Bahrain: Human Rights - Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 7:56 pm on 13th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat 7:56 pm, 13th March 2019

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of human rights abuses in Bahrain.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am pleased to move this important debate on human rights issues in Bahrain. I start by thanking noble Lords who have put their names down to speak, and the many organisations which have sent briefing notes to us, particularly the Library for its comprehensive note.

It is important to have this debate, and what has happened in Bahrain today shows us why. Today, Bahrain’s lower criminal court sentenced former opposition leader Ibrahim Sharif to six months imprisonment, and a 500 Bahraini dinar fine to suspend the execution of sentence, for tweeting criticism of Sudan’s President. Since December 2018, Sudan has been rocked by popular protests against the 30-year regime of its President. Ibrahim Sharif is the former leader of the secular opposition party in Bahrain, which was dissolved earlier this year in the crackdown against civil society in the kingdom. Ibrahim has spent time in Bahrain’s notorious Jau prison for his role in the pro-democracy protests of 2011. His only tweet was on 25 December 2018, when he said that the cities of Sudan should rise up, and called for the people of Sudan to be free.

The history of the UK and Bahrain goes back many years—this is the 200-year celebration. It is a special relationship between the peoples of Bahrain and the United Kingdom, but it is not one that should be exercised in a moral vacuum. It is not one that should turn away when human rights abuses are committed. In fact, because of our history and relationship, it is our moral, legal and political responsibility to speak up and speak out when there are human rights abuses, not just privately but publicly. Since the Arab spring, UK policy towards Bahrain shows that a gift of a £40 million naval base has been made by the King of Bahrain. UK arms sales equate to about £120 million.

We uphold human rights, law and the judicial system not just by saying that we want to do that, but by investing as British taxpayers—£6 million over the last seven years—in an opaque fund. It is there, as the Government say, to strengthen the rule of law and ensure that oversight bodies make sure that human rights are upheld. This fund is opaque and secretive. Despite requests by civil society and my Parliamentary Questions, the Government’s policy has changed on the Integrated Activity Fund. They used to say who the beneficiaries of that fund were; they are now refusing to say. I and others accept that some might be military, defence or intelligence organisations. I ask the Minister: why has the policy changed on telling the public how their money is being spent in upholding justice and strengthening the rule of law in Bahrain for organisations outside of defence and security? Back in September 2018, the Foreign Affairs Committee cited the lack of transparency over this fund.

Let us look at the rule of law and human rights in the judicial system since 2011. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, who is taking part in the debate, was a joint author of a report in 2014 that highlighted some of the issues. However, things have got worse since then. The death penalty has returned in Bahrain. In 2017 there was the execution of three men that the UN described as extrajudicial killings. There was the closing down of the last independent and free press and the jailing of journalists. In March 2018 the Interior Minister made it very clear that there would be a severe crackdown on anyone who condemned the Government online. Some 850 people have had their citizenship revoked, 304 in 2018 alone.

Human rights bodies estimate that 4,000 political prisoners have been arbitrarily arrested, denied their freedom, possibly tortured and sexually abused, and placed in custody. They have been forced to sign confessions of guilt under potential torture. In 2018, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said that there was widespread and systematic human rights abuses—not one or two, but widespread and systematic abuses—in violation of international law, and that they are a potential crime against humanity. It seems that there are abuses. We cannot stand by and say that we are turning a blind eye just because we are trying to keep stability in the region. We have a moral duty to say that enough is enough. Our friendship, our policies and our role in international law allow us to do so.

When international bodies such as the UN or Amnesty International look at the oversight bodies that we are investing taxpayers’ money in—the police, the courts and prison services—they say that there is extensive evidence that they are compliant in human rights abuses. The UN Committee Against Torture condemned the ombudsman and other oversight bodies as being neither effective nor independent. It talks about the Interior Ministry interfering, as well as parliamentary interference in these oversight bodies. Amnesty International pointed out that when cases go to those bodies, they are ignored.

