusing on the specific issues that have been raised, we look at the wider questions about what it means for Saudi Arabia to be a Foreign Office country of concern on human rights grounds. It is important that Parliament regularly revisits the question of human rights in Saudi Arabia and questions the nature of our bilateral relationship, as it epitomises the inherent challenges and contradictions in the UK’s foreign policy and flags up some of the very difficult questions that we struggle with and have to reconcile.
We heard today some of the reasons why the Foreign Office regards Saudi Arabia as a human rights country of concern: the restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly; concerns about migrant workers; reports of torture being commonplace in prison; and the crackdown on dissent, including legislation equating criticism of the Government with terrorism. Those are not simply internal, domestic matters but questions of international law and universal principles of human rights.
On the specific case of Raif Badawi, which I will return to throughout my response, the hon. Member for Glasgow South eloquently summed up the position. It is very difficult to imagine not just Mr Badawi’s plight, but what his family, who are now in Canada, are going through. His arrest and conviction expose Saudi Arabia’s disregard for religious freedom and freedom of expression, and his sentence breaches the convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, which Saudi Arabia has ratified. I will refer to several such agreements during my speech, and we have to ask what it means for Saudi Arabia to have ratified them if we continue to see cases such as that of Raif Badawi.
Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. It is true that there has been a little progress. Women are expected to be allowed to vote in this year’s municipal elections for the first time, and 30 of the 140 seats in the Shura Council have been allocated to women. More employment opportunities have also been opened up to women. Those are, however, very small steps. Saudi Arabia still operates the guardianship system, and women are still very much subordinate to men. There is still a ban on women driving, for example. In December, two Women2Drive supporters were arrested and later charged with terrorism-related offences, for the crime of driving a car and being women.
The Government’s latest human rights and democracy report lauded Saudi Arabia for its participation in the preventing sexual violence initiative. It is true that there is a new law criminalising domestic violence in Saudi Arabia, but Amnesty International reports that women are still not adequately protected from sexual violence. Although it has not been raised today, we have discussed in the past the plight of the Saudi princesses, on which people seem to have fallen silent. Perhaps the Minister can update us on that. If that is what happens to women in the royal family in Saudi Arabia, what hope is there for ordinary women?
Hon. Members have highlighted the absence of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, where the rights and wellbeing of minorities—not least Shi’a Muslims, as well as Christians and atheists—need to be protected. Apostasy is punishable by death and Saudi Arabia is one of the most prolific countries, behind only China and Iran, in the use of the death penalty. Last year, the number of executions increased significantly to 86. By June this year, however, Saudi Arabia had already surpassed last year’s total, and there have been more than 100 executions. As we have heard, the country has had to advertise to recruit eight more executioners for the public beheadings.
The statistics I have just quoted speak for themselves. As I said, the number of executions that has taken place this year has already exceeded last year’s total. Clearly, Saudi Arabia is not moving in the right direction on the death penalty. People have been sentenced to death for sorcery and adultery, and they have been executed for confessions allegedly obtained through torture. Juveniles have been executed, which is in clear violation of international law. In that brief summary of just some of the human rights concerns, I have covered five of the Foreign Office’s six human rights priorities: freedom of expression on the internet, torture prevention, women’s rights, freedom of religion or belief, and the abolition of the death penalty. The Foreign Office has never listed lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights as one of its six priorities, although that should be a priority, not least because in countries such as Saudi Arabia homosexuality is punishable by death, as several colleagues have mentioned today.
The Foreign Office’s sixth thematic priority is business and human rights. We have heard very little of the Government’s business and human rights action plan since it was launched in 2013. The previous Foreign Secretary assured us:
“The promotion and protection of human rights is at the heart of the UK’s foreign policy”.
By contrast, the Prime Minister spoke of his determination to place
“our commercial interests at the heart of our foreign policy.”
Therein lies the dilemma. The current Foreign Secretary did not mention human rights at all when he was appointed, and it certainly seems that the commercial heart has had a much stronger beat at the centre of our foreign policy than the human rights heart. I do not deny that we need to attract inward investment and promote UK exports, but we cannot do so at the expense of basic human rights for people in countries such as Saudi Arabia, or by ignoring our international responsibilities. The Foreign Secretary has said that
“Saudi Arabia is an important ally of the UK”.—[Hansard, 9 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 1040.]
We would, therefore, expect the Government to use that relationship with a strong ally to discuss their human rights priorities.
