Margaret Ferrier – 2022 Speech on International Human Rights Day

The speech made by Margaret Ferrier, the Independent MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, in Westminster Hall, the House of Commons, on 8 December 2022.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered International Human Rights Day 2022.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting today’s debate to mark International Human Rights Day, which this year falls on Saturday 10 December, and I thank my parliamentary colleagues who supported the application, as well as those here to participate. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary human rights group—PHRG—it is a great honour to open the debate. The APPG works cross-party to raise greater awareness, both in Parliament and more widely, of serious human rights violations taking place across the world; to press for reform and redress; and to amplify the voices of those at the grassroots, including victims—or, as many prefer to be called, survivors—and human rights defenders working on behalf of affected communities. I strongly believe in the importance of an annual international human rights day.

Given the continued prevalence of authoritarian regimes and Governments who commit, facilitate or turn a blind eye to serious human rights violations, and of abuses committed by non-state actors such as terrorist entities and criminal groups, it remains as necessary as ever to highlight the universal applicability of fundamental rights—political, civil, economic, social and cultural—to everyone everywhere in the world.

We can sometimes take our rights for granted, or underestimate the impact of human rights abuses on communities, families and individuals, the vast majority of whom are peaceful and simply wish to live a life free from fear. When I hear about people arbitrarily detained, harassed, persecuted, brutally tortured or disappeared for trying to exercise their right to free speech, to protest or to join a trade union, or who are being discriminated against because of their ethnicity or religion, I wonder: what if that had been me, a member of my family, a colleague or a friend?

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con)

I want to support this debate, although I have a British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly meeting that will prevent me from contributing further. May I, through the hon. Lady, recommend that people go to the Upper Waiting Hall to see the display by PEN and Amnesty, and to learn about the journalists who were arrested and herded up 21 years ago in Eritrea? There, Members can see an illustration of how we cannot know what is going on in some countries, because those who could tell us—trade unionists, journalists, people in opposition and people in the Government who object to what is going on—cannot have a voice. We have to be a voice for them and watch out for them.

Margaret Ferrier

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I will mention that display later.

There are those languishing in a crowded, filthy prison after an unfair trial, those being prosecuted simply for peacefully protesting about Government policy, and those who have had someone close to them killed for their political or social activism. I want them to be offered the same help, support and solidarity that I would fight to have provided to someone close to me. Today, I hope that we can, using the parliamentary platform that we are privileged to have, provide some support to victims, and to human rights defenders across the world, who often risk their personal safety to champion the rights of their community. I want to take this opportunity to express my concern about the human rights situation in a number of countries on which I have been focused for some time—countries in the middle east and north Africa, as well as Zimbabwe.

The situation in a number of Gulf Co-operation Council member states and Iran remains challenging. As I am sure colleagues are aware, I remain very concerned about serious human rights violations in Saudi Arabia by the state, which, according to the latest annual report from Human Rights Watch,

“relies on pervasive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power.”

I remain unconvinced by Saudi Arabia’s recent attempts to project a more modern and progressive image, including through glossy advertisements that try to entice tourists to holiday there. Most recently, since 10 November, while the Saudi regime thought that the world’s attention was elsewhere because of the World cup, the execution of those sentenced to death has resumed. Many of those killed were convicted of non-violent drugs offences, for which the Saudi Government had committed not to execute people. Some were Saudi nationals, but others were foreign nationals from Pakistan, Syria and Jordan. This latest wave of executions follows the execution of 81 people in a single day on 12 March 2022.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)

I am glad that the hon. Lady mentioned Saudi so early in her speech. Would she agree that one of the problems with taking action on Saudi is that the Government adopt double standards here? There was a perfect example of that last week. Responding to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) on the case of Hussein Abo al-Kheir, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), said:

“clearly torture was used. We find that abhorrent.”—[Official Report, 28 November 2022; Vol. 723, c. 673.]

He then made a ministerial correction to Hansard, in which he changed that to:

“in which torture has been alleged.”—[Official Report, 2 December 2023; Vol. 723, c. 12MC.]

That is not a ministerial correction; that is tailoring one’s words to suit a barbaric regime.

Margaret Ferrier

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the intervention. We have to be strong when we speak out against human rights abuses; there is no doubt about it. The Government say that they speak privately with nations all over the world.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

Before we move off this point, the worst of it is that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has now admitted that it made the ministerial correction because Saudi Arabia asked it to. We cannot have Saudi Arabia telling Parliament what to do about human rights, surely.

Margaret Ferrier

I could not have put it better. The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. We should not allow Governments other than the UK Government to say what the right response is. I thank him for the intervention.

Over 50% of those executed were convicted on the basis of their participation in pro-democracy demonstrations back in March. As executions are confirmed only once the death sentence has been carried out, we do not know how many people are on death row in Saudi Arabia. That is also the case in China, North Korea, Vietnam, Egypt and Iran. I will speak about the latter two shortly.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I understand that between 500 and 600 people have been executed in Iran in the past year, so if there is a country that is top of the league, and really has to be brought to book, Iran is that country.

