Britain's Bahrain bid triggers human rights alert

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Map of Britain and BahrainBritain'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 advisor to HRW's Middle Eastern Division.

His prosecution for the audacious tweet claiming that Bahraini citizens who have joined ISIS may have come from 'security institutions' native to the country, whilst controversial, is easily interpreted as a broader attack on freedom of expression.

There are more material concerns at work here. Rajab had strong views on the UK's relationship with his country, even going as far as to claim that the proposed naval base reflects growing economic and political ties between the two nations. 

In an interview with IBTimesUK last summer, Rajab made the unsettling claim that the purchase of UK armaments by Bahrain had only increased in recent years, with Manama having 'bought the silence of the British government' in regards to its alleged abuses.

This is not idle speculation. According to the organisation Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), Bahrain was identified as a 'key market' for British weapons as early as 2009. For CAAT, 'high-level political relationships' constitute one of the main objectives in supplying Bahrain with armaments, with over one hundred Bahraini military officers allegedly being trained in the UK between 2006 and 2011.

There are certain legal issues though with pursuing such a policy with a nation holding such an evidently dim view of human rights.

The UK is bound by European Union law on arms export policy, notably the 1998 Code of Conduct and the subsequent 2008 Common Position, stipulating that any EU state must take into account the human rights record of foreign nations purchasing weapons.

In prose that hardly leaves room for doubt, the 2008 Common position thus requires EU members to 'prevent the export of military technology and equipment which might be used for internal repression'. Respect for 'human rights in the country of final destination' is also clearly stated.

'The UK government has put a lot of time, effort and political capital into arming and supporting the Bahraini regime,' stated a spokesman for CAAT, Andrew Smith. 'With the new naval base, and with the possibility of Typhoon (fighter jet) sales on the horizon, this looks unlikely to change.'

The truth is, this may be yet another instance of political expediency taking precedence over all else.

Daniel ReadDan Read is a freelance journalist with a BA in journalism and an MA in human rights. He is based in Britain. Twitter: @DanRead2.

Topic tags: Daniel Read, Britain, Bahrain



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Very interesting and informative article!
Katie | 26 February 2015


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