I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights abuses and UK assistance to Bahrain.
It is a great pleasure to be here under your chair-personship, Ms McDonagh—I think this is the first time I have had the privilege. I very much welcome the opportunity I have been given by the Backbench Business Committee. We do not often get the time to debate some of the smaller Gulf countries, and it is long overdue that the House look in some forensic detail at the issues in Bahrain.
Much could be said in general terms about the appalling human rights record of the al-Khalifa regime, even in the seven years since the Bahraini people played their part in the Arab spring protests of 2011. For a short time, the attack by regime forces on the protest camp at the Pearl roundabout, the invasion by the Gulf Co-operation Council—mainly Saudi—forces, the cancellation of the 2011 grand prix and the systematic crackdown, particularly on the majority Shi’a population, caught public attention, but then other, more momentous events in the region pushed Bahrain into the shadows. Indeed, Bahrain is often in the shadows of its much larger neighbour, Saudi Arabia. I am pleased that we are going to debate Yemen, and no doubt the Saudi intervention there, in the main Chamber, but that is, of course, a Gulf Co-operation Council intervention, in which Bahrain also plays its part. Bahrain also plays its part in the boycott of Qatar.
I am pleased that Bahrain is still a priority country—a euphemism, I am afraid, for what used to be “country of concern” on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office list. I am also pleased to report that, in a Foreign Affairs Committee publication that is hot off the presses today, Bahrain is cited as a country not just where there are human rights concerns but where—this is in line with the theme of the debate—the UK Government are not acquitting themselves well in the recognition of those concerns.
I am grateful for the way in which my hon. Friend is pursuing the argument. Does he share my concern that, after an apparent moratorium on the death penalty since 2010, Bahrain went ahead and executed three people last year? Is that not a matter of deep concern, along with all the other human rights concerns we have?
My hon. Friend, who is a distinguished lawyer and is particularly keen on human rights, touches on an issue I will spend some time on. I am afraid that this will be a rather long speech because I am taking advantage of the fact that we do not often get the opportunity to debate such matters, and I will come on to horrific examples of the capital punishment that has resumed in Bahrain.
As chair of the all-party group on democracy and human rights in the Gulf, I really welcome this debate. The Government must be held to account for their complicity in the suppression of human rights in the region. Female political prisoners in Bahrain, including activists Najah Yusif and Medina Ali, have been subjected to torture, sexual abuse and unfair trials. I am calling on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to acknowledge and condemn the abuse suffered by Bahraini female political prisoners and to call for their immediate release. Will my hon. Friend join me in that call?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Her position as chair of the APPG is an onerous task, as the group covers not just Bahrain but other Gulf countries. I held that position in an early incarnation of the group—the all-party group for democracy in Bahrain. My hon. Friend does an excellent job, and I will come on to the matter she mentions.
I would like this debate to shine a light on the continuing human rights abuses in Bahrain, specifically to gainsay their whitewashing by the regime, its paid apologists—the Bahraini Government often contract dozens of public relations and other companies in the UK to spread their message—and its political supporters. I also wish specifically to question the UK Government’s role, deliberate or otherwise, in sanitising the regime’s behaviour.
When the Prime Minister addressed the leaders of the Gulf Co-operation Council nations in December 2016, she noted the importance of UK-Gulf trade and security co-operation and advocated a strong UK role as the Gulf’s partner of choice, embedding international norms and seeing through reform. Indeed, as UK security co-operation and arms sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have increased, so too have statements from the FCO and other parts of Government that they wish to see human rights reforms in Gulf monarchies, starting from what is a very low base.
That has been especially true in Bahrain, where the UK Government have strong military, defence and trade co-operation, including a recently opened naval base, a history of offering military training and substantial arms sales. In addition, the UK has spent more than £5 million since 2012 on a package of technical assistance, which it specifically claims is to improve Bahrain’s poor human rights record. The FCO has funded training for various arms of the Bahraini Government, including the Ministry of Interior, police officers, prison guards and the public prosecution office. The pursuit of human rights reform in Bahrain is certainly an important goal, but the evidence suggests that the UK’s reform efforts in the country, spanning six years and costing millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, have failed.
This is a timely debate in a number of ways because the whole question of the Arab spring—why it happened and where it is now—touches on human rights. More importantly, I wonder whether the Government, in terms of their trade with Arab countries in particular, ask what the human rights caveat is any negotiations. Does my hon. Friend agree that there should be a caveat to ensure human rights and that equipment is not used against the population?
I am grateful for that intervention, and I am glad to see so many Members here. I am not an absolutist in these matters—it is a balancing act. My argument is that things have gone too far in relation to Bahrain and some of the other Gulf countries. Britain has a substantial history of good relations with those countries, but that leads to turning to a blind eye to obvious abuses.
I am grateful for that intervention because it goes to the heart of my argument. The hon. Gentleman’s point is one that we often hear, but my argument is that exactly the reverse is true and that the intervention by the UK at a time when the human rights situation has worsened in Bahrain gives cover to those abuses.
If the UK has a strong relationship with Bahrain, should it not use it? For instance, I hope that we will hear from the Minister today a strong condemnation of the detention of Nabeel Rajab, which is a clear abuse of human rights that many organisations, including the United Nations, have recognised.
The right hon. Gentleman is, as always, ahead of me—he is on to the next page of my speech.
Since Britain’s reform assistance programme in Bahrain began, that country’s human rights record has deteriorated. Detainees held in Bahraini detention facilities have made frequent and sustained allegations of torture and forced or coerced confession, and courts have routinely convicted defendants on the basis of such confessions. Meanwhile, Bahrain refuses to allow the UN’s torture experts to enter the country.
The Bahraini Government have also persecuted and imprisoned peaceful human rights defenders, not least Nabeel Rajab, the founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and a shortlisted candidate for this year’s Václav Havel human rights prize, awarded by the Council of Europe, who was recently sentenced to five years in prison for tweeting. Sayed Alwadaei, the director of the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy—BIRD—has watched as his family members in Bahrain have been tortured and imprisoned in retaliation for his human rights advocacy in the UK. I note that Mr Alwadaei is here today. I thank him for his bravery and tenacity, and for continuing his laudable work in the face of such persecution, and I hope that the Minister does the same.
Hassan Mushaima, now 70 years old and a founding Bahraini opposition leader, was arrested alongside 12 other political leaders in 2011, and then tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment. He is being denied access to his most basic rights, including medical assistance, while in Jau prison, a detention centre that in July 2018 was criticised by the UN for its inhumane conditions. Hassan’s son, Ali, escaped arrest because he was in the UK in 2011. Fourteen days ago he started a hunger strike outside the Bahrain embassy in London, asking that his father be given access to adequate medical treatment, family visitations and books. Ali Mushaima is here today. I hope the Minister will also join his call for more humane treatment for his father and all other political prisoners in Bahrain.
Worst of all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) pointed out in his intervention, during the UK’s current assistance to Bahrain, Bahrain broke a seven-year moratorium on capital punishment, with the execution of three torture victims by a secret firing squad in January 2017. The UN special rapporteur on summary executions swiftly declared the executions of Abbas al-Samea, Sami Mushaima and Ali al-Singace to be extrajudicial killings. After those unlawful executions, the size of Bahrain’s death row tripled in less than a year, and 21 individuals now await execution. It is a particular concern that specific Bahraini institutions trained by the UK have been responsible for serious violations of international human rights law, either while receiving UK training or shortly thereafter. Those violations have been especially severe, with catastrophic consequences in the case of death row inmates.