That is also my own experience. I have done what the Government have asked me to do in Parliamentary Question after Parliamentary Question. They have said that people should go to the oversight bodies. I have approached those bodies about individual cases. I am still waiting for replies going back to November. There are cases of families asking those bodies for a mammogram, and action has not properly been taken six months later. The oversight bodies are not working and it is time for the Government to have an independent review. What independent review has been undertaken, or will they undertake, of these oversight bodies?

In my last three minutes, I come to three cases. Listening to us today are the families of some people who are in jail and have been imprisoned. The first is Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, a UK-based Bahraini and human rights activist, who is listening here tonight. His family have been tortured and unlawfully convicted in Bahrain in relation to Mr Alwadaei’s human rights work here in the UK. On 30 October 2017, Mr Alwadaei’s brother-in-law, Sayed Nizar, his mother-in-law, Hajer Mansoor Hassan, and his cousin, Mahmood Marzooq, were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment following what was internationally condemned as a flawed trial. Subsequently, they have experienced human rights abuses and have been denied privileges in jail, particularly at the town prison, where its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Albardoli, has not kept basic human rights laws and conventions by not allowing them access to their family and medical provision. What independent assessment have the Government made of this case?

There is also Ali Mushaima, the son of Hassan Mushaima, a leading human rights activist and a former Secretary-General of the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy. Hassan is 72 years-old and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011. During his detention, trial and incarceration the Bahraini authorities subjected him to severe human rights abuses and violations. Despite Questions in this House, the Government say that he should go to the independent bodies. The independent bodies say that there have been no violations. Ali sat outside the Bahraini embassy and carried out a hunger strike. Can the Minister tell him that his father’s treatment is not what he is seeing and that he is being abused? Why do the Government take the word of the oversight bodies? There are clearly human rights abuses. What assessment has been made of our policy to ensure human rights are being upheld? In particular, what independent evidence is there that the Integrated Activity Fund is improving the oversight bodies, police and prisons, and not contributing to human rights abuses in Bahrain?

Photo of Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Conservative 8:06 pm, 13th March 2019

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, on bringing this important matter to the House. I know he has been particularly tenacious in ensuring that these issues are followed through and addressed on several occasions.

Bahrain remains a key regional partner for the UK. As the noble Lord said, we have worked together for more than 200 years and share many interests, with an unequivocal commitment to promote peace and security in the Gulf. I respect the work of the Minister for the Middle East, who has talked about the many areas of bilateral collaboration—trade and investment, defence and security, the environment, and education. We have many Bahraini students being educated in the UK; we certainly have some very happy Bahraini students at the University of Hull, where I happen to be chancellor.

Nevertheless, there are serious human rights issues and the important issue of advancing human rights internationally, which we all support, is one that we must all give priority. The Minister is correct to identify Bahrain as a human rights priority for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, talked about political reprisals and the family of Sayed Alwadaei, who I am pleased are here today. It is worrying that the supreme court of Bahrain upheld these sentences only this year, despite the conclusions of the United Nations Arbitrary Detention Working Group, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Concern has been raised about arbitrary and extrajudicial detention, and the use of torture and ill-treatment as a means of eliciting unreliable confessions.

Any declared commitment to freedom of expression is undermined by a high number of arrests and prosecutions of individuals who have criticised political figures. There has been a disquieting number of incidents where journalists, opposition politicians, lawyers and human rights activists have been subjected to travel bans. We all noted them.

But there are paradoxes and contradictions. Bahrain was the first Arab state to achieve education equality and the first country in the region to introduce public education for girls. In spite of a remaining disparity in the legal equality between Bahraini men and women, Bahrain has historically been a leader in advancing gender equality in the Middle East. It has the fastest rate of growth for women’s economic participation, and was the first Arab country to appoint female ambassadors to Britain and the USA.

The National Plan for the Advancement of Bahraini Women and the ongoing work of the Supreme Council for Women are welcome, and it would be valuable to hear from the Minister about some of the up-to-date evidence around these bodies and the role of women, in the light of anxiety that there has somehow been a deterioration in all that seemed encouraging.