Margaret Ferrier

I will come on to speak about Iran; the figures that we hear are shocking.

I say this to the Saudi regime: the world is watching, and will continue to call it out on these executions, particularly when the offences are considered not to be the most serious, or are non-violent or involve juveniles, and when the sentence follows a manifestly unfair prosecution. This is, of course, a violation of the most fundamental right: the right to life.

That brings me to the Saudi criminal justice system, which remains opaque. We know that international fair trial standards are not generally upheld there, and there are credible allegations that some of the accused are tortured to make them sign confessions. Of course, we must not forget the brutal and brazen killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, which US intelligence concluded, with a medium to high degree of certainty, had been carried out on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. I truly hope that one day, there will be real accountability for that heinous murder.

Lastly on Saudi Arabia, I highlight the case of imprisoned human rights defender Mohammed al-Qahtani, who is reportedly being kept incommunicado after his family filed a complaint about attacks on him by inmates. Al-Qahtani is a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, which was dissolved in 2013. That year, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly providing false information to outside sources, including UN human rights mechanisms.

Like Saudi Arabia, Iran continues to be one of the world’s leading implementers of the death penalty, as we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The death penalty is used for such acts as insulting the Prophet, apostasy, same-sex relations, adultery, drinking alcohol and certain non-violent drug-related offences, although some drug-related offences are now meant to be exempt. Iranian courts, particularly revolutionary courts, regularly fall far short of providing fair trials, and use confessions likely obtained under torture as evidence in court.

I am sure other colleagues will speak to my next point, so I will limit my remarks about the widespread protests in Iran, following the death in September of Jina Mahsa Amini in detention. She was arrested by Iran’s so-called morality police for not wearing her hijab properly. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights highlighted that Iranian security forces,

“notably the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Basij forces have used live ammunition, birdshot and other metal pellets, teargas and batons”

against protesters. An estimated 300 people were killed and 15,000 arrested.

Turning to human rights defenders at risk, imprisoned human rights defender Arash Sadeghi has been jailed on multiple occasions for his activities in defence of human rights, and was arrested again on 20 October 2022 for unknown reasons. He has been placed in indefinite detention, and his health is deteriorating. I echo the calls for his immediate release. One of the cases featured in Amnesty International’s “Write for Rights” 2022 campaign is that of Vahid Afkari, who remains in solitary confinement following unsafe and highly questionable convictions. His brother Navid was sentenced to death on similar charges and secretly executed in September 2020, sparking international outrage.

I will continue with this focus on the middle east, but move on to Bahrain. In common with many others, I remain open to constructive engagement with the relevant Bahraini authorities and those in Bahraini civil society, who work under very difficult conditions. However, I am worried that in the longer term, the country’s stability will be undermined by increasing polarisation, due at least in part to multiple allegations of human rights violations, including against those widely deemed to be political prisoners. I remain concerned that despite some welcome releases under the alternative sentences law, a number of political prisoners, such as Hassan Mushaima, Dr Abduljalil al-Singace and Sheikh Ali Salman, remain in Jau prison. Quite simply, they should not be in jail, and I join calls for their immediate release.

I urge the UK Government to play a more positive role that is not limited to giving support to oversight bodies in Bahrain, but that instead extends to encouraging and assisting the Bahraini Government in taking such confidence-building measures as, in particular, the release of political prisoners and the initiation of meaningful political dialogue.

I also highlight the exploitative practices against migrant workers, which has come under the spotlight with the building of infrastructure for the World cup in Qatar. The kafala system is the framework that defines the legal status of most migrant workers in the Gulf region, Jordan and Lebanon. Workers are often recruited on time-limited contracts to work for a specific employer. Although there have been welcome changes to the conditions applicable to migrant workers in most Gulf Co-operation Council countries, such as a move to allowing workers to change employers more easily, these reforms can be hard to enforce, and worker protests may result in deportation.

Workers also often still face poor working and living conditions, overt racism and debt bondage. Difficulties continue to beset many migrant domestic workers, who may not benefit from labour laws, including in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Lebanon. They can reportedly face the most abuse, and can be victims of sexual violence. Many women choose not to report these serious violations for fear of losing their job or even being charged with a crime; some women have been prosecuted for having extramarital sex, even in cases of alleged rape.

I am aware that my time is limited, so although I could speak about the middle east all afternoon, I will now briefly highlight concerns in north Africa, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia. Egypt is sadly yet another country where the death penalty is carried out, often after manifestly unfair trials, and many people are arbitrarily detained, often in very poor conditions. There was some media coverage of that in the run-up to COP27.