I want to spend a little more time talking about some of the people who have directly suffered violations and about the grave abuses they have experienced at the hands of Bahraini bodies supported by the UK. Al-Samea, Mushaima and al-Singace were executed in January 2017. Mushaima and al-Singace were the nephews of prominent peaceful opposition political activists in Bahrain, which their families believe is the real reason they were falsely accused of terrorism offences. All three men were tortured by police and forced to confess. Methods of torture included beatings, electric shocks and sodomy with metal objects. Al-Samea was tortured and al-Singace was raped by prison guards at a facility at which the UK was training 400 members of staff.
Al-Samea and Mushaima filed complaints about their torture with UK-trained torture investigators: the ombudsman for the Ministry of Interior and the Special Investigation Unit, the SIU. Those institutions, which are mandated to conduct inquiries into torture complaints lodged by detainees in Bahrain, failed to properly investigate any of the complaints made by the men. Mushaima’s lawyer submitted complaints about his client’s torture and false confession to both bodies, neither of which ever conducted an investigation. The SIU later rejected al-Samea’s torture allegations without interviewing him or commissioning an independent medical examination. The three men were never allowed to meet with lawyers and were eventually convicted and sentenced to death in trials that relied almost entirely on their torture-tainted confessions.
Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Moosa face imminent execution for alleged terrorism offences while they insist on their innocence. Both men were arrested and tortured by Bahraini police. Ramadan, a policeman and father of three, was blindfolded, stripped and beaten with iron rods and threatened with the rape of his family members. Moosa was hung from a ceiling by his wrists for three days and beaten with batons. Both men eventually signed false confessions and have since been tortured further by prison guards in a facility where the UK has trained staff. Despite receiving complaints about their torture and forced confession shortly after arrest, the ombudsman refused to investigate for two years, during which time the men were sentenced to death on the basis of their coerced confessions. Neither man has ever been allowed to meet with a lawyer. After their trial, the ombudsman and the SIU both agreed to finally investigate their torture allegations. The investigations have now been closed, but neither institution has released its findings. Both the ombudsman and the SIU refuse to tell the men or their lawyers whether the investigations confirmed their torture allegations. The SIU eventually recommended a retrial for both men, but their forced confessions, extracted through torture, may now be reintroduced as evidence.
Maher Abbas al-Khabbaz faces imminent execution for alleged terrorism offences, despite insisting on his innocence. He was disappeared by Bahraini police for a week and tortured so severely that he had to be transferred to a military hospital. Police forced Maher to sign a false confession, which was used to secure his death sentence in a patently unfair trial. Despite official complaints from his family and lawyer, the ombudsman has never investigated his torture. The SIU has also yet to investigate his torture, despite receiving a formal complaint from the human rights advocacy group Reprieve, which is assisting him, in late July.
Those defendants were failed every step of the way by Bahraini bodies the UK sees as reform partners. They were tortured by police and prison guards until they made false confessions, and their torture and ill treatment were covered up by torture investigators. Three of them have been illegally executed; the other three could be killed at any time. It is deeply concerning that the UK’s Bahraini partners are responsible for human rights violations as serious as torture and obscuring acts of torture in furtherance of unlawful death sentences. This is a poor result for a reform programme that aimed to improve Bahrain’s human rights record.
Of equal concern is the British Government’s reluctance to issue strong criticism of Bahrain’s human rights abuses, in spite of the growing human rights crisis there. In 2017, after the executions, the Foreign Office’s response was to state that Bahrain was aware of the UK’s opposition to the death penalty. It raised no public concern about the torture or unfair trials. Shortly thereafter the Foreign Office stated that it would not support a joint statement on Bahrain’s human rights record at the next UN Human Rights Council session because the statement would
“not recognise some of the genuine progress Bahrain has made.”
Indeed, the Government have maintained that, while Bahrain
“is by no means perfect and...has...a long way to go in delivering on its human rights commitments...it is a country that is travelling in the right direction. It is making significant reform.”—[Official Report, 20 January 2015; Vol. 591, c. 66.]
The British Government count the advent of the ombudsman and the SIU among the “reforms”. The Foreign Office continues to describe the ombudsman and the SIU as
“independent human rights oversight bodies”
that enjoy “increasing public confidence”, and it has not acknowledged their wrongdoing in the cases of prisoners facing imminent execution. That stands in stark contrast with UN human rights experts, including the special rapporteurs on torture and summary execution and the Committee Against Torture, which have expressed concern that the ombudsman and the SIU are “not independent” and “not effective”, and that their activities result in “little or no outcome.”
There is real concern that the UK’s defence of Bahrain on the global stage has served to deflect international scrutiny of Bahrain’s human rights record at a time when such scrutiny is sorely needed. There is now a false perception among many in the international community that Bahrain’s human rights record has improved thanks to British assistance. Bahrain aggressively promotes that idea. Government-affiliated newspapers there now refer to a supposed British belief that
“Bahrain’s human rights record is flawless.”
Meanwhile, despite mounting violations, states have failed to agree to a single joint statement criticising Bahrain’s human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council in the past three years, and Britain has been unwilling to support such statements.
UK reform assistance programmes are too often cloaked in secrecy. That is particularly true when it comes to the human rights risk assessments that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is obliged to carry out in approving assistance of that nature. The Government’s policy on overseas security and justice assistance—OSJA—is designed to prevent UK involvement in human rights abuses such as the death penalty or torture. The policy sets out a human rights risk assessment process that British officials must follow before approving UK assistance to overseas bodies that might be involved in such abuses.
When the OSJA policy was introduced, the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, claimed that it would demonstrate the UK’s commitment to
“tackling issues related to human rights in an open and transparent way”.
In practice, however, the Government have adopted a blanket policy of refusing to disclose OSJA assessments, which have been used to approve UK assistance to human rights abusers. Bahrain serves as an example of this. The Foreign Office has refused to disclose any of the OSJA assessments completed in respect of its work in Bahrain, leaving Parliament and the public unable to determine whether the risks of such close co-operation with Bahrain’s security apparatus have been properly considered. It is also unclear whether the assessments, which the Foreign Office initially performed in 2011, have been repeated or reconsidered in the wake of serious and documented violations of international human rights law by the Bahraini Government since then.
The funding of such programmes also lacks transparency. Technical assistance to Bahrain was initially funded largely from the conflict, security and stability fund—the CSSF—a £1.13 billion cross-departmental fund that has received parliamentary criticism for its lack of transparency and accountability. In 2017, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy described it as “opaque”. This year, both the Independent Commission for Aid Impact and the International Development Committee criticised the fund. ICAI noted that, owing to serious problems with the Government’s human rights risk assessments,
“we do not know if CSSF programming is causing harm”,
as working with security forces accused of human rights violations
“risks legitimising them and their actions, or even becoming complicit in violations.”
The IDC noted that cross-departmental funds of that kind risk being slush funds, the lack of transparency and accountability of which “undermines trust” in their use and
“risks undermining faith in the UK aid brand.”
