Britain has been challenged to withdraw its support for Saudi Arabia as chair of the UN human rights council panel as the closeness of the UK-Saudi relationship was dismissed as sycophantic by Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, and Labour called for an end to judicial cooperation with Riyadh.
The outcry from British politicians came after the Foreign Office initially described the announcement of the execution of 47 people, including the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, as disappointing.
The executions sparked protests in Shia-dominated Iran, where the Saudi embassy was stormed, which in turn led to the Saudis breaking off diplomatic relations with Tehran, quickly followed by Bahrain and Sudan.
“The Saudi government systemically abuse human rights,” said Farron, referring to the UN post Riyadh was given in September. “They cannot be the chair of the UN committee safeguarding fundamental rights. Britain and other nations cannot continue to sit in meetings with them knowing that people are being executed and persecuted by the kingdom while they judge other nations on human rights.
“They should stand down or be made to stand down. They are utterly unfit to hold this role.”
He added: “The UK government has now got itself into a position where it is almost sycophantic to the Saudi Arabian regime. When things like this happen we need to be clear in our condemnation of them, not just because they are morally wrong, but because they undermine the diplomatic processes that are key to solving the Syria crisis.”
In a slightly tougher response to the executions than that issued over the weekend, David Cameron described the tensions provoked by the executions as “hugely concerning”. The UK condemned the death penalty in all circumstances and had made representations to the Saudi authorities on this occasion, he added.
“It is hugely concerning because of course we want to see stability in the Middle East. We want to see good relations between the different countries in the Middle East, not least because that will be absolutely essential for solving the crisis in Syria, which is the source of so many of these problems,” the prime minister said during a visit to east London.
“And specifically on Saudi Arabia, let me be clear, we condemn and do not support the death penalty in any circumstances and that includes Saudi Arabia. We always make representations on the death penalty and the Foreign Office ministers made it very clear on this occasion.”
But in a sign of Britain’s close connections with Saudi Arabia, the former UK ambassador to Riyadh nonetheless said the recent executions of al-Qaida supporters, who were among the 47 executed on Saturday along with Nimr, were understandable.
Speaking to the BBC, Sir John Jenkins said: “Do I think the sentences are justified? Certainly the people accused of membership of [al-Qaida], particularly given what has happened over the past 18 months with these attacks by Islamic State inside the kingdom, I can understand why the Saudis reacted in the way they did.”
He added they were different from killings by Isis, since Saudi Arabia is “a legitimately constituted state operating in a state system”. Iran executed far more people than Saudi Arabia, he said.
The leadership of the Labour party, under Jeremy Corbyn, has been increasingly critical of Britain’s links with Saudi Arabia. The shadow human rights minister, Andy Slaughter, condemned the relationship and wrote to the justice secretary, Michael Gove, asking him to confirm that discussions of judicial cooperation were continuing with the Saudis and calling for them to “cease immediately”.
“It is not right that the UK should be actively cooperating with a justice system that shows such flagrant disregard for the most basic human rights and the rule of law,” Slaughter argued.
He said the cancellation last year of a bid to provide Saudi Arabia with prisons expertise was not enough, and called for the publication of a “memorandum of understanding” signed by the justice heads of both states in September 2014.
“Cancelling the prison contract last year and disbanding the Ministry of Justice unit that negotiated it has had no effect on discussions on wider judicial cooperation, which are continuing through the British embassy in Riyadh,” he said.
“These should cease immediately and the government should publish the memorandum and disclose the full nature of British support and advice on justice issues to the Saudi regime.”
Jenkins said the Saudis would argue that most of those executed on Saturday had taken up arms against the state, had called for the secession of the eastern province, or had disclaimed loyalty to the Saudi state. “In Saudi terms, disavowing the Saudi state is almost as serious as taking up arms,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins, who was the UK ambassador to Riyadh until the end of 2015, added that some of the punishments meted out by the Saudis were disproportionate. He said the purpose of the mass executions was to send a signal to Iran and to the US, as well as internally.
“Essentially the message is that we, the Saudis, are not going to be pushed around by anybody,” he said. “We reject Iranian interference in our affairs and we will stand up against anyone who we think is an Iranian agent of influence inside our country and who calls for the dissolution of the kingdom.”
Saudi public opinion is expressed through social media, Jenkins said, and the rulers have been severely criticised by their own citizens for not doing enough to push back against Shia and Iranian influence.
The Saudi kingdom was also facing a rival in the form of Isis, since the terror group was presenting itself as the only force capable of standing up to Shia expansionism, he said.
This article was written by Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor, for theguardian.com on Monday 4th January 2016 19.34 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010