Arms exports examined

UK arms exports to Bahrain

Bahrain: Country overview
Bahrain is located on the Arabian Peninsula, bordering up to neighbouring Saudi Arabia and has a total population of 1,6 million. Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy, ruled by Sunni King Sheikh Hamad bin Essa al-Khalifa, who is seated in the capital of Manama. The majority of the country is, however, Shia Muslims.

Bahrain signed the Arms Trade Treaty in 2013, but still has not ratified. It has however ratified the UN Convention Against Torture. While Bahrain’s human rights record is deteriorating, the UK continues its close ties with the country, that includes vast arms sales.

How many licences for the sale of arms to Bahrain has the UK issued between 2008 and 2017?
As seen in the graph below, the number of export licences to Bahrain increased dramatically after the coalition government came to power in 2010, jumping 250%, from 72 in 2009 to 251 in 2010. The increase coincided with the start of popular protests in Bahrain in the midst of the Arab Spring. After a drop in 2011, the number of licences remained consistently considerably higher than the pre-2010 years. During this period the crackdown on protests and dissent intensified and demand for military equipment grew. 2017 saw over five times as many licences granted, with 373, than in 2011, when the Arab Spring was just beginning; or, over seven times the number of licences approved in 2008.

In total, from 2008 to 2017, 1,514 licences were granted to Bahrain, with an average of 151 per year.What is the total value of those exports in GBP?
The following graph shows that the value of the military arms exports granted to Bahrain from the UK increased dramatically under the coalition and with the beginning of the Arab Spring, totalling £58.3m from 2008 to 2016. It peaked in 2013 with £17.9m of military supplies sold in that one year, as the Arab Spring protests had spread to Bahrain and repression was intense. Subsequent years have also seen significant amounts of arms sold, such as a similar figure of £17.8m in 2015 and then almost doubling in 2017, when the military arms export value stood at £30.7m. The value in 2017 accounts for 34% of the approved military arms export value to Bahrain in the last ten years.

From 2008 to 2017, the UK sold £88.9m worth of military arms.

What are the top 10 types of arms export licences Britain selling to Bahrain?
Whilst the data given above is just for military exports (single-use), when you consider both military and dual-use exports (dual-licences are permits to control all the material, software and technology that can be used for civil purposes like humanitarian aid, but also for military goals) the top ten export items requiring licences are as below. The type of weapons sold to Bahrain is indicative of a government looking to suppress dissent, whether that be through intelligence on dissidents or weaponry to put down protests. Small arms ammunition and weapon nights sights are among the most frequent licences granted. Cryptography equipment is the second highest, and that includes all sorts of offensive surveillance technology. The most frequent licence was components for military training aircraft, which is understandable in a volatile region, with war between next door Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?
With a score of 12/100, Freedom House qualifies Bahrain as one of the least free countries in the world according to their Freedom in the World 2017 Index. Bahrain has many vague laws relating to national security which enable authorities to arrest people on thin charges such as ‘inciting violence’ or ‘insulting the king’ or ‘damaging the prestige of the government’. Freedom of expression and freedom of association are therefore very limited, and violent repression of peaceful protest is very common.

This became very obvious during the crackdown of the 2011 protests, where the regime carried out serious and systematic violations of fundamental freedoms as it detained, harassed and tortured peaceful protesters.

Two other alarming aspects of Bahrain’s human rights record is the recurrent refusal of entry to different INGOs or intergovernmental organisations, including UN special rapporteurs, and convictions of civilians – which were sometimes death sentences – whose confessions were extracted from torture. In recent years (2016-2017), the government has detained Shia clerics, sometimes revoking their citizenship (Bahrain has a Shia majority among the population, but the royal family is Sunni).

It is a matter of concern for several reasons that the UK, despite vast evidence of a poor human rights record, continues to export arms to Bahrain. First of all, much of the exported equipment potentially enables and facilitates the Bahrain’s surveillance and harassment of its citizens when criticising the monarchy, consequently leading to serious violations of freedom of expression and association. Secondly,

Saudi Arabia has reportedly provided Bahrain with UK-supplied armoured vehicles. According to the Arms Trade Treaty, a state should not provide arms to other states if there is a risk of the arms being sold to a third state suspected of violating human rights. According to CAAT, they were manufactured by BAE Systems Land Systems Division in Newcastle Upon Tyne.

Finally, another cause of concern when exporting arms to Bahrain deals with the fact that Bahrain has since 2015 been an active member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen. This is also is a cause of concern because the coalition’s warfare has been widely criticized for its indiscriminately targeting of civilians and use of the internationally banned cluster munitions.

In comparison, several European countries, including Spain and Norway, have in response to the serious allegations of violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen, halted their arms sales to coalition members, including Saudi Arabia. This is an example the UK government is highly encouraged to follow.