That is an alarming message, which is very much repeated in the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, published this morning.
The Foreign Office has shifted the funding stream for those programmes away from the CSSF and to the global Britain fund and the integrated activity fund, about which even less is known. When asked, Ministers have refused to provide details of those funds, including their objectives, safeguards or assessment frameworks, so Parliament has been unable to provide scrutiny or oversight.
It should also be noted that after several years of disclosing basic information about its Bahrain reform projects, the Foreign Office now refuses to disclose such details about its current and future work in Bahrain. In response to freedom of information requests and parliamentary questions, the Foreign Office has refused to tell the public and MPs the true scope of its current and future technical assistance activities in Bahrain, including who the Bahraini recipients are, how much is spent on each programme and which programmes are funded by which funds. It is unclear why human rights reform programmes should be subject to that level of secrecy. By formally shielding the details of such assistance from public view, the Government risk creating the impression that they are unwilling to accept scrutiny or criticism of their activities in Bahrain. That hardly reflects the values of good governance and openness that the Government apparently seek to advance in that country.
The efficacy of the British Government’s reform efforts in Bahrain are in serious doubt. Bahrain, already a repressive autocracy in 2012, has grown only more so since. The country’s only two opposition political societies have been forcibly dissolved. The only independent newspaper in the country has been forcibly closed. A recent constitutional amendment paved the way for military trials of civilians. The UN has described
“a clear pattern of criminalizing dissent”
and abhorrent cases of intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders. Freedom House ranks Bahrain as less free and more repressive of civil and political liberties today than it did in 2012. In terms of press freedom, Bahrain ranks l66th of 180 countries, and the past six years have been marked by torture in detention, unlawful death sentences resulting from unfair trials, and illegal executions. Deprivation of nationality—so-called statelessness—is also now routine. That cannot be the result for which the Foreign Office hoped.
Rather than safeguarding human rights and democracy, the UK’s reform programme has coincided with a brutal assault by the Bahraini Government on the basic rights and freedoms of their citizens. The UK has shielded Bahrain from international censure and avoided criticising arms of the Bahraini Government that have received UK training. That problem is exacerbated by insufficient transparency related to the reform programme’s risk assessments, funding streams, and other details as basic as which arms of Bahrain’s Government will receive UK assistance in future. Given the violations carried out during the course of UK assistance to Bahrain, the British Government cannot keep UK taxpayers in the dark regarding what their money is doing in Bahrain.
The Foreign Office has urgent questions to answer. The UK’s reform efforts in Bahrain have been described as a failure on the basis of the deterioration of Bahrain’s overall human rights records, as well as human rights violations committed by the UK’s reform partners in Bahrain. Does the Minister disagree with that characterisation? If so, on what basis would the Minister describe the UK reform programme in Bahrain as a success? All the violations committed by the UK’s Bahraini reform partners in the cases I have raised have been put to the Foreign Office in writing on several occasions. Does the Minister dispute that those violations took place?
The UN special rapporteur on summary executions deemed the executions of Abbas al-Samea, Sami Mushaima and Ali al-Singace unlawful and an arbitrary deprivation of the right to life. Does the Foreign Office agree with that assessment? If not, why not? Does the Foreign Office accept that confessions extracted through torture must be excluded from criminal proceedings? If so, what steps is the Foreign Office taking to ensure that the special investigations unit and the ombudsman disclose the yet unreleased findings of their investigation into the torture of Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Moosa?
Does the Foreign Office accept the international position that no death sentence can be handed down without strict adherence to fair trial and due process rights, among other safeguards? What assurances has the Foreign Office received from the Bahraini Government that the retrial of Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Moosa will comply with such standards, in particular so that they will not risk a conviction and death sentence on the basis of confessions extracted through torture?
Maher Abbas al-Khabbaz faces imminent execution, and his torture leading to the procurement of a coerced confession has not been investigated by the ombudsman or the SIU, despite official complaints submitted on his behalf. Do the Government accept that they should be extremely concerned that Bahrain may carry out yet another round of unlawful executions without any steps being taken by the relevant authorities or bodies to investigate whether torture was used to secure a death sentence?
Sayed Alwadaei’s family continue to be the subject of reprisals by the Bahraini authorities, not only for his work as a human rights defender but for complaints against the very bodies that have failed adequately to investigate the ill treatment of his loved ones. Do the Government accept that Bahrain’s treatment of Mr Alwadaei and his family amounts to reprisals? Also, what steps are the Government taking to secure the release of Nabeel Rajab and Hassan Mushaima?
The Foreign Office has refused to release any of the OSJA assessments that it has performed in respect of its work in Bahrain. Given the obviously grave concerns about violations of human rights by the UK’s partners in Bahrain, and given the intention of openness and transparency underpinning the OSJA policy, will the Minister commit to releasing those assessments?
The Foreign Office has also refused to release any information on its continuing assistance programmes in Bahrain, or information related to the funds by which the assistance is carried out: the global Britain fund and the integrated activity fund. Will the Minister commit to providing sufficient information about those programmes and funds to ensure proper oversight by the public and by this House?
I am grateful for the assistance I have received from Reprieve and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy in preparing my remarks, and to their representatives for attending today’s debate. I gave some indication of the areas I would cover in my speech to the Minister’s officials. I understand that it might not be possible to cover all of them in his response today, so I hope he can write to me with answers to any remaining questions.
I know that the Minister cares personally, as I do, about the human rights of people in the Gulf and the UK’s record as a defender of human rights around the world. I fear that both of those are under threat and deserve proper scrutiny and investigation. I am grateful to many colleagues for attending today’s debate. I look forward to their comments and to the responses from the Front Benches.
I straightforwardly declare an interest: I am vice-chair of the UK-Bahrain all-party parliamentary group. I am very fond of the place, because my connection with it goes back almost 50 years.
Formally, the British relationship with Bahrain dates to 1816, when we signed a treaty of friendship, which has fundamentally lasted since then. In fact, Bahrain remained under British protection until it was granted its independence in 1971, becoming a constitutional monarchy led by the same royal family that had signed the original 1816 agreement. In July 1969, I was posted as an officer of the first battalion, the Cheshire regiment, to Bahrain. Fifty years ago it was a very different place.
The country still maintains close security co-operation with the United Kingdom—a relationship cemented last year with the inauguration of the Royal Navy base at Mina Salman port. HMS Juffair, which is what it is called, is a vital part of our Gulf defence network, and it was largely paid for by Bahrain too. However, internal security in Bahrain is becoming more and more of a problem. Two years ago, when visiting the country, I was shown a large amount of arms and ammunition found by the Bahrain security services. The arms came from Iran, which is definitely stoking up as much trouble on the streets in Bahrain as possible—trouble that is often deadly. Bahrain is now a major target for Iranian subversion. That threat is ongoing and very real. We should not forget that.
Yet, in a region where human rights are often hugely ignored, I feel that Bahrain is, with British advice and assistance, trying its best to be as good as anywhere, even though some may argue that it is not doing so very well. It is true that Bahrain is a majority Shi’a Muslim country governed by a Sunni-led constitutional monarchy, but listening to my contacts in many different sectors of Bahrain society, I feel that the Government do their best to represent everyone who lives there, no matter what their religion or origin.
