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The UK's reputation as a defender of human rights is under scrutiny. Parliament deserves answers

3 min read

As the human rights situation in Bahrain continues to deteriorate, the government must answer questions on the effectiveness of its safeguards against UK involvement in abuses, writes Andy Slaughter

The UK government has spent more than £5 million since 2012 on a package of technical assistance to Bahrain with the aim of improving the Gulf monarchy’s poor human rights record. But after six years, the human rights situation in Bahrain has deteriorated precipitously.

In 2017 Bahrain broke a seven-year moratorium on capital punishment when it executed Abbas al-Samea, Sami Mushaima and Ali al-Singace in secret by firing squad. According to Reprieve all three were convicted based on false confessions extracted through torture.

Bahrain’s death row had tripled following the executions. Twenty-one people are awaiting execution including three more prisoners assisted by Reprieve and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD): Mohamed Ramadhan, Husain Moosa and Maher Abbas al-Khabbaz. They await execution despite being promised retrials or lodging complaints that remain to be investigated.

Detainees continue to raise allegations of torture in detention, while Bahrain refuses to allow UN torture experts to enter the country.

Much of the FCO’s assistance programme has gone to funding training for elements of Bahrain’s criminal justice system, from the police and prison guards to the Public Prosecution’s Special Investigation Unit and the Ombudsman of the Ministry of Interior. During this training or after it, these Bahraini institutions were implicated in serious human rights violations against death row inmates.

The FCO has refused to release any of its human rights assessments for its work in Bahrain. Only two years after the Home Affairs Committee questioned whether the UK Government’s human rights assessment framework “is fit for purpose”, the FCO has failed to demonstrate that its programmes are transparent, accountable, and safe.

So, with other MPs from several Parties I have secured a Backbench Business Debate to seek answers from the Government as to its continuing work in Bahrain and the effectiveness of its safeguards against UK involvement in human rights abuses.

UK programmes in Bahrain have been funded largely from the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund (CSSF), a £1.13 billion cross-departmental fund that has received parliamentary criticism for its lack of transparency and accountability. In 2017, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy described it as “opaque”.

Recently, the FCO ceased funding its reform programme using the CSSF and transitioned to the Global Britain Fund and the Integrated Activity Fund, about which even less is known. When asked, ministers have refused to provide details of these funds, so Parliament has been unable to provide scrutiny or oversight.

The FCO now refuses to tell the public and MPs the real scope of its technical assistance package in Bahrain, who the recipients are, how much it spends on each programme and which programmes are funded by which funds. This is in addition to the FCO’s refusal to disclose any of the Overseas Security and Justice Assistance (OSJA) assessments completed for these projects, as well as remaining questions as to whether UK government trainers were present inside of specific Bahraini detention facilities at times when torture is alleged to have occurred.

Two years ago, similar concerns I raised with the then Lord Chancellor about the Saudi prison contract with the College of Policing led to that cooperation being withdrawn. As I write we await an overdue decision by the Foreign Secretary on whether to hold a full judicial inquiry into alleged complicity of UK intelligence services in torture and rendition.

The UK’s reputation as a promoter and defender of human rights internationally is increasingly under scrutiny and Parliament deserves answers.  

Andy Slaughter is Labour MP for Hammersmith. His Westminster Hall debate takes place on Tuesday 11 September 


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