Last year, UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia were worth £1.6 billion. Questions have rightly been asked about the inclusion of Saudi Arabia as a priority market for arms sales when it is also a human rights country of concern, but those are questions that Ministers have been unwilling or unable to address. Indeed, Defence Ministers recently told the House that they would not be reviewing the licences to Saudi Arabia, despite the UN’s warnings regarding the conflict in Yemen, about which they stated:
“The indiscriminate bombing of populated areas, with or without prior warning, is in contravention of international humanitarian law”.
I hope the Minister will be able to tell us whether he thinks the Government’s eagerness to sell arms to Saudi Arabia undermines any efforts to challenge the country’s human rights record or mutes discussion.
As several hon. Members have mentioned, there seems to be a significant reluctance on the part of the UK Government to speak out on human rights. The Government’s initial response to Raif Badawi’s conviction and flogging seemed rather timid, and the Prime Minister has been evasive when he has been asked about discussions on human rights with the Saudi authorities. I remember tabling a series of written questions some years ago, in which I asked about discussions. I kept being told that nothing was off the table and there was a broad range of discussion, which is what tends to happen whenever I ask what discussions the Prime Minister has had on human rights. Perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten us a little more today.
The Minister will, no doubt, tell us that there is a difference between private and public diplomacy. I accept that public condemnation is not always the most effective, and I am not suggesting that it is always appropriate to divulge the details of private conversations with foreign dignitaries. I accept, too, the need to consider our national interest and Saudi Arabia’s strategic role in the region. There is, however, a difference between choosing the best approach and turning a blind eye to egregious human rights abuses.
The concern that the British Government has dodged questions of human rights was only reinforced by the comments made by Daniel Kawczynski, the chair of the all-party group on Saudi Arabia, during last year’s debate on this subject. He stated:
“British officials were petrified at the prospect that I might raise issues involving Christian rights in front of the King. They do not like British Members of Parliament raising such issues”.—[Hansard, 24 June 2015; Vol. 583, c. 9WH.]
There is a danger that if the UK is perceived to be inconsistent on human rights and to demand higher standards from some countries than others, it will undermine Ministers’ attempts to promote human rights in any country. We cannot be seen to have double standards when it comes to universal, inalienable principles of human rights. The international community cannot selectively grant impunity for human rights abuses. Countries such as Saudi Arabia cannot be allowed to hide behind their economic power and strategic importance while the international community criticises other countries more strongly.
That is especially true when Saudi Arabia is a member of the UN Human Rights Council, a body that is supposed to be
“responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations”.
Saudi Arabia has failed to implement the recommendations that it accepted in its universal periodic reviews, however, and it has rejected the recommendation to ratify the international covenant on civil and political rights. As we have heard, the country has ratified other agreements but failed to implement them.
The covenant that my hon. Friend has mentioned would also help to protect migrant workers, who, as I pointed out, are incredibly badly treated in Saudi Arabia. Does she agree that we should do more about migrant workers in that situation?
I absolutely agree. The situation in Qatar, which my hon. Friend mentioned earlier, has shone a spotlight on the plight of migrant workers in the middle east. We should not assume that that is a problem only in Qatar; it is certainly an issue in countries such as Saudi Arabia, and it requires international action, particularly where British companies are involved.
There is limited space for civil society in Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International is denied access, human rights defenders are prosecuted, and non-governmental organisations are required to register—something that few, if any, have managed to do. That all suggests an unwillingness to engage on human rights or to work with the international community, and it makes it all the more important for Saudi Arabia’s allies, such as the UK, to be frank with it. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us more about how the UK works with Saudi Arabia on the Human Rights Council.
The UK Government seek to work in partnership with the Saudi Government on some matters. Crispin Blunt mentioned the memorandum of understanding that the previous Justice Secretary has signed with his counterpart, and the Home Secretary did likewise earlier this year. Given the concerns that we have heard about the criminal justice system in Saudi Arabia—including the use of corporal punishment and amputations—I hope that the Minister will be able to advise us on the conditions attached to those MOUs and the progress that is being made.
Does the hon. Lady support calls by Amnesty International for the British ambassador in Riyadh to visit Mr Badawi in prison to check on the conditions in which he is being held?
Yes, I certainly do. I am meeting Amnesty later this afternoon, as I do regularly. I hope that the Minister will help facilitate that.
We were told that the UK raised Raif Badawi’s case with the Saudi authorities at a senior level, but six months after his first 50 lashes and after three years’ detention, he remains in prison with the threat of 950 more lashes hanging over him. What assessment can the Minister give of the UK’s actual influence in this situation? King Abdullah was hailed by some as a reformer, but the slow pace of reform failed to prevent immense suffering and discrimination. Although the new king has taken positive steps, including small steps to protect religious minorities, little has changed so far in terms of basic rights and freedoms.
The UK must be prepared to discuss with Saudi Arabia the need for more fundamental reform if the kingdom is to meet its obligations to the people of Saudi Arabia and the international community. As I said, we recognise the need to work with Saudi Arabia and establish a strong relationship, but a bilateral relationship that turns a blind eye to human rights or silences a partner is inherently fragile.
I referred earlier to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s six thematic human rights priorities. I have heard reports that those six priorities have now been abandoned in favour of three vaguer work streams; I do not know whether the Minister is in a position to clarify that, but it is important. As I said, I would like to see the current priorities strengthened by the addition of LGBT rights. I am concerned that the abandonment of those six principles will mean less focus on human rights. It would be helpful if he could advise on that.
It is a pleasure to work under your experienced chairmanship, Mr Chope. I begin, as others have done, by congratulating Stewart McDonald on securing the debate. I will not try to say which names are which, but I was grateful for the clarification at the beginning.
I will say as a general remark that this debate has been informative and constructive. From a personal perspective, it is good to see new Members of Parliament from the Scottish National party come here with such a depth of knowledge and interest, and such a commitment to these issues. It is healthy and important to have them at such debates, along with those of the older generation who are regulars at them; I am only sorry that there are not more Members from my party to match them. However, I am pleased that we are here to place on record our relationship with Saudi Arabia and the important human rights aspect of that relationship.
It is worth placing in context where we stand. The UK and Saudi Arabia have a long history of friendship, understanding and co-operation. That relationship is rooted in defence, security, trade and investment, as hon. Members have mentioned. There are many bilateral challenges and opportunities, as has also been said, including Iraq and Syria, ISIL and Daesh and the changes taking place with the new Iranian nuclear deal. As the Opposition spokesperson, Kerry McCarthy also mentioned, Yemen is also an issue.
It is important to remind ourselves that the people of Britain have strong bilateral links with Saudi Arabia. Millions of Muslims travel to Saudi Arabia every year to perform the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages and to visit the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. I understand that 18,000 Britons completed the Hajj in 2014. The bilateral relationship is strong, which allows us to have frank conversations, often behind the scenes.
My speech has now been ruined by my scribbles in trying to answer all the questions that have been asked in this interesting debate. As I have done in the past, I will do my best to respond now, but if I do not, I will ensure that we scroll through
Hansard and write to hon. Members individually to give them more details about the important questions that they have asked.
Saudi Arabia and Britain are essential partners and good friends. As a long-time friend of Saudi Arabia, we are able to have honest and meaningful conversations with the Saudi Arabian Government about all issues, including human rights. To be frank, sometimes those conversations are difficult. We remain deeply concerned about Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty, restricted access to justice, the women’s rights situation and continued restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and religious freedom.
One issue that has not been mentioned is human trafficking, rates of which are extremely high in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is currently designated by the USA as a country of particular concern. The Saudi Arabian Government do not comply with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking and are not making significant efforts to do so; they have moved from tier 2 to tier 3 due to their lack of progress on anti-trafficking efforts, particularly their failure to protect victims and prosecute those guilty of involuntary servitude. Will the Minister look at that as well?
I will certainly come to those matters if time permits.
The Government’s view is a matter of public record, and we continue to make our views known in public and in private through multilateral and bilateral channels. We use the UN universal periodic review process and the FCO’s annual human rights and democracy report, which has been mentioned several times, including by Jeremy Corbyn, as well as our own diplomatic engagement with the Saudi Arabian authorities, to raise such concerns at all levels.
We can and do give tough messages, but we must recognise the crucial point that Saudi culture is deeply rooted in widely held conservative social values. We usually judge that our human rights concerns are best raised in private, and we will continue to work with the Saudi Arabian authorities and those in Saudi society advocating human rights reform, but we will continue to stand up for the full range of human rights. That is at the core of the strategy that we are discussing. Many—including, I think, the hon. Member for Glasgow South; I apologise if I misunderstood his tone—have advocated that we should somehow back away and not trade with that country because we should stand up for certain human rights issues. Forgive me if that is incorrect; if so, I will allow him to correct it. If we were to do so, would we give up an opportunity to have influence at the front line in favour of shouting from afar?
The Minister mentioned the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review, which was very strict and raised many complaints about Saudi Arabia. What are the Government doing to monitor progress on that? Is the UN going to send any special rapporteurs to Saudi Arabia, and have the Saudi Arabian Government agreed to that process?
Again, that is a rather large section of my remarks, and I hope to come to it shortly, so I will continue to make progress.
On a more general point, the Minister says that representations are being made behind the scenes and that that is the best way to influence the Saudi regime. Can he point to instances in which he feels that British influence has actually made a difference to the Saudis’ record on human rights? What changes has he seen as a result of our representations?
Again, I need to make some progress, and then I will answer those questions. It is important, if we have these debates, that we can see progress being made. We must be able to see movement forward. I will give some illustrations of that and of instances in which Britain is trying to assist in that progress.
Turning to some of the specific questions that have been asked, the hon. Member for Glasgow South asked about the lowering of the flag on the death of King Abdullah. I should make it clear that it is a long-standing convention to half-mast the Union flag on Government buildings following the death of any foreign monarch. That is the convention; it was not specifically to do with that particular case.
Many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Glasgow South, spoke at length about the Raif Badawi case. I give the hon. Gentleman the same answer I gave in the main Chamber: the case is in the supreme court and is under review. We therefore cannot interfere with that process, in the same way that the Saudi authorities would not interfere with our process.
The hon. Gentleman raised two specific issues, so I shall just make a couple of points, which might answer the questions that he might be about to ask me yet again.
Raif Badawi has been found guilty of various charges. We strongly condemn the sentence passed, but we must honour the judicial process. Once that process has been completed, we can then take stock and comment on the process itself, but we must be careful not to interfere with it.
I am grateful to the Minister. May I press upon him again, as I tried to do earlier, that it is not a normal justice system? He is asking me, and people across the world, to have confidence in the system that put Mr Badawi where he is now. Is the Minister seriously going to stand up with a straight face and ask us to do that? It is nothing short of a joke. It is the same justice system that bestowed upon Mr Badawi a prison sentence, a fine and 1,000 lashes. Minister, we can do better than this.
The case has returned to the supreme court, which reflects the fact that the leadership has taken stock of international opinion and what people have said. The punishment has stopped and is under review. Until that process moves forward, it would be incorrect to comment on another country’s judicial process. That would be interfering, in the same way that the Saudi authorities would be interfering in our processes if they commented on them.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the ambassador should request to visit Raif Badawi. We will not advocate that; again, it would inappropriate. Raif Badawi is not a British citizen as such. Once the sentence is upheld, we can obviously look at making contact, but it is not appropriate for our ambassador. That would, again, be seen as interfering with the process. A non-governmental organisation would be in a better position to make that judgment, rather than another country’s ambassador going in to see a citizen to whom the ambassador has no direct connection.
Absolutely; we can certainly put that forward. I would be delighted to make that request.
Religious tolerance and the situation of Christian and other minority religions have been raised in the debate. The British Government strongly support the right to freedom of religion or belief, which is restricted in Saudi Arabia. As Jim Shannon is aware, our views on the subject are well known. We must recognise that the restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in Saudi Arabia reflect widely held conservative social values in Saudi society. The key to increasing freedom is to focus on tolerance. We must work with Saudi Arabia to identify areas in which different faiths can work together, foster trust and build slowly in more challenging areas.
I referred in my speech to the 28 Christians who were arrested. Men, women and children have disappeared into the ether of Saudi Arabian society and into the prison system. I know that the Minister is unable to respond today, and I respect that, but could he respond directly to me, and perhaps to other hon. Members present in the Chamber?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done in this area. He has raised such issues with regard to a number of arenas, not only Saudi Arabia. I do not have the information he seeks at hand, but I will certainly write to him with more details, if I may.
The hon. Member for Islington North raised the important issue of migrant rights. He also touched on Qatar, which I visited recently. I will not digress now, but I will write to him on that point; we have seen progress, in which Britain has been very much involved.
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the amnesty for foreign workers to regularise their status in Saudi Arabia came into affect in 2013. It led to many people—1.5 million, I think—leaving the country. The Saudi Government have now agreed updated bilateral arrangements with a number of labour-supplying countries for legalised workers to remain in Saudi Arabia. We also expect to see more accurate labour records, and recent legal reforms will improve the basic rights of migrant employees. Legislation requires workers to be paid at least monthly and have access to their own identity documents, and domestic workers to have at least nine hours’ rest per day and one day off per week. We welcome any improvement in the legal position of migrant workers. Those are steps in the right direction, but clearly there is more work to be done.
The hon. Member for Bristol East raised the question of the imprisoned princesses. I will write to her with more details, but we have received no further reports since King Salman’s accession to the throne in January.
