Cameron has done high-profile photo-ops with Bahraini royalty, but has stayed silent on human rights. Photo: Getty
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Arms sales can never be apolitical acts: the UK should not sell to Bahrain

There are few regimes as authoritarian as the one in Bahrain, and even fewer that enjoy such a level of support from the UK.

The prominent and brave human rights campaigner Maryam Al-Khawaja is the most recent victim of the Bahraini regime, having been detained while visiting her father Abdulhadi al-Khawaja who has been imprisoned since 2011 for his activism.

This is only the latest example of the intensifying crackdown being waged by the Bahraini regime against pro-democracy protesters and critics. Over the last few years there have also been attacks on journalists, artists and opposition parties.

Earlier this month, it was announced that there were 600 detainees on hunger strike in opposition to government torture. A statement released by the prisoners has accused the authorities of a long list of abuses; including beatings, insults, torture, solitary confinement, and forcing them to stand for long hours.

Official reconciliation talks in Bahrain fell apart in the new year after three years of political deadlock. The breakdown of dialogue was symptomatic of wider problems with the undemocratic and abusive ways in which the government operates.

Shortly after the breakdown, the King strengthened his authority with the introduction of a new law that imposes prison sentences of up to seven years on anyone who publicly insults him.

Research from Human Rights Watch shows that despite the upbeat assessments from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office there has been little in the way of progress on human rights or democracy. The regime has also, rightfully, been condemned by Freedom House, Amnesty International and the Economist Democracy Index, which listed it among the 20 most authoritarian governments in the world.

Unfortunately, it is against this backdrop that the UK has chosen to strengthen its relationship with the regime.

As well as announcing new trading agreements, the Department of Business Innovation and Skills has listed Bahrain as a "priority market" for arms sales and the government has invested a lot of time, money and political capital into its very public support for the Bahraini authorities as it attempts to secure a deal on Eurofighter jets.

Only four months ago, the Bahraini royals descended on the UK as part of a propaganda offensive that saw them rubbing shoulders with the Queen at the Royal Windsor Horse Show and meeting with senior politicians at a specially arranged conference in the heart of Westminster.

This was just one public display of support in what is a mutually fawning relationship. It followed hot on the heels of a state visit from Prince Charles and "GREAT British Week"; a colourful and flamboyant arms fair and garish tribute to all things British that took place in Manama in January and attracted visits from Philip Hammond MP and Prince Andrew.

The 2011 uprisings should have seen a re-evaluation of the way that the UK does business in the region, but it licensed £18m worth of military equipment to Bahrain in 2013 alone. This included licences for machine guns, sniper rifles, weapon sights, ammunition and anti riot shields, all of which can be used for internal repression.

What is implicit in the arms sales is a political support for the regime and a message to democracy activists and those fighting repression that their aspirations for human rights and civil liberties are of less importance than arms trade profits.

This point was emphasised by the Foreign Affairs Committee's 2013 report into relations with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which concluded that: "Both the government and the opposition in Bahrain view UK defence sales as a signal of British support for the government."

The issue goes way beyond Bahrain. Unfortunately the UK sells weapons to a number of regimes that are every bit as repressive and authoritarian as the Bahraini one, with its biggest buyer being Saudi Arabia.

Arms sales can never be apolitical acts. On one hand, they bolster the buyers by giving them a British endorsement as a fig-leaf of respectability, but they also buy the UK government's political silence and compliance. David Cameron has done a number of high-profile photo-ops with Bahraini royalty, but has stayed silent on human rights.

Unless there is an international embargo on arms sales to Bahrain, pro-democracy activists such as Al-Khawaja will continue to campaign in an environment that is characterised by violence, intimidation and repression. As the crackdown continues to escalate and spread, we can be under no doubt that decisions being made in support of arms sales are having serious consequences for the victims of state repression.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade and tweets at @wwwcaatorguk

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump