Inquiry says UK Government support for Bahrain should not be unconditional

A report of the UK Parliaments Foreign Affairs Committee has called on the British Government to ensure that “engagement and support (to Bahrain) should not be unconditional in the face of continued violations and slow implementation of reforms.” The report warns of dangers to the UK’s credibility “if it allows itself to become associated with the problems in Bahrain rather than solutions,” although argues that UK is right to continue to engage with Bahrain and push for moderate reforms.

It is highly critical of the implementation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), as well as ongoing violations in Bahrain, calling on the UK Government to nominate Bahrain as a “country of concern” if no improvement is made by the beginning of 2014.

The final publication comes more than a year after the inquiry was announced and following a number of evidence sessions with expert witnesses over the past 12 months. The Foreign Affairs Committee is a formal group within the UK Parliament, made up by a cross-party selection of MP’s, chaired by Conservative Richard Ottaway.

The inquiry, based on UK policy in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, received written evidence from many NGO’s, experts and individuals, as well as the British Government itself.  Witnesses to the inquiry included Ali Alaswad, resigned opposition MP, Maryam Alkhawaja from the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Sir Nigel Rodley, BICI Commissioner, as well as representatives of Human Rights Watch and other NGO’s.

Whilst the report affirms the strategic importance of the Gulf to the interests of the UK, recommending that this continue to be the case, it also suggests that complexities as a result of the “Arab Spring” have meant that the nature of the relationship needs constant monitoring. The committee support the UK Government in taking an approach of engaging with the authorities in Bahrain, noting, “The Government is right to pursue a strategy of engagement with Bahrain and to demonstrate the benefits of a reforming, moderate approach.”

However, the report is clear in underlying that a serious reform agenda is not currently taking place, with the BICI implementation described as “disappointingly slow” and its overall failure to implement described as “inexplicable”, challenging the UK view in submission to the inquiry that Bahrain “is heading in the right direction in difficult circumstances”.

But as well as the BICI recommendations not having been implemented, the report also stressed that many violations are still taking place. It describes a number of “retrogressive policies”, including banning of protests, arrests of those accused of insulting the King on Twitter, and the revoking of nationalities. It also highlights more recent violations such as, the banning of opposition groups from meeting with diplomatic officials, the arrest and detention of opposition figure Khalil Almarzooq and more broadly “concerns about the lack of judicial independence”.

The report particular highlights the issue of Bahrain stopping opposition societies from meeting with key diplomats, recommending that the UK provide its assessment of this decision and to highlight if that has affected any of the UK Embassy’s meeting with opposition members and what representations have been made to lift the ban.

The UK is also recommended to meet members of the opposition “whenever possible”, and advocate on behalf of NGO’s to be allowed access to Bahrain. This is in addition to calling for the UK to push for the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to be allowed into Bahrain, something they should push for at the next meeting of the Bahrain/ UK Working Group.

It is recognised in the report that Bahrain is under pressure from “other states in the Gulf” but it argues that it “cannot excuse the continuing stalemate and slow rate of progress in Bahrain.” Many of Bahrain’s problems are described as “of their own making,” and the actions of the authorities during the original crackdown in 2011 are described as “aggressive” with the UK right in being firm at the time.

However, the report notes a return to more usual relations between UK and Bahrain since then, with the need to “press with greater urgency and force Bahrain to implement the BICI reforms, engage seriously in dialogue and welcome UN mechanisms in order to re-establish good faith in its intentions”. This is in addition to the need to continue to monitor the “effectiveness” of its policies in Bahrain, taking careful consideration the image it provides to the broader public in Bahrain.

The issue of arms sales to Bahrain is also a key feature of the report, with the confirmation that the UK is right to “not grant any license that could contribute to international repression”, adding that other export licenses should be decided on a “case-by-case” basis, including the recent possibility of the Eurofighter Typhoon. The committee notes with “disappointment” the inability of the UK Government to provide details of their recent Defence Accord agreement with Bahrain and “should consider what, if any, further information it could release” on this. It was further noted that both the Government and the people of Bahrain view arms deals as a signal of support to Bahrain.

Although the report admits over half of the submissions were on Bahrain, the inquiry also focuses on UK relations with Saudi Arabia. In terms of Bahrain the committee call on the UK to engage with Saudi in trying to reach promote a reform process and dialogue in Bahrain.

Although the inquiry is not highly critical of UK policy with Bahrain, and does not recommend a radical shift, it is clear that there are concerns that the UK push harder for reforms, specifically with the BICI. The point is also made that the UK must be aware of the repercussions of its actions in its relations with the Gulf and constantly monitor how effective they are in ultimately promoting reform and respect for human rights.

Summary of recommendations and conclusions:

  • Gulf critical for UK interests – UK must maintain and extend this
  • Arab Spring has created new challenges to this relationship. Support should not be unconditional to lack of reforms and human rights.
  • UK should engage for positive reforms, remaining a “critical friend”. But constantly monitor effectiveness of this relationship.
  • UK must be careful of image it gives of itself to public both inside and outside Bahrain.
  • Actions of Bahrain Government in 2011 crackdown damaged relationship and reputation of Bahrain, although this has since improved.
  • UK right to be firm and critical in 2011.
  • Bahrain Government problems mostly of its own making.
  • Failure to implement BICI “inexplicable”.
  • Ongoing violations taking place.
  • UK should ensure it:
    • Pushes harder on BICI implementation
    • Push harder for dialogue
    • If there is progress by start of 2014 FCO should make Bahrain a “country of concern”.
    • Any training offered to Bahrain must include human rights aspects.
  • UK must also:
    • Continue to hold back licenses for arms used in internal repression
    • Monitor other licenses on a case-by-case basis
    • Push for Special Rapporteur on Torture to be allowed into Bahrain.
    • Meet with opposition figures “whenever possible”.
  • Following this report UK should provide:
    • Details of Defence Accord.
    • Details of meetings with opposition in past 12 months.
    • Details of any representations made to Bahrain about banning of political societies from seeing diplomats, as well as assessment of this decision.
  • UK should engage with Saudi Arabia in promoting dialogue.

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