It is a great pleasure to be here under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Nuttall, to morally carp on the sidelines about human rights, as Charlotte Leslie put it. None the less, I congratulate her on securing the debate, because the topic is important and is perhaps not debated often enough.
I will not use my position as the only Labour Member in the debate to speak at length, but I want to make one or two points that I hope the Minister will have time to respond to. Last night I read again the Foreign and Commonwealth Office report “Human Rights and Democracy”, which was published last month. Although it is a slimmed down volume and in many respects weakens the Government’s commitments on human rights—at least in relation to the death penalty—it does include three Gulf countries among the countries of concern: Saudi, Bahrain and Yemen. It does not include the United Arab Emirates, which I think is a significant omission. The Minister may want to mention human rights in the UAE when he responds.
I am glad that the countries in question are what are now, I believe, called priority countries—another slightly euphemistic term. However, I am afraid the language that is used, particularly in relation to the Gulf states, does not match the seriousness of the human rights issue or the task that needs to be done. The Bahrain section of the report says
“there was progress on human rights”,
and mentions that the UK is providing “technical assistance”—which in some cases it is being paid for. We have just established a naval base in the country for the first time in decades. The report mentions that
“allegations of ill-treatment in detention continue” and that there are concerns regarding
“freedom of speech and expression and peaceful assembly”.
However, little more is said than that.
As I mentioned, the report is entirely silent about the UAE, and that is regrettable. It is slightly more candid in relation to Saudi, particularly on the serious issue of executions, reminding us that 158 people were executed in 2015, which is a more than 15% increase on the previous year. On
Reports from Human Rights Watch, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Amnesty International show a rather more serious situation in Bahrain than the impression given by the Foreign Office. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has spoken of a clear realisation that
“little has been done in the fields of accountability and ending impunity, particularly in relation to violations committed against protesters and detainees, including alleged acts of torture”.
That has been going on since the Arab spring, five years ago, and there is continued oppression of the mainly Shi’a majority in Bahrain. There have been a number of deaths at the hands of the security forces. There was of course the notorious incident when medics who had treated those injured in protests were themselves tortured and prosecuted. Generally speaking, what the Bahrain Government have been best at is whitewashing what has happened by setting up commissions whose recommendations are not implemented, and mounting an effective PR offensive.
I pay particular tribute to The Independent and The Guardian, which have sought to expose what happens in Bahrain. Headlines from the last couple of months include “Britain lobbied UN to whitewash Bahrain police abuses” and “British arms sales to Bahrain total £45m since Arab Spring—while claims of torture and oppression continue”. There is a lot more I could say about that, but I think the Minister gets the impression. I do not say, and have never said, that Gulf countries are, in either scale or degree, the worst offenders, but I do say that the Government operate a soft touch in dealing with such countries. We have just heard from the hon. Member for Bristol North West that it is often better to comment on such things in private, which I think is what the Foreign Office says about Saudi. I think it is right to raise them in private, but it is also right to speak out, and the Government have a moral obligation as an upholder of international human rights to do so.