Kishwer Falkner had the topical question this morning, on Bahrain:
Asked By Baroness Falkner of Margravine
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the political situation in Bahrain.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, the Government are gravely concerned about the deteriorating security situation in Bahrain and are monitoring the situation closely. The Prime Minister spoke by telephone to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on 15 March and called on him to end the violent oppression of street protests in Bahrain. The Prime Minister said that it was vital that the Bahraini authorities responded through reform, not repression, and he called for restraint on all sides. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary reiterated those points when he spoke to the Bahraini Foreign Minister yesterday. The Government call on the authorities in Bahrain to respect the right to peaceful protest and to respond to the legitimate concerns of the Bahraini people. There must be open access to hospitals and medical care. The Government call on the protesters to refrain from violence and we urge them to respond positively to the offer of national dialogue.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine: Does my noble friend accept that Britain has a special moral responsibly in the case of Bahrain, as it promised independence and constitutional government when it handed independence to Bahrain in 1971? Given the invitation from the Bahraini royal family for the Saudis to intervene, does my noble friend agree that this has eerie resonances of the Warsaw pact in 1956 and 1968 and, most recently, of Afghanistan in 1979? Does he intend calling in the Saudi ambassador and asking what the Saudis’ intention are and when they expect to go back over the causeway to oppress their own people, which they seem to do rather well?
Lord Howell of Guildford: With respect to my noble friend, the historical analogies can be overdone. The situation in Bahrain is different, as the king and the ruling authorities have sought dialogue, although it is perfectly true that this pattern does not seem to be working out at present. As to the position of Saudi Arabia, it is correct that Gulf security forces—I emphasise that it is not just Saudi but GCC forces, including a UAE deployment—have been deployed in Bahrain. We are of course concerned at the escalating situation and it is clearly vital the outside forces exercise the highest restraint and avoid violence. I am informed that the incoming forces are not involved in direct policing but are concerned with safeguarding installations. Dialogue and discussions with the Saudi Arabian ambassador are no doubt in hand and the Foreign Office will have close contact with him and other authorities.
The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, is not the United Kingdom’s position somewhat compromised since we have not only been an ally of the Bahraini kingdom but supplied equipment to be used in riots and so forth? What is being done to review those exports?
Lord Howell of Guildford: It is perfectly correct that we have regarded Bahrain as a friend. Indeed, the GCC forces, which include Bahraini forces, have a variety of equipment, some of which is of British origin. As the Trade Minister told your Lordships the other day, all export licences are considered on a case-by-case basis in the light of prevailing circumstances and, once approved, are kept under review. Every licence is scrutinised in the light of changing facts on the ground and if the situation in a country changes significantly, as is clearly happening not just in Bahrain but in other Middle Eastern countries, it is normal practice to review licences, as was done for Bahrain back in February. Of course there are dilemmas and difficulties, but we seek to support those aspects of the situation—in this case, national dialogue—that will bring stability and peace and minimise bloodshed.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am sure the House is very grateful to the noble Lord for giving us that update on the political situation in Bahrain. However, the Foreign Office is having to assess not only the political situation in Bahrain but the consular implications, given that we hear today that Britons are being advised to move out of Bahrain if they can. This is not the only crisis that the Foreign Office is dealing with, as there is the crisis in Japan—of which we are all acutely aware—and the crisis in Libya, too. We have three major crises, any of which would at one time be a huge burden on Foreign Office capacity. We have heard that there have been slip-ups over people going into Japan. I am not making an issue out of that but I am saying to the noble Lord that the Foreign Office is working all hours with this huge burden of three simultaneous crises. The noble Lord is a wise man and a very sensible man, and I do not say that in a back-handed way but because I think he is the most experienced head around the ministerial table. Will the noble Lord now ask his colleagues to look again at Foreign Office staffing, and in particular at the staffing for consular issues that arise out of such crises?
Lord Howell of Guildford: The noble Baroness speaks from considerable experience and she offered, I think, some kind words—I am not quite sure how kind they were. She is absolutely right that these crises come not in ones and twos but in battalions. I actually make it that we are dealing with five major crises at the moment in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and this of course places a considerable strain on our extremely dedicated and hard-working staff. The question of support at the consular and other levels is under constant review. We believe that in the present situation—she has mentioned Japan, but there is also the Libyan problem, the Middle East generally and Bahrain, which we are talking about—we can cope with these matters efficiently and are doing so in terms of giving the right travel advice. For those who have been advised to get out of Bahrain, we are offering support for their travel and removal with charter flights. These things can be done. Occasionally there are, inevitably, some hiccups and problems, but we believe we are on top of the situation, and the question of staffing is under constant review.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, while welcoming the statement by the Prime Minister yesterday calling for reform and not repression, is it not a fact that we have spent years cosying up to the hereditary dictators in Bahrain, which makes it difficult for us to change our line to suit current circumstances? Is the noble Lord doing anything about the killing of six peaceful demonstrators yesterday, the importation of the foreign mercenaries and the re-arrest of six opposition leaders who have only just been released from weeks and weeks of illegal detention and torture?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I have considerable respect for my noble friend, who is constantly campaigning for human rights and justice in all these areas, as he is right to do, even among those with whom we have had good relations in the past. I think that “cosying up” is slightly the language of the media. We were dealing with a country which was at peace, was well administered and was supportive of dialogue and reform. There is no comparison at all with Gaddafi and his crazed approach in Libya, where there is a different situation.
However, my noble friend is also quite right that the arrests of political figures give us great concern. We do not want to see a reversion to the days when Bahrain routinely held political prisoners. We argued against that. The Government and the security forces must respect the civil rights of peaceful protestors, including the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. We make those points to those who have been our friends and we believe that, having had well intentioned relationships in the past, we can carry more influence. Of course, in the present situation we have to work hard to get that influence through