UK lobbied to whitewash Bahrain abuses

24th Mar 2016
UK lobbied to whitewash Bahrain abuses

Protester Abdulredha Mohamed Hasan Buhmaid, 28 was shot by a live bullet in the head on February 2 2011. He died in hospital 3 days later, the seventh death in the Bahraini uprising (Photo: Screenshot/Creative Commons)

Elham Asaad Buaras

The UK Government conducted a PR offensive that weakened the UN’s criticism of Bahrain for its human rights record, according to documents obtained by the Observer last month.

The UN’s condemnation of Bahrain was diluted after lobbying by the UK and Saudi Arabia, a major purchaser of UK-made weapons and military hardware,

The UK’s role has prompted concern among human rights groups. Two political prisoners in Bahrain are facing execution and several more are on trial, largely due to confessions obtained through torture.

The UN’s Human Rights Council (OHCHR) met last year to discuss issuing a statement raising concerns about possible human rights abuses. Before that meeting, the UK held discussions with officials from a large number of UN member states, as well as diplomats in the Middle East, representatives from the office of the UN’s commissioner for human rights and international campaign groups.

According to a source familiar with the initiative, the UK sought to convince other states that “things were improving” in Bahrain and to deter them from issuing a damning statement that would have had an impact on Bahrain’s international reputation. Traditionally the UN statements are issued by Switzerland and then signed off by other member states who on this occasion, appear to have been convinced by the representations made by the UK and the Saudis.

“The first draft contained many more condemnatory elements than the final outcome,” a source said. “The UK managed to significantly weaken the contents of the text.”

A comparison of the second and final, third draft issued on September 14, shows significant further amendments were made to remove references to Bahrain and its security forces. The second draft read: “We are concerned by reports of excessive use of force by the riot police forces.” This was changed to: “We are concerned that there is insufficient accountability for human rights violations.”

Another key section of the second draft read: “We are concerned about reports of torture and ill-treatment in detention including reprisals against victims reporting human rights abuses.” This was altered to: “We are concerned about reports of reprisals against victims reporting human rights abuses.”

Nicolas Agostini, representative to Geneva-based International Federation for Human Rights, said: “It is very unusual for states to engage in massive PR efforts to support their allies on the human rights council. What we witnessed last September was basically an attempt by the UK to shield Bahrain from any kind of international scrutiny. At the same time as the UK was engaging in this PR exercise on behalf of the Bahraini government, Saudi Arabia was mobilising its foreign service to bully states so that they would not support the statement on Bahrain, which is very sensitive to international pressure and cares about its image. In that sense, managing to have a joint statement on Bahrain, despite the efforts from the UK and Saudi Arabia to prevent it happening, was very important.”

Director of the death penalty team at Reprieve, Maya Foa, said the UK Government’s “work with Bahrain appears to have crossed the line into whitewashing. This behaviour is especially troubling in light of the potentially imminent resumption of executions in Bahrain and the role of confessions extracted through torture in obtaining death sentences in Bahraini courts”.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) refused to address why the British Government lobbied for a dilution of the UN report into Bahrain’s human rights abuses.

A spokesman for the FOC said, “As with all negotiations, a balance has to be struck between the content of any statement and ensuring that it gains the widest support possible from the international community. We don’t shy away from raising issues of concern, including human rights, at all levels within the Government of Bahrain.”

However in a statement to The Muslim News, Founding Member of Bahrain Watch, Dr Ala’a Shehabi, said the British Government has “created vested interests over the past few decades in the status quo in Bahrain and the survival of the monarchy but this is the first time we get an insight into the details of British mucking into the UN statements drafting process to clearly tone down criticism especially in areas where the British have supposedly been helping the regime to ‘reform’.”

There are approximately 4,000 politician prisoners in Bahrain arrested over participation in protests, expression of opinion and general dissent.

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