Bahrain received a fair amount of time during yesterdays debate on “North Africa and The Near and Middle East”. The highlight of the session was this speech by Ann Clwyd MP, although other MP’s offered their thoughts on the situation in Bahrain. The position of the Government can best be summarized as pleasure at the publication of the BICI report and they take it as a sign that Bahrain is ready for reform. They are shocked by the human rights violations evidenced in the report and will help Bahrain to follow through and implement it’s conclusions.
Please see below the full text of all comments relating to Bahrain. The text is provided by Hansard, Parliament’s official recorder.
Rt. Hon. William Hague Foreign Secretary:
On the question of people’s long-term aspirations and democratic gains, let me turn at greater length to Bahrain and some of the other countries I have mentioned. Members on both sides will have studied the long-awaited report of the independent commission of inquiry set up by King Hamad of Bahrain. The report confirms shocking and distressing abuses, including the use of excessive and unnecessary force against protestors, deaths in custody as a result of torture, the
“systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment”
of detainees, the “deliberate terrorising” of the families of suspects, arbitrary arrests and many other violations of international and Bahraini law. It also points the finger of blame at some protestors who targeted the Bahraini security forces.
The commission has set out clear steps for the Bahraini Government to take, including the establishment of an independent national committee to oversee implementation of its recommendations, an independent committee to hold to account those who broke the law, an independent investigation into deaths caused by the security forces and into allegations of torture and abuse, a permanent new anti-torture organisation that would also oversee human rights training for security forces, the recruitment of Shi’as into the security forces and pardon or acquittal of all those convicted of crimes relating to freedom of expression. The commission called on the Government to publish a timetable for implementation of those and its many other recommendations.
We condemn the behaviour described in the report and call for the implementation of the inquiry’s recommendations in full. We also acknowledge the groundbreaking nature of the commission. This is the first time that any Government in the region have set up an international investigation into allegations of abuse, and we welcome King Hamad’s pledge to use the report as a “catalyst for change” to overcome the country’s divisions. I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Bahrain immediately after the issuing of the report, to urge its implementation and offer British support for that objective. Now is the time for Bahrain’s Government and opposition groups to engage constructively, to promote tolerance and reconciliation and to demonstrate a shared commitment to a peaceful future for Bahrain.
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab):
Given what the Foreign Secretary has just said about Bahrain, is it appropriate—or was it appropriate, as I do not know what the position is now—to continue to train Bahraini military personnel at British establishments, for the Prime Minister to be photographed on the steps of No. 10 shaking the hand of the Bahraini Crown Prince, or to invite the Bahrainis to a British arms fair? Those human rights abuses have been known for many years.
The abuses the commission talks about have taken place in recent months. I think that it is right—we have considered this carefully at every stage—to have maintained a degree of engagement with Bahrain over recent months. The Prime Minister and I have had meetings with the Crown Prince of Bahrain when he has visited London and I have maintained regular telephone contact with the Foreign Minister of Bahrain. Yes, there are links between our armed forces, and the Royal Navy minesweepers that operate in the Gulf are based in Bahrain. I think that it has been right to continue that engagement while making clear public criticism of what has gone wrong—criticism that I have reiterated today.
Bahrain looks to us for advice and we have repeatedly said that the commission is of enormous importance and that its publication would be of enormous importance and we have urged the Bahrainis to follow the path of treating such a commission seriously and using it as a catalyst for change. Such improvements as we might now see might be partly the product, in some ways, of the engagement of some western countries with the rulers of Bahrain, so it is therefore important to keep that up. In all these countries our Government are ready to support projects to achieve greater political participation, tackle corruption and assist employment.
Mr Douglas Alexander (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (Lab):
We welcome the publication—albeit delayed—of the report of the Bahrain independent commission on human rights. Notwithstanding the remarks by the Foreign Secretary, I regret that—contrary to the undertaking that he previously gave the House—the Government have failed to provide a comprehensive written ministerial statement setting out their views on that report. Therefore, I welcome the fact that he confirmed today that the Government are giving their immediate backing to recommendations in the report, not least the call for any protestors accused of a crime to be tried in civilian courts and not special military courts that operate outwith the normal legal system. Therefore, I ask the Under-Secretary to update the House, when he winds up, specifically about the retrials of 20 medics detained during the recent protests. Has he received assurances from the Bahraini authorities that they will meet the necessary international standards of free and fair trials and, if not, what steps are the Government taking to seek to ensure that that happens? We also welcome the report’s conclusion that there is no significant evidence of Iranian involvement in the recent violence, but I suggest that that makes the task of national reconciliation in Bahrain all the more important and pressing. Perhaps the Under-Secretary could be more forthcoming about what steps the Government will take to encourage such critical national reconciliation, given the continued suggestions of violence within the country and Britain’s historically strong links with Bahrain, which the Foreign Secretary described this afternoon.
