The Guardian, Comment is free: Last year, the Bahraini government praised the findings of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) into institutional failures that caused the death of 35 individuals between 14 February and 15 April 2011. It committed to the professionalisation of the police force and the introduction of greater accountability for those charged with torture. Ten months on, the BICI’s recommendations read as a hollow reminder that little progress has been made. On Tuesday, an announcement was made that the convictions of 20 prominent dissidents were being upheld, despite widespread condemnation over the politicised nature of the judicial process.
Practical attempts to address the most heinous allegations have been minimal. Instead, implementation efforts have been carefully orientated towards international allies, hiring western advisers to legitimise the reform process and send a message to the world that action is being taken. A number of prominent British establishment figures have risen to the occasion.
John Yates, the former Metropolitan police assistant commissioner, was hired last December to overhaul Bahrain’s police service in line with international human rights standards. Since then, he has become the de facto security spokesperson for the Bahrain government. In April, when the Bahrain Formula One grand prix took place against a backdrop of heated protest, Yates appeared across international news outlets defending the stuttering reform process and framing the unrest as “criminal acts” against “unarmed police”.
The few reforms announced to the public wither in the face of basic scrutiny. In April, Yates announced that he was hiring 500 community police officers to improve relations with the public. However, far from extending an olive branch to a suspicious citizenry, the police continue to make extensive use of teargas as well as shotguns in the name of crowd control.
So why was the commissioner hired, if not for his ability to implement genuine reforms? It’s possible the Bahraini government saw him as part of a package. Kristian Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, told me that Yates was seen as a key to “the highest levels of government”, although British ministers insist there was no contact over Yates’s appointment, reports suggest he has since enjoyed an unprecedented degree of contact with British officials. In June, he accompanied interior minister Lt Gen Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa to diplomatic engagements in London, even meeting with junior Foreign Office minister Lord Howell.
A number of similarly well-connected British lawyers were also hired between December 2011 and March 2012 to advise on institutional reforms that would pave the way for the enactment of BICI’s recommendations. This included advising on measures to improve accountability, including the creation of a national body to investigate police officers responsible for torture, death or mistreatment of civilians.
Among their number was Sir Daniel Bethlehem, a former Foreign Office legal adviser who had left the government’s service in May 2011, returning to practice at his chambers two months later.
As with Yates, the involvement of Britons as advisers has resulted in few tangible changes at institutional level. Despite extensive documentation of state-led human rights abuses, only five low-level personnel have been imprisoned, taking the rap for what the BICI called “systematic … mistreatment which … amounted to torture.”
The gulf between Bahraini rhetoric surrounding the lawyers’ appointment and their practical achievements reinforces an impression that they too have been hired as the publicly acceptable face of a reform process that is going nowhere.
The British government has supplied the security forces of Bahrain with crowd control weapons and British advisers have been co-opted into the abortive reform process. But British involvement doesn’t there, our oldest institutions continue to train a steady stream of Bahraini nationals for active service. According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, this training comes at a high cost to the British state. Although it costs £78,000 to train a single recruit, Bahrain only pays £48,400 an individual. The Ministry of Defence has therefore subsidised Bahraini military training with at least £380,000 in the past three years alone.
But for a government committed to boosting ties with a “key defence ally”, this will be seen as a small price to pay. As former regional partners such as Egypt undergo their own political struggles, British officials place an increasingly high premium on alliances based on trust and deep historical roots. The price for this co-operation is complicity in the slow and steady crackdown on the human rights that Britain purports to defend.
Photograph: Photograph: Hasan Jamali/AP – The Guardian