Mehdi Hasan on our friend and ally: the Kingdom of Bahrain

The latest Human Rights Watch report makes for depressing reading.

Yesterday I tweeted a link to this piece in the Atlantic Monthly on how the repressive Bahraini regime has signed up a top public-relations agency to rebrand its image in the west:

Last year, in the early weeks of Bahrain's violent crackdown on the largely Shia opposition protests, the minister of foreign affairs inked a contract with Qorvis to provide public-relations services for $40,000 per month, plus expenses. One of the largest PR and lobbying firms in Washington, Qorvis employs a number of former top Capitol Hill staffers and also works for Bahrain's close ally, Saudi Arabia. The firm's work for Bahrain came under scrutiny last year when it defended the government's raid last year on a Doctors Without Borders office in Bahrain. Also in 2011, a Qorvis official wrote pro-regime columns in The Huffington Post without revealing his affiliation with Qorvis.

This morning, I was at a breakfast briefing with Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, who was discussing the latest HRW report, "No Justice in Bahrain".

From the report's "Summary":

Based on scores of interviews with defendants, former detainees, defense lawyers, and observers of the trials, as well as a comprehensive review of available court records, medical documents, and other relevant material, this report finds that the National Safety Courts repeatedly failed to respect and protect basic due process rights.

And:

Human Rights Watch interviewed eight defendants following their release in February 2011, all of whom said that they had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment, variously reporting beatings, sleep deprivation, forced prolonged standing, and extended detention in solitary confinement. Human Rights Watch had access to photographs of injuries and medical reports of government doctors that corroborated some of these accounts. Not only did the Public Prosecution Office reject without basis the defendants' allegations of abuse, it premised its case largely on evidence that "came out of the mouths of the defendants themselves," indicating that the case was built essentially on confessions.

In his briefing, Stork pointed out how HRW and other human-rights group have had their access to Bahrain "restricted since last April". He also revealed how the UN's special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, who had been planning to visit Bahrain later this month, has been asked by the regime to postpone his trip. What do the Bahrainis - who hired John Yates (!), former assistant commissioner of the Met, to help "reform" their security forces - have to hide?

Perhaps it is the fact that, as Stork bluntly put it:

there is a patina of a justice system operating but, really, it's a joke. There is no way if you're a protester that you're not going to get a conviction in court. . . The prosecutors are part of the problem."

As I noted in the Guardian last year:

The Orwellian regime in Manama continues to round up people for the most minor of "offences". Last month, for example, the 20-year-old university student Ayat al-Qarmezi was arrested, assaulted and sentenced to a year in prison - by a military court - for reading out a poem criticising the king at a rally.

The Bahraini government says things have changed; in a letter to the Times on 22 February, the country's ambassador to the UK, Alice Samaan, wrote:

Last year our country experienced a period of unrest. Sine the demonstrations our response has been to introduce an independent investigation and a programme of reform.

But, as Stork pointed out this morning, the truth is that

just one Bahraini member of the security forces - a lieutenant accused of an extra-judicial killing of a protester - has been charged so far. The rest have been low-level, foreign members of the security forces from Pakistan and elsewhere.

For Stork, "there is no transparency here". For example, the "independent" complaints unit set up to deal with protesters' grievances is based inside - wait for it - the nation's interior ministry. Hmm. And torture and abuses inside police stations may have stopped but, Stork pointed out, what is happening now is that

there are reports of demonstrators being picked up [by the security forces] and beaten before getting to the police station.

So what's our government up to? Er, arming the Bahraini tyrants, that's what. As I wrote in my column in the Times on 14 February:

Between July and September 2011, the [Conservative-Lib Dem] coalition authorised the sale of £2.2 million of arms to the regime. It was reprehensible and irresponsible, an official British betrayal not just of the Bahraini people, but of the Arab Spring itself.

The Bahraini ambassador's 22 February letter in the Times was written in response to my column. She accused me of being "completely inaccurate" and failing

to recognise that Bahrain is one of the most progressive countries in the region.

I put this claim to HRW's Stork. He laughed and said:

The Bahrainis are concerned with their image but there is a huge disconnect between their self-image and what's happening on the ground. Progressive? Perhaps you could call it 'progressive authoritarianism'.

So, I ask again (as I have asked before), why on earth does the UK continue to support, defend and arm a progressive-authoritarian regime, which continues to beat and abuse its protesters, fails to conduct fair or transparent trials and investigations or allow in the UN's special rapporteur on torture, and employs expensive foreign PR firms to help whitewash its crimes? Does our government have no shame?

 

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change