Bahrain — [Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:46 am on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development) 10:46 am, 11th September 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I am grateful to Andy Slaughter for securing the debate. I know that he and other colleagues across the House take a keen interest in developments in Bahrain, and I recognise the strength of feeling that was expressed about human rights.

I will try to respond to many of the points that were raised, although, as the hon. Gentleman kindly recognised, I will not be able to address them all. In so doing, I will highlight areas where Bahrain has made real progress and set out plainly where I believe the Government of Bahrain have further work to do. I thank all the Back-Bench speakers, as well as the other Front-Bench speakers, Chris Law and Fabian Hamilton, who again did an excellent job of summing up all the speeches. That means I can get to the substance of the concerns, which I hope is the best way for me to spend the next 13 minutes.

Let me start by making it clear that Bahrain is a key partner for the UK in the middle east, as was expressed. The UK Government make no apology for that. Our two kingdoms share a close and lasting bond that dates back more than 200 years to the treaty of friendship of 1816, as my hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart made clear. We have a strong partnership based on mutual interests, shared threats and a desire to promote greater security and peace in the Gulf. For example, as colleagues mentioned, our new United Kingdom naval support facility, which opened this year, is the first UK naval presence east of Suez since 1971. However, I reassure the hon. Member for Leeds North East that none of that allows the UK to overlook the things that need to be brought out in a relationship between friends. As Jim Shannon said, we sometimes need to make representations to our friends.

As my hon. Friend Leo Docherty made clear, we work with Bahrain and other regional partners to confront states and non-state actors whose influence fuels instability in the region. We remain committed to working together to address Iran’s malign regional behaviour and ballistic missile activity. I confirm his view that we will continue to be engaged in such a way in the region.

It is not unfair or partial, however, to observe that there is a much-contested political dispute about Bahrain—national and international. There is a significant gap between the claims on the two sides, which this debate is unlikely to dispel. We heard contrasting speeches, which illustrated the differences of opinion about Bahrain. As with most things in the House, there are elements of truth on both sides of the debate. The United Kingdom recognises that. A number of colleagues have expressed concern about the human rights situation in Bahrain, the subject of today’s debate, and questioned the UK’s close partnership with that country. Although the difference between the speeches has been stark, the United Kingdom recognises that Bahrain has more work to do in this area. Bahrain continues to be a human rights priority country for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and as the hon. Member for Strangford has recognised, that is no small admonition by the UK Government.

The Government remain committed to protecting and promoting human rights around the world. However, we believe that the best approach—as other speakers have indicated—is to engage with Governments and work with international partners and civil society organisations to promote and defend those universal freedoms, and to bring about positive change. We apply this approach consistently, including with Bahrain, and it follows work that—as many of us know—began in Bahrain before 2011. The reform programme led by the crown prince and others had been ongoing, but 2011 catalysed it. The response of the Bahraini Government—the establishment of the commission of inquiry—was unprecedented in the region. The public presentation of its findings in front of the king was unprecedented, and the response of the Bahraini Government was also very different to anything in the region.

The depth and breadth of our relationship with Bahrain means we can, and do, express our concerns about human rights in a frank and open way at senior levels. We do so publicly, but more often do so in private discussions, as the House has obviously noted. The FCO’s latest annual human rights report outlined action taken by the UK—relating, for example, to the prison sentence given to Nabeel Rajab—as well as our concerns about the deprivation of nationality, where that renders an individual stateless. We will continue to support Bahrain to address those and other human rights concerns, both through our bilateral engagement and through international institutions. At the same time, we should acknowledge and welcome the steps that Bahrain is taking to address a range of rights issues. I will highlight some of those before returning in more detail to some of the cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Hammersmith.

The UK has provided assistance and support to Bahrain in many areas. First, freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Bahraini constitution. There is a vibrant multi-religious community, and in addition to numerous mosques, Bahrain is home to churches, a synagogue, and the region’s oldest Hindu temple. As my hon. Friend Rehman Chishti has so clearly stated, members of all religions and communities co-exist peacefully and play an important part in Bahraini society, whether in the Shura Council, in the elected chamber of Parliament, or as senior Government Ministers and officials. My hon. Friend made a brave speech, and I hope that no-one would seek to defend those who pursued him outside the Bahraini embassy in the manner he described. The United Kingdom acknowledges peaceful protest, but there is activity that is unacceptable, and my hon. Friend was right to raise his concerns.