We respect the cultural and moral diversity and universality of human rights and non-discrimination. They must be recognised, and people should be held to account. But we should act as a critical friend, and urge the Government of Bahrain to return to the path of progress. I look forward to the Minister’s comments. We have a long-term relationship, but there are ongoing concerns. I hope we can work with Bahrain to ensure that it gets back on the path of progress.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 8:10 pm, 13th March 2019

My Lords, this is an important but very short debate, and I greatly regret that we each have only a couple of minutes for what we need to say. I will not repeat what the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, has just said about the advances that have been made in Bahrain; there were not just female ambassadors to the UK, US and other countries, but ambassadors of different religious faiths, which is important.

The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, clearly feels strongly about this—quite rightly—and he has made a couple of points relating to my report. It was now four or five years ago, and perhaps this is a good time for me to consider revisiting it and looking at what has happened. I criticised Bahrain at the time for not allowing the UN special rapporteur on torture to visit, and also because we could not visit the prisons. But if you look at what Bahrain was setting up with the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry following the riots, it was way ahead of most other countries in the region. If you were to ask me which country in the Middle East I would like to live in, if I had to do so, I would probably choose Bahrain as one of the best. That does not mean, as the ambassador said this to me the other day, that all is perfect—it certainly is not. But the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, is missing something profoundly important—the situation of Bahrain in this incredibly unstable region. Bahrain is just a mile or two down a causeway from Saudi Arabia, a Sunni power, which is in conflict with Iran, just across the water from Bahrain, which is a Shia power.

The book given to me recently by the Al Wefaq party, which left the Parliament of its own will—we criticised it for that; it need not have left and it would have been better if it had stayed and stood for election—is expensively produced. I have no problem with that, although it would be good to know how it was financed, because, as the noble Lord has said, there are questions about other finances. Indeed, there are questions about the financing of Al Wefaq. A gentleman resident in Britain whom I see on a number of occasions, Mr Ali Alaswad, is a strong supporter of and a former Member of Parliament for the Al Wefaq group. He emphasises that if it started supporting violence, he would no longer support it. I understand that. But he also understood the point I am making about the impossible position of Bahrain between two competing regional superpowers—one Shia, one Sunni.

The book is produced by Al Wefaq and written by Sheikh Ali Salman, who is currently in prison. It starts off by explaining the Shia history of Bahrain. The Shia population is the majority; the Sunni population is the minority. When I asked the King there four or five years ago how he felt about that, he said quite passionately, “I am a Muslim first, not a Shia or a Sunni”. I understand that, but religion, like other ideologies, is always subject to splits. Those splits can be violent, and often are. We need to understand that Bahrain does not want to be in the position of Yemen, which is already part of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

I say to the noble Lord by all means keep questioning this, but put it in the round. What would he do if he were a minority community of Sunnis looking across the water to Iran and wondering what will happen to them if it takes over? This cannot be ignored. It is part of the strategic geopolitics of the region.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran Conservative

I remind noble Lords that when the clock gets to three minutes, that is three minutes completed.

Photo of Baroness Stern Baroness Stern Crossbench 8:14 pm, 13th March 2019

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, on securing this very important debate and on his powerful contribution. I declare my interest as an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights.

Following the recommendations of the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report, a number of mechanisms were put in place by the Bahraini Government to demonstrate their support for international human rights. For many of those involved, this was a very encouraging and exciting time. They set up the National Institute for Human Rights, the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman and the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission. These bodies are doing some positive work. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights has had much positive contact with the ombudsman, and we are currently in correspondence with him about failures in detainee treatment—particularly on inadequate provision of healthcare.

However, welcome as these developments are, the existence of these mechanisms cannot disguise the Bahraini Government’s obvious lack of political will for the more substantive political, institutional and legal reforms needed to ensure that Bahraini citizens enjoy their fundamental rights and that human rights defenders and members of the political opposition are no longer persecuted.

The FCO has been funding human rights institutions in Bahrain for a number of years. During that time, the level of criticism of Bahrain for human rights violations has increased. There has been criticism from the United Nations Human Rights Council and Dr Agnes Callemard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, who described the 2017 executions of three people in Bahrain as “extrajudicial executions”. A number of respected NGOs have been very critical, as have many UK parliamentarians.

