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Bahrain — [Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:30 am on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Chris Law Chris Law Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development) 10:30 am, 11th September 2018

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I thank Andy Slaughter for bringing forward this important debate and for the particularly insightful examples of human rights abuses he gave.

We have heard that there have been positive and rapid developments since 1971 in family law and religious freedom. We have also heard that over the past two years the situation in Bahrain has rapidly deteriorated into a full-blow human rights crisis, irrespective of external state actors. This dangerous direction of unending repression and persecution was documented last year in Amnesty International’s human rights report on Bahrain. The report revealed that the Bahraini authorities have embarked on a systematic campaign to dismantle free speech in the country. The campaign was marked by travel bans; the arrest, interrogation and arbitrary detention of many human rights defenders; the dissolution of the opposition group Waad and the closure of the newspaper al-Wasat; and the continued imprisonment of opposition leaders. We heard from the hon. Member for Hammersmith about the ranking for press freedom—Bahrain ranks somewhere near the bottom.

To give an example of the human rights abuses, the 70-year-old Bahraini political opposition leader, Hassan Mushaima, is being denied his most basic human rights while serving life imprisonment. His son Ali went on hunger strike outside the Bahraini embassy in London more than a month ago, which continues to this day. In January last year the Bahraini Government resumed executions after a hiatus of nearly seven years. Mass protests in Bahrain have been met with excessive force, resulting in the deaths of five men and one child and the injury of hundreds. According to Human Rights Watch, last year the Bahraini Government stripped 156 Bahrainis of their nationality, rendering them stateless persons.

Despite the atrocities against human rights activists, the UK Government—arguably one of the most influential actors in Bahrain—have remained largely silent. The UK’s recent human rights country assessment on Bahrain downplays the severity of the situation, referring only to a “mixed picture”. I hope that will be a whole lot clearer after today’s debate. When it comes to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other serial violators of human rights, the UK Government have long allowed arms sales and lucrative money deals that benefit them to trump commitments to the principles of justice and democracy. It has been estimated that the UK Government have licensed more than £80 million of arms to Bahrain since the uprising. Earlier this year, the UK opened a naval base in Bahrain. The UK Government want to promote principles of justice and democracy, but that is not the way to do it.

Over the past six years, the Foreign Office has spent more than £5 million of taxpayers’ money on security and criminal justice bodies in Bahrain. Alarming investigations by Reprieve and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy show that the FCO’s assistance has gone directly to bodies involved in serious human rights abuses. They have listed UK funds that have contributed to torture and forced confessions. That is completely unacceptable and has all the hallmarks of a lack of coherent UK Government policy, as was the case when UK Government funds were used for educational courses for the Burmese military, while the Rohingya people were subject to textbook ethnic cleansing and acts of genocide.

The FCO’s work in Bahrain has been funded from the conflict, security and stability fund, a cross-departmental fund of more than £1 billion that has been criticised for its lack of transparency and accountability. In June this year, the International Development Committee, of which I am a member, found that cross-departmental funds of this kind completely undermine value and trust in UK aid. Despite mounting evidence of abuses, the FCO has refused to release any of its human rights assessments for its work in Bahrain or evidence to assure MPs that these programmes represent value for money.

Amnesty International’s report on Bahrain makes this important conclusion:

“The failure of the UK, USA and other countries that have leverage over Bahrain to speak out in the face of the disastrous decline in human rights…has effectively emboldened the government to intensify its endeavour to silence the few remaining voices of dissent”.

Members have spoken about progress being made, but this is not progress—this is going into reverse. In short, the UK Government have directly contributed to the worsening human rights situation in Bahrain. I want to hear the Minister say, without equivocation, that that will be immediately reversed.

The UK Government must exercise every means available to end these human rights violations. Will the Minister outline the steps that the UK Government will take to improve the transparency of their programmes in Bahrain, to ensure that they represent value for money and to stop abuses rather than enabling them? Will he put pressure on the FCO to release its human rights assessments for the UK’s work in Bahrain? Everyone has the right to have access to that. I urge the Minister to send a strong message to Bahrain that if it wants to do business with the UK, it must uphold basic human rights principles and treat its people decently and fairly. It is vital that the UK Government consistently condemn these crimes and call for sanctions against those who carry them out.

The UK should proudly promote human rights and the rule of law, not undermine them. Using an array of tools of repression, including harassment, arbitrary detention and torture, the Government of Bahrain have led the disastrous decline in the human rights situation in the country. The UK Government have an opportunity to act now, by strengthening their response to the deteriorating situation and leading the international community to publicly condemn these human rights violations. I hope that the Minister will condemn them shortly. To do anything less would be to be complicit.