It is true that Bahrain has banned some opposition parties from standing in the election, but I think those parties advocated or supported violence. I can understand that. I do not think that we in the UK would take kindly to any political party that advocated violence standing in our general elections either.
I would highlight that women in Bahrain can vote, dress, worship and drive as and when they like. I have met quite a few Bahraini female MPs. Everyone—Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew or whatever—has freedom to worship the way they wish. That is pretty good when looking around the region, particularly at close neighbours such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Some 8,000 police and security personnel have now received British-sponsored human rights training, as have 100 members of the judicial and public prosecution services. As we have heard, there is now an independent special investigations unit and an ombudsman.
Would the hon. Gentleman accept that human rights groups have noted that torture investigations carried out by UK-trained investigators in Bahrain rely on forensic medical examinations performed by Bahraini Government doctors and that independent UK experts have assessed those examinations and have declared that they should be totally disregarded because they fail to comply with the UN’s basic minimum for standards for medical examinations?
I do not know the full detail of that, so I will not comment on the hon. Lady’s point.
The UK’s inspectorate of prisons is helping, working with the judiciary. Since 2011, the International Committee of the Red Cross has had access to the country’s prisons, which is very important. Video and audio recordings now routinely occur when prisoners are interviewed. Inspections of prison conditions are now normal and the recommendations of such reports are implemented to the best of their ability—I believe that is the case. I consider such changes a major step forward. I do not personally agree with capital punishment, but I do not live in Bahrain. Over the last 50 years, there have been only five cases where it has been imposed, for what the state considers to be heinous crimes, such as the murder of a policeman. I remind colleagues that the United States, our closest ally, also still has the death penalty.
Bahrain is actively seeking expert advice on human rights from the likes of the British Government. I think it is determined to show the world that such things matter to Bahrainis as much as they do anywhere else. The country is truly a friend and ally. It is continually threatened by Iran, which is just across the Gulf and has scant regard for human rights. Bahrain is right in the front line of subversion and terrorism. I accept that human rights are not yet perfect in Bahrain, but they are a good deal better than many other places and there can be no doubt that the Bahrain Government cares about the issue and is taking active steps to be as good as possible.
I end by saying that many in Bahrain will be watching this debate. They are truly staunch friends of the UK, and will be pretty jarred off if we condemn them on human rights matters when they are so much better on such things than so many other countries.
It is a pleasure, as always, to make a contribution to the debate in Westminster Hall today. I thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for bringing the issue to the House. As the chairperson for the all-party parliamentary group on freedom of religious belief, the matter of Bahrain has been on my radar for a long time before this debate was called. I am thankful to the hon. Gentleman and to the Backbench Business Committee for giving the issue the attention it deserves.
As we come nearer and nearer to the March 2019 Brexit deadline, I am increasingly aware of how important global trade is and will be, and I am thankful for the good relations between the UK and Bahrain that saw bilateral trade worth £884 million in 2012. I am thankful for the good relations that allow us to have an embassy there and to have a naval base that gives greater coverage of the Gulf region. Bahrain is very much our partner in that. There is certainly a relationship between the UK and Bahrain, which is a good thing, and we encourage that. The give-and-take friendship should be maintained and enhanced if possible, but we all know that with friendship comes a responsibility and I wonder whether we are fulfilling our responsibility and duty to freedom and democracy as much as we could be.
My mother—wise woman that she is—has often told me, “You tell an acquaintance what they want to hear; you tell a friend what they need to hear.” As a friend of Bahrain, are we telling it what it needs to hear? We welcome the friendship—the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) told us very clearly how important it is and we all know that—but sometimes with friendship we have to remind people of the things they are not doing correctly.
I apologise for being a few minutes late to the debate. Does my hon. Friend agree that, while some progress is being made, it is not enough and not fast enough, and that is the big concern for the people and for the wider global community?
People in Bahrain, especially the rulers, are aware that when human rights improved between 1999 and 2007 that was noticed and was commented on by human rights organisations. Can we ask them to get back to the same situation again?
The hon. Gentleman’s words are very wise. We look to the Minister for a response on that, which is what this debate is all about. Can we encourage Bahrain to get back to where it was? If we can do that, I think we will be moving in the right direction. I am sure the Minister will refer to that point in his response.
I believe in the friendship that we have with Bahrain. British rule was relinquished in 1971 and yet we are in a situation where Bahrain is comfortable housing our military base. We have a large number of British expats working and living in Bahrain and many Bahraini students attend universities in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are friends, but I wonder whether we have told our friends what they need to know—that their human rights record is not acceptable. While we are thankful for recent changes in legislation that give more rights to women and children, there must be bigger steps and more practical changes. That is what we are asking for. We are not saying that they have not moved—they are, in a way, a beacon for other countries in the region—but we need to highlight issues where human rights abuses have taken place.
We are not waiting 700 years for change in Bahrain. I have the utmost respect for the hon. and gallant Gentleman, but this issue has to move faster than that. We, our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren will all have passed before it happens if we have to wait for so many years. We cannot wait that long. That is why this debate is important.
The Minister will hopefully respond to our requests. I ask him—I have the highest regard for him—whether he feels that we have used our friendship in an adequate fashion to bring about change. Although it is certainly true that we are not our brother’s keeper and can never be held accountable for the actions of Bahrain, can we morally claim to have done all we can to highlight and push for human rights in that nation? In May 2017, the UN Committee Against Torture stated that Bahrain’s oversight bodies such as the ombudsman and the National Institute for Human Rights—both recipients of UK training—are ineffective and not independent, even after the training we have given them to help them move in that direction. We must ask why they are ineffective and not independent.
In June 2018, the European Parliament condemned the NIHR for having
“repeatedly justified the human rights violations undertaken by the Bahraini Government”.
In July 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee reiterated that the NIHR
“lacks sufficient independence to perform its functions”.
I ask the Minister whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office agrees with the assessment by the UN and the EU of UK-funded oversight bodies. That is the question they ask. We need to ask the Minister that question today.
The fact is that the Government have never acknowledged any wrongdoings by these bodies, despite significant evidence, including a report published by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and Reprieve. My concern is that that appears to show an acceptance of torture, which I truly hope is not the case. I hope the Minister will respond to that.
I press the Minister for an answer to that question, and I ask about the Department’s assessment of the aforementioned report. What steps are being taken to address the appearance of what some have labelled in conversations with me as complicity with the methods used? There are very serious allegations about indiscretions and human rights abuses, and we have a duty in this House to take them up on behalf of those people through the Minister.
I understand that we no longer rule Bahrain—that ended almost 50 years ago—but we do have influence and some sway, and I remain unconvinced that we can morally hold our hands up and say we are doing all in our power. We have spent £5 million since 2012 on a package of technical assistance to Bahrain, largely to improve the Gulf monarchy’s poor human rights record. That is to be applauded, but it could and should be argued—indeed, it has been presented to me—that in six years, millions of pounds-worth of UK technical assistance to Bahrain has failed to reform that country’s human rights as much as would be hoped or could be expected.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. I also look forward to the shadow Minister’s speech, because he always makes very balanced and helpful contributions.
On the issue of technical assistance that we have offered Bahrainis over the past few years, does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that not only our own taxpayers but the international community see that some benefit is derived, that progress is being made, that there is no regression, and that people in Bahrain can see and feel a noticeable difference from that technical assistance?
