Human Rights in Saudi Arabia — [Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:38 pm on 18th July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:38 pm, 18th July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate Mr Carmichael on securing the debate and on all his expertise and work on this important area. His speech dealt with three issues, broadly speaking.

First, the right hon. Gentleman spoke about the detainees who are opponents of the regime, and the very concerning lack of regard for international human rights norms and the rule of law in their treatment. I associate the Scottish National party with what he said and with all four of his asks to the Minister: I will be interested to hear the Minister’s reply to them.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman dealt with the issue of capital punishment, reminding us that the capital punishment of children is absolutely forbidden under international law. The examples that he gave were chilling, and it is chilling to think that other children await a similar fate. The United Kingdom is a union of countries that are supposed to be opposed to capital punishment in all circumstances. The representations that the right hon. Gentleman demanded in respect of the three young men who are awaiting execution are right and proper, and he stressed that the UK Government must state their opposition to capital punishment—particularly in respect of children—loudly and publicly.

Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman dealt with why these matters should matter to us in the United Kingdom—because we are a close commercial, security and intelligence partner of Saudi Arabia. I listened with great interest to what Crispin Blunt and Dr Lewis had to say in relation to the moral difficulties here, and I took on board what they said. It is easy to wring our hands and perhaps it is not easy to find a solution, but there are certain things that are absolutely beyond the pale, and the execution of children is beyond the pale. In addition, for any of us who believe in human rights and the rule of law, detention without trial is also beyond the pale.

That leads me to some points made by a number of speakers this afternoon. John Howell talked about the way in which women and girls who have been trafficked or kept as modern slaves are suffering in Saudi Arabia, and described the sort of domestic servitude in which they are held. He also touched on the issues of women’s and girls’ rights, which were alluded to by the hon. Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West). Also, the hon. Member for Reigate is to be commended for the interest that he has taken in the plight of female detainees in Saudi Arabia, and I will devote the few comments that I will make to the issue of the human rights of women and girls in Saudi Arabia, particularly looking at the women who have been rounded up and detained in relation to their feminist activism about the right of women to drive.

We all know that women in Saudi Arabia face formal and informal barriers when they attempt to make decisions or take action without the presence or consent of a male relative, and some speakers today alluded to Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system, which remains intact despite pledges by the Saudi Arabian Government to abolish it.

It is interesting to observe that in June Saudi Arabia passed a law on sexual harassment with a sentence for offenders of up to two years’ imprisonment, which can be increased in certain circumstances. However, that law also provides that anyone who falsely reports a crime of harassment or falsely claims to have been a victim shall be sentenced to the same punishment as for the offence that they alleged took place. That could be used to punish victims. I am all in favour of the concept of innocent till proven guilty, but I do not believe that the law should be used to punish victims, and there is a real risk that the way in which this law against sexual harassment has been introduced in Saudi Arabia will deter victims from coming forward.

In February, the Saudi authorities came before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to defend their record on women’s rights, and the committee called on Saudi Arabia to accelerate efforts to abolish the male guardianship system, adopt an anti-discrimination law and adopt a written, unified family code, based on the principles of equality and non-discrimination.

However, as I said earlier, perhaps the most concerning example of the abuse of the human rights of women comes with the treatment of those feminists who have campaigned to lift the long-standing ban on women driving. As the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green said, the right to drive is an important one; it is fundamental to women’s autonomy for them to have the option to be able to travel freely, in the way that men can take for granted.

It is very concerning that there has been a wave of arrests of prominent women’s rights activists. They have been charged with serious crimes, such as suspicious contact with foreign parties, and Government-aligned media outlets then carried out an alarming campaign against them, even publishing their photographs with the word “Traitor” branded across their faces.

In March, a number of those women—including Loujain al-Hathloul, who I will say a little about in a moment—appeared before a court and were charged with communicating with external hostile powers, providing financial support to external parties, and luring and exploiting minors to work against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Basically, the women were women’s rights bloggers who had been advocating for gender equality, including the right of women to drive. Despite the fact that that right has now been granted in Saudi Arabia, those women have been imprisoned; some of them are still in prison.

When those women appeared before the court in March, they were not informed of the charges before the hearing, they were not permitted to speak during the proceedings, and no lawyers or foreign journalists were permitted to attend the hearing, which of course is absolutely unacceptable.

Some of those women have now been released, but others are still in custody. Loujain al-Hathloul has been imprisoned for more than a year and when her parents visited her last December, she showed them black scars on her thighs that had been caused by electric shocks. Also, towards the end of May, a Guardian journalist interviewed Loujain al-Hathloul’s brother, who explained what kind of person his sister is. All her life, she has advocated for women’s rights, but she was pulled over while driving in the United Arab Emirates last year and deported back to Saudi Arabia. Basically, what began then was a really brutal campaign to silence her. She claims that she was detained for three days, then freed, before being seized again from her family home in Riyadh, blindfolded, thrown into the boot of a car and taken to a detention centre, where she was tortured and threatened with rape and death.

As a feminist—I am sure that all the men in Westminster Hall also count themselves as feminists as well—I have to say that that treatment was absolutely unacceptable. I make no apology for focusing on the particular issue of women’s and girls’ rights, but it reflects on the overall approach of a regime when we see, as others have said eloquently today, the way that it treats journalists, the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and religious minorities.

So, while I take on board all that Conservative Members have said today to urge some caution in the way that we deal with these matters, I wholeheartedly support the points made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, I wholeheartedly associate myself and my party with the asks that he has made of the Government, and I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in due course.