What has the British government said about these concerns?
In 2016, the British government listed Bahrain among its list of 30 human rights priority countries”, considered as such because of their repeated violations and has not been shy to address matters of concern. However, the UK has not been distancing itself from the regime despite deteriorating human rights reports.

During the regime’s crackdown on peaceful demonstrations in 2011, the then EU envoy and British diplomat Robert Cooper (also councillor to Catherine Ashton at the time), reacted to the violence against protestors by saying “it’s not easy dealing with large demonstrations”, “accidents happen”, and called Bahrain “a rather pleasant, peaceful place”, according to The Guardian in March 2011.

In early 2012, The Guardian reported that UK arms sales to Bahrain had continued despite the violent crackdown on protesters, with no refusals of any export licences. Following the protests, the UK government approved exports valued at £1m that included gun silencers, rifles, artillery and components for military training aircraft. The government had previously revoked 158 export licences, of which 44 were military exports to Bahrain. According to the same article, business secretary Vince Cable said to a committee of MPs at the time: “We do trade with governments that are not democratic and have bad human rights records … We do business with repressive governments and there’s no denying that.”

What evidence is there of human rights abuses that the Bahraini government have committed since 2010?

Events in 2010
The Ministry of Information suspended Al Jazeera one day after they broadcast a feature about poverty in Bahrain. Also, the online audio reports of Al-Wasat, Bahrain’s only independent newspaper, were suspended by the minister of information. Amongst the most recent audio topics were an interview with the leader of the opposition party and a discussion about the official treatment of prisoners.

Also, 23 political opposition activists were detained in August and September, and allegedly tortured and abused by Bahraini authorities. “The 23 were initially held incommunicado for around two weeks. The families searched for them in prisons and at the Public Prosecution Office but were given no information about their relatives. The families then engaged lawyers, but these too were unable to find out the whereabouts of the detainees or gain access to them. Later, it emerged that the detainees had been held in solitary confinement at the NSA headquarters in al-Qal’a in Manama”, said Amnesty International in its 2011 report.

Events in 2011
Anti-government protests began, and the regime responded with a major crackdown of the demonstrations, leading to hundreds of arbitrary arrests and torture. Several protesters were killed, including Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima who died from shots fired by security forces. The Guardian reported that “riot police also entered Manama’s Salmaniya medical centre for the first time since the demonstrations began and doctors reported they were being prevented from reaching the hospital and treating patients inside. The police were also preventing casualties from reaching the facility. By 8am, they had closed its main gate and stationed forces outside.” The security forces reportedly acted as medical staff, by for instance stealing ambulances, in order to get closer to the protesters.

However, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, condemned the fact that security forces had taken over hospitals and that targeted attacks on doctors and medical personnel had taken place. Moreover, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed concern about the situation in Bahrain, and expressed the importance of enhancing accountability measures and minimise human rights violations.

Bahrain has a ‘Law of Associations’ that prohibits civil society from “engaging in politics” and allows authorities to dissolve organizations more or less as they please. This has led to the dissolution or board replacement of organizations perceived by the government as too critical. In April of 2011, the Ministry for Social Development dissolved the Bahrain Teacher’s Society because members took part in 2011 protests. Also, in April, the Bahrain Medical Society’s members were all replaced with a pro-government board. In November, the Ministry for Social Development cancelled an election of the Bahrain Lawyer’s Society because members were perceived as being government critics. Other laws such as the Law for Political Societies, the Public Gathering Law, and the Press Law give authorities the power to arbitrarily suspend groups or deny them formal registration. In 2011, this lead to the arrest of multiple protest leaders such as Ibrahim Sharif of the leftist National Democratic Action Society, and Shaikh Muhammad Ali al-Mahfoodh of the Islamic Action Society. The Bahraini court also shut down Wa’ad, reportedly Bahrain’s last major opposition group, and its website for ‘defaming the armed forces’. These measures go against the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bahrain is party.

Events in 2012
Security forces officer Ali al-Sharba was convicted for shooting a protester in the leg and permanently disabling him, but it was later reported in the local press that his sentence was suspended due to a health condition. His sentence was ultimately reduced from five years to six months.

Moreover, the regime violated the freedom of assembly and expression in several ways this year.

During anti-regime demonstrations security officials used tear gas and sound grenades to disperse a peaceful demonstration in Manama. Also, activist Zainab al-Khawaja was arrested for allegedly tearing up a photo of the King and for participation in illegal demonstrations. Finally, Shia Bahrainis had their citizenship revoked by the government and their identification cards and passports were confiscated.

Events in 2013
According to a US State Department 2013 report on human rights in Bahrain, 450 houses were raided in July and August, and 120 in November. The report doesn’t specify how many of these were arbitrary interferences with privacy, but multiple human rights organizations reported that authorities would enter without authorization and confiscate or destroy property.

Mansoor al-Jamri (editor-in-chief of al-Wasat) was banned from entering the United Arab Emirates. No cause of the ban was announced, but according to unofficial sources, lists were distributed by authorities naming Bahraini people whose travel access was to be restricted in order to limit their activities.

Moreover, six people were arrested for ‘insulting the king’ on twitter, with sentences varying from six months to one year’s imprisonment.

Juan Mendez, UN Special Rapporteur had a scheduled visit in May, which was cancelled, and the authorities did not reschedule for a later date. Generally, the Bahraini government has repeatedly denied entry to representatives of human rights organizations and other international bodies.

Events in 2014
Bahrain’s human rights record remained critical in 2014. Security forces reportedly continued their arbitrary arrests of especially those critical of the regime, in order to avert mass mobilisation against the monarchy. The responsible were not held to account for their actions, and the justice system continued to reveal serious shortcomings in protecting the assaulted.

For instance. Fadhel Abbas Muslim Marhoon shot and killed by security forces. According to authorities, he was shot in self-defence, but photographs showing that the gunshot wound was in the back of his head seem to contradict this story.

Events in 2015
Hussain Jawad, head of the European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights (EBOHR) was arrested by policemen in Manama. According to his lawyer, he was subjected to torture, beatings, and sexual abuse during his time in detention. Jawad stated that he was tortured into confession. According the Human Rights Watch report in which former detainees and inmates’ families were interviewed, security forces allegedly used disproportionate violence (tear gas and birdshot) against prisoners during growing unrest. After they were allegedly beaten and subjected to degrading treatment. Some reported an inmate with a broken collarbone and no medical treatment, and that some inmates were taken to the toilets and administration rooms (where there are no cameras) and were severely beaten there. Bahrain’s main opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman was jailed for four years for ‘inciting violence’ and ‘insulting’ public institutions. Amnesty International condemned the arrest, saying it violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bahrain is a signatory.

Events in 2016
The Bahraini justice system continued to charge people for their political views, based on unfair trails. Human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja was for example yet again detained and spent three months in jail as a result of an unfair trial, according to Human Rights Watch, like opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman’s jail sentence was extended from four years to nine years. Moreover, Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qasim, a spiritual leader of the opposition group al-Wifaq, was arbitrarily stripped of his citizenship for ‘creating an extremist sectarian environment’. According to Human Rights Watch, a 2014 amendment to a 1963 Bahraini citizenship law allows the government to revoke citizenship from anyone who has “caused harm to the interests of the Kingdom”.

Events in 2017
The regime continued its widespread violations of human rights, most notably of the freedoms of expression and assembly. Three men convicted of killing three police officers in 2014 were executed, which constituted the first death sentences carried out in Bahrain since 2010. According to protesters, the confessions had been extracted under torture. Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, tweeted that these were extrajudicial killings because of the torture involved, the unfair trial, and the ‘flimsy’ evidence used. An amendment to Bahrain’s Constitution was approved by Bahrain’s Council of Representatives that would allow military trials of civilians. This violates international fair trial standards, according to Human Rights Watch.

Security forces used excessive force at a peaceful protest in the town of Duraz (also known as Diraz), causing five deaths. Amnesty International confirmed footage showing one security office with a Heckler & Koch MP-5 9mm submachine gun, and other officers carrying shotguns and firearms. It is difficult to trace the origin of the firearms, but data from CAAT shows that the UK export licences approved by the government included machine guns, equipment for rifles, and small arms. Heckler and Koch is one of the companies applying for arms export licences to Bahrain. However, the CAAT figures are from the years 2009-2013.

In June 2017, al-Wasat newspaper, the only independent newspaper in the country was subject to an indefinite suspension ordered by Bahraini authorities, reportedly because the newspaper had violated the law. Also, human rights activist Nabeel Rajab sentenced to two years in jail for ‘spreading false news’ and ‘undermining the prestige of the state’. The European External Action Service called on Bahraini authorities to release Rajab because it “runs against Bahrain’s commitment to uphold freedom of expression and work towards creating space for independent activism”. In an open letter to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 17 rights groups and parliamentarians denounced the FCO’s silence on the matter: “It is appalling that while the FCO recognises the brave work of human rights defenders worldwide, it has turned a blind eye to the human rights abuses in Bahrain, including the reprisals against Mr. Rajab.”


Despite this catalogue of harm, the UK still deems it acceptable to sell weapons and arms to the Government of Bahrain.  Human rights abuses continue. For more from this investigation please go here