On Thursday 18 July, a UK parliamentary debate was held in Westminster Hall on the topic of “Human Rights in Saudi Arabia and the detention of opponents of the regime“. During the debate, there was a broad consensus that the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia has become worse since the accession of King Salman and the increase in power of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, with MPs noting the waves of arbitrary arrests, torture of detainees and unfair trials, the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and mass executions and those currently facing the death penalty. In light of this, there were calls on the UK government to do more, including announcing the next steps to ensure accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, end arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and make urgent representations with Saudi Arabia on human rights issues, including to commute the death sentences of those currently on death row.
The debate began with Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael, who secured the debate, saying, “when I look at Saudi Arabia today I see a bad human rights situation, and I regret to say that it is getting worse”. He focused on three issues in particular: firstly, detainees still being held arbitrarily following the mass arrests on 4 November 2017. Secondly, those currently in detention facing possible capital punishment, including three who were under 18 at the time of the alleged crimes, Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawoud al-Marhoon, calling on the UK to make urgent representations to ensure that they will have their sentences commuted and receive a full pardon. And thirdly, the UK’s funding in Saudi Arabia, calling on the UK to commit to publishing information on all programmes currently engaging with Saudi Arabia.
Conservative MP John Howell focused on the issue of foreign workers, particularly of women, in Saudi Arabia, which he described as a state of “modern slavery”. He mentioned the “kafala system” which “does not provide any substance of protection for the women there”, and that ”the owners remain responsible for the visas and residence status of the women for the duration of their stay”. As such, “many foreign workers in Saudi Arabia report abuse, but they are not allowed to change employer or, indeed, to leave the country without the written consent of their employer.”
Labour MP and Vice Chair of the APPG on Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf Andy Slaughter said that “it is undoubtedly true that the situation has become worse since the accession of King Salman and the increase in power of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman”. Outlining this case, he mentioned the arrest, detention and torture of women human rights defenders, the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and the treatment of the Shi’a minority population, “with many people put on trial on trumped-up and vague charges, and put to death”. He also discussed the UK’s training of Saudi military and police personnel: “there is no sign that the engagement is in any way mitigating or addressing the way in which the Saudi authorities operate, so in effect we are colluding.”
Conservative MP Crispin Blunt mentioned his role as a member of the Detention Review Panel (DRP), which was mandated to review the conditions of Saudi women’s rights activists. “I was disappointed that the Saudi Government did not welcome independent oversight of the detainees’ conditions in detention”, he said. While he defended the UK’s current engagement with Saudi Arabia, he admitted that developments over past two years within Saudi Arabia, including the execution of the 37 and the detention of the women detainees “have been profoundly disappointing”. “There is a wretched contradiction between the recent societal liberalisation in Saudi Arabia and the detention of the people who campaigned for those changes.”
Labour MP Catherine West mentioned the House of Representatives voting last week (by 238 to 190 votes) to block the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia being used in the war in Yemen. “There are lessons there for our [the UK’s] sales regime”. She reiterated her concern over the treatment of young people in detention, particularly the lack of legal representation, the use of false confessions and their execution. On the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, describing the way his body was “chopped up into small pieces and melted down using some type of acid”, she said “it does not get any worse than that, and yet the Saudis are our allies and friends”. She made a strong call for the UK, in light of UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard’s report on the killing, to do more. “Will the UK join the UN in asking questions about its next steps?”
SNP MP Joanna Cherry discussed the abuse of women in particular. She mentioned the abusive male guardianship system, “which remains intact despite pledges by the Saudi Arabian Government to abolish it”. And she described the wave of arrests last year of prominent women’s rights activists, the brutal torture many of them faced, including Loujain al-Hathloul who bore “black scars on her thighs that had been caused by electric shocks”, and who are now being charged with contacting foreign activists and international media. The way the Saudi authorities treat women and girls reflect “the way that [they] treat journalists, the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and religious minorities” she said.
Labour MP Fabian Hamilton gave a broad overview of the human rights situation, including the mass execution of 37 men that took place on 23 April, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, women’s rights, repressive laws and the restrictive Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) that has “been used to arrest and prosecute many human rights defenders”. He criticised the UK “continuing to give assistance to Saudi Arabia despite a deepening crackdown on dissent”.
Finally, Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development Andrew Murrison, responded on behalf of the government. He said that the UK’s “extensive ties with Saudi Arabia give us an effective platform to raise our concerns and to encourage human rights progress”, and that UK’s engagement with Saudi Arabia is, “in general, positive”.
On human rights issues. He described the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, “whose brutal murder and dismemberment truly sickened the world” and looks forward to seeing “details of what happened being made public and explicit very soon”. He described the lack of transparency around the anti-corruption campaign as a “cause for concern”, and the use of the SCC as “a source of frustration”.
On what the UK government is doing about it, that “the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have spoken to the Saudi Government about a number of the cases mentioned today”. And he mentioned the UK’s role at the UN Human Rights Council, including raising its concerns during the UN universal periodic review of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record in November 2018 and March 2019, and at the latest UN human rights council session in June, which focused on Jamal Khashoggi, setting out “our expectation for a transparent judicial process and urged Saudi Arabia to take steps to ensure that such crimes will not happen again”.
He concluded that “we [the UK] will continue to work with like-minded Governments and organisations, and with human rights defenders, to engage with the Saudi Arabian Government to bring about positive change and to promote and defend universal freedoms.”
ALQST would like to thank all MPs who attended and spoke in the debate, and especially Alistair Carmichael who secured it. There was a broad consensus, even among government figures, that the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia has deteriorated in recent years, since the ascension of King Salman in 2015 and the increasing power of his son Mohamed bin Salman since 2017. ALQST have been reporting this for some time, and in our latest Annual Report, we described the human rights situation as at an “all-time low”.
There was greater difference of opinion in terms of the UK’s role, and what the government ought to be doing. ALQST echo sentiments raised by some MPs that in light of the human rights crisis in Saudi Arabia, the UK must use its leverage more forcibly and publically. The UK’s quietist, behind the door approach, in conjunction with ongoing security and military support, largely serves to give a green light to the Saudi authorities to continue committing human rights abuses.
As was noted in the debate, the Saudi authorities take heed and respond to international pressure and criticism, and that the UK has significant leverage over Saudi Arabia. As such, the UK government can take a leading role, to secure justice for Jamal Khashoggi, create a UN oversight mechanism over the situation in Saudi Arabia, and make urgent representations with the Saudi authorities on human rights issues, including to immediately and unconditionally release all individuals detained for exercising their fundamental freedoms and establishing a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.