December 5th, 2016
Ahead of Theresa May’s high-profile visit to the Middle East, she delivered a powerful message to the whole of the UK. And it certainly wasn’t a heartwarming one.
On 6 December, May will embark on a two-day visit to Bahrain. During this time, she will attend the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and seek to establish ties with the Gulf states. It will be the first time a British Prime Minister has attended such an event.
With Brexit looming, May has already spoken out about her desire to expand the UK’s trade agreements. In October, May vowed to “forge a new global role for the UK”. She also claimed the UK will become the “most passionate, most consistent, and most convincing advocate for free trade”. This was something she advocated during her official visit to India in November, and something she plans to advocate during her visit to Bahrain.
But before her departure, May had a powerful message for the British public. She said:
No doubt 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 to encourage and support their plans for reform. That is how Britain can be a force for good in the world as well as helping to keep our people safe and create new opportunities for business.
This year marks 200 years of relations between Bahrain and the United Kingdom and a century of ties with Saudi Arabia, but in recent years our relationship hasn’t felt as close as it is old. I want to change that. There is so much we can do together – whether it is helping one another to prevent terrorist attacks, Gulf investment regenerating cities across the UK, or British businesses helping Gulf countries to achieve their long term vision of reform.
In the 200 years of relations between Bahrain and the UK, little has changed. In 2012, UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay listed Bahrain in the top seven countries for the worst human rights record.
Bahrain’s authorities continue to arrest and prosecute those who criticise the government. And their record of torture is despicable. Such methods include: electric shock, prolonged suspension in painful positions, severe beatings, threats to rape and kill, exposure to extreme cold, and abuse of a sexual nature.
Watch Human Rights Watch’s video on torture in Bahrain:
Theresa May’s logic
While the Prime Minister may think these trade agreements can encourage such countries to improve their human rights record, history suggests otherwise. Bahrain is just one example of the many Gulf states that mistreat, threaten and terrorise their citizens. Her willingness to put money and trade above the safety of people does not reflect well on the UK.
Boris Johnson and Turkey
A similar picture is being painted by May’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. In September, Johnson said that Britain will support Turkey’s bid to join the EU. He also stated that Turkey should not be “pushed into a corner” over the death penalty.
Turkey also has a terrible human rights record. In July, President Erdoğan purged thousands of journalists, judges, political opponents and activists. Amnesty International revealed that thousands of detainees were being tortured.
In August, the government lowered the age of consent to 12, meaning that acts of child sex abuse could go unpunished. And in November, the government attempted to pass a bill which allowed rapists to escape punishment if they married their victims. This was only quashed as a result of a massive public outcry.
With Brexit on its way, it’s positive to see May planning for the future. But her willingness to compromise Britain’s commitment to human rights issues and her shortsightedness cannot go amiss. These states will continue to penalise their citizens. Until the UK and the rest of the world hold them to account, they will not stop.