Export licences are another an important subject, given the closeness we have to Saudi Arabia. I make it absolutely clear that we have a robust mechanism in the UK. All exports of arms and controlled military goods are assessed on a case by case basis against the consolidated EU exporting licensing criteria. Concerns about excessive use of force and arbitrary arrest by police and security forces are considered extremely carefully.
In answer to the question about what progress has actually been made, I put my hand up and say that of course serious barriers remain and we want to see a huge amount of progress. The Saudi Arabian Government have confirmed that women will now be able to stand and vote for the first time in municipal elections, which will take place in December 2015. There are already women on the Shura Council, and we understand that 80 women will be standing, across 285 municipalities. There is obviously a long way to go, and we continue to engage with the Saudi authorities, but that is an example of real progress.
Saudi Arabia has also ratified the convention against torture, but, as has been articulated today, allegations of torture continue to be heard, particularly from political activists. We are pressing to work together to implement the requirements of international obligations, particularly human rights conventions. The Saudi Government have recently allowed the quasi-independent body the National Society for Human Rights free access to all prisons and prisoners to assess claims of torture and abuse. That needs to be placed in its context, which includes Raif Badawi.
The Saudi Ministry of Justice continues to implement an ambitious $1.6 billion reform programme. More than $1.2 billion has been spent on new courthouses, technology and judicial training. Special courts in family, commercial and labour law are planned. The appeal court and new supreme court have increased access to justice, and a new arbitration department has been formed to reduce the number of trial cases. Nevertheless, the legal system continues to suffer long delays in bringing defendants to court, and delays due to the lack of codification of case law. We have raised our concerns about that, and there are signs that trials are becoming more transparent, with the media and diplomatic community being given access to some trials. We also expect people to be brought to trial more quickly as the number of judges increases.
We have a strong and important relationship with a key ally in the region. I thank right hon. and hon. Members for this thought-provoking debate. I apologise for the fact that I have not been able to go into all the details in the answers that I have given today, but I will certainly write to colleagues with a more informative response.
I wish to make it clear that human rights are at the heart of UK foreign policy. Asthe Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has stated:
“It is in the UK’s national interest to help our international partners promote, protect and enjoy human rights; and to find effective ways to tackle violations wherever they occur.”
We have concerns about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, which we will continue to raise, but we also recognise that progress has been made. Clearly, more needs to be done. Our friendship with Saudi Arabia affords frank and open dialogue, and we continue to use our close relationship to ensure that the incremental process we are seeing is only the beginning.
I have found this debate both helpful and depressing at the same time.
I will begin by being charitable to the Minister by welcoming his remarks on requesting a visit to the prison by Amnesty International or another NGO, and I look forward to hearing when that request will be formally made to the Saudi Government. I press him to request that visit as a matter of urgency.
I thank other hon. Members for their contributions, in particular Jim Shannon, Jeremy Corbyn, who speaks with great authority on these matters, and, of course, my hon. Friend Stuart C. McDonald, who I am sure has not been mixed up with me in the Hansard record of this debate. I also thank Kerry McCarthy, who made a most helpful contribution to the debate.
I began by being charitable to the Minister. He was helpful on the prison visit issue. We did not hear whether he believes Mr Badawi should be set free. What we heard was that he does not believe that it would be appropriate to intervene, given that the case is up for review by the Saudi supreme court. I have to say that I cannot find the news anywhere in the public domain that the case is supposed to be up for review by the supreme court. I cannot see any evidence of that, so perhaps he could furnish us with it. However, even if the supreme court is conducting a review, I still have no confidence in it. It is the same supreme court that has already reviewed the case, and it is the same justice system that has already lashed Mr Badawi’s back 50 times.
There were a number of contributions to the debate about human rights abuses more widely. In particular, the hon. Member for Strangford made an excellent speech on the plight of Christians in Saudi Arabia. When Britain wants to be a leader in human rights and freedom across the world, I wonder why we are so subservient to what is probably the biggest human rights abuser in the middle east. Indeed, it seems that not a brass penny is spared when it comes to developing the relationship of defence, security, trade and investment that the Minister mentioned. We also often hear that Saudi Arabia is a key strategic partner in combating terrorism, but when will we look at the victims of Saudi terrorism in Saudi Arabia, who themselves are Saudi Arabian nationals?
I fear that we have made little progress this morning. There is much more that needs to be extracted from the Government on what they will do, not only about the case of Raif Badawi but about much, much more.
I will end by saying that Raif Badawi visited my home city of Glasgow. That makes him a son of Glasgow, and so long as he is held Glasgow will not rest until he is set free.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered human rights in Saudi Arabia.