My hon. Friend’s words are very helpful to this debate. The people of Bahrain need to see effective change, and whether that technical help has enabled that to happen is debatable. None the less, I believe we have a responsibility to try to do something through the Minister and the Government. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I would appreciate a written response on the matter if he is unable to fully answer my questions today. I have asked many questions, and there are many others, but I mainly want to highlight the fact that I believe we can and must do more to influence Bahrain. I ask that we actively do that now and in the future.
We have an obligation to speak out for those with no voices. I often say in this Chamber that we are a voice for the voiceless, and we continue to be so. I believe we can and must be more eloquent in words and deeds as we speak through the Minister to their Government on their behalf.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing this debate. It is important in our democracy that colleagues are able to hear all sides and views in any debate. All colleagues have their own experiences of different countries and of different issues they have campaigned on. I led a parliamentary delegation to Bahrain last November—that is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Prior to that visit, we had a very good meeting with the Minister to look at a number of different issues, including religious freedom, trade and security.
Bahrain came to my attention because, just before I was elected to Parliament, Rev. Chris Butt, the vicar at St. Matthew’s church in my constituency, became the vicar at the cathedral in Bahrain. When you have constituents who have gone to another country, and you have said all along that you will campaign for religious freedom, it is important to take an interest in the work they do around the world. I had never been to Bahrain before, and I did not know much about it, but I became interested in it when the vicar in my constituency went there.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) knows about my commitment to religious freedom—we campaigned together to reform the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Those pushing for reforms in such countries sometimes put their neck on the line, but pushing for change and standing up for religious freedom and human rights are the right thing to do. That is how I became interested in Bahrain.
When our delegation went to Bahrain in November last year, we went to the cathedral and met Rev. Chris Butt. We went to the synagogue with Bahrain’s former ambassador to the United States, Houda Nonoo. We went to the Hindu mandir. We met members of the minority religious communities to hear what they had to say. It is one thing to sit in Westminster and say that this is what is being written in the papers or said elsewhere, but this is about engaging and listening to people. I make this contribution having gone out there and engaged and listened to those people. I think that is very important.
My hon. Friend is spot on; he knows the area very well. There is a Shi’a majority in Bahrain, and religious freedom is absolutely core. They must be able to practise their faith as they want. There are 751 registered Shi’ite places of worship, 432 registered Sunni places of worship and another 618 places for the Shi’a community.
I have said this before in Parliament: there must be no compromise on religious freedom. In politics, there is always give and take, but that is not the case on religious freedom. I say that when I travel abroad. I have an interest in religious freedom, and I have served on the Joint Committee on Human Rights in this place.
Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum engage with diplomats at all levels. On 17 August, I visited and engaged with the ambassador for Bahrain—I am my party’s vice-chairman for communities, and I engage with diplomats across the board. When I came out of that meeting, I was followed by individuals outside, chased down the road and shouted at. Pictures were taken. I did not know who those people were; I had never met them. They had never asked to see me and speak to me. I was threatened. I tried to flag down a cab, but one did not stop, and those people ran after me. I went further down the road and tried to flag down another cab as the voices got closer. I jumped into the cab and said to the driver, “Lock the door. Drive now.” I then reported the incident to the House of Commons security services.
Is that how Members of Parliament should be treated? Those people have their views, but they should engage constructively. We have a difference of opinion. The House of Commons brief says that Bahrain is a priority country for human rights. I accept that there are concerns, but Members of Parliament should not be treated in that way; we should be engaged with. If people want to come to the United Kingdom and claim asylum, they should claim it according to the criteria, but they should respect individuals and how democracy works, and not treat parliamentarians in that way—I make that very clear.
The other point I wish to make is this. I listened with care to the hon. Member for Hammersmith, and he did not mention anywhere where he thinks progress has been made on reform. To be as fair as I can, I refer to page 2 of the House of Commons Library document prepared for this debate, which refers to the commitment of Bahrain, which is a signatory to the United Nations convention on civil and political rights. That note says that some progress has been made—it does not say that no progress has been made—but outlines a number of areas where more needs to be done. So the point I would start with is that progress has been made—my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) took my line earlier.
Over the summer, I read “Agincourt” by Ranulph Fiennes. Many hundreds of years ago, our country went through a lot of changes, and we did a lot of things to one another that were not right, some on the pretext of religion. It has taken us hundreds of years to get where we are now. Countries that became independent only in 1971 cannot evolve to that point so quickly, but it is important that we support them to get there as quickly as possible. The support that we have given on this specific issue—I will be brief because I want to hear the Minister—relates to the ombudsman service. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) wondered about our international partners: what are they saying? They, too, want to see change.
I refer hon. Members to a written answer from Lord Ahmad, a Minister in the other place, with regard to the ombudsman, which is supported through UK funding:
“In 2014 the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman’s Office won the EU’s Chaillot Prize for the promotion of human rights in the Gulf Cooperation Council region.”
Linked to that important point are two of the cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Hammersmith. Husain Moosa and Mohammed Ramadan have been convicted and sentenced to death, but the ombudsman’s report found that those decisions should be overturned. They were overturned because of the ombudsman’s report, and there is a retrial process, so the system works. More needs to be done, but there is a document that says that some of the reforms that have taken place have helped to save two individuals from going to the gallows. It is not just anyone saying it, but a House of Commons document saying that reform is taking place and making constructive change.
We all talk about human trafficking, but Bahrain has recently been given tier 1 status in that regard. It has improved how individuals who go to work there are treated. Thanks to Bahrain’s work on human trafficking, it is now rated on a par with Germany, the United Kingdom and other developed countries by the United States State Department.
Reform is taking place; change is taking place. More needs to be done, and I welcome the Minister’s work on the biannual UK-Bahrain joint working group, where human rights, the environment, education and security are all discussed. I look forward to hearing what he has to say about what was and will be discussed.
In essence, change has taken place. Yes, more needs to be done, but it is no good simply to criticise. Credit must be given where it is due. By working with our partners around the world, we can push for more change. I do not believe in the death penalty, and I never have done. I made that point to the Americans, and I always will. We have to work for change, and as United Kingdom parliamentarians we will do so through engagement with our counterpart parliamentarians in that kingdom.
I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I draw hon. Members’ attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which shows that I have a long-standing relationship with the Kingdom of Bahrain.
Not as long as that of my hon. Friend, that is true. It is an association of which I am extremely proud, because the relationship between our country and the kingdom is hugely important and historic.
I will make three brief points, the first to set some context about the domestic situation in Bahrain. When we travel to Bahrain, we see a young country that has achieved remarkable development in a very short time. Many points have been made by other hon. Members, but those developments include the steps towards democracy that the kingdom has taken, the remarkable level of religious freedom and of freedom of worship for all religions, and the moves towards a family law that provides greater autonomy and freedom for women in the family. They are all remarkable steps for a young country in the region to have taken. Where else can one meet a female Jewish Member of Parliament in the middle east? The Kingdom of Bahrain has made remarkable progress in recent years. I have travelled throughout the kingdom, including in Shi’a villages, and spoken to all sides, and the modern development of this remarkable young country is something of which they are very proud. That is the domestic context, and we must not forget it.
