Catherine Philp, Diplomatic Correspondent
September 22 2018, 12:01am, The Times
Millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money is being spent in secret on bodies linked to serious human rights abuses in wealthy Gulf states after the government blocked the release of basic information about a shadowy fund administered by the Foreign Office.
Multiple Freedom of Information requests for details of how the £20 million-a-year Integrated Activity Fund (IAF) is being spent have been refused on the basis of national security and other exemptions relating to the involvement of the intelligence services.
Projects under the fund include a controversial security and justice programme in Bahrain that the foreign affairs committee said last week should be reviewed in light of evidence that Bahraini prison staff and security personnel had been implicated in torture and extrajudicial killings, amid a larger decline in human rights.
That programme, which has cost Britain £5 million to date, was administered under the £1 billion Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) until 2016, when the fund came under parliamentary investigation for its lack of transparency.
The programme was then transferred to the IAF, a fund set up for projects in the six Gulf countries about which the government has refused to release any details, including the nature of the projects and their beneficiaries.
Human rights groups noted that the transfer of the programme happened not only as scrutiny of the CSSF mounted but also as the human rights situation in Bahrain began to deteriorate dramatically. In the past two years, since a fresh crackdown on dissent began, torture cases have soared and the number of prisoners on death row has tripled.
“After MPs warned the government was maintaining a £1 billion ‘slush fund’ for foreign security forces, and called for that fund to be made more transparent, the government started paying for its Bahrain projects out of an even more secretive pot of money,” Dan Dolan, head of policy for Reprieve, the human rights charity, said.
“Taxpayers deserve to be told if their money is being spent on foreign security forces involved in torture and the death penalty. The Foreign Office has not publicly accounted for a penny of the £80 million allocated to security initiatives in the Gulf states, including regimes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia with a well-documented history of violating human rights.”
The Foreign Office has also refused to publish the human rights risk assessments it is obliged to undertake before awarding funds, a system set up by Lord Hague of Richmond, when he was foreign secretary, to ensure greater transparency in foreign policy.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman acknowledged that British programmes in Bahrain “support progress on building effective and accountable institutions, strengthening the rule of law, and justice reform” adding that all were “regularly reviewed to ensure that they remain consistent with British values, including respect for human rights”.
On the FoI exemption, she added: “It is a long-standing policy of successive governments not to comment on security matters. We neither confirm nor deny that IAF-funded programmes involve the intelligence agencies.”
MPs and peers seeking to penetrate the wall of secrecy have run into the same difficulties. Lord Scriven, who has tabled several parliamentary questions on the IAF, called the level of secrecy surrounding it “unprecedented”.
“I have never seen a situation where it started open and became swiftly more opaque as the criticisms grew,” he told The Times. “The government has become hyper-sensitive if not paranoid to the fact that the truth will be exposed.”
While the government maintains maximum secrecy, Bahrain flaunts British involvement as evidence that it is conforming to international human rights standards. Bahrain has “played the UK’s support to maximum effect”, said Juan Méndez, the former UN special rapporteur on torture. “The UK should not be a party to it.”
His commission denounced the British-funded ombudsman set up to investigate allegations of torture, which has been accused of covering up forced confessions that led to executions that the UN declared extrajudicial killings.
Lord Scriven noted that Bahrain, a wealthy Gulf state set to become even wealthier with the recent discovery of a vast oilfield, does not need Britain’s money. “What Bahrain gets out of this is a cloak of respectability to undermine human rights, a cloak of respectably for murder and torture,” he said. “Ministers should hang their heads in shame.”
Difference of opinion
Tiny Bahrain does not usually merit many mentions in parliament but its worsening human rights situation and the issue of British support were the subject of a backbench debate last week called by the Labour MP Andy Slaughter.
Amid cross-bench criticism, Bahrain’s defence came from three Conservative MPs with links to the Gulf state: Bob Stewart, Leo Docherty and Rehman Chishti. Each has declared trips to the country funded by the Bahraini government in the past two years, at costs ranging from £2,000 to £6,159.
Mr Stewart noted the importance of security co-operation between Britain and Bahrain, not least the Royal Navy base built at an estimated cost to Bahrain of £60 million. “It has taken us 800 years to get our human rights in order,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that we need Bahrain more than Bahrain needs us.”
He called for police protection from protesters for the Bahraini embassy in London.
Mr Docherty told The Times that his comments in defence of Bahrain “reflected the threat [it] faced from Iranian intervention and how important it is that we help our friend in the region overcome this”.
Behind the story
Since Britain granted full independence to Bahrain in 1971 it has maintained unusually close relations with the country, once considered the most developed and strategically important in the Gulf (Michael Binyon writes).
Some 7,000 British expatriates now work there while more than 2,000 Bahraini students are studying in the UK. Bahrain is the commercial headquarters of many British companies and banks trading in the Gulf, with 90 company branches and more than 500 UK commercial agencies on the island. A new naval base is the biggest British military commitment east of Suez.
Relations go back to 1816, when a treaty was signed guaranteeing British neutrality in the war between Bahrain and Oman. In 1861 Britain’s dominant influence was codified in a “Perpetual Truce of Peace and Friendship”, assuring the ruling al-Khalifa family independence and British maritime protection.
Ian Henderson, a British former colonial official who became head of Bahrain’s office of state security, effectively ran police and intelligence operations for 32 years until 1998. He was accused of authorising human rights abuses.
John Yates, the former Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner, was appointed in 2011 to oversee reform of the Bahraini police.