On Wednesday, 12 August 2015, there was a Press Conference at the House of Lords discussing political relations between the UK and Bahrain. Chaired by Lord Avebury, the Vice-Chairman of the Parliamentary HR Group, speakers included the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) Media Coordinator, Andrew Smith; the Stop The War Coalition National Officer, Stephen Bell; and former Bahraini MP Jawad Fairooz.
Lord Avebury began the event by giving an overview about the recent political events in Bahrain, to begin the discussion as to whether the Kingdom is moving in the right direction. Notably, he pointed towards the government of Bahrain’s recent decision to close al-Wasat; the only independent newspaper in the country. Describing it as “another nail in the coffin of freedom of speech” as part of the “relentless campaign to silent voices of dissent”, he called upon the UK government to “condemn the decision and demand its reinstatement.” Similarly, he drew attention to the recent decision to imprison Ebrahim Sharif, Considered a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, he is detained on deliberately vaguely termed charges of “inciting hatred”. The cancellation of the visit to Bahrain by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture was additionally given as an example in which the country is stifling free speech, in being unwilling to allow any independent investigation to expose its systematic use of torture and human rights abuses. Lord Avebury also brought up the recent positive decision in the case of Isa al-Ali, who was recently granted asylum in Britain, having fled Bahrain after being tortured by the authorities for partaking in peaceful protests. Lord Avebury thus concluded that rather than “moving in the right direction”, Bahrain was “never stable or reformist” in its continued attack against freedom of expression., and was most definitely travelling in the Wrong Direction.
Andrew Smith from CAAT then drew upon the extent of UK arms sales to Bahrain to evidence the British complicity and support in the country’s human rights abuses. Crucially, UK’s eurofighter jet sales to Bahrain and the £15 million naval base further solidifies their relations with the repressive regime. With Saudi Arabia being the UK’s biggest buyer of arms, they are providing the means in which Saudi Arabia is able to exert its influence across the Gulf through brutally suppressing any opposition, as currently seen in the humanitarian crisis of Yemen. Andrew Smith went on to say that the UK must make a choice: “either we are on the side of those who want democracy, or those who don’t”, and the UK government has unfortunately chosen to make alliances with the latter. In doing so there is an innate contradiction in their supposed support for human rights.
The construction of the new naval base in Mina Salmon port was also discussed at length by Stephen Bell. Whilst the British Empire may no longer be in existence, it is the continued imperial interests of the UK that are the principal driving force behind the construction of the naval base. Yet the concerns such as ISIS, the Syrian Civil War and a nuclear Iran cited by the UK government are redundant in justifying British military presence in the Gulf, as not only has the West now reached a historic nuclear deal with Iran, but their most effective military base in terms of logistics is that located in Cyprus. Instead, Defence Minister Michael Fallon has outlined how Britain is keen to exert greater influence in the gulf region as the United States shifts its focus towards Asia Pacific. Overall, the UK seeks to “continue the role of British foreign policy as a subcontractor to the US”; a position which has resulted in us increasing defence spending to 2% of GDP whilst other departments face significant budget cuts.
Jawad Fairooz also called for the need for meaningful reform in Bahrain and an in-depth investigation into the human rights abuses perpetrated by the government. By providing an overview of UK relations in the kingdom, he outlined the extent to which Britain has remained involved in supporting the al-Khalifa family. Rather than being complicit in the crackdown on dissent, the UK government should pressure the kingdom to ensure that the British standards of freedom of speech and human rights are enjoyed by all citizens of Bahrain.
The Q&A session principally concerned itself around the question of how British foreign policy should change to ensure meaningful change is realised in Bahrain. Notable suggestions included engaging with trade unions in Bahrain who are pushing for the realisation of their rights, as well as the need to inform the UK public to a greater extent about what is happening in the country. Furthermore, pushing for an independent UN investigation into torture in Bahrain was seen to have the potential to put important pressure on the Kingdom, whether or not the investigation would be refused or not. By joining together with activists and civil society, greater influence can be exerted to ensure that the government of the UK and Bahrain stop continuing down the Wrong Direction.