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab):
I welcome this debate on the middle east, an area in which many countries continue to undergo political upheavals following decades of authoritarian rule, for the benefit of those in power and at the expense of the ordinary citizen.
Much attention has, of course, been directed towards Egypt, where the struggle for democracy, accountability and transparency appears, unfortunately, to be far from over. Like many others, I hope that the military will be persuaded to give way soon to a fairly elected civilian Government. However, I shall focus on two other states in region, which have been mentioned often this afternoon, and where the legitimacy of the Government in power has been challenged. Those Governments now have to decide whether they will undertake reform of their own volition, or precipitate greater instability, and create mistrust and suffering among their own citizens. Those two countries are, of course, Bahrain and Syria.
As has been widely reported, there was widespread protest and serious unrest in Bahrain between February and March of this year. On 15 March, after political negotiations between the Government of Bahrain and the opposition had broken down, the Government declared a three-month state of national safety, which was lifted on 1 June. Gulf Co-operation Council forces were also deployed in the country from about that time. There was a serious and heavy-handed Government crackdown on those believed to have been directing the protests, as well as on leading opposition figures.
These recent events must be put into context. Although there have been attempts by the Government of Bahrain to reform and to address human rights concerns in the recent past, particularly since the ascension to power of the current monarch, reports by well-known international human rights organisations have highlighted the use of torture by the security apparatus, impunity, unfair trials, arbitrary arrests and restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly as ongoing and serious problems not just this year, but for many years.
Amnesty International’s background report on the situation in Bahrain in 2010 stated:
“During 2010, sporadic protests took place in predominantly Shi’a villages against alleged government discrimination in relation to housing and employment opportunities. In some cases, protesters blocked highways with burning tyres and threw home-made petrol bombs at the police and security forces. Hundreds of people were arrested”—
I reiterate that this is a report on the situation in 2010, not 2011—
“particularly in August and September, in connection with protests and riots, including many leading opposition figures, most from the Shi’a majority community. Many were allegedly arrested without warrants and held incommunicado for up to two weeks after arrest.”
On the situation in 2009, Amnesty International said:
“The authorities failed adequately to investigate allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees. Government critics were briefly detained and several websites were closed down. One person was executed. The government indicated it would decriminalize certain publishing offences, reduce legal discrimination against women and introduce other reforms.”
Political analysts have highlighted long-standing demands in the country for political, constitutional and socio-economic reform. In particular, calls have been made for an elected Prime Minister, an accountable Government and a fully empowered and democratically elected legislature. Previous attempts by the Government of Bahrain to address these demands have not been viewed as very successful by opposition leaders, and resulted in a lack of trust in the Government’s willingness to implement genuine and meaningful political and socio-economic reform. The protests earlier this year must be seen against this backdrop of long-standing violations and grievances.
The Bahrain independent commission of inquiry—BICI—was set up by the Government of Bahrain to investigate and report on the allegations and events of 2011, and to make such recommendations as it deemed necessary. I, of course, welcome the King’s initiative to set up this commission and to allow for the full publication of the report’s 500 pages. It presents a detailed and balanced account of events surrounding the Bahraini protest movement, the context in which it occurred and the response by Government agents. Its findings set out in considerable detail the manifestly repressive nature of the Government’s crackdown on protesters and opposition leaders.
The report states that the security forces
“in many situations violated the principles of necessity and proportionality, which are the generally applicable legal principles in matters relating to the use of force by law enforcement officials. This is evident in both the choice of weapons that were used by these forces during confrontations with civilians and the manner in which these weapons were used.”
What does the right hon. Lady say to the accusation that I have heard from some people in the region that Iran was very much involved in fomenting the unrest in Bahrain?
If the hon. Gentleman is a little patient, I shall come to that point in a moment.
The report also states:
“A large number of individuals were prosecuted before the National Safety Courts”.
It went on to say:
“Numerous violations of due process rights were recorded…it appears that the Military Attorney General chose to rely on those statutory provisions that were the least favourable to the arrested persons and to the defendants appearing before the National Safety Courts.”
“The manner in which the security and judicial agencies of the GoB”—
Government of Bahrain—
“interpreted the National Safety Decree also opened the door for the perpetration of grave violations of human rights, including the arbitrary deprivation of life, torture and arbitrary detention.”
The report also details that many of the detainees were subjected to torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse while in custody, and it lists the methods as follows:
“blindfolding; handcuffing; enforced standing for prolonged periods; beating; punching; hitting the detainee with rubber hoses (including on the soles of the detainee‘s feet), cables, whips, metal, wooden planks or other objects; electrocution; sleep-deprivation; exposure to extreme temperatures; verbal abuse; threats of rape…and insulting the detainee‘s religious sect”.
Those subject to this were predominantly Shi’a.
Many of those held by the authorities claim that they were forced to sign confessions or admit to committing crimes. It is especially pertinent that the report notes on more than one occasion that the actions of the authorities were “systematic”. I emphasise that word, as it shows that these violations were not the fault of a few bad apples or rogue elements; the security personnel in Bahrain were carrying out actions that were expected of them and that were implicitly, if not explicitly, condoned by superiors and other branches of the Government.
With at least 35 deaths, thousands arrested, 4,500 employees dismissed for their support of the protests, more than 500 students expelled and 30 religious sites demolished, it is simply not credible that such a vast crackdown could have taken place at the initiative of the lower ranks of the Bahraini Government alone. The report categorically states:
“In many cases, the security services of the GoB resorted to the use of unnecessary and excessive force, terror-inspiring behaviour and unnecessary damage to property. The fact that a systematic pattern of behaviour existed indicates that this is how these security forces were trained and were expected to behave.”
It goes on to say that there is
“a culture of impunity, whereby security officials have few incentives to avoid mistreatment of prisoners or to take action to prevent mistreatment by other officials.”
Some months ago, before the summer recess, I, on behalf of the all-party group on human rights, and Lord Avebury, the vice-chair, went to see the ambassador of Bahrain at the embassy in London. He was Mr al-Khalifa, a member of the royal family, and Eric Avebury, in particular, had detailed knowledge of the complaints made by some of the medical personnel—he knew some of the doctors personally. He was very specific when we put those accusations to the then ambassador, who said that he knew nothing about it but that he would come back to us with a detailed explanation of all the allegations. We heard not one word from the ambassador and surprisingly—or perhaps not—two weeks later, he was gone from the embassy, never to return. He was replaced by another ambassador, who did not give us any more information.
I remain concerned about the trials of doctors and nurses in military courts and the harsh sentences handed down. Although the King subsequently intervened and most of the health workers are now under house arrest awaiting trial in civil courts, the report’s findings on the brutal manner in which people were arrested and detained prompts the question of whether any subsequent trials can be fair and whether there is any justification for those people being held at all.
I compliment my right hon. Friend on her meeting with the ambassador and the efforts that she and Lord Avebury have made. Does she agree with me, however, that the current process in Bahrain is pretty awful but not particularly new and that it goes back to the suspension of the constitution a couple of decades ago and the continual denial of rights of free expression ever since? This is a merely a descent into that and much of the surveillance of the opposition is done using equipment supplied by Britain.
I thank my hon. Friend for making those points, which I attempted to make to the Foreign Secretary earlier. It is inappropriate: if we are still selling arms to the Bahrainis or training Bahraini military personnel in this country, that should not be done in the light of human rights abuses going back not just to the beginning of this year but to earlier years, too.
If the Government of Bahrain are to retain their legitimacy domestically and their credibility internationally, given what the BICI has established as the systematic nature of the serious human rights violations by Government officials, they must ensure that accountability for those violations goes right to the top. If I have one criticism of the report, it is that I feel it could have gone further, with a more precise allocation of responsibility for specific violations, stating who ordered what and when. The Government of Bahrain will, we hope, do that now.
We should make no mistake: Bahrain is at a crucial crossroads and can redeem itself in the eyes of its citizens and the international community by ensuring that, first, the rule of law and then wider democratic reforms prevail; by putting responsible officials, including those at the top of the chain of command, such as Government Ministers and senior military leaders, on trial; by engaging meaningfully with the Opposition; and by implementing the recommendations of the BICI report in good faith. Alternatively, it can bury its head in the sand and set the stage for further and more pronounced instability in the future.
Perpetuating the myth that Iran was responsible for the unrest is, in my view, not only unhelpful but dangerous. I am no apologist for the Iranian regime—I am only too well aware of the terrible human rights violations perpetuated on a daily basis on its own people and of the profoundly destabilising effects of its foreign policy—but it is important to note the report’s findings in this regard. It said:
“The evidence presented to the Commission…does not establish a discernible link between specific incidents that occurred in Bahrain during February/March 2011 and the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
It is critical that leaders in Bahrain take responsibility for their own failings and acknowledge legitimate grievances rather than dismissing them as nothing more than “foreign agitation”.
