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Volume 799: debated on Wednesday 24 July 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the human rights situation in Bahrain over the last two years and whether that assessment was made independently of the government of Bahrain.

I took slight licence with the previous Question as I knew I would be answering this Question as well. The UK’s position is that Bahrain remains a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country, as set out in the 2018 human rights report. This assessment was reached entirely independently but draws on a number of different sources. I assure the noble Lord that we keep this under constant review.

Last week, I met the brave Bahraini human rights defender, Ebtisam al-Saegh, who spoke to me about her torture and sexual assault in detention and the ongoing detention of female political prisoners, including Najah Yusuf, who has endured similar abuses. Fawaz al-Hassan is the chief of the security complex where these women were abused, and a beneficiary of a £16,000 UK taxpayer-funded training event in Belfast in 2015. So Ebtisam has asked me to ask the Minister: on what basis is the UK continuing to spend taxpayers’ money to train Bahraini officials who are implicated in human rights violations?

As the noble Lord will know, we regularly raise the cases he has related, as well as other cases, bilaterally with the Bahrainis. On the support we give various bodies, including the oversight bodies in Bahrain, we provide technical assistance in Bahrain to influence and support change. I assure the noble Lord that all training provided is in line with international standards and fully complies with our domestic and international human rights obligations, but I fully accept the point that he has made. Let us not forget that Bahrain is party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and needs to be reminded of its obligations. But Bahrain has made reforms and continues to do so. We believe that, because of our relationship, we are able to have candid conversations with Bahrain on the cases that the noble Lord has raised and, indeed, other cases currently live in that country.

My Lords, I want to return to the Question because on this occasion I do not think the Minister has given an adequate response. The fact is that the verdict of the UN Committee Against Torture was that UK-funded human rights oversight bodies in Bahrain are not effective. What is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office doing to properly assess and understand what is going on? UK taxpayers’ money is being used and leading to more executions than ever before.

The noble Lord is right to raise the issue of executions and the death penalty. My understanding is that, between 2010 and now, there have been three executions, which are three too many and we continue, of course, to express concern. The noble Lord and I generally find ourselves in agreement on human rights issues, but I differ from him in that I believe the support we give Bahrain is helping to safeguard women’s rights. Women’s organisations are active in Bahrain and freely run campaigns calling for equality, especially on sexual health rights, but this does not take away from the facts. Do issues and serious concerns remain? Of course they do, but I believe that our engagement helps address those issues. Engagement and support, particularly in training—ensuring that the training and standards of people responsible for these institutions is at a high level—are a way forward; not doing that training, I believe, would be a step backward.

Could my right honourable friend say what progress has been made on improving the rights of the Shia population, who, after all, are the majority? In the past it has always been alleged that the top jobs in the military and the public sector have not been available to the Shia population and that there is in fact discrimination against the group that constitutes the majority of the population.

I thank my noble friend, who seems to have promoted me to the Privy Council by addressing me as his right honourable friend. He is right to raise the issue of the Shia majority. I assure him that reforms have taken place, including the reinstatement of citizenship for members of the Shia community. However, I share with him the deep concern that the Shia majority remains unequal in its representation and its ability to gain the kind of access that the Sunni minority has. That is an issue that we continue to raise. We will continue to work with Bahrain. Bahrain is a partner and we have many strategic interests. I believe that lends itself to being able to raise these issues of deep concern with the authorities.

My Lords, on 10 July the Foreign and Commonwealth Office published an admirable paper, with a marvellous photograph of the Minister on the front. That guidance note, entitled UK Support for Human Rights Defenders, makes it clear that through its diplomatic posts the UK should support human rights defenders in a variety of ways. As we have heard, that is not exactly what is happening in Bahrain, and almost all non-violent critical voices have been silenced. A number of those people are now in prison, living in appalling conditions. Could the Minister assure the House that when our new ambassador to Bahrain takes up his post next month he will support human rights defenders, put the admirable guidance note into practice and, perhaps, have more confidence than in the past in raising cases with the Government when necessary?

I am delighted that the noble Baroness noticed my photograph, so I thank her for that. On the more pertinent and important issue of the guidance, I think it was right that we issued it. To be candid and up front with everyone, it took a bit of time to get to the point where we were able to do so, but we did it hand in glove with human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, and I am grateful for its support in that respect. On specific cases, I agree with the noble Baroness. The new ambassador will raise these cases, as our current ambassador does. We have been very active and we spend much of our resource on this. Quite often we receive inquiries from human rights defenders such as Sayed al-Wadaei and we respond directly to them. There have been numerous Parliamentary Questions. We have raised specifically the cases of Bahraini nationals, including Hajar Mansoor Hassan, Sayed Nizar al-Wadaei and Mahmoud Marzouk Mansour, at senior levels within the Bahraini Government. The Bahraini Government have also been clear that those convictions are not related to the activities of Mr al-Wadaei himself. We will continue to remain vigilant, and I look forward to working with noble Lords on this important issue.