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.