Select Committee on Foreign Affairs First Special Report


Memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Human Rights in Saudi Arabia and Trade Relations with Israel (29 June 2000)


  1.  There have been a number of important developments in the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia in 1999 and 2000.

  2.  At bilateral meetings before, during and after the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1999, British officials encouraged the Saudi authorities to cooperate more closely with such UN human rights bodies. At the same time the UK joined EU partners in a public statement of concern at shortcomings in criminal procedures, freedom of expression, assembly and worship, and women's rights there, and in urging Saudi Arabia to become a party to the remaining core international human rights instruments—the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women. The UN Commission concluded that Saudi Arabia had responded sufficiently to complaints about human rights violations, including about its judicial system, for consideration of Saudi Arabia under the 1503 Procedure to be discontinued. The Commission expressed appreciation for the progress achieved by Saudi Arabia, including its increased willingness to work with the Commission and other human rights organisations and mechanisms. In welcoming the Commission's decision to discontinue consideration of Saudi Arabia under the 1503 procedure, the Saudi Arabian Government announced its intention to accede to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UK will continue to press for early accession.

  3.  Throughout 1999, the UK maintained its policy of constructive engagement on human rights with the Saudi Government through frank but private exchanges, visits and meetings. In April 1999, at the invitation of the British Government, the Saudi Minister of Justice attended a British Council seminar in London on "Britain and Islam" which included debate on aspects of human rights such as education and gender, and race and religion. The Saudi Minister also met the Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary and discussed human rights and Sharia Law and relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in the UK and Saudi Arabia. During a visit to Saudi Arabia in October 1999, FCO Minister of State Peter Hain MP raised human rights with the Deputy Foreign Minister; and they agreed on further bilateral exchanges. This was followed in December by debate at the UK-Saudi Joint Cultural Committee in London, a forum specifically established to develop relations between governmental and non-governmental organisations in the two countries. Other contacts in 1999, all at HMG's invitation, included attendance by two Saudi academics at a UK conference on the relationship between Islam and the West in the 21st Century, a visit by representatives of Saudi religious charitable organisations to UK Christian counterparts to discuss common experience and possible collaboration, and study in the UK by two Saudi students of cross-cultural and media issues. In May 2000, seven Saudi journalists, financed by the FCO's Human Rights Project Fund, began a BBC World Service training course on journalistic skills, including independent and objective reporting practices.

  4.  Before the UN Commission on Human Rights met in 2000, British officials again stressed to the Saudi Government the merits of taking further steps to improve the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. The UK again joined EU partners in calling for such improvements, and for Saudi Arabia to invite the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers to visit the Kingdom. The Saudi Arabian Government has now issued such an invitation. The Saudi Government has also announced the formation of a number of governmental and non-governmental committees to protect and promote human rights. Saudi Arabia has since ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and most recently, in May 2000, in a further example of the Kingdom's willingness to engage with UN human rights bodies, Saudi Arabia sought and gained election for the first time to the UN Commission on Human Rights.

  5.  There were human rights development in other areas during 1999 and 2000. The Majlis al-Shura, Saudi Arabia's official Consultative Council composed of journalists, academics, businessmen, and the media, increased their scrutiny and criticism of Government Ministries and policy. In the Summer of 1999, religious leaders Shaikhs al-Awda, al-Hawali and al-Umar were released from detention in Saudi Arabia (they had been arrested in September 1994 during public disturbances.) There were signs of an improved dialogue between the Saudi authorities and the minority Shia community. The Saudi Government stimulated a public debate on the role of women, including their independent status and mobility, and issued instructions to increase female employment. A relaxation of restrictions on pilgrims' travel and visas from 2000 was announced. Tourist visas are now being issued. A number of officially sanctioned cultural events also took place, reflecting some easing of restrictions on popular assembly.

  6.  The British Government welcomes these developments and hopes that the trend will continue. The British Government acknowledges the benefits of Saudi Arabia's extensive and impressive welfare, education and health systems for those living in the Kingdom. At the same time, the Government remains concerned about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, including the discrimination against women and non-Muslins, the restrictions on freedom of expression, movement, assembly and worship, the implementation of UN human rights instruments, and issues relating to the judicial process.

  7.  The Government is firmly committed to constructive engagement on human rights with Saudi Arabia. It takes, and will continue to take, every realistic and responsible step to try to improve matters.


  The Government is concerned about possible Israeli violations of the EC-Israel Trade Agreement. As the Committee is aware, HM Customs and Excise have provided evidence to the European Commission. The Commission have now asked Member States to begin verification procedures under the Origin Rules Protocol for a number of products exported from Israel. HM Customs and Excise are doing so. We shall continue to assist the Commission in its investigations and to support continuing dialogue between the Commission, the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority on this issue.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 9 January 2001