The Bahraini King has said that he is determined to ensure that the report’s insights will act as a “catalyst for positive change”, and has since issued a decree to form a national commission with powers as advised in the report. However, the King still seems reluctant to face up to the enormity of the task ahead, given his carefully worded statement on receiving the report last Wednesday in which he referred to
“the unprecedented challenges faced by our authorities as they confronted relentless provocation, from hostile sources both inside and outside the country,”
“instances of excessive force and of the mistreatment of persons placed under arrest.”
I trust that the UK Government will, as I think the Foreign Secretary has indicated that we will, as a friend of the Bahraini Government, encourage and persuade them to do what is right in the longer term, however difficult that is in the short term, for the people of Bahrain, the region and the wider international community.
The following words from the BICI report sum up what I want to say on Bahrain:
“During the beginning of the events in Bahrain, as during the past decades, the demand was for reforms, not for regime change. This was the same in the early stages of the demonstrations and protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen. But as experience shows, when demands for reforms are rebuffed, the demands become for regime change. In the end, the society becomes both polarised and radicalised. This situation leaves little room for a centre that could bring together people from all ethnic and sectarian groups and from all social and economic strata to work for reforms based on well established principles and processes of democracy, good governance and respect for internationally protected human rights.”
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD):
Last but not least, I would like to deal briefly with the situation in Bahrain, and I strongly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s remarks on the country. I listened with interest to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who has long been an independent and forthright commentator on international affairs regardless of who happens to be in government at the time. In a way, however, I think she got the tone slightly wrong on the independent committee of inquiry whose report has just been published in Bahrain. She rightly said that it demonstrates comprehensive evidence of widespread and serious abuse of human rights, certainly implicating the security forces, and that this is part of deep-seated process in the state of Bahrain. The fact that the report has been published at all, however, is a very positive development that we must try to hold on to. The fact that it was robust and that it did not pull any punches is quite a testament to the potential for openness and accountability in Bahrain.
We know from our own experience in this country that it took us decades to accept the role of our military in even very limited and isolated examples of the abuse of military power in Northern Ireland and later in Iraq, for example. These were not systematic, but very isolated cases of discreditable actions—not typical of the British armed forces as a whole—yet these were painful incidents for us to talk about and admit. Bahrain, however, has moved very quickly to a position in which it is openly discussing comprehensive and systematic human rights abuse by its own security forces, which is something to be praised.
Laura Sandys (South Thanet) (Con):
I believe that the timely publication and the ability for people to see the transparency will be important steps in the reconciliation between the Sunni and the Shi’a in Bahrain. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
Yes, I certainly agree with that. What the report has highlighted about the Shi’a is particularly important. It showed that the idea that Iran was stirring up trouble and was behind the Shi’a elements in the protests was not backed up by any real evidence. That was another honest and important conclusion from the report.
The test is, of course, what happens next. As Amnesty International has said, it is the “speed, extent and seriousness” of the Government’s response that is the real test in this case. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley rightly highlighted the case of medical workers who are still in custody of one kind or another, which is simply not acceptable. The Bahraini Government should tackle that issue as a matter of absolute priority.
I am sure that Her Majesty’s Government will enthusiastically support that kind of robust response to the report by the Bahraini Government, and I think they should also seek to reassure any nervous neighbours of Bahrain that as the “Building Stability Overseas Strategy” rightly points out, we are now looking at a new philosophy of security for countries such as Bahrain and others around the world, whereby security does not come from repression and control, but ultimately and in the long term from societies that are capable of peaceful change, in which human rights and the rule of law are respected. From Somalia to Syria, from Mauritania to Iran, that commitment to peaceful change, human rights and the rule of law ought to be—and, I hope, will be—the hallmarks of British foreign policy.
David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con):
Let me touch briefly on Bahrain. There have been wide-scale human rights abuses in that country, and it is perhaps a matter of encouragement that the King established the independent human rights commission to examine the protests. The commission was led by Cherif Bassiouni, a former war crimes lawyer for the United Nations. Members of all parties will have read the report that ensued and will have congratulated the Bahraini Government. It is important that the pressure continues to mount on Bahrain to bring to justice those responsible for these appalling human rights abuses. It is also important to recognise, however, that no other Arab ruler has voluntarily invited such scrutiny of an Arab Government. For that reason, the Government are taking, in my judgment, precisely the right actions on Bahrain. I think there has been general agreement that this applies pretty much across the middle east.