This raises difficult questions that need answering about the role of the FCO in Bahrain. I therefore ask the Minister, whose commitment to human rights is beyond doubt, whether the FCO has recently reassessed whether its continuing financial support for human rights work in Bahrain is appropriate. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, said there should be an independent review. Will the Minister consider that, and, bearing in mind the fact that the abuses of human rights in Bahrain would most likely trigger further radicalisation, polarisation and conflict in what the noble Lord, Lord Soley, has already explained is a difficult arena in which to work, does she agree?

The FCO is valued throughout the world for the support UK diplomats give to human rights NGOs and activists. Is the Minister satisfied that human rights activists in Bahrain are well supported by our diplomats there?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Conservative 8:18 pm, 13th March 2019

My Lords, my interest in Bahrain is as vice-chair of CMEC, and goes back to when I was a Defence Minister and had some responsibility for defence co-operation between our two countries. We have vital national security and economic interests in maintaining and developing our relationship with Bahrain. I was involved in the early stages of setting up our strategically vital naval support facilities there.

In an uncertain world, Bahrain is a loyal and important ally. As my noble friend said, it has been a staunch supporter of the UK for over 200 years. We need to keep criticism of Bahrain in perspective, and be mindful of the regional and security context. Bahrain’s scope for progressive political development is limited by the need to keep in step with its GCC neighbours, a point very well made by the noble Lord, Lord Soley.

Bahrain is a tolerant society. There are historic tensions deriving from a large Shia population, but the great majority of Shia live happily there, and many have senior positions in government. They strongly oppose the actions of a very small violent minority.

It is the leading country in the Gulf region in terms of political development, education for all, freedom of religion, employment law and the emancipation of women. It is one of only two GCC states with a freely elected Parliament, the current Speaker of which is a woman. My noble friend mentioned the two women who were ambassadors to the UK and the USA, one a Christian and the other Jewish. The capital, Manama, is a religiously diverse city, housing Sunni, Shia, Christian, Jewish and Hindu places of worship. The Council of Ministers regularly has at least one, and often several, female Ministers. Bahrain’s appointed Upper House of Parliament always includes at least one member of Bahrain’s Jewish and Christian communities—currently, both female—and someone with a registered disability.

Bahrain has made progress with its human rights reforms. As part of British broader assistance to Bahraini reform, the United Kingdom has been working with Bahrain’s independent human rights oversight bodies since their creation, the first in the region, following recommendations in 2012 from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. Our work has supported the building of effective institutions which hold the Bahraini Government to account. They have demonstrated their abilities, including through the prosecution of more than 80 police officers accused of human rights abuses.

Of course, there is always more that can be done, and I think that the Bahraini Government recognise this. But let us not lose sight of the fact that there is genuine, effective progress in a region where change is often hard to come by.

Photo of Lord Hussain Lord Hussain Liberal Democrat 8:21 pm, 13th March 2019

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for securing this debate. I have never visited Bahrain, but I believe it is a modern, moderate Arab country, a close ally of the United Kingdom. It has an open and tolerant society that respects all religions and cultures. It is striving for gender balance, women’s empowerment and workers’ rights.

If we look at religious freedom in Bahrain, I believe that the capital, Manama, is one of the most religiously diverse cities in the GCC, with places of worship of Sunni, Shia, Christian, Jewish, Sikh and Hindu faith across the city. Bahrain also has a history of appointing non-Muslim ambassadors, both Christians and Jews, for example to the UK and the USA, as was mentioned earlier.

Bahrain was the first country in the region to introduce public education for girls, in the 1920s, and was the first Arab state to achieve education equality as part of the UNESCO 2010 education for all development index. According to Bahrain’s government statistics, women make up over 49% of public sector employees and hold over 50% of managerial positions. I believe that Bahrain was ranked in tier 1 by the US State Department in 2018 for its efforts to counter human trafficking. Bahrain has gone through significant reforms to the sponsorship system, through the flexible work permit, which enables work without a sponsor.

