British diplomats defend Bahrain

Human Rights Watch says it stands by its assessment of the situation in Bahrain following an attack on its findings by Britain's ambassador in the troubled Gulf kingdom.

At the end of a fact-finding visit last month, HRW said Bahrain’s rulers had "made no progress on key reform promises, failing to release unjustly imprisoned activists or to hold accountable high-level officials responsible for torture".

It also said a new draft law on associations "undermines what few rights independent nongovernmental associations have under the country’s current law".

Yesterday, in an interview with a Bahraini newspaper, ambassador Iain Lindsay was quoted as saying that HRW's statement about the lack of progress had been "deeply unhelpful, condescending and patronising".

"I find their comments about the political dialogue deeply unhelpful. I think it has taken a lot of courage and a lot of effort to get people for the first time in two years to sit around a table to talk about dialogue," he reportedly said – adding: "I think we need to take a balanced picture."

In the same interview, ambassador Lindsay also reportedly enthused about the Bahraini government's current attempt at 
political dialogue which is widely regarded by others as mere window-dressing.

In an email commenting on the ambassador's remarks, Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, quotedPresident Obama's observation last year that "you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail".

It is still unclear whether the ambassador's remarks were accurately reported (as I mentioned in a blog post yesterday, Bahraini media have a habit of misrepresenting quotes for propaganda purposes). However, a former British ambassador to Bahrain – Sir Harold ("Hooky") Walker – has expressed similar views in relation to human rights organisations and Bahrain.

Last year, in written evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Walker argued that the human rights element in Britain's multi-faceted foreign policy "has been given an inappropriate place in public discourse in the UK". He wrote:

"It is a shortcoming of private-sector organisations promoting human rights abroad that by nature they tend to stress the negative. Where Bahrain is concerned, the authorities have had much to answer for. But in the recent period little credit is given to the government for the remarkable step of establishing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Enquiry (BICI), for the subsequent setting up of the National Commission, or for its acceptance of the majority of the recommendations of the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council. 

"In so far as such events are recognised, the government is then criticised, despite numerous steps taken, for alleged slowness in following up the recommendations accepted."

This reference to "alleged" slowness is puzzling, since even the British government accepts it as fact. In a statement last November, Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said:

"We are concerned by some of the recent decisions taken by the Bahraini government, particularly on human rights, and we’re clear that there are areas where progress on implementation has been too slow and others where it is lacking. 

"Much more needs to be done on relaxing censorship and allowing the opposition greater access to media, on integrating personnel from all communities in Bahrain into the security forces, and question marks remain on senior level accountability for the deaths and the allegations of torture following the unrest of 2011. The Bahraini government has itself acknowledged that more work still needs to be done and the UK stands ready and willing to assist in whatever way we can."

The statement ended by urging the Bahraini government "to show a renewed sense of energy and commitment to implementing all the recommendations".

Walker's submission to the committee continued:

"Media presentations imply that the UK’s relations with Bahrain should be governed by human rights considerations, and furthermore that UK criticisms of Bahraini performance should be loudly stated. While this may have political resonance, it cannot be correct. 

"The UK’s relationship with Bahrain is multi-faceted, including trade, investment, culture, and above all the strategic role of Bahrain as a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council in a sensitive part of the world. The UK’s policies towards Bahrain, and the government’s public presentation of them, have to balance all these considerations."

"Multi-faceted", of course, is a euphemistic way of talking about a relationship that is complicated by military and business interests. In his Bahraini newspaper interview, ambassador Lindsay talkedabout British companies picking up "at least £1bn worth of business" in Bahrain over the next five to 10 years – and made a curious reference to Britain getting its "traditional share" of major contracts.

This implies there is some kind of agreed or implied quota – that winning contracts in Bahrain is not so much a matter of competitive pricing as keeping on good terms with the regime.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Friday, 29 March 2013