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.