I make a special plea to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to do all it can to secure the release of British-Egyptian dual national, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, as well as his lawyer, Mohamed el-Baqer, who are among thousands unjustly imprisoned in that country. I can only agree with Amnesty International that Egypt’s adoption of a national human rights strategy is completely disconnected from the reality on the ground. I trust that no one will be taken in by that cynical propaganda exercise.

Turning to the country that was pivotal to what, at the time, was referred to as the Arab spring, it is very sad to see the democratic backsliding that we have witnessed in Tunisia in the last 18 months. It follows what was effectively a coup by President Saied, who suspended Parliament, removed the immunity of parliamentarians, dismissed the Prime Minister, removed other high-level officials from their positions and assumed oversight of the office of the public prosecutor.

Although there had been political deadlock in Parliament and a deteriorating economic situation, which has not since improved, the way forward for Tunisia cannot be a return to authoritarianism, and President Saied cannot be viewed as the country’s saviour. According to the presidential road map, there are to be parliamentary elections next week, but they are very unlikely to be free and fair, the President having been given wide-ranging powers before, during and after the vote. It is feared that Parliament will be reduced to a consultative body at best, and will be there to effectively rubber-stamp decisions by the Executive.

In addition, the Tunisian Parliament is going backwards when it comes to female representation. Whereas it had been a beacon for gender equity in the region, a new law introduced in September strips gender parity provisions from a previous electoral law aimed at ensuring more gender equality in elected assemblies.

Finally, I come to the situation in Zimbabwe. I ask that the UK Government pay special attention to it in the run-up and aftermath of the elections that are due to be held next year, given that past elections have been the catalyst for violence and serious abuses. I continue to urge accountability for the assaults, mistreatment and ongoing persecution of three Opposition politicians from the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance: Cecilia Chimbiri, Netsai Marova, and Member of Parliament Joana Mamombe. They were abducted from police custody by suspected state agents for taking part in a protest in Harare, and are being prosecuted, unbelievably, for making false reports about their abduction. That is another case featured in Amnesty’s “Write for Rights” campaign 2022. Joana’s case has been taken up by the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s committee on the human rights of parliamentarians, which in 2021 dealt with the cases of more than 600 MPs from 44 countries whose rights had been violated.

Though I have focused on the challenges we continue to face in ensuring respect for human rights globally, I would also like to take the time to highlight the positive impact on the ground of human rights defenders, whom the PHRG is privileged to meet regularly, and organisations such as the UN. Recently, we have been delighted to host the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor; the Council of Europe; Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; Peace Brigades International; Reprieve; and Redress, among many others. Their work, and our work here, truly does make a difference. The arbitrarily detained, such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori and other dual nationals in Iran, are released; those at risk are better protected; and miscarriages of justice are overturned.

One of my small victories this year was the release on humanitarian grounds of a British national in a United Arab Emirates prison. He remained in detention even though he had received a pardon from the King and had served his original sentence. The resilience of this man is unparalleled, and his ability to remain optimistic despite all he went through during his detention is inspiring. I was delighted to finally meet him in person here in London following his release. It was a real reminder of why continued work in this space is so essential, and of the impact that can be had. That work would not have been possible without the help and support of Nicole Piché, secretariat for the PHRG, and the FCDO. That man is now fighting for better medical care for other foreign prisoners in the UAE, to give those he had to leave behind much support that is not otherwise available. I follow his work as he continues with this fight, and feel immensely grateful for the fact that, owing to his release, he is now able to lend his voice to the voiceless.

I want to close by thanking both former and present FCDO Ministers and officials for their positive engagement with the PHRG, and their representations and action on human rights cases. They will be all too familiar with our regular correspondence on various cases, but there is always more that can be done, including on the many issues that I have raised today. I ask the Government to resume publishing their annual human rights report and releasing their human rights updates, as the last one appears to have been published in July last year. The reports provide a useful summary of the action undertaken by the FCDO and are a demonstration of the UK Government’s ongoing commitment to the international human rights framework.

I have only spoken about a small number of countries with worrying human rights records. So many people across the globe—both those whose names we know, and those whose names we do not yet know—are relying on the support of those of us who have the freedom to speak out on their behalf.

Andy Slaughter

I want to add one further example, although we could add many: human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which are getting worse every year, particularly through state-sanctioned settler violence. I pay tribute to Yachad and B’Tselem, which brought an exhibition on that issue to Parliament this week. Occupation adds another level of illegality and abuse to human rights, and it is right that it be called out. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that the Government have to publish their findings more regularly if people are to be held to account.

Margaret Ferrier

I attended that drop-in, and it was shocking. I advise all Members to look at the report.

Every person, Member of Parliament, Government Minister and member of the public alike can take some form of action, be it by writing letters for campaigns such as Amnesty International’s “Write for Rights”, or just by raising awareness within our own social circles. I strongly encourage every person listening today to use their voice, so that those without can be heard.