The statement made by Amanda Milling, the Minister for Asia and the Middle East, in the House of Commons on 14 March 2022.
We are shocked by the execution of 81 individuals on 13 March. The United Kingdom strongly opposes the death penalty in all countries and in all circumstances, as a matter of principle. The UK ambassador has already raised the UK’s strong concerns with the Saudi national security adviser and the Saudi vice-Foreign Minister. We will continue to raise UK concerns with Saudi counterparts through our ministerial and diplomatic channels and seek further clarification on the details of these cases.
No aspect of our relationship with Saudi Arabia prevents us from speaking frankly about human rights. Saudi Arabia remains a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office human rights priority country, including because of the use of the death penalty, and restrictions on women’s rights, freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. We regularly raise concerns with the Saudi authorities through diplomatic channels, including Ministers, our ambassador and our British embassy.
Mr Speaker, thank you for granting this urgent question, which recognises the execution of 81 men on one day as of profound concern to this House and to our country, which has so many shared interests with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this represents a new low for human rights and criminal justice in the kingdom, coming only a week after the Crown Prince promised to modernise the Saudi justice system? A decade ago, as a Justice Minister, I supported Government-to-Government work to help Saudi Arabia modernise its justice system, as we worked to build a strong and positive partnership with the kingdom. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that emptying death row in this way is not the kind of modernisation anyone would have had in mind when we signed off support to Saudi Arabia in happier times?
Does my right hon. Friend recognise the exquisite difficulties that this has presented to our Prime Minister? What assurances will she be seeking from Saudi Arabia in respect of human rights on her next visit there? Will she at least seek an assurance that executions of those arrested for crimes alleged to have been committed when they were children will cease? Will she make clear to the Crown Prince how appalled friends of the kingdom are, particularly in the light of the state’s assassination of Jamal Al-Khashoggi, only three years ago?
Does my right hon. Friend think that these events have been the behaviour of a friend?
The UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is of great importance, ranging from national security to economic interests, but the nature of that relationship does mean that we can speak frankly about human rights. As I said in my opening remarks, the United Kingdom strongly opposes the death penalty in all countries and in all circumstances as a matter of principle, and Saudi Arabia is well aware of the UK’s opposition to its use. We have raised these concerns with the authorities through a range of ministerial and diplomatic channels. We have also raised concerns with the Saudi authorities about the juvenile death penalty application.
The UK has always been clear about the fact that the murder of Khashoggi was a terrible crime. We condemn his killing in the strongest possible terms, which is why we sanctioned 20 Saudi nationals involved in the murder under the global human rights regime.
I call the shadow Minister, Bambos Charalambous.
Bambos Charalambous (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab)
We on this side of the House are appalled by, and utterly condemn, the execution of 81 Saudi men on Saturday. This massacre was the largest execution in Saudi Arabia’s history. We do not believe that the timing of the executions—while the world is focusing its attention on atrocities elsewhere—was coincidental. Referring to the killings, the Interior Ministry stated that it
“won’t hesitate to deter anyone who threatens security or disrupts public life”.
That demonstrates just how low the bar is for execution in the kingdom, where individuals can be sentenced to death for protest-related offences or for exercising their right to free speech.
This mass execution comes in a week when the Prime Minister reportedly plans to travel to Riyadh to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. We have seen what happens when human rights abuses go unchecked. I therefore ask the Minister these questions. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that human rights are at the forefront of any future trade deals with Saudi Arabia? Will the Prime Minister be expressing Parliament’s outrage at this massacre when he meets the Crown Prince? What assurances will the Government be seeking to ensure that such mass executions carried out by a friendly country never happen again?
As I have said, we were deeply shocked by the executions of the 81 individuals on 13 March. As I have also said, no aspect of our relationship with Saudi Arabia prevents us from speaking frankly about human rights, and we regularly raise our concerns about human rights with Saudi authorities through diplomatic channels, including Ministers and our ambassador, and at the embassy. Saudi Arabia remains an FCDO human rights priority country, particularly because of the use of the death penalty but also because of restrictions on women’s rights, freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.
