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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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA