BAHRAIN has been described as a regional leader in safeguarding rights of women and migrant workers, according to a senior British official.
Minister of State for the Middle East at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Alistair Burt was speaking during a debate about Bahrain’s rights records at the House of Commons, which was held on Tuesday and titled ‘Human Rights Abuses and UK Assistance to Bahrain’.
He said Bahrain and the UK share a “strong partnership” based on mutual interests, shared threats and a desire to promote greater security and peace in the Gulf region.
“Let me start by making it clear that Bahrain is a key partner for the UK in the Middle East, as was expressed,” he said during the debate.
“The UK government make no apology for that.
“We have a strong partnership based on mutual interests, shared threats and a desire to promote greater security and peace in the Gulf.
“For example, as colleagues mentioned, our new United Kingdom naval support facility, which opened this year, is the first UK naval presence east of Suez since 1971.”
His comments came after a group of MPs, led by Andy Slaughter, criticised Bahrain’s rights records.
The British MPs questioned the millions of pounds of technical assistance provided to Bahrain, raised the cases of Nabeel Rajab, who is serving five years for disseminating false information, Hassan Mushaima, who is serving a life sentence for trying to topple Bahrain’s government in 2011, and alleged female political prisoners.
Their volley of criticism also questioned the work of oversight bodies in Bahrain such as Ombudsman Office, National Institution for Human Rights, and Special Investigation Unit, among other alleged rights violations.
However, in his response Mr Burt said it was important to acknowledge the steps taken by Bahrain to address a range of rights issues, while he also praised the country’s vibrant multi-religious community.
He said that Bahrain was taking a leading role in the region in protecting and safeguarding women’s rights, improving prison conditions and increasing the transparency of working conditions.
“Bahrain is taking a leading role in the region in protecting and safeguarding women’s rights,” he said.
“The government has increased the transparency of working conditions, and introduced a victim-centred approach to their response to trafficking and exploitation.”
Mr Burt also told MPs that the UK recognised areas where Bahrain needed to improve, adding that Manama continued to be a human rights priority for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
He referred to the latest FCO human rights report in which Rajab’s case was mentioned along with other concerns presented to Bahraini officials.
“The (Bahrain) government remains committed to protecting and promoting human rights around the world,” said Mr Burt.
“However, we believe that the best approach – as other speakers have indicated – is to engage with governments and work with international partners and civil society organisations to promote and defend those universal freedoms, and to bring about positive change.”
He also mentioned Bahrain’s reforms process and the establishment of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which was tasked with investigating alleged human rights violations during the 2011 unrest.
“The public presentation of (the BICI) findings in front of the King was unprecedented, and the response of the Bahraini government was also very different to anything in the region,” he added.
“The depth and breadth of our relationship with Bahrain means we can, and do, express our concerns about human rights in a frank and open way at senior levels.”
Mr Burt also responded to questions about training provided to the oversight bodies in Bahrain – adding that the programme was in line with international standards and fully complied with UK’s domestic and international human rights obligations.
“Our work has supported the building of effective institutions that hold the Bahraini government to account,” he explained.
“While those bodies still have more to do, they have already demonstrated their abilities, including through the prosecution of police officers accused of human rights abuses.
“Bahrain remains an important partner, but we do not ignore the other voices that we hear.”
Mr Burt also highlighted that the UK was aware of Iran’s destabilising role in the region and stressed they would continue to be engaged in the region to counter those threats.
“We work with Bahrain and other regional partners to confront states and non-state actors whose influence fuels instability in the region,” he said.
“We remain committed to working together to address Iran’s malign regional behaviour and ballistic missile activity.”