Sunday, August 09, 2009

My remarks at the Bahrain seminar

Bahrain seminar August 6, 2009

Over the many years that we have been holding these twice a year seminars, we have discussed the whole catalogue of human rights abuses that have been inflicted on the people of Bahrain, for which there has always been the same basic cause: the requirement by a widely unpopular hereditary dictatorship to maintain itself in power.

And to do that, the al-Khalifa family has used every technique in the book, plus one extra that isn’t even in the list covered by the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. There has been extrajudicial execution; arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, clampdowns on freedom of expression, and the large-scale demographic engineering, which has been successful to the extent that Bahrainis may now be a minority in their own country.

But up to now, we have been looking at these events as phenomena affecting people six hours flight time away, not in the heart of London. We never imagined that they would spill over and have a direct effect on us, and on those who came here to escape from the al-Khalifa tyranny. Some of the contributors to this seminar are exiles who will give first-hand accounts of attacks and intimidation they have experienced while going about their normal lives in our midst. It is significant that both the present Ambassador and his predecessor are closely connected with the national security apparatus, and that the Minister of the Interior, yet another member of the al-Khalifa family, had called our Ambassador in Manama in to protest about the activities of exiles who were using Britain as a platform to ‘orchestrate unrest at home’.

Our Ambassador told Sheikh Rashid that we apply the same laws to exiles as natives, and incitement to commit a criminal offence would be treated the same whoever did it. This becomes important, because speeches made by opponents of the regime, for example recently by our friend Abdulhaji al-Khawaja, are said to be incitement. I want to submit this to your judgement, and to the judgement of lawyers who may have some advice to offer.

I’m going to read you what he said, translated from a video of the speech and with two alteration. I have substituted the words ‘the ruling Labour clique’ for ‘al-Khalifa’, and ‘the Party’ for ‘the clan’.

“In regard to a slogan such as ‘Death to the ruling Labour clique’, this slogan is full of outrage and seems powerful, but it is negative, unrealistic and unspecific. It focuses on the Party’s name and not their action and role. It is not dynamic since it doesn’t reflect our role and responsibility. If we only keep chanting ‘Death to the ruling Labour clique’, will they die? No they won’t. However, if the slogan is ‘Lets overthrow this ruling gang’, it would focus on those who are in power, it portrays them as a gang, because of their policies and method, it gives us a clear goal, which is the overthrowing of the gang and it focuses on our role and responsibility’.

If I were to say this at Speakers’ Corner, wouldn’t it be treated as legitimate political rhetoric, and if it were referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, would they need five minutes to throw it out? In Bahrain it may be another matter, because nobody can ever change the government, but surely we should defend the right of anybody to advocate the replacement of a dictatorship by a government that is democratically elected.

Nearly four weeks ago I asked the new Foreign Office Minister responsible for Bahrain, Ivan Lewis MP, to confirm this analysis, and I am still waiting for an answer. One detects a lack of enthusiasm among Ministers for upholding the principle of freedom of expression in Bahrain, and this is perhaps one of the problems. The regime knows that we and others treat them with kid gloves, so they don’t need to try very hard. But when their attempts to silence their opponents lead to physical attacks and arson on our own doorsteps, its time to adopt a more robust policy, and that’s what I hope we shall be calling for this morning.

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