I am not going to speculate in respect of the Prime Minister’s visits.
John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
Does not this bad news reinforce the urgency of the UK producing more of its own oil and gas to reduce dependence on these powers? Could not that include onshore gas where the local community of people are willing? Would not that be speeded up if they were given a royalty?
It is important for all partners to work together to ensure that there is stability in energy markets, and OPEC also has a key role to play in this regard.
We now come to the Scottish National party spokesperson, Alyn Smith.
Alyn Smith (Stirling) (SNP)
I have a deep personal interest in Saudi Arabia. I grew up in Saudi Arabia—we spent much of the 1980s in Riyadh—and I am a friend of Saudi, with all the political issues that it has. I am glad to hear the Minister say there is a frank dialogue with the Saudis on judicial matters, but—I say this gently—it does not seem to be having much effect on the Saudis themselves. Friends speak bluntly to friends, and executing 81 people in public by beheading, whatever their alleged crime, is an atrocity and there need to be consequences beyond harsh criticism. I know the Minister will not speculate on the visit of the Prime Minister, but may I modestly suggest that she can relay the House’s concern that his visit should not go ahead and that there should be a consequence? Also, we have a programme of judicial and justice co-operation with the Saudis. Surely that has to end, or at least be suspended, given the deep concern of all in this House over each and every one of these cases.
I am afraid that, if I am going to get asked multiple times about the Prime Minister’s visit, colleagues are going to be disappointed because, as I have said, I am not going to speculate about that. As I have also said, our relationship with Saudi Arabia means that we can speak frankly about human rights matters. I have said from the outset that we were shocked by the execution of these 81 individuals and our ambassador has raised the strong concerns of the UK Government with the Saudi national security adviser and with its vice-Foreign Minister.
Fay Jones (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con)
What happened in Saudi Arabia was a gross violation of human rights and it places a strain on global relationships, which are crucial right now. Does the Minister agree that no country found to be complicit in human rights abuses such as those we are currently seeing in Ukraine should receive a penny of UK taxpayers’ money in international aid?
This goes back to the fundamental point that human rights violations are something that we do raise where we see them. We are not ashamed to do so and we will not stand back from raising them where they are seen to happen.
Nadia Whittome (Nottingham East) (Lab)
The UK Government have given the Saudi regime an estimated £20 billion in arms sales since the start of the war in Yemen, despite clear breaches of humanitarian law. It is extremely likely that British weapons have been used to kill civilians. In the light of the executions on Saturday, will the Prime Minister cancel his planned visit, and will this Government do what they should have done long ago and end arms sales to the Saudi regime?
As I have said before—I suspect I will be saying it a few times—I am not going to pre-empt the Prime Minister’s travel plans. In terms of arms exports, we take our strategic export control responsibilities very seriously and we examine every application on a case-by-case basis against strict criteria. We would not grant an export licence if we thought it was inconsistent with the strategic export licensing criteria, including respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)
As a boy, I witnessed two executions, one a beheading, in what is now called Yemen. I am vehemently against the death penalty. Can I ask the Minister if the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has any idea what percentage of the Saudi population is actually in favour of capital punishment?
I am afraid I do not have the answer to that specific question, but let us be really clear: the United Kingdom strongly opposes the death penalty in all countries and in all circumstances as a matter of principle.
Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)
In 2018, the Saudi Arabian Government told the United Nations that
“if the crime committed by the juvenile is punishable by death, the sentence shall be reduced to a term of not more than 10 years detention”.
However, the following year, six young men sentenced to death for childhood crimes were executed, as was Mustafa al-Darwish in 2019, having recanted a confession that was extracted under torture. The Minister says that we can speak frankly to the Saudi Arabian Government. Will she frankly say to the House of Commons now that the promise the Saudi Arabian Government made to the United Nations that it would not execute minors for crimes committed when they were children was not made in good faith?
As I said, the Government have raised concerns with the Saudi authorities regarding the juvenile death penalty. We monitor these cases very closely, and we routinely attempt to attend the trials. In April 2020 the Saudi human rights commission announced a moratorium on discretionary death sentences for crimes committed by minors.
