16 December 2015 – London – The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) in cooperation with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy in Bahrain and Human Rights Watch hosted a panel discussion entitled “What Next for Bahrain?” in Portcullis House, Houses of Parliament. The discussion assessed the challenges facing Bahrain in terms of human rights and reform concerns alongside an analysis of the UK Foreign Office’s response to these concerns.
The panel comprised of Member of Parliament and Shadow Justice Minister Andy Slaughter, Bahrain researcher for Human Rights Watch Nicholas McGeehan, Senior Lecturer at Lund University Abdulhadi Khalaf, founder of Bahrain Watch Alaa Shehabi and prominent Bahraini human rights lawyer Mohammed al-Tajer.
Nicholas McGeehan, who chaired the panel, opened by identifying the basic challenges facing Bahrain. He presented the conclusions of the new Human Rights Watch report, The Blood of People Who Don’t Cooperate, concerning continued systematic use of torture in Bahrain since 2011. He also presented evidence of the continued culture of impunity within the security institutions which have not been held accountable for serious human rights abuses.
Dr. Abdulhadi Khalaf, a former member of the 1973 parliament in Bahrain (suspended indefinitely after less than 2 sessions), spoke about being recently stripped of his Bahraini nationality. Dr. Khalaf laid out the historical context which Bahrain emerged from in the 18th century and described Bahrain as very similar to neighbouring monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula. He raised the Bahrain government’s historic and current use of citizenship as a gift, which can be given or taken, and the difference between neighbouring countries that have pursued state building to transform “subjects” into “citizens”. He said that the revocation of nationalities reflects this relationship between the ruling family and the people of Bahrain who are treated as “subjects”.
Andy Slaughter spoke on British policy concerning Bahrain. As a member of the Labour Party, Mr. Slaughter emphasized his opposition to the current Government’s policies towards the Gulf countries. He claimed that there was a pattern of turning a blind eye to particular violations of human rights which was rationalized by the importance of British security and trade interests in the region, trumping the importance of pursuing democracy and human rights. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy in Bahrain had on several occasions addressed this to members of the government to no avail. However, Mr. Slaughter emphasized that he recognizes a growing awareness and discussion about British interventions in the region and the double standard that are operated by the Government with the Gulf countries are being scrutinized.
Dr. Alaa Shehabi, founder of Bahrain Watch, began by comparing the British narrative of the 1920s with the current narrative, which she argues has increasingly taken on a similar character. She referred to statements such as “your security is our security, your prosperity is our prosperity” from the UK government as building up a discourse legitimising its support of the Bahraini security institutions. Through this support from the UK and the US, Bahrain is able to continue its subjugation of the people of Bahrain despite weak and cosmetic attempts at reform. Dr. Shehabi noted that the current situation is not be sustainable and the politicians in the UK must address this.
The final speaker of the evening was Mohammed al-Tajer, who reflected on his experiences as a human rights lawyer in Bahrain. He claimed that the UK’s support of the security institutions in Bahrain is encouraging the Government to continue the repression of its people. New laws are being enacted that are continuously intensifying the control of individuals. Mr. al-Tajer also highlighted that the number of stripped citizenships is enlarged when accounting for family and children who cannot renew their passports after their fathers are rendered stateless. He also spoke about the enactment of legislation giving the Minister of Interior powers to withdraw the nationality of individuals presiding outside of Bahrain for over 3 years. He concluded by asserting that the UK has a vital role in conveying a message of concern to the Bahraini regime about this worrying trend.
As the floor opened up for discussion, Mr. Slaughter asserted that MPs from within his party had started to admit that a “line” had been crossed for the UK in terms of its continued support to Gulf regimes. He spoke about the continued supply of arms to Gulf countries and the lack of criticism of rights abuses.