We have long treated Saudi Arabia and its abuse of human rights with kid gloves, despite the fact that we are critical of other nations whose human rights records are equally as terrible. Some commentators just shrug and call that Realpolitik. I believe it is wrong.
As Amnesty’s State of the World’s Human Rights report notes, the government of the Kingdom has severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and cracked down on dissent and imprisoned critics. Courts systematically fail to respect due process, resulting in unfair trials. A special anti-terrorism court hands down death sentences.
Compounding Saudi Arabia’s internationally-condemned disregard for free speech, shown most graphically by the imprisonment and flogging of blogger Raif Badawi, recent legislation has effectively equated criticism of the government and other peaceful activities with terrorism.
Despite those like Prince al-Waleed who have been staunch advocates of women’s rights, Saudi Arabia still operates a male guardianship system that treats women as second class citizens. Even though Saudi Arabia signed the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 2000, major life decisions are still taken for women by men, with prohibitions still in force on basic essentials like driving. Promised reforms have not emerged.
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Last Saturday, the Saudi authorities demonstrated their contempt for human rights and life by executing 47 people in a single day. In response, our junior Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood said: 'I am deeply disturbed by the escalation in tensions in the last 24 hours in the Middle East.’ Of course we should be concerned by the effect on relations between countries, even though Saudi Arabian officials must have expected a hostile reaction to the execution of Sheikh Nimr. However, being ‘deeply disturbed’ about the regional diplomatic impact is not enough.
The Foreign Secretary only visited Riyadh in October to smooth ruffled feathers after public outrage at home forced the Government to cancel prison contracts with the Kingdom. It is worrying testimony to the government’s refusal to address human rights concerns that he’s pushed out his junior minister to deliver words that couldn’t even be misconstrued as criticism.
How can we beat ISIL/Daesh if we join them in the gutter and allow our supposed allies to treat human rights as a Western inconvenience, rather than a centrepiece concern of the United Nations in the 21st Century? How can our government sit silently whilst Saudi Arabia chairs the Human Rights Committee, responsible for policing UN protocols on issues such as civil and political rights, torture and enforced disappearances that it has refused to adopt?
It seems the Prime Minister is too busy promoting arms sales to the region to raise human rights in any more than a perfunctory manner. It is an appalling comment on the government that it seems content to put profit above human rights.
I am demanding the government end all discussions of judicial cooperation with Saudi Arabia and publish the 'memorandum of understanding' signed by then-Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. It should also publish details of the security pact where national security allows signed with Saudi Arabia on behalf of the UK by Theresa May that is being kept secret and cannot be FOI’d. What has the Government got to hide? The British people have every right to know what arrangements their government is making with foreign powers about their security.
This paper has done a tremendous amount to shine a light on the shadowy relationship between our government and the government of Saudi Arabia. As we challenge ISIL/Daesh in support of the liberal and democratic values that we value here in Britain, and are determined to protect, so we should keep the spotlight on Saudi Arabia.
For this reason, the Liberal Democrats have today called for a debate in Parliament on the UK’s relationship with the Kingdom. The Government needs to be held to account for its failure to challenge Saudi Arabia’s systematic abuse of human rights.