The regional context is also important. Although I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for securing the debate, his contribution was notably lacking in—utterly devoid of, in fact—regional context in terms of Bahrain’s situation. That context is one of Iranian interference in the domestic affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain. It is a tragedy that, since 2011 in particular, political groups and those seeking to engage in politics have been militarised by the Islamic revolutionary guard corps from Iran, and sectarian divides that were not there before have been created and exploited.
That is a modern-day tragedy, which the kingdom is seeking to overcome. Of course, it did not start in 2011; it started in 1979 with the Islamic revolution in Iran. Since then, Iran has sought to export Islamic revolution throughout the region, and has sought to claim leadership over Shi’ite groups throughout the region. Indeed, a seat is reserved for the Kingdom of Bahrain in the Iranian Majlis—so Iran utterly rejects the notion that the kingdom should be a sovereign state.
That is the important point to remember—what started in 1979. We must ensure that an understanding of the regional context and of the threat that Bahrain faces daily guides our thinking, because the threat is real. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), I have seen Iranian-supplied munitions, explosives and improvised explosive device materials brought into the kingdom by boat by IRGC operatives and, fortunately, seized by members of the security forces.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Bahrain is at the frontline of Iranian subversion, which is a pitched military battle in which many Bahraini security personnel have become casualties.
We have had manifold relations with the Kingdom of Bahrain over two centuries; we co-operate on a range of issues. It is not only about our remarkable and hugely important new naval base, HMS Juffair, and nor is it only about the huge range of technical assistance and co-operation or other matters, such as education and culture; it is about the mutual interest and trust that we have with the leadership in Bahrain, which allow us to contribute and guide them towards better human rights outcomes. I look forward to the Minister’s confirmation and elucidation of the importance of that close relationship to the benefit of all involved.
We must almost remember—I will conclude with this—that, broadly, we face a very stark choice in our relations with Bahrain. The question is whether we want to support this modernising monarchy, which is delivering good governance and trying its best for its population. Some of us know that the foremost exponents of political reform in the Kingdom of Bahrain include His Royal Highness the Crown Prince. There is a huge impulse in the ruling family to deliver reform and improvements.
The choice we face is whether to assist the reform to bring it to fruition or to say, “No, we don’t want anything to do with it. Bahrain can become an Islamic republic under the influence of Iran.” Just think of the profound regional and strategy consequences if the Khalifa family and the Government of Bahrain were overthrown by violent Islamic revolution. That would be strategically catastrophic to everyone’s interests in the region.
Thank you, Ms McDonagh. I will conclude by saying that I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend—this is of mutual interest. It is not for us to preach; we must listen and learn. I look forward to the Minister’s confirmation that this close relationship will continue.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for bringing forward this important debate and for the particularly insightful examples of human rights abuses he gave.
We have heard that there have been positive and rapid developments since 1971 in family law and religious freedom. We have also heard that over the past two years the situation in Bahrain has rapidly deteriorated into a full-blow human rights crisis, irrespective of external state actors. This dangerous direction of unending repression and persecution was documented last year in Amnesty International’s human rights report on Bahrain. The report revealed that the Bahraini authorities have embarked on a systematic campaign to dismantle free speech in the country. The campaign was marked by travel bans; the arrest, interrogation and arbitrary detention of many human rights defenders; the dissolution of the opposition group Waad and the closure of the newspaper al-Wasat; and the continued imprisonment of opposition leaders. We heard from the hon. Member for Hammersmith about the ranking for press freedom—Bahrain ranks somewhere near the bottom.
To give an example of the human rights abuses, the 70-year-old Bahraini political opposition leader, Hassan Mushaima, is being denied his most basic human rights while serving life imprisonment. His son Ali went on hunger strike outside the Bahraini embassy in London more than a month ago, which continues to this day. In January last year the Bahraini Government resumed executions after a hiatus of nearly seven years. Mass protests in Bahrain have been met with excessive force, resulting in the deaths of five men and one child and the injury of hundreds. According to Human Rights Watch, last year the Bahraini Government stripped 156 Bahrainis of their nationality, rendering them stateless persons.
Despite the atrocities against human rights activists, the UK Government—arguably one of the most influential actors in Bahrain—have remained largely silent. The UK’s recent human rights country assessment on Bahrain downplays the severity of the situation, referring only to a “mixed picture”. I hope that will be a whole lot clearer after today’s debate. When it comes to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other serial violators of human rights, the UK Government have long allowed arms sales and lucrative money deals that benefit them to trump commitments to the principles of justice and democracy. It has been estimated that the UK Government have licensed more than £80 million of arms to Bahrain since the uprising. Earlier this year, the UK opened a naval base in Bahrain. The UK Government want to promote principles of justice and democracy, but that is not the way to do it.
Over the past six years, the Foreign Office has spent more than £5 million of taxpayers’ money on security and criminal justice bodies in Bahrain. Alarming investigations by Reprieve and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy show that the FCO’s assistance has gone directly to bodies involved in serious human rights abuses. They have listed UK funds that have contributed to torture and forced confessions. That is completely unacceptable and has all the hallmarks of a lack of coherent UK Government policy, as was the case when UK Government funds were used for educational courses for the Burmese military, while the Rohingya people were subject to textbook ethnic cleansing and acts of genocide.
The FCO’s work in Bahrain has been funded from the conflict, security and stability fund, a cross-departmental fund of more than £1 billion that has been criticised for its lack of transparency and accountability. In June this year, the International Development Committee, of which I am a member, found that cross-departmental funds of this kind completely undermine value and trust in UK aid. Despite mounting evidence of abuses, the FCO has refused to release any of its human rights assessments for its work in Bahrain or evidence to assure MPs that these programmes represent value for money.
Amnesty International’s report on Bahrain makes this important conclusion:
“The failure of the UK, USA and other countries that have leverage over Bahrain to speak out in the face of the disastrous decline in human rights…has effectively emboldened the government to intensify its endeavour to silence the few remaining voices of dissent”.
Members have spoken about progress being made, but this is not progress—this is going into reverse. In short, the UK Government have directly contributed to the worsening human rights situation in Bahrain. I want to hear the Minister say, without equivocation, that that will be immediately reversed.
The UK Government must exercise every means available to end these human rights violations. Will the Minister outline the steps that the UK Government will take to improve the transparency of their programmes in Bahrain, to ensure that they represent value for money and to stop abuses rather than enabling them? Will he put pressure on the FCO to release its human rights assessments for the UK’s work in Bahrain? Everyone has the right to have access to that. I urge the Minister to send a strong message to Bahrain that if it wants to do business with the UK, it must uphold basic human rights principles and treat its people decently and fairly. It is vital that the UK Government consistently condemn these crimes and call for sanctions against those who carry them out.
The UK should proudly promote human rights and the rule of law, not undermine them. Using an array of tools of repression, including harassment, arbitrary detention and torture, the Government of Bahrain have led the disastrous decline in the human rights situation in the country. The UK Government have an opportunity to act now, by strengthening their response to the deteriorating situation and leading the international community to publicly condemn these human rights violations. I hope that the Minister will condemn them shortly. To do anything less would be to be complicit.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) not only on achieving this debate but on detailing forensically, as he always does, the many concerns he has—that we should all have—about human rights violations in Bahrain. He has always been a champion of the oppressed, wherever they may be in the world. He pointed out the systematic clampdown on the majority Shi’a population since the Arab spring. He mentioned that the United Kingdom’s policy towards Bahrain is of great concern to many organisations that champion human rights around the world.
