There are few authoritarian regimes that enjoy as much political support from the UK as the one in Bahrain. Bahraini opposition groups are threatening to boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections unless democracy can be guaranteed, but the UK has only increased its public support for the brutal and oppressive dictatorship.
The latest research from Human Rights Watch shows that despite the positive assessment from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) there has been little in the way of progress on human rights. This is why the group's Director, David Mepham, concluded that the UK's response has been "both feeble and ineffective."
Despite the ongoing crackdown, it was only three months ago that the regime was given a private visit from Prince Charles. The visit, according to Iain Lindsay, the UK ambassador in Bahrain, was to emphasise that the UK-Bahrain relationship is "a warm, close and long-standing one."
Similarly, Prince Andrew flew over to Bahrain earlier this year for GREAT British Week, a week-long 'celebration' to mark 200 years of 'friendship and strong bilateral relations' between Great Britain and Bahrain'. The event was like a full state circus and was attended by the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond MP, and a range of arms companies including Rolls Royce and BAE Systems, which was trying to secure sales of its Eurofighter jet.
Almost as soon as the 'celebrations' had finished, the King of Bahrain, bolstered by his international support, increased his powers by introducing a new law that imposes jail sentences of up to seven years and a fine of up to 10,000 dinars (£15,700) on anyone who publicly insults him.
This intensification of government repression was met with silence from the UK.
Last year Westminster's cross-party Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) urged the government to list Bahrain as a 'country of concern' in its annual human rights and democracy report. Unfortunately their request has fallen on deaf-ears, with the latest report listing 28 countries and choosing to omit Bahrain. Instead, and against evidence from opposition groups, the report concluded that "the overall trajectory on human rights (in Bahrain) will be positive."
The UK government has consistently proven that it's more concerned with securing arms sales and providing political support for the dictatorship than it is with promoting human rights and reform. David Cameron has met with the Bahraini regime a number of times, most recently in 2013 when the King visited him in Downing Street. Following the meeting, Cameron continued to talk-up the possible deal over Eurofighters, but said nothing on human rights.
In 2013 alone the UK licensed £18million worth of military equipment to Bahrain. This included licences for machine guns, sniper rifles, weapon sights, ammunition and anti riot shields, all of which can be used for internal repression.
What is implicit in the arms sales is a political support for the regime and a message to democracy activists and those fighting repression that their aspirations for human rights and civil liberties are less important than arms trade profits. This point was emphasised by the FAC report into relations with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which concluded, "Both the government and the opposition in Bahrain view UK defence sales as a signal of British support for the government."
Without justice there can be no peace in Bahrain, and that won't change as long as the UK is happy to promote and provide political cover for an illegitimate government that is inflicting untold misery on its own citizens. Only by ending the political and military support that is strengthening the regime can the UK ensure that it is promoting human rights and acting the best interests of the people of Bahrain.
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade
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