However, I am aware of some of the reports, made by some credible international organisations, of violations of human rights in the country. No excuse can be accepted for violation of human rights. Keeping in mind the country’s demographics and surrounding political and religious environment, including Iranian and Saudi influences, I suggest that, as a friend of Bahrain, the United Kingdom should help Bahrain to improve its level of tolerance and understanding of diverse political and religious views, instead of taking harsh measures that amount to violations of human rights, and to have a free and fair justice system that meets international standards.

Photo of Lord McInnes of Kilwinning Lord McInnes of Kilwinning Conservative 8:23 pm, 13th March 2019

My Lords, I would like to begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for bringing this important debate before your Lordships’ House. In so doing, the noble Lord brings before us what is a very prescient example of the delicate balance required between the UK using influence to improve human rights, while at the same time being aware that if influence is to be successfully brought it must be as a critical friend.

In Bahrain, there are clearly significant obstacles and obstructions to freedom of assembly and freedom of movement as we would understand them. Protests remain banned in the capital, Manama, and over 90 Bahrainis are banned from travelling abroad without judicial warrant. At the same time, there are accusations of impunity for those who acted outside the law in 2011. As with many noble Lords, I am concerned that since April 2017 the judicial system has been amended to allow the military courts to try civilians—surely a retrograde step.

However, in assessing all these deficiencies, I am sure that the Government will take cognisance of the real instability and interference that the kingdom faces, especially from Iran. Bahrain is of course led by a Sunni Government, but, as we have heard, especially from the noble Lord, Lord Soley, has a majority Shia population. The UK Government have a role to assess any sectarian discrimination but also to help build community cohesion within Bahrain.

Bahrain is an important strategic partner of the United Kingdom but is a small, relatively new state with a fragile religious demography in what can only be best described a very tough neighbourhood. That context must be remembered when seeking to support Bahrain to improve human rights; and, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Soley, there are positives in Bahrain that do not exist in similar Gulf states. Bahrain has one of the best records in the Gulf for religious diversity, as well as for more liberal positions on women’s rights and an exemplary record on human trafficking. There are also four pillars of scrutiny: the Ombudsman, the Prisoners & Detainees Rights Commission, the Special Investigations Unit and the National Institution for Human Rights. The United Kingdom has an important role in supporting and building capacity in all those oversight bodies, to ensure that they are fully functioning.

I do find it a spurious argument to say that, by providing good practice support to our friend and ally, the British Government are in some way condoning or financially supporting human rights abuses. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the efficacy of the oversight organisations within Bahrain and how the Government intend to remain a critical and effective friend for Bahrain.

Photo of Lord Luce Lord Luce Crossbench 8:26 pm, 13th March 2019

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, was right to put this important debate into a wider context of the very long-standing friendship between the people of this country and the people of Bahrain. If we consider the very significant points made by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, that the region in which the Bahrainis live is sandwiched between Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other, with rivalry between two important regional powers, added to which are the Sunni/Shia tensions, then of course we see that Bahrain is living in difficult circumstances. If I may, I will strongly add to that: Bahrain is living in the shadow of Saudi Arabia, where we have a Crown Prince who is ambitious to reform the economy but is using repressive measures in order to try to achieve it. That has repercussions for Bahrain. I believe that our interests are very strongly in the direction of evolving constitutional monarchies in the Gulf countries and, above all, in Bahrain, if we want stability there—as we do.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, was right to point out that there have been considerable achievements in Bahrain over the last few decades, for example on women’s rights and on freedom of religion. That in itself is striking. I want to focus, though, on one thing. Following the Arab spring of 2011, the King and the Crown Prince were bold enough to establish the Independent Commission of Inquiry, led by Mr Bassiouni, a distinguished lawyer from Egypt. Would any Government in this country set up a completely independent commission to advise us how to run our affairs? I doubt that. It was a bold decision. The commission made important recommendations, to which I think the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, referred. Those recommendations were to set up oversight bodies, which have been established. We have mentioned the National Institution for Human Rights, the Ombudsman and so on; that was important.

The problem and the worry is that, over the past two or three years, there has been a deterioration in standards of human rights in Bahrain. That is damaging both to Bahrain and to our interests and friendship with the country. The question I have for the Minister is this: what is the Government’s assessment of the progress of the recommendations made by the independent commission? How many of the recommendations have been implemented, and how transparent and effective are they? It would be helpful to know from the Government what their assessment is.

