Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Sir Harold Walker

Summary This submission offers concise comments only on the human rights element in the UK’s multi-faceted foreign policy towards Bahrain. It suggests that in recent times that element has been given an inappropriate place in public discourse in the UK.

The submitter I served in the British Diplomatic Service from 1956 to 1991. All my overseas postings bar two were in the Middle East, and I was ambassador to three Gulf countries, including Bahrain (1979–81). In retirement I have retained an interest in the Middle East: among other ME-related appointments I was Chairman of the Bahrain Society from 1993 to 1999, and President of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies from 2006 to 2010.

Facts and argument Since the atrocities in Rwanda (1994) and, particularly, Srebrenica (1995), human rights abuses have rightly played a bigger role than previously in deciding the policies of Western governments towards other states, and in shaping media comment. Attention is paid to the views of organisations such as Amnesty International (founded in 1961) and Human Rights Watch (founded in 1978). The promotion of human rights world-wide is in our strategic interests: as the Foreign Secretary put it in a speech on 15 September 2010, “Our security is weakened when others lack the conditions for safety and where the absence of law creates fertile ground for future conflict or terrorism”.

However, 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. There are particular areas in which Bahrain has a good record: freedom of religion (Bahrain has appointed both Jewish and Christian ambassadors) and the status of women. This is largely ignored; nor is it pointed out that the government would have moved further in the direction of a satisfactory Family Law but for the negativism of opposition Shi’ite scholars and members of parliament. Individual events are given slanted treatment: it is regularly stated that medical personnel at the Salmaniya Medical Complex were taken to court just for treating members of the opposition, while no reference is made to the BICI finding that “the involvement of some doctors and medical personnel in various political activities on and around the SMC premises was clearly difficult to reconcile with the full exercise of their medical responsibilities”. No attention is paid to the provocations facing the security authorities in the way of the burning of tyres on public roads and the use of Molotov cocktails against the police. Western sensitivities over human rights are allowed to prevail over the interests of the Bahraini people, as for instance when human rights organisations lobbied for the cancellation of the Formula 1 race in Bahrain when the main opposition group in Bahrain itself was on economic grounds in favour of its being held. Due credit is not given to the Bahrain authorities for their repeated efforts to enter into dialogue with the opposition.

These matters are admittedly difficult to treat fairly, but the bias of the human rights organisations is hard to deny. Unfortunately much of the media accept their views unquestioningly. The public picture presented is thus one-sided.

What is perhaps more important is that 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.

In the speech referred to above Mr Hague said that “Our starting point for engagement on human rights with all countries will be based on what is practical, realistic and achievable”. Practicality and realism will mean in most cases, and certainly with regard to friendly countries, that criticism should not be loudly voiced from the roof-tops: states, like individual human beings, tend to react adversely to such criticism. The first step should be through normal diplomatic means to urge the governments concerned to live up to obligations they have themselves undertaken. Aside from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Bahrain is a party to various UN Conventions, including the Convention against torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Other steps include the provision of specialised expertise. There is a place for public criticism, but it should be carefully judged. Dialogue should be the watchword. Achievement on the substance, and damage to other aspects of our relationship, should not be risked on the altar of giving satisfaction to single-issue lobbies and the media.

12 November 2012

Prepared 21st November 2013