‘How’s the tea, King Hamad? Care for a BICI?’
Who’d be the Prime Minister, eh?
You’ve got Eurosceptics baying for Euro blood, coalition partners saying how bitterly disappointed they are, junior MPs attending parties where it’s the height of amusement to dress in a Nazi uniform and chant “Himmler, Himmler, Himmler …”. (Yeah, Heinrich Himmler, architect of the Holocaust. Who doesn’t attend parties where his name gets chanted by a few of “the lads”?).
But life goes on for the busy PM, and today he’s got King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s monarch in town.
Blimey. If you’re the prime minister how on earth do you get through all these face-to-face meetings? It’s a never-ending succession of heads of state, senior politicians, functionaries, celebrities and experts. Presumably you polish up your chit-chat skills and learn to enjoy the tea and biscuits.
But today’s sit-down with King Hamad is important because it’s the first since the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report came out a few weeks ago. This, you’ll recall, was the inquiry set up by Bahrain in June, a way, basically, of saying to the world:
We’ve listened to your criticisms of what happened during and after the protests, and we’re doing something about it.
The move was widely welcomed. It’s what a responsible government should do when there’s been widespread civil disturbance, a lot of violence from the security forces, sinister reports of torture (and deaths from torture) in custody, and then a whole run of unfair trials in military courts.
Usually when these kinds of reports are commissioned by a government – and then constantly referred to by its spokespeople ahead of publication – the fear is that it’s a setup, a whitewash (think Sri Lanka, with its entirely non-credible “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission”) . But this is different. The BICI report is comprehensive and hard-hitting: it gathered 9,000+ testimonies, interviewed 5,000 people, and cited hundreds of cases of beatings, arbitrary arrest and widespread torture in its final report.
William Hague tweeted (@WilliamJHague) this afternoon to say: “PM David Cameron meeting King of #Bahrain in London today to discuss our support for #BICI recommendations & political reform @Number10gov”. The BICI report now looms large in bilateral diplomacy with Bahrain. Fine. But how serious is the Bahraini government about implementing its recommendations? I’d be cautious about assuming too much here. The Bahraini authorities are still pushing ahead with trials of medics in circumstances which look dubious. Two people are still facing death sentences (King Hamad will be the one signing the death warrants if they lose their appeals in January). See this Amnesty briefing for more details and other cases.
Hopefully David Cameron will realise that one of the UK’s “strategic allies” in the Gulf needs to do a lot more than polish up its tarnished image by saying it’s had an inquiry and all is well.
In fact, over the Downing Street tea and small-talk, I wonder if Mr Cameron leant over to the King and said: “Would you like another BICI with that tea, King Hamad?”
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