Prime minister’s trip to Bahrain gives a hint to what will happen to human rights after Brexit
The prime minister, Theresa May, is on an official to Bahrain amid controversy about the poor state of human rights in the kingdom. It is really quite difficult to grasp quite what the Prime Minister means when she says the ‘UK must not turn our back on the human rights abuses of foreign countries’ as she prepares to sign various trade deals which does precisely that. There is a growing hint of riddle like statements from her including the meaningless ‘Brexit means Brexit’.
There now seems to be a desperate urge to secure trade deals ahead of our departure from the EU and the Gulf states are fertile ground. She is quoted in the Guardian (5 December 2016)
There will be some people in the UK who say we shouldn’t seek stronger trade and security ties with these countries because of their record on human rights. But we don’t uphold our values and human rights by turning our back on this issue. We achieve far more by stepping up, engaging with these countries and working with them.
So the argument is that Bahrain has a questionable human rights record and that by working with them, and doing business, we can exert some kind of influence to encourage them to stop torturing or otherwise mistreating their people. Since we have been trading their for some time, we would expect that the country would be slowly improving as a result of our influence. The problem is that it isn’t. As Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have said:
Bahrain’s 2016 “reform” agenda has consisted of an assault on core elements of civil society and jailing or deporting government critics. Last month, Amnesty International accused UK Ministers of acting like “overexcited cheerleaders for Bahrain’s woefully inadequate reforms.”
On December 4, Human Rights Watch and others wrote to Prime Minister May to complain about the British government’s ‘abject failure to exert any positive influence’ in Bahrain. We didn’t call on the UK to end trade or security ties, but rather to use the UK’s influence to help put a stop to an orchestrated attack on rights that has badly undermined any prospect of the reform that the UK claims to support.
What exactly “working with” Bahrain to “encourage and support” reform amounts to, remains to be seen. But one thing is clear – human rights will not be at the center of the UK’s relationship with Bahrain.
This is especially worrying in the context of the post Brexit world. The UK will be in a tough position trying to develop trade outside the EU. We will not be in a position to exert any kind of influence on countries like Bahrain if we want to continue to sell them weapons. There will be lip service of course and meaningless phrases from the prime minister and other ministers to assure us that persuasion has been applied to improve human rights. The reality is we will have to accept what’s on offer and be thankful for it. In the context of the Gulf states for example, we export more to them than to China, a situation unlikely to change anytime soon.
Ministers cannot quite bring themselves to say that in reality, there is little they can do and often little they want to do. We must remember also the ‘revolving door’ through which ministers, senior civil servants and top military brass, pass to secure lucrative directorships with the very companies doing the deals in countries like Bahrain. There is little incentive to upset the apple cart.
See also College of Policing.
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