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Submission to inquiry on Bahrain

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Submissions from IHRC for inquiry into the FCO's foreign policy towards Bahrain

IHRC was set up in 1997. Further information about IHRC here. Its research and publications on Bahrain include background studies, briefings and trial and country observer reports, including:

  1. Almost a year to the day that the “Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry” released its report and recommendations to end three decades of human rights abuses in the island monarchy, recent events suggest that the government is not only failing to implement reforms but has intensified its crackdown against the opposition.
  2. Launched to much acclaim the report contained 26 recommendations designed to set Bahrain on the path of political reform and reconciliation. Although critics accused the BICI of shying away from recommending the root and branch overhaul of the political system, the report was widely welcomed as a step in the right direction. The optimism appears to have been misplaced. One year on few of the Commission’s recommendations have been fully implemented. Crucially, the international community - including Britain - is showing little appetite to drive forward the reform agenda.
  3. A new report by the Project on Middle East Democracy released last week evaluating the government’s progress in implementing the BICI recommendations makes grim reading. Only three recommendations have been fully implemented with “no meaningful progress” on the most important six - accountability for officials responsible for torture and severe human rights violations, the release of political prisoners, prevention of sectarian incitement, and the relaxation of censorship and controls on free expression.
  4. The BICI recommendations followed three decades of government repression of opposition and was prompted by renewed political violence that erupted in February 2011 resulting in the deaths of at least 35 people and complaints of torture, police violence and the unlawful detention and dismissal from work of hundreds more. The Commission’s main recommendations were for the release of all political prisoners and the relaxation of controls on freedom of expression to allow the opposition a greater say in the government dominated national media.
  5. Both of these recommendations have fallen on deaf ears. In fact over recent weeks the government has stepped up its campaign of political repression of opposition leaders. Earlier this month it revoked the citizenship of 31 exiled clerics, dissidents and activists including Ali Mushaima and Saeed el-Shehabi on the grounds that they represented a threat to national security. Bahrain’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid al-Khalifa’s justification that repeated abuse of the right to freedom of expression could no longer be tolerated indicated the limited extent to which the government is prepared to open up channels of dissent.
  6. There are yet other signs that the gap between democratic rhetoric and authoritarian practice is widening. For the first time since last year’s state of emergency, the National Guard is back on the streets protecting “strategic locations” or more correctly demonstration routes and sites which hold symbolic significance for opposition parties. In October the government imposed a ban on all protests citing “public safety” and also threatened the main opposition party al-Wefaq with legal action for staging a march for which it had been declined official permission. And instead of releasing political detainees the al-Khalifas have leaned on the politicised judiciary to confirm convictions secured at the height of last year’s troubles against 20 opposition activists.
  7. The moves have evoked strong condemnation from international human rights groups. Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa programme called the verdicts “another blow to justice” adding that “the Bahraini authorities are not on the path of reform, but seem rather driven by vindictiveness.” In August after a court had sentenced the prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab to three years in prison for organising “illegal gatherings” the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights Margaret Sekaggya said: “The sentencing of Nabeel Rajab represents yet another blatant attempt by the government of Bahrain to silence those legitimately working to promote basic human rights.
  8. The picture emerging from Bahrain is of a regime that is using the BICI as a cover to continue repression of political dissent and calls for genuine reform. To consolidate the credibility it gained by commissioning the BICI the government has also appointed high-powered western advisors, among them senior Britons. The appointments are strategic; they maintain the illusion of western assistance in a reform project that is at best superficial and at worst a charade. Trading on its position as Bahrain’s historic patron – Bahrain was a British protectorate until 1971 – Britain has provided the island emirate with a succession of security advisors such as the notorious Ian Henderson, removed from his post after allegations that he had tortured political detainees during the uprisings of the 1990s. The latest arrival is former Metropolitan Commissioner John Yates as advisor on police reform. But the al-Khalifas appear to want Yates less for implementing reform of the police as recommended by the BICI than for his contact book and ability to access British officials. Last June he accompanied the interior minister Rashid al-Khalifa to diplomatic engagements in London including a meeting with then junior Foreign Office Minister Lord Howell.
  9. Indeed the British government has missed few opportunities to rub shoulders with Bahraini royals at a time when critics say it should be using its influence to pressure the family into making necessary reforms. In July the head of Bahrain’s Olympic Committee Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa was allowed to visit London despite multiple allegations that he had personally beaten and jailed Bahraini anti-government protestors. The Islamic Human Rights Commission had written to the FCO requesting that Nasser al-Khalifa be denied entry but received a disturbing reply that seemed to blame Bahraini protestors and brush aside the allegations of human rights abuses.
  10. A few weeks later David Cameron met with King Hamad bin al-Khalifa in London for the third time in his tenure as prime minister. Perhaps one of the items on their agenda was the defence treaty the two countries would sign in October, committing Britain to protecting the emirate from external aggression. In any event the PM did not say anything about how the Arab Spring was playing out in Bahrain and how Britain could assist those in the country campaigning for human rights and democratisation.
  11. Britain’s refusal to apply pressure on its close ally was also in evidence at the United Nations. Last June it joined the US in refusing to sign a statement – signed by 27 other countries including Germany and France – asking the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish an office in Bahrain and agree a comprehensive cooperation plan with its rulers. Maryam al-Khawaja, the acting President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and Deputy Director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights branded the decision “a disgrace” and said that “silence from such an important trade partner spells out permission, casting a shadow on the UK’s commitment to free expression and human rights.”
  12. Bahrain’s military reliance on Britain places Britain in an ideal position to exert pressure on its ally but it seems to be more intent on securing lucrative contracts at the expense of human rights. British companies currently export everything from sniper rifles to silencers and software for spying on opposition activists.  Writing recently in the New Left Project, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen from the London School of Economics derided Britain for becoming “a symbol of the double-standards of Western policy toward the Arab uprisings, where the withdrawal of support for dictatorial regimes in Libya and Syria stands in contrast to the enabling of autocratic rulers in the Persian Gulf.” The parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee acknowledged in its recent report – FCO’s Human Rights Work in 2011 – that ministers should be bolder in acknowledging contradictions between the UK’s interests overseas and its human rights values. It is time that recommendation started being put into practice.
  13. As the Arab Spring spreads, the approach is short-sighted and risks placing Britain on the wrong side of history. No autocracy can resist popular pressure indefinitely and when the al-Khalifas eventually leave, as their counterparts have done in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, the memory of who supported them will likely impact on economic relations for a long time to come.
  14. The IHRC recommends that the government takes its stated responsibilities toward human rights more seriously and use its historic ties with Bahrain to pressure the government into implementing the BICI recommendations and comply with international human rights obligations. In particular the British government should not hesitate to publicly raise its concerns about Bahrain as and when the opportunity presents itself. Britain is an important trading partner for Bahrain and should use its position to exert leverage on the government to implement the reforms to which it has committed itself.

Islamic Human Rights Commission, 19 November 2012.  For further information please contact farah@ihrc.org or call 020 8904 4222.

Also published on the Foreign Affairs Committee site, whcih can be found here

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