The great benefit to this country of the Arab spring is perhaps that it not only presents us with the opportunity to ensure that many citizens across the Arab world who even a few years ago could not have expected to live in democratic societies have that opportunity for the future, but affords us the opportunity for the first time, given our history and our responsibility for the region, to do what is right, to encourage the democracy that we value so much and to ensure that everybody across the Arab world enjoys the rights that we take for granted.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab):
What my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) said about what is happening in Bahrain is absolutely true. I first met human rights activists from Bahrain at a UN conference in Copenhagen in 1986, when they came to see me to talk about the suspension of the constitution, the weakness of the Parliament, the power of the King, and the degree of discrimination and abuses of human rights. Last week, a very lengthy report was published by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, and I shall quote from a small passage about the establishment of the commission by decree in June 2011:
“The commission found that arbitrary arrests—in many cases pre-dawn raids conducted by armed and masked security…forces—showed the ‘existence of an operational plan’ to terrorize protestors and opposition members. It concluded that the arrests and detentions ‘could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure’ of the security forces, and that failure to investigate rights abuses could implicate not only low-level personnel, but also higher level officials.”
This country has close relations with Bahrain, we have had close military co-operation with Bahrain and we have sold a great deal of equipment to Bahrain, including surveillance equipment that has been used against highly democratic human rights protestors, so we need to be cautious about our double standards.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con):
I lived in Bahrain as a young man in 1969.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD):
A young man?
I was indeed young once—it is almost the start of a song. When I lived in Bahrain it was a very different time to now. I desperately want to see human rights in Bahrain and I am very unhappy about what has happened there recently, particularly about the Saudis coming in with their armed forces. I very much hope that things will get much better.
Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab):
Like Syria, Bahrain is an example of an unrepresentative regime—a 70% Shi’ite majority is governed by a Sunni, pro-US regime. Indeed, some commentators have argued that the US has been reticent in its stance on Bahrain, relative to its sharp condemnation of other Arab autocrats, but the US Secretary of State said recently that the tumult in Bahrain serves Iran’s interests. She said:
“Meaningful reform and equal treatment for all Bahrainis are in Bahrain’s interests, in the region’s interest, and in ours—while endless unrest benefits Iran and extremists.”
Last week the Bahrain independent commission of inquiry cleared Iran of being the hidden hand behind the Shi’a protests, which in itself is encouraging, but under no circumstances should we see the heat taken off the Bahrain Government. Last week’s report also surprised many middle east commentators for its candour and acceptance of the Bahrain Government’s accountability. The report contains a number of damning indictments of the security forces’ conduct, including: the admission of deaths of 35 protesters; the admission of lethal force being used against protesters, leading to civilian deaths; the admission that torture was pervasive among those detained and led to five deaths; the admission that female prisoners were threatened with rape; and, most importantly, the admission that the reforms must now be rapidly implemented to inhibit the litany of human rights abuses that mark the spring uprising in Bahrain. But that acceptance of culpability has also to be followed by purposeful reforms to ensure that the victims of human rights abuses receive justice, and that safeguards are established in law to prevent any repeat. The BICI report details evidence that imprisoned protestors were beaten, whipped, hooded and subjected to electric shock treatment, and those findings must lead to real change.
Dramatic changes are also needed to the economy in Bahrain. Unemployment stands at 15% and youth unemployment is at 20%—and that, too, is reflective of other states in the Arab region. In Libya, unemployment is at 30%, and in Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh last week signed the deal to transfer power, it stands at 35%.
We have a new generation of young people who are unwilling to accept the inequality experienced by past generations, and it falls to the international community to ensure that the brave efforts of protestors in Manama and elsewhere throughout the middle east have not been in vain, and that the promise of the Arab spring is not squandered this winter.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt):
Several colleagues mentioned Bahrain, including the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). The right hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham looked at Bahrain from different aspects—the glass half full and the glass half empty. The right hon. Lady concentrated on the problems brought out by the commission, but my hon. Friend said how remarkable it was in the region that the commission should have reported at all, and that it should have done so with such remarkable honesty. I take my hon. Friend’s point. It is very important that the issues raised by the right hon. Lady are addressed, but the manner in which the commissioners worked has been impressive. Now what has to be impressive is the response by Bahrain to the issues raised. It is essential that the recommendations are delivered. The United Kingdom will review the commission’s findings in detail and we will identify specific areas in the recommendations it made where we can be of most assistance. The point is that if we have encouraged Bahrain to deal with these problems in this way, we should also play what part we can in trying to assist its progress. We will also call on the opposition in Bahrain to take part in a co-operative manner, because they have as much responsibility as the Government in moving forward.