Foreign Office removes Bahrain as a human rights priority following pledge of £1bn investment into UK economy

  • The UK Foreign Office has removed Bahrain from the human rights priority list following their pledge to invest £1 billion into the UK economy

  • Bahrain welcomed the decision, with Bahrain’s King Hamad crediting Bahrain’s landmark human rights achievements that have led to the country becoming a pioneering role model in the field”
  • The UK has removed Human Rights conditions from its ongoing trade deal negotiations with the six Gulf states of the Gulf Cooperation Council
  • Rights groups Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) and Reprieve condemned the decision
  • Death row inmate Mohamed Ramadhan spoke to BIRD about what this decision meant to him

  • Senior MPs, including Conservative MP Sir Peter Bottomley, Chris Bryant MP and Lib-dem peer Lord Scriven criticised the decision

On 13th July, the Foreign Office published the 2022 Human Rights and Democracy Report. In this report, Bahrain was removed from the FCDO list of priority human rights countries despite its appalling human rights record. 

Within hours of the announcement, which was released late in the afternoon in the UK, after the end of Bahrain’s working day, the King of Bahrain issued a glowing statement praising “Bahrain’s landmark human rights achievements that have led to the country becoming a pioneering role model in the field”. The timing of both announcements suggests that Bahrain had been notified about their removal prior to the publication of the report. 

The following day, every newspaper in the country featured Bahrain’s removal from the list on its front page. 

A letter seen by BIRD to MPs from Middle East Minister Lord Ahmad stated that human rights were discussed in the meeting on 4th July between UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Bahrain’s Crown Prince. During this meeting, the Crown Prince may have been informed about Bahrain’s removal from the list. However, this is not yet confirmed, but Kenny MacAskill MP has questioned the government on this issue. 

In his public statement, King Hamad credited efforts by the Crown Prince for this achievement, suggesting that it was a result of the Crown Prince’s recent visit to the UK. 

On Friday, 15th July, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister called UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly to thank him on his country’s behalf for the removal of Bahrain from the list while James Cleverly commended “Bahrain’s human rights achievements which reflects the wise national efforts in Bahrain, wishing the Kingdom further progress and prosperity.” 

Key statistics on Bahrain: 

  • Freedom House’s 2023 report labelled Bahrain as “Not Free” and described the country as “one of the Middle East’s most repressive states”
  • Bahrain ranked in the world’s worst ten countries for media freedom on the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, according to Reporters Without Borders. 
  • The Economist ranked Bahrain 142 out of 167 countries in their 2022 Global Democracy Index. Bahrain is listed as both Bahrain an absolute monarchy and “authoritarian”. 
  • BIRD estimates there are currently over 1,200 political prisoners in Jau Prison. Bahrain has the highest rate of imprisonment per capita in the Middle East region, according to the World Prison Brief.

The report praises Bahrain for religious tolerance, use of alternative sentencing, and the 2022 parliamentary elections, whilst acknowledging that human rights groups had criticised the November 2022 vote as taking place amid a continuing “environment of political repression”.

On 3 July, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a new Strategic Investment and Collaboration Partnership with Bahrain aiming to facilitate an additional investment of more than £1 billion into the UK.

This decision comes amid ongoing negotiations regarding a Free Trade Agreement between the UK and the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The UK Government has been repeatedly criticised for its omission of human rights during the talks. In April 2023, the House of Commons International Trade Committee warned the government that they should be willing to walk away from the deal due to significant concerns about human rights abuses across the region. 

Mohammed Ramadhan, a current death row inmate in Jau Prison, Bahrain, told BIRD in a telephone conversation:  “I had hoped that the British Foreign Secretary would help bring justice to our case and stand with us. Unfortunately, this hope has faded. I feel extremely disappointed in him because I thought he would stand up for our case, especially after detailed information about our case was relayed to him, but he has abandoned us. As a human being even though I am not British, I, as a Bahraini, have the right to humanity. They claim humanity and claim to uphold human rights but do the opposite.”

Members of both houses made the following comments in response to the decision:

Chris Bryant Labour MP and Member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee:

“I am deeply concerned that the FCDO’s approach to human rights seems to be up for auction. The Foreign Secretary must explain how he came to this conclusion while political repression is rife in Bahrain and death row is filled with men tortured into signing false confessions to crimes they did not commit, because they dared call for democratic reforms.” 

Sir Peter Bottomley Conservative MP, Father of the House and the Chair of the All-Party-Parliamentary Group on Human Rights and Democracy in the Gulf: “The Foreign Secretary will be aware that torture victims Mohamed Ramadhan and Husain Moosa continue to be at risk of imminent execution in Bahrain. Maher Abbas al-Khabbaz also remains on death row, despite clear evidence of the use of torture in his pre-trial detention and the fact his conviction was based on the torture-stained evidence of others, and academic and human rights defender Abduljalil al-Singace remains imprisoned, having been detained for over a decade for exercising his rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

 In this context, the FCDO’s decision to remove Bahrain as a human rights priority country is difficult to comprehend. I have asked the Foreign Secretary to explain his rationale for this decision in a statement to the house, including what information is available to him on the number of prisoners in Bahrain known to be on death row and whether the government of Bahrain has responded to British representations about Mohamed Ramadhan and Husain Moosa.

Bahrain is important to us: politically, diplomatically and militarily. We know there have been times when the Bahraini have given consideration to our constructive prompting. We must continue to stand as a protector and promoter of human rights internationally.”

Lord Scriven, Liberal Democrat Peer and Vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf: “We must avoid any impression that countries like Bahrain can buy their way off the Foreign Office’s human rights priority list. If anything, human rights in the Kingdom have worsened in recent years, not improved. Torture by the security services remains endemic and standing up for basic human rights can land you on death row. Downplaying these abuses shames the Government and risks sending the message that the UK’s principles are for sale.”

Human Rights groups also responded to Bahrain’s removal from the list:

Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei, advocacy director at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD): “The UK government has a history of using misleading human rights reports to whitewash Bahrain’s record of abuse. They have now gone even further and dropped Bahrain from their list of human rights priority countries in exchange for investment in the UK economy. The government appears eager to trade its values for cash.”

Dan Dolan, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Reprieve: “The grim truth is that the UK Government has been laundering human rights abuses in Bahrain for many years: Britain spends millions of pounds of taxpayer money supporting Bahraini institutions that whitewash torture, then ministers claim credit for illusory improvements. This sordid relationship has terrible consequences for the people of Bahrain, who suffer under a deeply repressive regime while the UK extends diplomatic cover.”


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