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Britain's Bahrain bid triggers human rights alert

  • 23 February 2015
Britain's recent drive to establish a naval base in Bahrain has only widened the rift between the UK's foreign policy and its respect for human rights.

Bahrain will now potentially play host to a British military presence for the long-term, despite the Gulf state's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests over the past several years.

This has been no tea party. The government has not only used extreme violence to clear the streets, but even resorted to torture of prisoners and, in one infamous case, persecuted medical staff attempting to treat injured protestors.

Human Rights Watch (HRC) continues to document such abuse. As part of its World Report last year, HRC claimed that 'security forces continued to arrest scores of individuals arbitrarily in towns where anti-government protests regularly take place' citing 'reports of torture and ill-treatment in detention' culminating, in some cases, in the deaths of detainees.

Seemingly unconcerned by such scrutiny, Bahraini police just days ago used gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators attempting to mark the fourth anniversary of the protest movement.

So why a new British naval base? Much has been made of British attempts to expand its influence in a region mired in conflict and, notably, the rise of ISIS. Naturally any state may have to undertake some degree of balance when it comes to strategic interest and its ethical sensibilities.

But do these always have to be at odds, or does this apparent ambivalence to human rights reflect something more sinister within British foreign policy?

Nicholas McGeehan, writing for HRW, takes a particularly dim view of the British Secretary for Commonwealth and Foreign Affairs, Phillip Hammond. Claiming that pro-Bahraini comments made by the Secretary are the 'worst and most cynical yet' McGeehan questions why the UK 'which claims to have a global commitment to support human rights defenders' remains apathetic about current abuses.

Indeed, Hammond, in a speech before the House of Commons last month, made the interesting claim that Bahrain 'is a country travelling in the right direction' in regards to human rights. McGeehan was quick to point out that, less than a day earlier, a Bahraini activist, Nabeel Rajab, had received a prison sentence for making a post on Twitter that allegedly 'insulted state institutions'.

Hammond's statement that 'we (Britain) continually remind the Bahrainis of their commitment' to human rights is thus rather peculiar.

Rajab is not just any activist. As President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Rajab also served as an