Britain's policy in Bahrain isn't working

Dining companions: The king of Bahrain visits Sandhurst

Britain's top military academy, Sandhurst, held a banquet last week to honour its graduates from the Middle East. Prominent among the guests was King Hamad of Bahrain who once trained at Sandhurst (as did nine other members of Bahrain's ruling family).

On the sidelines of the banquet, King Hamad met Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, and – in the inimitable words of theBahrain News Agency – "discussed deep-historic relations bonding both countries in all fields".

British taxpayers provide subsidised training at Sandhurst for Bahrain's military personnel (£29,600 for each trainee) but the king makes up for that in other ways. In January, he donated £3 million ($4.7 million) to build a sports hall at Sandhurst which will reportedly be "named in Bahrain's honour".

Britain has long-standing ties with Bahrain, dating back to the time when it was a British protectorate. Those ties have generally been warm but, increasingly, the Bahraini regime's repression of its own citizens is becoming an embarrassment.

The king, like most Middle Eastern autocrats, says he is pressing ahead with reform – yet there is little sign of that happening. Instead, things seem to be getting worse.

The British government's attitude, meanwhile, is to take the king at his word and "urge" him (a favourite Foreign Office term) to try harder while offering various bits of "assistance" with the supposed reform process.

Last March, for example, six Bahraini officials were sent for human rights training at Nottingham University – paid for jointly by the British and Bahraini governments.

report from the university said afterwards:

"The seminars were facilitated by academics, practitioners, and all experts in their field ... The course provided the participants with the requisite knowledge and understanding of international human rights law, to be applied and further disseminated to colleagues upon return to Bahrain."

Exercises like this allow both governments to pat themselves on the back but, in the view of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, such training is pointless since the judicial system in Bahrain is institutionally corrupt. "This kind of institutional support does nothing to assist the reform process and the UK should consider withdrawing it in future," the BCHR says.

Last week in the House of Lords, Lord Avebury accused the British Foreign Secretary of "cosying up to one of the hereditary oligarchs of a regime that regularly kills, tortures and arbitrarily imprisons any of its opponents, and has now taken to depriving them of their citizenship".

For the government, Baroness Warsi replied:

"I would take exception to the description given to my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. Indeed, earlier this week I myself met with Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, who is the Foreign Minister ... 

"It was a robust and frank exchange, and a conversation in which human rights were openly and frankly discussed."

Undoubtedly the British government does have "robust and frank" conversations in private. In public, the government is far more circumspect – though it is by no means uncritical. But unfortunately, while urging Bahrain's rulers to behave better, it also sends out a lot of conflicting signals. Banqueting the king at Sandhurst is one of them. Another is the recent "defence cooperation agreement" about which very little has been disclosed by either side.

In principle, there's a lot to be said for maintaining a diplomatic engagement with Bahrain but in its present form it clearly isn't working. Last month, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee announced an inquiry into British policy towards Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – and invited submissions from "interested groups or individuals".

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights has now submitted some thoughts which it also published yesterday on its website. Here are a few extracts:

"The UK’s engagement in trying to resolve the Bahrain crisis in the last year has had no positive impact whatsoever. The UK Embassy in Bahrain has been silent, and its new Ambassador since September 2011 has been invisible."

(Ambassador Iain Lindsay, who was posted from Hong Kong, hasno Middle East experience apart from a brief spell in Qatar 30 years ago as a temporary visa officer, and his initial remarks about being "thrilled at the prospect of living in Bahrain at such an exciting time" do not bode well.)

"The [Foreign Office's] human rights report 2011continued to peddle the idea that reforms were taking place, long after this was seen to be wishful thinking. It said 'we are starting to see positive reforms in Jordan, and in Bahrain with its steps to implement the conclusions of its commission of inquiry into the violence we saw earlier in the year' ...

"The tone of the case study on Bahrain overall was incredibly naive and seemed to take it for granted that if Bahrain said it would set up a National Human Rights Commission tasked with promoting and enhancing human rights, then that would happen and could already be counted in a list of reforms. This is despite the fact that Bahrain is notorious for setting up human rights quangos whose sole purpose seems to be to harass legitimate human rights activists at talks and UN events.

"The UK government has quietly sought to arrange for mediation between the Bahrain regime and opposition, hoping to kickstart dialogue. These efforts have all failed ...

"Minister Alistair Burt MP has said that he encourages all sides to engage in an inclusive and constructive dialogue without preconditions, ignoring the fact that most of the principal opposition stakeholders are behind bars. There can't be dialogue unless you have someone to have a dialogue with and it means that what is going on in Bahrain now is a monologue."

As for what should be done about this, the BCHR wants to see Bahrain designated by Britain as a "country of concern".

"BCHR recommends that Bahrain be designated a country of concern. The UK should be able to criticise its allies’ performance in terms of its human rights commitments, especially when such criticism might help bring about reform and stability. 

"There are other things that designating Bahrain to be a country of concern would also improve. At the moment, UK security and PR companies, do business with Bahrain without considering the human rights implications because it is a UK ally ...

"It does not help calm the situation in Bahrain, and it is arguably violating accepted standards of corporate social responsibility for UK and European companies to be assisting repressive governments to spy on and infringe the rights of legitimate human rights advocates. Designating Bahrain a country of concern would go some way to persuading companies not to do that kind of business with the Bahraini regime.

"The UK should avoid sending security and police advisers to Bahrain, or encouraging ex-officers to go there as advisers. This continues a long tradition of the UK providing institutional support to a regime to maintain the status quo, rather than doing anything to encourage reform ... 

"The UK has supported the rights of citizens of Bahrain in the past, when Bahrain held a referendum to decide on their status as an independent nation, free from the competing claims of the British Empire, and the Persian Empire which claimed the territory as its own. Bahrain was intended to be a state based on a constitution limiting the monarchy’s power, just as in the UK. 

"But no sooner had Bahrain become independent than its constitution was abrogated and authoritarian, direct rule began. Bahrainis are still fighting for the same thing they wanted at independence, a state where the individual is protected by law from the unfettered power of its hereditary rulers."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 November 2012.