Britain’s craven silence over Bahrain stinks of hypocrisy
The recent Grand Prix in Bahrain drew the world’s attention, but hardly for reasons that will be pleasing to the ruling House of Khalifa or their embattled government in Manama. The highly-visible anger of protesters prior to the race, directed both at the regime and Formula One, reminded the world that Bahrain is still a country in crisis, a nation in which a large portion of its citizens are still calling for full civil rights.
Revelations about the deportation of Channel 4 film crews recording protests and the death of Salah Abbas Habib, a protester alleged to have been killed by riot police prior to the race, only made matters worse for F1 and the leadership of the small gulf state. The latter incident brought back reminders of the repressive response by Bahrain’s security forces to the first burst of the continuing, Arab Spring-inspired civil unrest in spring last year.
That a great deal of the security services’ treatment of protesters a little over a year ago was grossly disproportionate and probably criminal is not a matter of controversy: the Khalifa monarchy both commissioned and appeared to endorse the findings of the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), a paper that detailed the conclusions of a probe into the government crackdown on protests last year. The report recognized that the torture of detainees in custody and civilian deaths at the hands of the security services occurred. In response to its conclusions, the King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa indicated that reforms would be forthcoming.
Despite such highly public gestures, according to a recent report produced by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights at least 31 people have died at the hands of the state since the BICI paper was published – three reportedly tortured to death. In addition, Amnesty Internationalstated in February that the “Bahraini government remains far from delivering the human rights changes that were recommended by [the BICI report]”.
It seems that there’s little sign of meaningful reform quite yet. So why did Britain still sell arms to Bahrain between July and September 2011, and why did David Cameron not call for the Grand Prix to be halted in order to send a clear message to back the Foreign Office’s self-proclaimed commitment to the promotion of democracy and human rights?
Questioned on the issue of Bahrain before the Grand Prix, the Prime Minister provided the media with two anaemic sound-bites: he mustered the intellectual honesty to state that “Bahrain is not Syria” (full marks for observation) and added that “there is a process of reform underway [in Bahrain], and this government backs that reform.” Cameron omitted to mention in his press sermon, however, that Bashar Al-Assad’s Uncle, Rifaat, currently lives in luxury in London where the coalition have failed to trouble him about a bloodbath in Hama in 1982 that he is alleged to have been involved in – resulting in the death of up to an estimated 40,000 people. His son maintains that his father was innocent of the massacre and was framed in revenge for allegedly attempting a coup against the President, his late brother. As for the “process of reform” claimed as being underway in Bahrain, there are many who are waiting to see it bear real fruit. One of them is Sara Yasin from the international rights group Index on Censorship, an organisation that continues to follow the situation in Bahrain closely.
“As far as I’ve seen, the reforms have been a sham”, she said. “I was in Bahrain for the reading of the report and we’ve been monitoring the situation since then. There’s still protests being crushed, there’s still people dying.” She added that “there are lots of people still in prison for liking a page on Facebook, for sending mobile phone messages” containing anti-government content.
Yet if the UK’s quiescence about the small gulf island’s human rights problems are worthy of reprobation, how much more so is the UK’s long-standing silence over the rights record of Bahrain’s neighbour Saudi Arabia- arguably the most illiberal nation in the region?
Sadly, it is not difficult to suspect why we don’t draw attention to Riyadh or Manama, but criticise the regimes in Tehran or Damascus. Both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have traded with Britain for a long time in two key markets: oil, and the arms trade.
Vince Cable, ever a man less inclined to equivocation then many of his slick colleagues in the coalition, told a committee of MPs last year that “we do trade with governments that are not democratic and have bad human rights records … We do business with repressive governments and there’s no denying that.”A brief glance at Amnesty’s report on Saudi Arabia will confirm Cable’s candid assessment.
If Britain really cared about human rights as a universal principle to be held above the dictations of political expedience we’d at least be a bit more balanced and/or selective about which nations we criticize, partner with or sell arms to.
During the war on terror our ally the US allied itself with Uzbekistan’s dictator Islam Karimov, a man who has reportedly boiled his political opponents alive. According to John Pilger, writing in The Guardian, we sold arms and provided diplomatic support to some of the world’s most appalling autocrats during Thatcher’s years.
Then there are the other scandals that dance about our post-war history: extraordinary rendition, Operation Jackboot, the depopulation of Diego Garcia, the lies and machinations over Suez, the Mau Mau rebellion, the bloody mess in Iraq. In the opinion of this writer, the long list of Britain’s offences (direct and indirect) against peace in the years since we signed the Geneva conventions – continuing right up to the present day – mock our occasional posturing as a moral arbiter on the international stage.
What’s more, as long as our banks invest in cluster bombs, British arm companies do business with wealthy dictators, PR firms practice their “dark arts” on behalf of dubious governments under the cover of weak lobbying laws, we engage in self-ridicule every time we talk of promoting British values, human rights, democracy.
But tell that to the Foreign Office. Realpolitik shadows our steps.Tagged in: arms trade, Bahrain, F1, formula one, grand prix, Manama, oil, saudi arabia
Recent Posts on Notebook
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter