Not much, as British parliamentary records reveal – the ruling Al-Khalifa family shelled out just £5,400 per head for British parliamentary grandees Baroness Scotland of Asthal, Lord Gulam Noon, Hazel Blears MP, Lord Patel of Bradford and Lord Clive Soley to visit the Kingdom in April.
I’ve recently acquired a copy of the 24 page report the delegation produced following their trip, and it’s a whitewash. Yet to be made public, it’s a perfect case study of Bahraini reputation laundering.
Each of the delegates demonstrates interests that illustrate the cunning of the Al-Khalifas and how they have tried to spin the revolution – firstly through false accusations of terrorism, and secondly that the pro-democracy movement is anything but, instead being secretly influenced by theocratic Iran.
Both are myths but the report shows that the delegates were happy to accept and propagate them nonetheless.
Lord Gulam Noon, for example, is on the record saying: “I personally consider Bahrain as my second home and look forward to settling here.”
“I would describe myself as half Bahraini,” he added.
Noon admitted to me some months ago he was a personal friend of the Al-Khalifas.
Hardly impartial, Noon spins the secret-Iranian-influence lie unashamedly. In an article entitled “Traitors Not Refugees” published in Bahrain during the delegation’s visit, he told a local reporter that the 500 or so Bahraini activists who have fled to London are undesirable.
They “are not refugees or asylum seekers, but are connected with the external agencies that are against the Kingdom.”
“In the UK, we are fully aware of the situation where our judicial system is allowing citizenship too easily,” he went on. “We are trying to review the possibilities of a change in the legal system, as we see that many are abusing this privilege.” Noon offered no evidence for these claims.
Lord Noon also has a quality which is admirable in itself – a strong agenda on terrorism and extremism. Indeed, Noon was briefly caught at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai during the November 2008 terrorist attack and has advocated since for far tougher measures on extremist preachers in the UK, making frequent overtures in the Lords regarding tough terror laws.
In parallel, it has been a standard tactic of the Bahraini government to smear pro-democracy activists as terrorists. On the day Noon and the other British politicians landed in Bahrain, local human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja was serving the 1,025th day of his life sentence, handed down after the 2011 uprising. He, and seven others, had been charged with “organising and managing a terrorist organisation”.
Al-Khawaja’s real crime was defending human rights. He was the co-founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, not a terrorist. He was a regional representative for human rights group Frontline Defenders, not a bomber. He had previously been invited on a “fact-finding mission” to Iraq by Amnesty International, not Al-Qaeda.
Unfortunately, the wording of the delegation’s report, which is being published by Lord Gulam Noon, lends credibility to these false accusations of terrorism, through its frequent allusions to balancing human rights with “national security”.
You might reject the view that allegations of terrorist tactics are unfounded. The month previous to their visit, three policemen had been killed in a bomb attack for which the government blamed the opposition movement. The report adopts a concerned, but frustratingly unquestioning, tone.
“We were shown some of the weapons confiscated by the police. Unsurprisingly some of them were of Iranian origin, but perhaps more worryingly some had clearly been manufactured locally in a crude but effective way.”
“They included homemade bombs, one of which was thought to be similar… to that which may have been responsible for killing the three police officers… Such manufactured weapons indicate the existence of organised resistance in the Shia villages.”
Aside from whether “unsurprisingly” was an appropriate word to use in an impartial report – here are a few questions for the delegation about that “terror attack”: Consider simply who stood to gain more, the Bahraini regime or the opposition movement if that bomb went off? Wouldn’t the opposition movement lose greatly? Would the international community come to their aid if they resorted to terrorism?
There is a credible theory that this attack wasn’t the fault of the opposition movement. It is more likely that the security services planted the explosives. This point has been raised by an ex-Bahraini lawmaker and is widely believed in the anti-monarchy community.
Another delegate, Hazel Blears MP, is also ripe for exploitation on this point, having staked her career on being “tough” on terrorists.
As the biography that accompanies the report emphasises: Blears served as Police and Counter Terrorism Minister under the Labour government, has “a depth of expertise in national and international security matters”, and implemented the (disastrous) “Prevent” counter-terrorism strategy in the UK.
You might ask why any of this is relevant to assessing human rights abuses.
Perhaps because the Al-Khalifas wanted powerful Britons who see the world through “national security” eyes, who nod when someone smears revolutionaries as terrorists. It’s easy to distract from atrocious human rights abuses when the politician you are presenting to believe themselves to be at the forefront of the “war on terror”.
The report makes clear that Blears, along with Baroness Scotland, was on the trip because of her experience in the “engagement of the wider community”. Blears also had, the report insists, “extensive experience in overseeing community policing developments in the UK”.
Yet the document I’ve seen makes no mention of Bahrain’s cruel policing – in particular its lavish use of teargas. Just a month before the delegation’s visit, South Korea banned all teargas exports to Bahrain for fear they may be misused by security forces. By all accounts, police brutality, including torture, is at its worst not just since 2011, but since the uprising in the nineties.
What of Lord Clive Soley? Maybe he was chosen to lead the delegation because Lord Gulam Noon’s allegiance to the Al-Khalifa cause was too obvious, or perhaps because of his proven track record assisting another Gulf autocracy.
In 2012, the state-run Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) in Abu Dhabi invited Soley to speak about the rule of law. He promptly and profusely praised “the legal framework and the impressive track record of the rule of law in the UAE”.
A report of his speech, published by the ECSSR concluded that “the most important remark in Lord Soley’s lecture was the link between the rule of law and stability in the UAE and the country’s development, economic prosperity and preservation of human rights and freedom.
Yet the United Arab Emirates don’t allow any independent human rights organisations to operate in the country, they are yet to answer to torture allegations against both British citizens and local political activists, and they were reviewed by the US State Department in 2013 as having serious “limitations on citizens’ civil liberties (including the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and internet use)”, and “arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, and lengthy pretrial detentions”.
If Soley is so easy to dupe or willing to be a stooge for the UAE, why not Bahrain? He readily admits to be no expert on the Middle East, his profile on the House of Lords’ website declares his foreign policy focus lie in far-away south east and central Asia. It was only after he attended the delegation visit that he even mentioned Bahrain in his frequent speeches to the Lords on the Middle East.
Lord Patel of Bradford, the final delegate, is a mighty academic and a passable politician – but again, admits on the Houses of Parliament’s website that his specialty is India, not the Middle East. Like Soley he may have been easy to fool.
Strangely, Patel also holds a Professorship at the University of East London (Baroness Scotland holds an honorary degree there). This is an establishment which has already made up its mind on Bahrain. With funding from none other than Lord Gulam Noon (who is also Honorary Chancellor for UoEL), the university already runs an exchange programme with the Bahraini government.
The Bahraini regime invited delegates who were either close friends – Lord Noon, naive – Lord Patel and Lord Soley, pre-disposed through their own beliefs and agenda to believing smears of terrorism – Lord Noon and Hazel Blears, or linked to organisations which already credited Bahrain with engagement – Lord Patel, Baroness Scotland and Lord Noon.
The report they have produced gives an impression of progress. There has been anything but. Human Rights Watch judge that Bahrain has “regressed further in key areas in 2013 and the government made little real progress regarding reforms it claimed to pursue”.
Amnesty International warned that the regime is torturing children. Even the US State Department recently released 49 pages of bruising rebuke. Yet this delegation saw only what the Bahraini dictators wanted them to see, and lavished them with praise. They should be ashamed.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.