We heard an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group dealing withn. Bahrain, who is concerned about the sexual abuse of female prisoners. I hope that the Minister will say something about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith highlighted the arrest, torture and abuse of human rights protesters and listed numerous individuals, including the well-known human rights activist Nabeel Rajab. He mentioned that the executions resumed in January 2017, following the end of the suspension of the death penalty. All Members in the Chamber have equally condemned the reintroduction of the death penalty. He gave a comprehensive list of the UK’s involvement in Bahrain, in spite of the well-documented violations of human rights. One of his conclusions was a quote from Freedom House, which said that Bahrain is more oppressive and less free than it was just six years ago.
We heard from the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who has considerable experience of Bahrain going back 50 years. He gave a very different view of that country. He talked about its independence in 1971 as a constitutional monarchy, and that he was posted there in 1969. He said that it was a very different place then, but he mentioned, as many hon. Members have, that Iran is stoking up subversion. We should not forget that the majority population is Shi’a and that Iran feels that it has a right to interfere in Bahrain’s internal matters. He said Bahrain was trying hard to act well with regard to human rights, that it tries hard to represent all minorities and that the people banned in Bahrain are those who advocated violence. He asked how we in the United Kingdom would feel about accepting parties that advocated violence. I am not sure that the evidence I have seen backs that up, but I accept what he said. He also mentioned that women have greater freedom to choose in Bahrain than in most of its close neighbours. All those are positive things. Like other hon. Members, he mentioned freedom of worship being far greater in Bahrain than in any other country in the region. Human rights are a good deal better in Bahrain than in the rest of the region.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, champions freedom of religion worldwide. Wherever there is a threat to anyone’s freedom to worship, he stands up and speaks about it. He said that with friendship comes responsibility, and that we should be a critical friend of Bahrain. He said that if we see human rights abuses, we should say, as a friend of Bahrain, “You need to stop this; you need to ensure that everybody’s rights to political freedom are equal.”
The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), who visited Bahrain last year, talked about his experience of engaging with and listening to religious minorities in synagogues and churches as well as mosques. It is to the huge credit of Bahrain that people have real religious freedom in that country. He mentioned that reform is taking place. Clearly, for many of us, it is not happening fast enough.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), who is also an expert in the region, told us that Bahrain is a young country that has achieved remarkable development in a very short time, and that there is much greater freedom for women in Bahrain than in any other country in the region. He mentioned the regional context—that Iran’s interference in Bahrain’s domestic affairs is a real threat to the country. We also heard a good summing-up speech from the Scottish National party’s spokesperson, the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who always speaks well in our debates.
Let us go back to what is actually happening. As we know, Bahrain is a slight anomaly among its peers in the region because it lacks the abundant oil and natural gas reserves of many of the other Gulf states. For Bahrain’s Sunni royal family, unrest among the country’s Shi’a population is obviously an existential threat. That is why freedom of religion and closeness between Shi’a and Sunni forms of Islam is so important. Bahrain hosts the US navy’s fifth fleet, and we heard much about the new UK military base there. Some 70% of Bahrain’s population is from the Shi’a branch of Islam.
Bahrain has been ruled by the al-Khalifa family since the 18th century, which gives that family an enormous history and tradition in the country. However, the recent increase in repression must be a cause for concern. Since June 2016, the Bahraini authorities have dramatically stepped up their crackdown on dissent. There has been an indefinite ban on peaceful demonstrations in Manama since August 2013. Amnesty International found that at least 169 critics or their relatives were arrested, summoned, interrogated, prosecuted, imprisoned, banned from travel or threatened between June 2016 and June 2017.
This year, the United Nations stated that it
“is concerned at reports of excessive and disproportionate use of lethal force and at reports of enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention and threats against civilians involved in peaceful demonstrations for political and democratic change in 2011.”
However, the Assistant Foreign Minister of Bahrain, Abdulla al-Doseri, stated that Bahrain was a model in the region for its religious tolerance, social protection programmes, the empowerment of women and the development of human rights.
The UK has opened a new naval base at Mina Salman, which cost more than £40 million and is staffed by approximately 500 military personnel. It is the first UK base in the region since the 1970s. The British Government stated that the base will
“enhance the Royal Navy’s ability to operate effectively in the Gulf and further demonstrate the Government’s enduring commitment to regional security.”
The UK has licensed more than £80 million of arms to the Bahraini military since the Arab spring uprising in 2011. It has also licensed exports of military equipment to Bahrain; in 2017 the Government issued licences for the export of military and dual-use components to Bahrain to the value of £36,862,990. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UK transferred £28 million of arms exports to Bahrain in 2016 and 2017.
The British Government ensured that training for more than 400 prison guards was paid for by the British taxpayer from the £1.52 million that was paid in overseas aid to Bahrain in 2016-17 as part of the conflict, stability and security fund. Some of those prison guards have been accused of torture. Reprieve has stated that, despite the UK Government giving Bahraini authorities training for seven years, the number of inmates on death row tripled. The UK Government continued to fund that training even after the executions of January 2017.
Let me conclude by asking the Minister four questions. What pressure will he apply to our close ally, Bahrain, to ensure that its human rights violations are brought to an end? Is it acceptable to overlook recorded human rights violations in the name of military co-operation and security? Does he feel that the introduction of an ombudsman, which the UK helped to provide, train and support, has genuinely improved the human rights situation in Bahrain? Finally, has enough progress been made on human rights in Bahrain in recent years?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for securing the debate. I know that he and other colleagues across the House take a keen interest in developments in Bahrain, and I recognise the strength of feeling that was expressed about human rights.
I will try to respond to many of the points that were raised, although, as the hon. Gentleman kindly recognised, I will not be able to address them all. In so doing, I will highlight areas where Bahrain has made real progress and set out plainly where I believe the Government of Bahrain have further work to do. I thank all the Back-Bench speakers, as well as the other Front-Bench speakers, the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) and the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), who again did an excellent job of summing up all the speeches. That means I can get to the substance of the concerns, which I hope is the best way for me to spend the next 13 minutes.
Let me start by making it clear that Bahrain is a key partner for the UK in the middle east, as was expressed. The UK Government make no apology for that. Our two kingdoms share a close and lasting bond that dates back more than 200 years to the treaty of friendship of 1816, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) made clear. We have a strong partnership based on mutual interests, shared threats and a desire to promote greater security and peace in the Gulf. For example, as colleagues mentioned, our new United Kingdom naval support facility, which opened this year, is the first UK naval presence east of Suez since 1971. However, I reassure the hon. Member for Leeds North East that none of that allows the UK to overlook the things that need to be brought out in a relationship between friends. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, we sometimes need to make representations to our friends.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) made clear, we work with Bahrain and other regional partners to confront states and non-state actors whose influence fuels instability in the region. We remain committed to working together to address Iran’s malign regional behaviour and ballistic missile activity. I confirm his view that we will continue to be engaged in such a way in the region.
