An Open Letter on Bahrain to Rt Hon William Hague MP
8 January 2012
Welcome back from Burma. The pictures of you there with Aung San Suu Kyi were heart-warming and it is good you went there in person to express British support for democratic change to liberate the Burmese people from their repressive regime. Today I am writing to ask that you give the same attention to the continuing repression of human rights in Bahrain that you give to Burma, Syria or Zimbabwe. Those responsible in Bahrain for the continuing repression, imprisonments, torture, and beatings up live in a culture of impunity because in part, the UK in all of its manifestations of state authority continues to soft-soap and turn a blind eye to the cruelties that take place under the ruling dynastic Khalifa elite family network. These people have been received at 10 Downing Street, continue to lavish presents on senior British representatives, including and seem to act as if they are under no pressure from Britain as HMG drops all the language and pressure on human rights you rightly apply and use when dealing with other unsavoury regimes.
I have just learnt today (Saturday 7th January) that the head of the Bahraini Commission on Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, has been severely beaten and arrested by police in Bahrain. This shows once again that the regime hardliners in Bahrain are refusing to back down and are now even attacking targets which everybody knows they have been told not to attack by the US State Department. Whether this arrest is attributable to officers on the ground who want to punish Mr Rajab, or whether it is an order from on high, I cannot tell from London. However, it is a very worrying sign at this point in the process of attempting to reconcile both sides in Bahrain to some kind of reform programme.
I appreciate that you have made statements in the House calling for reconciliation and dialogue and that Alistair Burt was only in Bahrain a few weeks ago. But it is clear the Bahraini regime are ignoring all your calls for restraint and reform. Stronger words and action are now needed from you and it should be made clear to the Palace that it is very embarrassing for any representative of the head of state to receive gifts worth millions of pounds from men who are overseeing the repression of their own people.
It is now more than a month since the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) published its findings into the political unrest in Bahrain. The report, commissioned by the King of Bahrain, nevertheless recounted gross human rights violations by the regime, including excessive use of force against protesters and the torture of political prisoners.
Can I urge you at the start of 2010 to call on the Bahraini authorities to release political prisoners as a gesture of reconciliation and an essential first step towards dialogue and reform in Bahrain? Both UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and President Obama have called on the Bahraini authorities to release political prisoners. Now more than ever, the UK government has an opportunity to hold Bahrain to its promises of reform. Not doing so now would let the Al-Khalifa regime off the hook and indicate to our other allies in the region that human rights are a secondary concern within UK foreign policy.
The Bahraini government has a history and reputation for not living up to their promises. In 2002 the King unilaterally rewrote the new constitution in order to safeguard his grip on power after initially promising reform and political liberalisation of the autocratic system of government. Understandably, many in the Bahraini opposition and international human rights community are sceptical about current reform initiatives. It is therefore fundamental that the UK and US governments act in concert to show the Bahraini government that we are serious in our demands for good governance by our allies.
So far there has been no sign that the Bahraini regime intends to comply with the recommendations laid out in the BICI report. Three more protesters have died since the publication of the report, taking the total human cost of the uprising to around 50 lives. In the case of the arrested doctors, even more outrageous and unbelievable charges have been levelled against them, with AK47 machine guns being produced at their trial to support claims that they gave weapons to protesters. Of course, recommendations such as making the police and security forces representative of all religious communities, like in Northern Ireland, will take some time. But with Bahrain’s military and security forces seemingly controlled by hard-line elements, will the British Government be asking for assurances that Bahrain is serious about prosecuting those responsible for torture and ending the culture of impunity within the police and military?
The UK has great cultural and historic ties with the government of the Kingdom of Bahrain. We cannot afford to be timid to our allies while being belligerent towards our enemies. Human rights are universal, and should not be beholden to our special political or economic interests. It is in the Bahraini government’s economic interest to uphold human rights if they wish to hold the Formula 1 race and prevent capital flight from Bahrain. There has been an upsurge of political tension in the Gulf region in recent months and Bahrain is at the heart of it. Calming sectarian tension through effective reform in Bahrain could have positive knock-on effects throughout the region, especially in Iraq, where US and British intervention arguably exacerbated religious tension.
Delicate political situations such as this require a light hand, but if we do not take a stand in requiring allies to respect human rights, we risk damaging our own credibility as well as impeding the inevitable march of democratic values across the authoritarian world.
Denis MacShane MP