James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)
I strongly support the Minister’s reluctance to speculate on the Prime Minister’s travel arrangements, but does she agree that, should the Prime Minister happen to find himself in Saudi Arabia in the near future, it would be a good opportunity to say to the ruling party, in the strongest possible terms, that these events are a human rights outrage?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to reiterate that I will not speculate; he understands why. Diplomats and Ministers clearly have frank conversations with Saudi Arabia about human rights. As I said at the outset, we were absolutely shocked by the executions at the weekend.
Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
The Minister may be shocked, but she should not be surprised, because this sort of thing has happened before. Actions speak louder than words. If the Prime Minister goes to Saudi Arabia in the next few days, we would be sending a very clear signal that, no matter what we say, we are not really bothered about this sort of thing.
It has been reported that we have a judicial co-operation memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia. Will the Minister commit to publishing it, along with the related human rights risk assessment made by the Government?
The key point is that, given our relationship with Saudi Arabia, we are able to have frank conversations about human rights. We are opposed to the death penalty in all countries under all circumstances. As I said, Saudi Arabia remains the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s human rights priority country, particularly because of its use of the death penalty.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
Saudi Arabia has, at best, an ambiguous relationship with revolutionary Islamism. Can the Minister confirm that, in seeking to lessen our dependence on one source of oil and gas, we will not end up creating dependency on another unreliable and sometimes hostile regime?
The key point is that it is important that all international partners work together to ensure the stability of energy markets.
Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
Mass executions are particularly grotesque and barbaric. There is no due process in the Saudi justice system, in which there is widespread use of torture, and 75% of executions are for non-lethal offences. Will the Minister specifically answer the case of Abdullah al-Huwaiti? He was a juvenile when the alleged offence was committed, and he is on death row awaiting execution. She has known about the case for months. What representations has she made to the Saudi authorities? What does she intend to do about it now?
I have been clear about our opposition to the death penalty. We have raised a number of cases with the Saudi authorities, and I will happily follow up on that particular case in writing.
Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
The Greek writer Aesop once said that a man is known by the company he keeps. That applies equally to states. This week, while the Prime Minister’s former friends in Moscow were committing atrocities in Ukraine, his existing friends in Riyadh were executing 81 people. It is obvious that the oft-repeated words of condemnation mean nothing. Is it not time that this country, rather than cosying up with such regimes, completely resets its relationship with regimes that do not share our values and that feel, because of their wealth, that they can continue to trample over basic human rights with impunity?
What I would say, actually, is that given our relationship with Saudi Arabia, we are able to have frank conversations about human rights.
Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab)
Will the Minister confirm whether there is a memorandum of understanding on judicial co-operation between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia? If so, will she publish it?
As I say, I think I have set out quite clearly the various ways in which we raise human rights with the Saudi Arabian authorities.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)
May I press the Minister? Does she not see any contradiction between rightly ending dependence on Putin’s Russia for fossil fuels and then seeking to replace them by going cap in hand to another murderous tyrant, who executes his own people and to whom we sell arms that are being used to kill civilians in Yemen? Is she aware of reports in the US that Saudi Arabia is pressurising President Biden to repay access to oil by supplying more military support for its war in Yemen? Can she assure us that this Government would not tolerate a “more arms for oil” deal with that murderous regime?
In terms of energy, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are having to phase out Russian oil, which is absolutely the right thing to do. It is important that all partners work together to ensure the stability of the markets.
Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
There seems to be a bit of a pattern developing here. When the Deputy Prime Minister visited Saudi Arabia in June, the regime subsequently executed Mustafa al-Darwish, a child defendant convicted of protest-related offences. Now, days before the Prime Minister is due to go and speak business with the Saudi monarchy, the regime has executed 81 people. Does the Minister agree that the Saudi monarchy sees this UK Government as a soft touch—as people it can ignore—because Ministers do not possess the backbone to stand up for British values and for human rights, and the regime can therefore act with impunity and continue with its bloodshed?
As I have said on a number of occasions, it is because of our relationship with Saudi Arabia that we are able to have very, very frank conversations about human rights. We were shocked by the executions at the weekend. We do raise our concerns; the ambassador has raised concerns with the Saudi national security adviser and the Vice Foreign Minister.
Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
Is the Saudi Arabian public investment fund a right, proper and fit-for-purpose owner of Newcastle United?
The Saudi Arabian public investment fund is a significant investor, having invested billions in the UK and other western markets. It operates across a range of sectors. We welcome the purchase of Newcastle United, a sign that the UK remains a great place to invest.
Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
Our foreign policy, including our trade deals, must be underpinned by human rights and the rule of law. Does the Minister agree that it is arguably their absence from our current foreign policy and from our current international dealings that has led President Putin to feel that he can absolutely ignore all of that and do what he wants in Ukraine?
Let us be really clear. The international community and the UK have been absolutely clear throughout that the Russians’ invasion of Ukraine was unprovoked, unjust and illegal, and we will do everything we can to limit Putin’s ability to wage war. On human rights, let us be clear: we call out human rights violations where we see them.
Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)
I am puzzled as to why the Minister is so shifty about the existence of this memorandum of understanding on judicial co-operation—
Order. Can I just say I am not comfortable with the use of the word “shifty” in the House, especially when it is a straight accusation to the Minister? Whatever we might think, I am sure that the hon. and learned Lady, with her good language from her court days, can come up with a nicer way of putting it.
I am happy to put it more politely, Mr Speaker. I am puzzled as to why the Minister is so evasive in respect of the persistent questioning about the existence of this memorandum of understanding on judicial co-operation. If it does not exist, why does she not just say that it does not exist? If it exists, why can we not see a copy? Why can she not tell us whether there is a human rights risk assessment and publish that?
I do not know about being described as shifty, but I have been really clear about what we do as a UK Government in terms of raising human rights with the Saudi authorities. Saudi Arabia remains a human rights priority country and, as I say, Ministers and the ambassador all raise concerns about human rights.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)
It is one thing for the morally bankrupt premier league to accept money from Saudi Arabia but it is another for the UK Government to turn around and say they welcome its investment. Our frank talking to Saudi Arabia has amounted to nothing more than diplomatic finger wagging and created no change whatsoever in Saudi Arabia’s attitude. In response to this atrocity, can we expect any change at all in the relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia?
As I have said on a number of different occasions during this urgent question, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is of great importance and covers a range of national security and economic interests. It is because of that relationship that we are able to have frank conversations about human rights.
Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
I am wearing the colours of my football team, Newcastle United, and it is important to say that in utterly condemning this atrocious, horrific massacre, I speak for many, many of my constituents and Newcastle United fans. Does the Minister agree that whereas football fans have no control over or influence in the ownership of their beloved clubs—especially in a premier league awash with dirty money—the UK Government have both control over and influence in who they trade with and engage with? The Minister has said what she is not going to do, but what is she going to do with that control and influence? Is she going to make it absolutely clear that sportswashing is not an option?
With regard to Newcastle United, we never had a role at any point in the club’s prospective takeover, which has been a commercial matter for the Premier League.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
This is all incredibly depressing. I remember trying to ask questions in 2012, when I was shadow Minister for international human rights, about David Cameron’s visit to Saudi Arabia. The responses were like something out of “Yes Minister”: I kept being told that nothing was off the table or that a wide range of issues were discussed. It went on and on and I never got an answer, but we now hear that two years ago he went camping with Lex Greensill and the Saudi crown prince, which says a lot about what was probably discussed then.
If the Prime Minister does go to Saudi Arabia next week—I hope he does not—will he raise the case of Abdullah al-Huwaiti, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter)? He was 14 years old at the time of the crime and was sentenced to death last week.
I am trying to think of another way to suggest that I will not be speculating on the Prime Minister’s travel plans this week, next week or next month.
Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP)
Despite the Minister’s protestations, nobody in this Chamber believes that we would see the same weak response from the Government if the murders had taken place in, for example, Iran. Saudi Arabia is Britain’s single biggest weapons customer and Britain is Saudi Arabia’s second biggest arms supplier; is it not the case that, whether it is weapons for murderers in Saudi Arabia or peerages for Russian oligarchs in London, for this Tory Government money talks louder than human rights ever will?
