Bahrain — [Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:37 am on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence) 10:37 am, 11th September 2018

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter not only on achieving this debate but on detailing forensically, as he always does, the many concerns he has—that we should all have—about human rights violations in Bahrain. He has always been a champion of the oppressed, wherever they may be in the world. He pointed out the systematic clampdown on the majority Shi’a population since the Arab spring. He mentioned that the United Kingdom’s policy towards Bahrain is of great concern to many organisations that champion human rights around the world.

We heard an intervention from my hon. Friend Karen Lee, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group dealing withn. Bahrain, who is concerned about the sexual abuse of female prisoners. I hope that the Minister will say something about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith highlighted the arrest, torture and abuse of human rights protesters and listed numerous individuals, including the well-known human rights activist Nabeel Rajab. He mentioned that the executions resumed in January 2017, following the end of the suspension of the death penalty. All Members in the Chamber have equally condemned the reintroduction of the death penalty. He gave a comprehensive list of the UK’s involvement in Bahrain, in spite of the well-documented violations of human rights. One of his conclusions was a quote from Freedom House, which said that Bahrain is more oppressive and less free than it was just six years ago.

We heard from Bob Stewart, who has considerable experience of Bahrain going back 50 years. He gave a very different view of that country. He talked about its independence in 1971 as a constitutional monarchy, and that he was posted there in 1969. He said that it was a very different place then, but he mentioned, as many hon. Members have, that Iran is stoking up subversion. We should not forget that the majority population is Shi’a and that Iran feels that it has a right to interfere in Bahrain’s internal matters. He said Bahrain was trying hard to act well with regard to human rights, that it tries hard to represent all minorities and that the people banned in Bahrain are those who advocated violence. He asked how we in the United Kingdom would feel about accepting parties that advocated violence. I am not sure that the evidence I have seen backs that up, but I accept what he said. He also mentioned that women have greater freedom to choose in Bahrain than in most of its close neighbours. All those are positive things. Like other hon. Members, he mentioned freedom of worship being far greater in Bahrain than in any other country in the region. Human rights are a good deal better in Bahrain than in the rest of the region.

Jim Shannon, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, champions freedom of religion worldwide. Wherever there is a threat to anyone’s freedom to worship, he stands up and speaks about it. He said that with friendship comes responsibility, and that we should be a critical friend of Bahrain. He said that if we see human rights abuses, we should say, as a friend of Bahrain, “You need to stop this; you need to ensure that everybody’s rights to political freedom are equal.”

Rehman Chishti, who visited Bahrain last year, talked about his experience of engaging with and listening to religious minorities in synagogues and churches as well as mosques. It is to the huge credit of Bahrain that people have real religious freedom in that country. He mentioned that reform is taking place. Clearly, for many of us, it is not happening fast enough.

Leo Docherty, who is also an expert in the region, told us that Bahrain is a young country that has achieved remarkable development in a very short time, and that there is much greater freedom for women in Bahrain than in any other country in the region. He mentioned the regional context—that Iran’s interference in Bahrain’s domestic affairs is a real threat to the country. We also heard a good summing-up speech from the Scottish National party’s spokesperson, Chris Law, who always speaks well in our debates.

Let us go back to what is actually happening. As we know, Bahrain is a slight anomaly among its peers in the region because it lacks the abundant oil and natural gas reserves of many of the other Gulf states. For Bahrain’s Sunni royal family, unrest among the country’s Shi’a population is obviously an existential threat. That is why freedom of religion and closeness between Shi’a and Sunni forms of Islam is so important. Bahrain hosts the US navy’s fifth fleet, and we heard much about the new UK military base there. Some 70% of Bahrain’s population is from the Shi’a branch of Islam.

Bahrain has been ruled by the al-Khalifa family since the 18th century, which gives that family an enormous history and tradition in the country. However, the recent increase in repression must be a cause for concern. Since June 2016, the Bahraini authorities have dramatically stepped up their crackdown on dissent. There has been an indefinite ban on peaceful demonstrations in Manama since August 2013. Amnesty International found that at least 169 critics or their relatives were arrested, summoned, interrogated, prosecuted, imprisoned, banned from travel or threatened between June 2016 and June 2017.

This year, the United Nations stated that it

“is concerned at reports of excessive and disproportionate use of lethal force and at reports of enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention and threats against civilians involved in peaceful demonstrations for political and democratic change in 2011.”

However, the Assistant Foreign Minister of Bahrain, Abdulla al-Doseri, stated that Bahrain was a model in the region for its religious tolerance, social protection programmes, the empowerment of women and the development of human rights.

The UK has opened a new naval base at Mina Salman, which cost more than £40 million and is staffed by approximately 500 military personnel. It is the first UK base in the region since the 1970s. The British Government stated that the base will

“enhance the Royal Navy’s ability to operate effectively in the Gulf and further demonstrate the Government’s enduring commitment to regional security.”

The UK has licensed more than £80 million of arms to the Bahraini military since the Arab spring uprising in 2011. It has also licensed exports of military equipment to Bahrain; in 2017 the Government issued licences for the export of military and dual-use components to Bahrain to the value of £36,862,990. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UK transferred £28 million of arms exports to Bahrain in 2016 and 2017.

The British Government ensured that training for more than 400 prison guards was paid for by the British taxpayer from the £1.52 million that was paid in overseas aid to Bahrain in 2016-17 as part of the conflict, stability and security fund. Some of those prison guards have been accused of torture. Reprieve has stated that, despite the UK Government giving Bahraini authorities training for seven years, the number of inmates on death row tripled. The UK Government continued to fund that training even after the executions of January 2017.

Let me conclude by asking the Minister four questions. What pressure will he apply to our close ally, Bahrain, to ensure that its human rights violations are brought to an end? Is it acceptable to overlook recorded human rights violations in the name of military co-operation and security? Does he feel that the introduction of an ombudsman, which the UK helped to provide, train and support, has genuinely improved the human rights situation in Bahrain? Finally, has enough progress been made on human rights in Bahrain in recent years?