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Education: Bahraini Students

Volume 727: debated on Thursday 19 May 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will make representations to the Government of Bahrain on behalf of those Bahrainians studying in the United Kingdom whose courses have been terminated.

My Lords, we urge the Government of Bahrain to meet all their human rights obligations and to uphold political freedoms, equal access to justice and the rule of law. The British Government are aware of allegations about the Bahraini Government’s actions towards some Bahraini students studying in the United Kingdom. These are clearly of considerable concern. Our ambassador in Bahrain raised the issue with the Bahraini Minister of Justice on 4 May, saying that it was wrong for students to be punished for exercising a right to peaceful demonstration, as recognised by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We will continue to make our concerns clear to the Bahraini authorities.

My Lords, has my noble friend actually made representations to the Bahraini authorities that they should restore the grants to these particular students, who will otherwise be left destitute in this country? Does he think that these students are likely to obey the summons to return to their country when, this morning, the court sentenced demonstrators to 20 years’ imprisonment?

We have certainly made representations along those lines, in very strong terms. I could not speculate on what kind of result the pressures will have, but we have made the point that students are free to carry on activities here as long as they do not commit a criminal offence. That is the law and we have made the situation absolutely clear to the Bahraini authorities.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that MINAB—the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board—has expressed deep concerns about the Bahraini authorities’ demolition of 10 Shia mosques? As a Sunni, I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will make representations to the Bahraini Government asking them to refrain from demolishing places of worship.

Yes, we certainly will do so—and may well have done so already. I appreciate very much the insights of the noble Lord, as he understands the tensions, difficulties and divisions of this situation. In addition to making representations—which of course is not good enough unless one gets results—we have noted that the authorities in Bahrain have agreed to lift the state of emergency and to accelerate investigations into deaths in detention, and they have invited in the UN to investigate abuses at the Salmaniya hospital. That goes beyond the question of mosque demolition, but it indicates that we have the sustained pressure and that we might be getting some progress. However, there is a long way to go before we move to the dialogue that we want to see the Bahraini authorities organise in their country.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in addition to the sanctions against the students here in the UK—who, as he said, were exercising the democratic right to protest peacefully that is available to them here—their families have been arrested, locked up and told that they will not be released until the students stop protesting and opposing the regime? Can my noble friend tell the House whether the UN and other international bodies working on this Bahraini impasse would consider appointing an envoy to go to Bahrain and investigate these abuses?

I have not had reports this morning about the first point that my noble friend raised, but obviously there is concern in all the international bodies about what has been happening. As I have said, we have urged the Government of Bahrain to create the environment in which a dialogue can take place. This is the pressure being put on the Bahraini authorities at the moment and we intend to pursue it. The issue of taking wider action at the UN has not arisen and, at the moment, there is no sign of organised support for any movement of that kind. But, obviously, these matters are always in our minds.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the situation in Bahrain is very complex and different from a lot of the other centres of unrest that we are witnessing in the Middle East, not least because of the problems alluded to by my noble friend? There is the Shia-Sunni conflict, the problem of outside influences and, indeed, tensions within the Bahraini Government themselves. Would the Minister consider chairing a meeting of those of us who are interested in Bahraini issues so that we might have an opportunity to discuss some of these issues in perhaps greater detail, perhaps with some briefing as well from the Foreign Office? I think that that would be immensely helpful and I would be grateful if the noble Lord would consider doing it.

As far as I am concerned, I am always free to do that—of course—and I suspect from the noises that I hear around me that that would be a good move. Let us work to see if we can find time to get together and move ahead on that basis.

My Lords, at the risk of striking a discordant note, could I put it to my noble friend that the business of the Government is governing this country rather than telling eternally almost every other Government in the world how to govern theirs?

I am very surprised that my noble friend is striking a discordant note, but he makes the perfectly serious point that we cannot resolve every issue in every corner of the earth. However, there are our interests—and our interests happen to be rather acute in this very sensitive area of the Middle East, where not only does one of our major allies have a huge fleet and we have our contact and communications operations for trying to control the piracy that is a direct affront to our interests, our shipping and our prosperity, but there are many other British interests as well. I think that we are entitled to look after our interests in a reasonable way without—my noble friend is quite right—interfering in every conceivable situation.