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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:47 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence) 3:47 pm, 18th July 2019

Not yet; I am sure he will be very soon. He told us again that Saudi Arabia was an important ally, which is absolutely true. However, like many of our allies, we must hold them to account for abuses that are taking place in those countries, and I believe we should never be apologetic about that. Saudi Arabia is, of course, a human rights priority for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the hon. and gallant Gentleman said that disengagement from Saudi Arabia would send a very bad message to other human rights abusers: that if we did not like what was going on there, we had no more to do with them. Maybe he has a point.

My hon. Friend Catherine West talked about the vote in the House of Representatives in Washington to block the supply of munitions for the war in Yemen, which is an important point. She also said that there were question marks over the accuracy of the targeting of some of the weapons—some of which may well have been supplied by the United Kingdom—used against schools, hospitals and innocent civilians in Yemen. That is an issue that we have discussed on many occasions.

Dr Lewis mentioned Robin Cook’s ethical dimension to his foreign policy, something that we are all trying to build on. Certainly, we on the Opposition Benches hope to build on that in preparation for being in Government after the next general election is held, whenever that may be. However, the right hon. Gentleman rightly said—as every right hon. and hon. Member has said this afternoon—that we should never be silent in criticising regimes, even when the relationship is vital to our national strategic interests. One cannot disagree with him. He said that there is no morally perfect solution, and I certainly support that view.

As I have said and according to the former Minister, Alistair Burt, Saudi Arabia is a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country. FCO officials have consistently stated that they regularly discuss human rights with the Saudi Government. We have also heard that Saudi Arabia is to host the next G20 summit next year. Agnès Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has urged the G20 countries to reconsider holding that G20 meeting in Saudi Arabia in light of the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

As has been referenced in some of this afternoon’s contributions, the Saudi authorities set up the specialised criminal court system in 2008, ostensibly to prosecute terrorism-related cases. In 2014, the Saudi Government issued a new penal law for crimes of terrorism and finance, which broadened the authority of the SCC to prosecute anyone who

“disturbs public order, shakes the security of society or subjects its national unity to danger, or obstructs the primary system of rule or harms the reputation of the state”.

That broad language has been used to arrest and prosecute many human rights defenders and try them in the SCC. The SCC is highly restrictive and refuses to allow even diplomats to observe its trials, in clear violation of the Vienna convention. The Foreign Office has already criticised Saudi Arabia for not allowing diplomats to observe the trials of women’s rights defenders in March 2019. I wonder whether the Minister can update us on what conversations he or his colleagues have had with the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding access to the SCC by our, and other countries’, diplomats.

Saudi Arabia continues to detain people without charge for indefinite periods, and—this is the important thing—without access to counsel or fair trials. Many arbitrary arrests are made to deter others from speaking up, such as women’s rights defenders, as the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, Joanna Cherry said. As we have also heard, many prisoners are denied the medical attention that they often desperately need.

Saudi Arabia is one of the most prolific users of the death penalty in the world, often doing so in mass executions of over 30 people, as happened in April this year. According to Reprieve, since the ascension of King Salman to the throne in January 2015, the state has signed off more than 700 death sentences as of May 2019. In the first six months of this year, Saudi Arabia executed 122 people, making it the bloodiest year since 2015. During the same period in 2017, 41 people were executed; in 2016, that figure was 88, and in 2015, it was 103. Reprieve also noted that in 2018, at least 12 human rights activists were sentenced to death.

We have heard a bit about women’s rights this afternoon. In mid-2018, Saudi authorities arrested prominent women’s rights activists, many of whom are still in detention today, although I am glad to hear that some have now been released. The Saudi Government are allegedly planning to relax the strict guardianship laws to allow women to travel without requiring the permission of their male guardian. However, as we know, the Saudi Ministry of Interior has created a smartphone app called Absher that notifies a male guardian if a woman under his guardianship passes through an airport. He can then automatically withdraw her right to travel. No other country in the world has such restrictions on women. As we have heard, after lifting the ban on women being able to drive in the kingdom, the authorities jailed the women activists who had been campaigning for that right for years. Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef were jailed under the country’s cyber-crime laws, which can carry sentences of up to five years in jail.

Since the protests related to the Arab spring broke out across the region in 2011, more than 50 children have been arrested in Saudi Arabia. Some remain in custody, lacking any kind of due process. At least six individuals arrested as minors were executed in the first half of 2019. On 24 April, six minors were beheaded in a mass execution; none had been informed of their impending execution, and all were refused the right to see family members before they were executed.

Saudi Arabia has been a signatory of the convention on the rights of the child since 1996. Under that convention, a minor is described as anyone under the age of 18; under international law, it is illegal to sentence a person under 18 to death. Murtaja Qureiris, aged 18, has been sentenced to death by the Saudi authorities. He was arrested in September 2014, aged just 13 years old. Thanks to international pressure, he was given a stay of execution last month, but we do not know how long that will last for. We have heard about Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon, three other juveniles who were arrested in 2012 and sentenced to death. They were tortured, and confessions were forced out of them.

The UK continues to give assistance to Saudi Arabia despite a deepening crackdown on dissent. Saudi Arabia is a key ally in a strategically important region; it is an important partner in trade, investment, education, counter-terrorism, defence and energy security. The Minister for the Armed Forces, Mark Lancaster, has written:

“We are committed to maintaining and developing the relationship.”

Recently, the former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told The Washington Post:

“All those countries that have a relationship with Saudi Arabia need to use those relationships in a way that curbs the failed war strategy in Yemen.”

In February 2019, the Lords International Relations Committee stated in a report that the United Kingdom was

“on the wrong side of the law” by allowing arms exports to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen. That was before the Supreme Court judgment. That report stated that

“relying on assurances by Saudi Arabia and Saudi-led review processes is not an adequate way of implementing the obligations for a risk-based assessment set out in the Arms Trade Treaty.”

Labour has consistently criticised the UK Government for allowing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, especially for their use in the civil war in Yemen. The shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Emily Thornberry, has said that

“Ministers have wilfully disregarded the evidence that Saudi Arabia was violating international humanitarian law in Yemen, while nevertheless continuing to supply them with weapons.”

Labour has continually called for a full parliamentary or public inquiry to find out how that has happened.

A UN report earlier this year said Saudi Arabia executed an “extrajudicial killing” by a 14-man team linked to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. At least 30 journalists are detained in Saudi Arabia. Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sent to prison in 2012 for insulting Islam and has received 50 of the 1,000 lashes he was sentenced to. Saudi Arabia is ranked 172nd of 180 countries in 2019’s world press freedom index.