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Bahrain: Human Rights Abuses

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 25 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what evidence they have, if any, that the number of human rights abuses in Bahrain has declined in the last two years; and what assessment they have made of the impact of their Integrated Activity Fund on human rights in that country.

My Lords, as outlined in the 2020 FCDO Human Rights and Democracy report, the UK recognises the challenges that remain in Bahrain. However, along with many international partners, it is our firm belief that, with a calibrated approach to co-operation, we can influence and support positive reform. Change takes time but recent developments in Bahrain, such as the ratification of the corrective justice law for children and the use of alternative sentencing, demonstrate that progress is being made.

My Lords, the death sentence retrial of Mohamed Ramadan and Hussain Moosa has been termed “critically flawed” by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, as it relied on a Special Investigations Unit investigation that did not meet international standards. Will the Minister stop the shameful defence of the SIU, which does nothing more than whitewash Bahrain’s existing human rights situation?

My Lords, we—the Minister for the Middle East and I—and the Government are fully aware of the cases that the noble Lord referred to; indeed, we have engaged outside the Chamber on this very issue. As the noble Lord will be aware, the death sentence must be ratified by His Majesty the King of Bahrain. The UK continues to follow this case closely. We have raised the matter repeatedly with the Government of Bahrain and will continue to do so, both in public and privately.

My Lords, I recently raised with the Minister that Bahrain had detained 13 children, including the seriously ill Sayed Hasan Ameen. In a Written Answer, James Cleverly painted these children as criminals without addressing human rights concerns. BIRD and Human Rights Watch revealed that these children were subjected to physical abuse to coerce their confessions and that Sayed was detained for eight days without vital medication. Despite these findings from credible rights organisations, is the Minister really satisfied with the assurances from Bahrain on their treatment and that medical care was provided?

I assure the noble Lord that we take this case, as well as any other case, very seriously. We raise these issues directly with the Bahrainis. We should also recognise that progress has been made. I mentioned in my earlier Answer the corrective justice law for children, which will ensure special courts for children, alternative sentencing and rehabilitation. I believe that this brings a positive focus on individual cases. I deal directly with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; I raise any cases raised in those meetings directly with the Bahraini authorities.

The noble Baroness is muted and we cannot hear her. We will have to move on to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover.

My Lords, far from what the Minister has said about progress, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN have all concluded that human rights abuses have been getting worse in Bahrain over the past few years. So why do the Government still fund training for organisations in Bahrain that are implicated in human rights abuses, such as the Special Investigations Unit?

My Lords, through the technical support that the United Kingdom provides, we have seen real progress on a broad range of human rights issues. I have referred to the reforms on children, the unified family law, alternative punishments for adults and the creation of oversight bodies. Of course, I do not for a moment accept that the job is done. We continue to work constructively, and I believe that this is paying dividends, and will continue to do so.

My Lords, the recent publication of the second edition of the Human Rights and Democracy report by the embassy of Bahrain is progress. Together with the amazing, life-saving, UK-like vaccine rollout and being a cornerstone and founding member of the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Israel, it is real progress. In acknowledging that there is still much more to be done, does my noble friend agree that it seems clear that Bahrain is travelling on the right road?

My Lords, suffice to say that I totally agree with my noble friend. We are seeing progress but there is more to be done, and we are working constructively and engaging with Bahrain on this important agenda.

At the start of the 2022 Qatar football World Cup campaign last night, Norwegian players protested about workers’ rights in Qatar. Considering that some of the matches may have to be scheduled in Bahrain because of the increasing size of the World Cup finals, have our representatives in Bahrain made an assessment of the situation on workers’ rights in the country yet?

My Lords, we have raised this issue directly and seen real progress. When it comes to migrant workers, for example, Bahrain achieved tier 1 status, according to US State Department reports. Indeed, it convened a cross-government meeting on this very issue—the first such one in the Middle East. On vaccines, as raised by my noble friend Lord Polak, we have seen direct distribution and access to vaccines for migrant workers so, again, progress on this front is being made directly in Bahrain.

Will the Government advise the Bahrain authorities that the best way for them to win friends is to train all their security officers to behave like human beings, and to abolish the barbaric death penalty, as the state of Virginia did yesterday?

We welcome the death penalty being abolished, and of course that remains the long-standing position of Her Majesty’s Government. We continue to raise this globally with all partners.

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord talked about stopping exports. I do not believe that that is the correct way forward. Bahrain is an important partner and, as we have seen on this important yet sensitive agenda, there has been progress there. Being a critical and constructive friend is the way forward.

My Lords, the human rights violations in Bahrain are worrying, but does the Minister agree that the demands to cancel the Formula 1 race to be held there are not likely to help? Should we not be encouraging sporting activities between countries in trying to influence them to eliminate human rights violations?

I agree with my noble friend’s approach and, as the UK Human Rights Minister, that is exactly the approach I adopt.

My Lords, following on from the last question, it appears that the Minister took a different approach in 2012, when he signed a letter to the Times that backed calls for Formula 1 not to race in Bahrain due to human rights violations connected to the races there. Now, almost 60 Members of both Houses of Parliament and more than 20 NGOs are calling on Formula 1 to establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate human rights abuses linked to its races. Will the Minister now agree to support that call?

My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to a letter from several years ago. It is right that where we have concerns, we should raise them, and I align myself with that. However, we have seen real progress in Bahrain and we should recognise that, while remaining firm and resolute that we will continue to raise human rights concerns as and when they arise, as we do directly with Bahrain both in private and publicly.

My Lords, I visited Bahrain on numerous occasions as a Defence Minister. Through that persistent engagement, I never hesitated to raise issues such as human rights, as a critical friend. I am pleased that the Gulf Integrated Activity Fund has been used to fund some of the independent human rights organisations in Bahrain, and we have, as my noble friend Lord Polak said, definitely seen progress, although more needs to be done. What has particularly impressed me from the UK perspective is the thoroughness of the OSJA process. Can my noble friend reassure me that the process is refreshed on a regular basis to ensure that our funding is not misused?

I agree with my noble friend. My right honourable friend James Cleverly, who is the Minister for the Middle East, will do exactly that. We look at all funding not only to the Gulf but elsewhere to ensure that the standards we seek to achieve from those areas are met and that human rights remain paramount in our thinking and progress in this respect.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Lord Speaker. There is no doubt that Bahrain still has a mountain to climb on the issue of human rights. Can my noble friend outline what progress has been made specifically in the past few years and what the involvement of the UK has been in specific programmes to assist in bringing about change?

My Lords, it takes a great deal to mute my noble friend and I am glad that we have heard from her. As I have already articulated, we have seen the creation of the oversight bodies. The UK has provided technical support. We have seen alternative sentencing, where we have shared experience and insights; the Unified Family Law and the Corrective Justice Law for Children; and the great progress which has been made on migrants’ rights. However, I reiterate that important work remains to be done. I know that this is a concern of many noble Lords and I will continue to engage with your Lordships’ House and the other place to ensure that those concerns are expressed directly to the Government of Bahrain.