UPDATE: 3 August
At the end of this blog we wrote ‘it seems therefore that nothing will change’. How wrong can you be as it has just been announced that the FCO will no longer be specifically campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty. The FCO to us was dated 6 July and Mr Glen’s covering letter dated 14 July. So in the space of a few weeks abolishing the death penalty world wide has gone from ‘a human rights priority for the UK’ to being no longer a policy. The group plans to write to Mr Glen again to seek clarification.
The Salisbury Group wrote to the local MP, Mr John Glen to ask for a more robust response by our government to the barbaric activities of the Saudi government in particular the increasing number of executions which are taking place. In our letter we said:
[we are writing] to you in connection with the increasing level of executions currently taking place in Saudi Arabia. (Over the course of the first five months of this year, the number of executions has equalled that of the whole of 2014).
You will no doubt be aware that on his recent visit to the country, President Francois Hollande made a public statement to the effect that all executions, not just those of his own nationals, should be banned, and called for the abolition of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.
M. Hollande was prepared to do this, despite the fact that France – as does the United Kingdom – has significant financial interests in the its dealings with Saudi Arabia. The British government, however, has never seen fit to raise the issue in public, preferring to pursue a policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’. This policy has manifestly had no effect. Numbers continue to rise, and the Saudi Government have now advertised for eight additional executioners – ‘no particular skills required.’
As a group, we are asking that your government should take a much more robust line over the issue with the Saudi government.
Whereas the government – including the Prime Minister – has been vocal in its criticisms of the Islamic State for its appalling behaviour and of Russia for its activities in Ukraine, they seem strangely silent when it comes to Saudi Arabia. This contrasts with France which has openly criticised them and Sweden which has decided no longer to sell them arms.
Mr Glen replied, enclosing a letter from the FCO minister, and said:
I enclose correspondence from the FCO minister Tobius Ellwood in reply to your recent letter about the UK’s apparent reticence when it comes to condemning the use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.
As you can see, the approach taken by the government is not in any way indicative of an equivocal view on this practice, which is as barbaric as it is ineffective.
However, the government recognises that its abolition is not a matter of mere legal reform but would require a seismic societal shift. It has therefore taken an approach which it feels is most constructive – engaging behind the scenes rather than inflaming the situation and triggering a backlash through outspoken public critique.
The letter from the Foreign and Colonial Office is as follows:
[…] The abolition of the death penalty is a human rights priority for the UK. The UK opposes the death penalty around the world because we believe it undermines human dignity and there is no evidence that it works as a deterrent.
Saudi Arabia remains a country of concern on human rights, because of its use of the death penalty as well as the restricted access to justice, women’s rights, and the restrictions of the freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion or belief.
Ministers, our Ambassador, and the Embassy team in Riyadh frequently raise the issue of the death penalty with the Saudi authorities, bilaterally and through the European Union. As it is part of Sharia Law, we must recognise that total abolition of the death penalty is unlikely in Saudi Arabia in the near future. For now, our focus is on the introduction of EU minimum standards for the death penalty as a first step, and supporting access to justice and the rule of law.
The British Government’s position on human rights is a matter of public record. We regularly make our views well known including the UN Universal Periodic Review process and the Foreign and Colonial Office’s annual Human Rights and Democracy Report. We also raise our human rights concerns with Saudi Arabian authorities at the highest level. But we have to recognise that the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia reflects widely held conservative social values and that our human rights concerns are best raised in private rather than in public.
It seems therefore that nothing will change. It is important to recognise that behind the scenes lobbying can be constructive. However, the policy of raising matters ‘in private rather than in public’ does not appear to be working. Successive governments have courted the regime and Saudis are free to invest in London and elsewhere in the UK.
It would be naïve not to recognise the reality behind this reluctance to criticise the Saudis and the importance to the government of the sale of arms and the supply of oil. Saudi Arabia is a key market for the UK and much effort is put into promoting sales including by members of the royal family – see the Guardian article: Human rights are of secondary concern.
As long as these interests are paramount, it is difficult to see how the toll of executions can be checked in the near future.