Bahrain: The result of United Kingdom’s upcoming general election must lead to a policy change in support of human rights and democratisation 

London / Beirut

22 June 2024

The government elected as a result of the 4 July 2024 general election in the United Kingdom (UK) must make more use of the close, longstanding UK-Bahrain relationship to robustly promote and protect human rights in the kingdom and hold the Bahraini authorities accountable for perpetrating systematic violations. 

The UK government states that its “aim is to help Bahrain remain a stable and reformist state with an improving human rights record, while protecting our significant defence and security interests and enhancing our bilateral relationship.

On 14 May 2024, just a week before UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the UK general election, a response by Andrew Mitchell MP, the UK Minister of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to a written question from Kenny MacAskill, MP, underscored that the UK is not currently taking advantage of its close ties with Bahrain, in order to defend the victims of the Bahraini authorities’ repression.  .

Kenny MacAskill, MP, asked whether the Minister of State would make representations to his Bahraini counterpart on the release of arbitrarily detained and unfairly convicted Sheikh Ali Salman, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Hasan Mushaima,members of Bahrain’s political opposition. Minister of State, Andrew Mitchell, MP replied that:

“The FCDO continues to follow matters that relate to human rights within Bahrain closely, including some individual cases. The Minister of State for the Middle East, Lord (Tariq) Ahmad of Wimbledon, discussed human rights with Bahrain Foreign Minister Al Zayani on 22 April. The UK remains committed to supporting reforms in Bahrain and to encouraging the government to meet its human rights commitments.”

In his answer to a follow-up question from Kenny MacAskill, inquiring into which “individual cases” are being followed by the FCDO,  Andrew Mitchell did not provide case-specific details on this matter, stating on 21 May 2024:

The FCDO continues to discuss human rights regularly with Bahrain, including some individual cases where appropriate and when specific allegations relating to them are raised. Whilst we sometimes comment publicly, we also engage constructively in private. The FCDO has not made recent representations to Bahrain on the release of the individuals mentioned in Question 24574.”

The importance of the UK taking concerted action to promote and protect human rights in Bahrain is highlighted by the catalogue of ongoing human rights violations perpetrated by the Bahraini authorities, documented by the United Nations and international human rights NGOs includes:

  • Torture and ill-treatment including of those imprisoned, and including those who faced arbitrary arrest and unfair trial; 
  • Repression of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly; 
  • Suppression of the right of expression, including by not allowing those in jail to communicate with loved ones outside or by forbidding the right of religious expression; 
  • Refusal to allow the entry into Bahrain of independent human rights monitors or defenders; 
  • Denial of access to adequate medical care to prisoners; 
  • Mass, unfair trials;
  • Depriving of members of dissolved political associations of exercising political and civil rights enacted in 2018, to those convicted in politically-motivated, unfair trials, who are banned from being able to vote or from standing for election; and the outright ban on peaceful political associations, including the political bodies of al-Wefaq and Wa’ad; and
  • Forbidding, in effect, the right of citizens to take part in public life by brazen and near-wholesale interference in the selection of candidates to the House of Representatives.
  • Bahrain maintains the death penalty but has not executed since 2019. 

Despite the alarming breadth and scope of human rights violations, the UK government asserted just before the  general election announcement, that it  follows matters that relate to human rights within Bahrain closely.” The continuation of the aforementioned violations, despite the full extent of the security, judicial and military training and assistance the Bahraini authorities have received from the UK over many decades, indicates that a significant policy change is required from the incoming UK government. .

Alongside those in the UK for education or other specific engagements the UK has needed to receive scores of Bahraini refugees, including tens whose citizenship the GoB arbitrarily and summarily stripped.

Jawad Fairooz, Director of SALAM DHR, a former MP whose citizenship the GoB revoked while he was visiting the UK in 2012, stated that the organisation:

Calls on the incoming government to end the UK’s complacency towards the simmering impasse in Bahrain and to truly assist the Government of Bahrain to build on the mass release of prisoners in April and encouraging exchanges in the House of Representatives in the same month, so that the Bahrain’s general election in 2026 may be as free and fair as the UK’s in 2024. Both major UK parties need to step up to this challenge.”

SALAM DHR calls on the incoming UK government to:

  1. Have the FCDO convene a open and public meeting with human rights NGOs and activists focused on Bahrain in order to inform and input into policy towards the GoB, including by having a part of the consultation in private;
  2. Publicly take up specific, long standing cases of unfairly convicted political prisoners and leading figures in order to bring about reconciliation in Bahrain and advance democratic discourse;
  3. Openly call on the GoB to amend laws and practices that serve to deprive swathes of Bahrainis of their right to participate in public life, including by amending laws in relation to political bodies; who can vote or stand for election and who can join the boards of NGOs; and
  4. Openly  call on the GoB to adhere to the spirit and letter of its international human rights obligations, including by permitting independent human rights experts, monitors or members of the UN’s Special Procedures visit the country for the purpose of conducting assessments; and
  5. Vote for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty in the expected December 2024 UN General Assembly vote on this issue, with a view to ending the use of the death penalty, in line with the steadily growing number of world states that have already done so.

Further information

Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (SALAM DHR) recognises that the UK must maintain a fair and consistent dialogue with the Bahraini authorities and seek to further advance and deepen the over two hundred year-old relations. The UK maintains a military facility in the country and while Bahrain, whose population is approximately 1.5 million people,  is of limited economic importance to the UK – according to the UK’s Department for Business and Trade, “Bahrain was the UK’s 95th largest trading partner in the four quarters to the end of Q4 2023, accounting for less than 0.1% of total UK trade” – Bahrain receives a portion of the UK’s Gulf Strategy Fund, valued at around £10 million, to support development of the administration of justice, amongst other objectives.

Until 2023, Bahrain was listed as one of the UK’s 31 human rights priority countries. In a separate response to a July 2023 question by Kenny MacAskill, MP, a UK government representative stated that “The decision to remove Bahrain from the list reflects consistent and systemic progress in a range of human rights areas over a number of years.” He did not state what the progress was.

The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office’s (FCDO) 2022 Human Rights and Democracy report, published in July 2023, stated, under Elections, that “Democratic and open societies cannot flourish without credible and inclusive elections. Elections are a key test of a functioning democracy. They enable voters to hold those in public office to account. 

In respect to Bahrain’s 2022 parliamentary elections the report stated that the “elections were peaceful and orderly, with an increased turnout and proportion of elected women MPs” but  it noted that “no international observers were allowed, and [that] the UK continues to encourage Bahrain to consider inviting observers for future elections.” While it added that “Some political societies also remained banned, leading to criticism from international rights groups that there was a continuing ‘environment of political repression’,” it did not clearly state that such restrictions, along with the wholesale and stringent vetting of candidates constituted a violation of Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states, in part, that “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity […]  To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives […].  

The UK’s House of Commons’ September 2023 report, Bahrain: Introductory country profile sets out the socio-political factors that constitute the political impasse in Bahrain and is a clear indication that the UK government must more effectively and robustly utilise UK-Bahrain ties to hold their Bahraini counterparts to account for their roles in systematic human rights violations.

In the preface to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office’s (FCDO) 2022 Human Rights and Democracy report,  then Foreign Secretary James Cleverly wrote that “The UK continues to speak out for truth. We have maximised the impact of all our diplomatic and development tools to protect fundamental freedoms [and that]  [w]e make a positive and tangible impact on people’s lives around the globe every day.” SALAM DHR seeks to help the next UK government work towards this ambition with respect to Bahrain.