I have been pretty clear that the Government were shocked by the execution of these 81 individuals at the weekend. I have also been clear that the UK opposes the death penalty in all countries and under all circumstances as a matter of principle, and Saudi Arabia is well aware of the UK’s opposition to the use of the death penalty.
Dame Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)
The Saudi authorities have said that these executions were carried out in compliance with Saudi law. Given that we know that the Saudi justice system falls far short of international standards, including obtaining confessions through torture and the use of the special criminal court for the prosecution of human rights defenders and political activists, what recent discussions have the Government actually had with the Saudi authorities about the failings of the Saudi justice system and about the cases of those who are in jail for trying to exercise their fundamental human rights?
As I have said, we regularly raise concerns about human rights, but, specifically, Lord Ahmad, the Minister responsible for human rights, raised them during his visit to Saudi Arabia earlier in February.
Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab)
Pope Francis recently said that the death penalty is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the human person, and is inadmissible in all cases. Following on from what the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said, 1.7 million Catholics live in Saudi Arabia—8% of the population. King Salman has a cordial relationship with the Church, and the Crown Prince recently visited the Archbishop of Canterbury to talk about inter-religious dialogue. What pressure can we put on civil society groups to explain to the royal family there that many of their people do not believe in the death penalty and give them an understanding as to why we do not believe in it?
The UK Government and partners do raise human rights issues and also our opposition to the death penalty. As I have said, the UK strongly opposes the death penalty. Saudi Arabia remains a human rights priority country, which is, in part, because of its use of the death penalty, but also because of its restrictions on women’s rights, freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief.
Allan Dorans (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (SNP)
Last week, the Minister for Defence Procurement was in Riyadh at the World Defence Show, actively promoting UK arms exports to the Saudi regime. Does the Minister agree that, in light of the weekend’s mass executions, the UK Government should cease all arms trade with a regime that shows no sign of respecting human rights?
Regarding arms exports, as I have said in an earlier answer, we do have very strong criteria by which we examine every application, and we will not grant an export licence if it is inconsistent with the strategic export licensing criteria, including in respect of human rights and international humanitarian law.
Jeff Smith (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)
The Minister has said many times now that the Government make representations and have frank discussions. Can she point to a single example of any impact or effect of those representations?
Let me provide one example in terms of what happened this weekend: the UK ambassador has already raised our strong concerns with the Saudi national security adviser and the vice-Foreign Minister. We do raise our concerns with the Saudi authorities, and Lord Ahmad raised human rights concerns during his visit last month.
Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
To what extent does the Minister personally think that it is appropriate to continue to sell arms to the brutal Saudi regime, which has no regard for the human rights of even its own people, publicly crucifying men after beheading them for homosexuality and stoning to death any woman deemed to have committed adultery?
I think I have answered the question in relation to arms exports on a number of occasions, so I refer back to previous answers.
Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Ind)
The European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights said that, in the cases that it has been able to document, the charges involved “not a drop of blood”, even under Saudi rules used to establish criteria justifying executions. Opacity in the Saudi judicial system and witness intimidation lend further secrecy to the nature of the charges against the executed, many of whom are believed to have been Shi’as. What material steps, not conversations, are the Government taking to show Saudi Arabia that they will not tolerate these barbaric abuses?
As I have said, we were shocked by the executions. We have raised our concerns and, through our ministerial and diplomatic channels, we will seek further clarification on the details of those cases.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
May I thank the Minister for her reply, declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief and express concern over the restrictions on religious beliefs in Saudi Arabia? These executions are deplorable and they shock the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Has the Minister made any representations to her Saudi counterparts to review the rationale behind this mass execution? Can we apply any diplomatic pressure to urge a reconsideration of executions carried out in that way, which makes them appear as a spectacle rather than the murderous, sombre, sober and shocking events they truly are?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and I know how passionately he campaigns on all matters of freedom of religion or belief. As I have said, the UK ambassador has raised our strong concerns about the executions at the weekend; through ministerial and diplomatic channels, we will seek further clarification on the details of those cases.