The UK’s relationship with Bahrain is singularly important. We have a base there which helps to protect the country, and we give technical assistance on human rights issues. We are therefore entitled to have a free expression of views between each other as to how we can help Bahrain to achieve greater stability. I hope that the Minister will summarise what we are doing to help them in that progress.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 8:30 pm, 13th March 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for initiating this debate. Human rights, wherever they may be, are dear to us all, for we can enjoy our rights only if we have respect for the rights of others. I declare a couple of interests in that I am the chairman of the Centre for Islamic Finance at the University of Bolton where we run a joint masters degree with the Bahrain Institute of Banking and Finance. I was also the chairman and am now the vice-president of the Conservative Middle East Council, where I first came to know Bahrain, to meet members of the Government and of the opposition, and to make many friends. It is in that spirit of friendship that I speak this evening.

The violence that rocked the Middle East during the Arab spring left its scars on Bahrain. It is a small country where it was never an issue if you were Sunni or Shia or, for that matter, Jewish, Christian or Hindu. It was suddenly thrown into turbulence during the 2011 uprisings. The ensuing troubles were a cause of sadness and deep concern to a country which had long embraced democracy, where women had been given the vote in 1950 and where men and women, Sunni and Shia, were free to stand in all elections, and where significant reforms including human rights were already taking form under the office of the Crown Prince.

The Crown Prince responded to these events by opening up a dialogue with all who chose to participate and the Government initiated a commission of inquiry. As the noble Lord, Lord Luce, has just said, that was a bold decision. It was to explain both of these initiatives that, in 2012, I first met a delegation from the Shura Council and realised the determination of Bahrain to learn from what had happened and to put in place systems with strong and independent oversight. These initiatives led to reforms and, in the intervening years, I have had the pleasure of meeting the Ombudsman for the Ministry of Interior with responsibility for prisons, and members of the National Institution for Human Rights. That is an independent body with a wide-ranging mandate to protect human rights. I was impressed by the quality of the people I met, and in particular by their sincerity and determination to do the right thing. There have been a number of prosecutions of officials for human rights abuses. I hope that they will read the debate today and look to see what they might do in the future to allay some of the fears that have been raised.

I know that, for some, the pace of change and reform across the Middle East as a whole is not fast enough, but too often these countries, who are our good and old friends, are not given due credit for the changes they have effected and for the long-standing rights they do afford their citizens. I often think that that is because our Arab friends are too reticent to blow their own trumpet. Nor, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, explained so eloquently, do we take enough account of the difficult political tensions in the region.

My noble friend Lord Astor asked if there is more to do in Bahrain. Of course there is, just as there is more to do in nearly every corner of the world. But a country that has set up the organisations I have already mentioned, that has the fastest growth rate internationally for the economic participation of women, that has gone to considerable efforts to counter human trafficking and that protects workers’ rights with strong and effective trades unions cannot be doing it all wrong. I commend our Government and the Government of Bahrain for their continuing work to ensure the best rights and protections for all who live and work in the kingdom.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 8:33 pm, 13th March 2019

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend for introducing this debate. It is almost as if we are debating two different countries: which one is Bahrain? Although Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy with an elected national assembly, political power ultimately rests with the ruling family. As we have heard, tensions between the majority Shiites and the ruling minority Sunnis with their greater political and economic power exists in Bahrain.

As we have heard, in 2011 as part of the Arab spring, more than 100,000 people engaged in peaceful protest. They were brutally repressed with the help of Saudi troops. A crackdown on political opposition and freedom of expression has followed. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, to which other noble Lords referred, was established by the Bahraini Government to investigate. It made 26 recommendations which the Government then said they had implemented. Although it is right to welcome that, human rights groups have criticised the recommendations as weak and said that even these have not been fully carried through. The last independent newspaper was suspended in 2017. All political opposition groups have been dissolved. Political parties are not permitted. Public protests are banned in the capital. Recent parliamentary elections were not considered free and fair. I hope that we do not hear, after this debate, about any action against those who are attending it or their friends and families.

Since 2006 Bahrain has had a draconian anti-terror law. It is used to justify the detention of many anti-Government activists. Confessions are obtained under torture. Freedom of assembly and association can be defined as terrorist. Minors have been arrested under the Act. In 2013 amendments were made to the law, including the revocation of citizenship. More than 800 Bahrainis, including journalists and politicians, have had their citizenship revoked since 2012, leaving most of them stateless. Bahrain will not admit organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, or the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. A 2017 constitutional amendment allowed military trials for civilians who are deemed to be a threat to Bahrain’s “independence, sovereignty and security”. There has been an increase in the use of the death penalty.

The FCO listed Bahrain as a human rights priority country in 2018. The UK has contributed £5 million to support reform, but human rights groups such as Reprieve have accused the Government of not being sufficiently transparent or effective. I recognise the difficulty in this area. We provide training for Bahrain’s armed forces. We have a naval base. Against this background of increasing human rights abuses, we are increasing arms sales. None of this is likely to lead to stability.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 8:37 pm, 13th March 2019

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord for initiating this debate. Alistair Burt said at the end of last year that, in considering the differing opinions about Bahrain, there are elements of truth on both sides. Compared to most of its close neighbours, women have greater freedom, as we have heard; there is greater freedom of worship; and human rights are a good deal better.

The Government argue that a strong partnership is based on mutual interest, shared threats and a desire to promote greater security and peace in the Gulf, exemplified, as the noble Lord said, by the UK naval support facility. Alistair Burt suggests that this strong partnership means that we can express our concerns about human rights in a frank and open way—publicly, but more often in private. There is no doubt that there is merit in the engagement approach; working with international partners and civil society organisations to promote and defend universal freedoms and to bring about positive change. But how are the Government measuring the success of engagement in achieving positive change?

Freedom House suggests that Bahrain is more oppressive and less free than it was six years ago. As reported in the Guardian, last November’s general elections were considered to be a sham, prohibiting members of opposition groups from running. Reprisals targeting protesters, journalists and human rights defenders have become commonplace. As we have heard, the only independent newspaper was forcibly closed in 2017. There is currently an estimate of 4,000 political prisoners.

What is the Government’s view on the situation of human rights defenders in Bahrain? What assessment has been conducted about our investment? On what basis does the FCO deem that the oversight bodies in Bahrain are independent, effective and capable of conducting swift and thorough investigations?

Finally, as we have heard, executions resumed in January 2017. Will the United Kingdom publicly call on the Bahraini Government to abolish the death penalty?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 8:39 pm, 13th March 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for securing this debate and all noble Lords who have contributed. It was interesting that a number of your Lordships referred to the nature of the relationship between the United Kingdom and Bahrain. Of course, Bahrain is a key partner of the UK: we co-operate on defence, security, trade and regional issues. As a number of your Lordships observed, our new UK naval support facilities provide the first permanent UK naval presence east of Suez since 1971 and support joint counterterrorism, counterpiracy and maritime security operations. This relationship benefits UK prosperity. As of September last year, total trade in goods and services had increased by almost 65% compared to the previous 12 months.

Naturally, many of your Lordships focused on human rights. As the British Government have made clear and Bahrain has acknowledged, further work remains to be done in this area. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office continues to flag Bahrain as a human rights priority country. The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, acknowledged that progress has been made, but she rightly flagged up concerns. She noted that the FCO is strongly committed to supporting human rights around the world. I reassure her and other Members of this House that we keep all programme work under regular review. We continue to believe that our support for Bahrain’s ambitious reform initiatives is the best way to support progress.

We have consistently raised issues of concern to us with the Government of Bahrain. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, specifically referred to the death penalty. Your Lordships will be aware that the United Kingdom deplores the use of the death penalty anywhere in the world. We condemn that, and quite rightly your Lordships take the same view.

We remain committed to promoting and defending universal freedoms and human rights at home and abroad. The strength of our relationship with Bahrain means that we can and do express our concerns frankly, openly, regularly and at senior levels. While we do comment publicly, more often the detail and depth of our engagement take place behind the scenes. Our assessment is that the best way to influence change is through private engagement, dialogue and co-operation. My noble friend Lord McInnes spoke with wisdom on that approach and rightly pointed out that there is a need to strike the important balance.

If your Lordships are interested in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights and democracy report, it was published last October and outlines action that we have taken. The Government of Bahrain readily acknowledge that there is more that they can do. They have undertaken reforms and addressed issues, often with UK assistance.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Luce, I say that we provide technical assistance to Bahrain in order to influence and support change. All training provided is in line with international standards and fully complies with our domestic and international human rights obligations. We believe that technical reform assistance makes a major contribution to the strength of our bilateral relationship. We are committed to supporting Bahrain-led reform and are confident of its positive impact for people in Bahrain across a variety of areas, including judicial reform, youth engagement and empowerment, civil society, combating modern slavery and supporting human rights oversight bodies.

A number of your Lordships referred to these important oversight bodies, which hold state institutions to account. They include the National Institute for Human Rights, the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman, the Special Investigations Unit, and the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission. Some of your Lordships suggested that they fail in their fundamental duties. I do not accept that. We believe that they are effective in addressing allegations of torture and mistreatment in detention.

That has been demonstrated through the prosecution of police officers accused of human rights abuses, to which my noble friend Lord Astor referred. A Special Investigations Unit investigation directly resulted in the retrial of Mohammed Ramadan and Hussain Moosa, who were originally sentenced to death in 2014. The Ministry of Interior Ombudsman has investigated serious cases, including deaths in custody. As the first such organisations established in the region, they have more to do, but the UK continues to work with them to encourage development of their skills and capacity.

It is important to acknowledge areas where Bahrain’s human rights approach aligns with our own. I will highlight three of them. First, Bahrain is a regional leader in combating the exploitation of migrant workers. The Bahraini Government have increased transparency and introduced a victim-centred approach. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, who referred to Bahrain’s important achievement in attaining tier 1 status in the US State Department’s annual report, Trafficking in Persons, meaning that it meets its minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. Importantly, Bahrain is the first Gulf country to do so.

Secondly, as my noble friend Lady Bottomley observed, Bahrain plays a leading role in the region in protecting and safeguarding women’s rights. Women’s organisations are active in Bahrain and freely run campaigns calling for equality, especially on citizenship rights.

Finally, freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Bahraini constitution. Bahrain is home to churches, a synagogue and the region’s oldest Hindu temple. Members of all religions co-exist and contribute to society. My noble friend Lady Morris is right that we should acknowledge these achievements. These developments are positive and we should welcome them.

A number of noble Lords raised specific points. I am pushed for time, but I will see whether I can deal with some of them. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, raised the case of Ibrahim Sharif. We are aware of it; UK officials attended the trial. We understand that Mr Sharif’s lawyer will appeal through the courts. We urge the court to protect freedom of expression for all citizens.

The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, mentioned the Integrated Activity Fund. All reform assistance goes through a rigorous and comprehensive assessment process to ensure compliance with our domestic and international human rights obligations. I should make it clear that, as many projects and programme activities deliver access across the whole region, it is not possible to provide a breakdown according to each beneficiary state, including Bahrain.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

That is exactly what happened up until two years ago. Why did the policy change? The Government could do that until two years ago—indeed, they did.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I will investigate further. If I elicit any more information, I will certainly communicate with the noble Lord. He also asked about Mr Alwadaei’s family members. We have raised their case with senior levels of the Bahraini Government.

The noble Lords, Lord Soley and Lord Luce, and my noble friend Lady Morris referred to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was an important development. The Government of Bahrain have made significant strides in implementing the wide range of reforms it recommended, and that reform continues under their ambitious action plan.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the matter of keeping our engagement under regular review. While we continue to believe that our partnership is effective, our embassy in Manama monitors and assesses the situation on the ground. We are certainly anxious to ensure that the help we provide is delivering results on the ground, where that help is intended to provide improvement.

I have run out of time, for which I apologise. I will look at Hansard and undertake to write to your Lordships on any contributions which I have been unable to acknowledge or respond to.