It is not unfair or partial, however, to observe that there is a much-contested political dispute about Bahrain—national and international. There is a significant gap between the claims on the two sides, which this debate is unlikely to dispel. We heard contrasting speeches, which illustrated the differences of opinion about Bahrain. As with most things in the House, there are elements of truth on both sides of the debate. The United Kingdom recognises that. A number of colleagues have expressed concern about the human rights situation in Bahrain, the subject of today’s debate, and questioned the UK’s close partnership with that country. Although the difference between the speeches has been stark, the United Kingdom recognises that Bahrain has more work to do in this area. Bahrain continues to be a human rights priority country for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and as the hon. Member for Strangford has recognised, that is no small admonition by the UK Government.
The Government remain committed to protecting and promoting human rights around the world. However, we believe that the best approach—as other speakers have indicated—is to engage with Governments and work with international partners and civil society organisations to promote and defend those universal freedoms, and to bring about positive change. We apply this approach consistently, including with Bahrain, and it follows work that—as many of us know—began in Bahrain before 2011. The reform programme led by the crown prince and others had been ongoing, but 2011 catalysed it. The response of the Bahraini Government—the establishment of the commission of inquiry—was unprecedented in the region. The public presentation of its findings in front of the king was unprecedented, and the response of the Bahraini Government was also very different to anything in the region.
The depth and breadth of our relationship with Bahrain means we can, and do, express our concerns about human rights in a frank and open way at senior levels. We do so publicly, but more often do so in private discussions, as the House has obviously noted. The FCO’s latest annual human rights report outlined action taken by the UK—relating, for example, to the prison sentence given to Nabeel Rajab—as well as our concerns about the deprivation of nationality, where that renders an individual stateless. We will continue to support Bahrain to address those and other human rights concerns, both through our bilateral engagement and through international institutions. At the same time, we should acknowledge and welcome the steps that Bahrain is taking to address a range of rights issues. I will highlight some of those before returning in more detail to some of the cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Hammersmith.
The UK has provided assistance and support to Bahrain in many areas. First, freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Bahraini constitution. There is a vibrant multi-religious community, and in addition to numerous mosques, Bahrain is home to churches, a synagogue, and the region’s oldest Hindu temple. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) has so clearly stated, members of all religions and communities co-exist peacefully and play an important part in Bahraini society, whether in the Shura Council, in the elected chamber of Parliament, or as senior Government Ministers and officials. My hon. Friend made a brave speech, and I hope that no-one would seek to defend those who pursued him outside the Bahraini embassy in the manner he described. The United Kingdom acknowledges peaceful protest, but there is activity that is unacceptable, and my hon. Friend was right to raise his concerns.
Matters affecting the Bahraini embassy and its protection are at the front of our mind, and a conversation is ongoing with many of those who were involved. We hope that protest can be de-scaled, and normal service can return.
Secondly, Bahrain is taking a leading role in the region in protecting and safeguarding women’s rights. It is a party to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, and last year, the Bahraini Parliament adopted new legislation designed to benefit women and children from all the country’s communities. I also welcome Bahrain as a signatory to the UK-led WePROTECT global alliance, demonstrating its commitment to combating the abuse of children online.
Thirdly, as has been mentioned during the debate, Bahrain is a regional leader in improving the rights and combating the exploitation of migrant workers. The Bahraini Government have increased the transparency of working conditions, introduced a victim-centred approach to their response to trafficking and exploitation, and signed the UK-led call to action on modern slavery. Such efforts have been recognised internationally. The US’s annual trafficking in persons report recently rated Bahrain a tier 1 country, the same as the UK, indicating that Bahrain fully meets the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. Finally, Bahrain is taking steps to improve prison conditions, particularly for young offenders and vulnerable children.
Our objective in providing technical assistance is to help to bring about positive change by sharing the UK’s expertise and experience. One thing should be said straight up: the UK’s technical expertise in improving a human rights situation is usually employed in countries where that is needed. That is why we engage with countries where support is needed, as opposed to countries where everything is perfect, and that is what we have tried to do here. All training is provided in line with international standards and fully complies with our domestic and international human rights obligations. A number of colleagues have mentioned oversight bodies; the UK has been working with Bahrain’s independent human rights oversight bodies since their creation, following recommendations from the commission of inquiry in 2012. Our work has supported the building of effective institutions that hold the Bahraini Government to account. While those bodies still have more to do, they have already demonstrated their abilities, including through the prosecution of police officers accused of human rights abuses.
We also work to strengthen Parliament and youth engagement. Bahrain remains one of only two countries in the Gulf with an elected Parliament, and we look forward to elections this year. UK support has strengthened the institutional capacity of the Bahraini Parliament secretariat, enhancing staff skills to support MPs in their oversight of the Government, and the composition of that Parliament is wider than some outside critics recognise.
I hear the points that the Minister is highlighting about progress, but I wanted to ask one specific question, which I raised earlier. Is it the Minister’s decision that the human rights assessments that the FCO is currently withholding will now be released, so we can have our own insight into what those assessments are?
We publish what we can, and what it is appropriate to publish. We try to be as transparent as possible in official publications, and we will continue to do that. Not everything is publishable, but we will publish as much as we can to give a clear impression of what is happening. We will, as always, continue to look at whether there are ways to strengthen such publication.
Earlier, I mentioned Bahrain’s new legislation related to alternative sentencing. The Bahraini system has already started to implement provisions under this new legal framework, and it would be unfair for me not to deal with some of the individual cases that have been mentioned.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British embassy in Bahrain have closely followed the case of Mr Hassan Mushaima, and have raised it with the Government of Bahrain. We continue to encourage anyone with concerns about treatment in detention to report them to the appropriate oversight body, and we also encourage the oversight bodies to carry out swift and thorough investigations into such claims. The Government of Bahrain have released a detailed public statement regarding the access to healthcare that Mr Mushaima has received since he has been in detention, and we have received categorical assurances that, in his case and others, there is and has been access to appropriate medical care while in detention.
I expressed my concerns about the sentence given to Mr Nabeel Rajab on 21 February, and reiterated the UK’s call to protect freedom of expression for all its citizens. We have closely monitored the trials of Mr Rajab. Officials from the embassy regularly attend Mr Rajab’s court hearings, including the handing down of the latest appeal verdict. There is now an opportunity for Mr Rajab’s legal team to apply for an appeal through the judicial system, and our officials will continue to monitor the case closely.
The British embassy and the FCO continue to monitor the cases of the family members of Mr Sayed Alwadaei. We have raised those cases with the Government of Bahrain, and should we have further concerns, we will do so again as part of our continuing dialogue. We welcome the investigation and recommendations of the Special Investigations Unit in relation to Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Moosa, and the subsequent decision of the Minister of Justice to refer those cases back to the Court of Cassation for retrial.
In conclusion, Ms, ah, McDonagh—sorry, it is age—
We take seriously both sides of today’s discussion. Bahrain remains an important partner, but we do not ignore the other voices that we hear. As a long-standing friend of Bahrain, we both offer support and speak frankly about our concerns. We will continue to do so.
When I was first in Bahrain, so many people expressed their desire to be Bahrainis, not to divide themselves into their respective groups. I am keen that we should look forward to that future in Bahrain, so that people see themselves as Bahrainis first and foremost, and nothing else. The United Kingdom will continue both to support Bahrain, and support progress where it is needed to deal with the sorts of concerns that have been raised today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered human rights abuses and UK assistance to Bahrain.