Patrick Cockburn: The West practises double standards in the Middle East

World View: While Barack Obama and David Cameron vigorously oppose the atrocities against protesters in Syria, they handle Bahrain with kid gloves

Share

Double standards have notoriously marked Britain and America's response to the Arab Spring. But nowhere is the hypocrisy more glaring than in their reactions to the uprisings in Bahrain and Syria, where both countries' governments have used the full might of their security forces to crush peaceful protests and jail and torture their opponents.

When it comes to Syria, Barack Obama and David Cameron express shock at the government's repression and are voluble in their demands for regime change. Until recently, military intervention was not being ruled out. Contrast this with the words of President Obama's spokesman after clashes between protesters and security forces in Bahrain last week. The best he could do was a purportedly even-handed condemnation of violence "directed against police and government institutions" and "excessive force and indiscriminate use of tear gas against protesters" by the Bahrain security forces. Imagine what an uproar there would be if the White House had said the same about Libya or Syria.

Asked about Bahrain, Mr Cameron and William Hague give its government the gentlest slap on the wrist for human rights abuses and stress the seriousness of the reform programme being implemented by the al-Khalifa monarchy, which enjoys total power on the island.

The Bahraini claim to be carrying out radical reform is convincingly discredited in a report by Amnesty International published yesterday. It concludes: "Despite the authorities' claims to the contrary, state violence against those who oppose the al-Khalifa family rule continues. In practice, not much has changed in the country since the brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in February and March 2011."

The al-Khalifas are unlikely to pay much attention to Amnesty, or a very similar report by Human Rights Watch a fortnight ago. The Bahraini authorities will be cock-a-hoop this weekend, as it appears likely that the Formula One Grand Prix, cancelled last year, will take place in Bahrain on 22 April. They have placed great emphasis on getting the motor race back as a sort of certificate of international belief in the future stability of Bahrain.

The reality of life in the island kingdom is very different. Sectarian division between the disenfranchised Shia minority, some 70 per cent of the Arab population, and the Sunni population, is almost total. When it comes to sectarian hatred and fear, Bahrain now vies with Belfast or Beirut at their worst, and there is little reason why this should improve. The government evidently sees reforms as largely an exercise in public relations. Contrary to its promises of greater freedom of expression, Amnesty notes that since January 2012 the "government began to restrict the access of foreign journalists and human rights delegations". It postponed a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on torture until June, well after the Grand Prix.

Will this well-funded PR exercise work? The Bahraini rulers have the advantage that Qatar-owned al-Jazeera Arabic, one of the most important forces behind the Arab Spring, largely ignores protests in neighbouring Bahrain, though it gives Syrian protests wall-to-wall coverage. But the reality remains that many Bahraini Shia say they see themselves as victims of an ever-intensifying apartheid, either being denied jobs or given jobs with no authority. When those sacked last year are given back their jobs, as promised by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, they are often given little to do. Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, told me: "Directors become clerks and clerks become watchmen."

In one important respect, the al-Khalifas in Bahrain and the Assads in Syria made a similar mistake last year. Both families overreacted with extreme violence to peaceful protests, thereby creating the very revolutionary situation they wanted to avoid.

The protests in Bahrain started on 14 February and were essentially a non-revolutionary demand for political reform and civil and economic rights. They were ferociously repressed a month later and even mild sympathy with the protesters led to imprisonment and torture.

The uprising in Syria only really got going in March after earlier demonstrations had fizzled out. If Bashar al-Assad had kept his nerve, offered radical reforms and refrained from extreme violence, he would probably have been all right. He did just the opposite. When the Syrian army and security forces were unleashed from about 21 March, their atrocities, instantly publicised on al-Jazeera and YouTube, swiftly turned millions of Syrians, and much of the rest of the Arab world, against them.

One of the dangers of holding the Formula One in Bahrain is that this may persuade the al-Khalifa family that it is out of the woods. There are signs it already believes this to be the case. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of the leading human rights advocates in jail in Bahrain, has now been on hunger strike demanding his freedom for over 60 days. His fast has led to a sharp increase in clashes between protesters and police. He may die and Bahrain has refused a request from Denmark, of which he is also a citizen, for him to be sent to Copenhagen.

I asked Mr Rajab why the government was keeping Mr Khawaja in jail when it would be much in its interests to release him. He says the government is intransigent because Mr Khawaja was the first of the Bahraini human rights advocates "to cross a lot of red lines and criticise members of the [al-Khalifa] ruling family by name". "I know how these people think," said Mr Rajab. "For them, it is a tribal matter. Many of them want to see him [Mr Khawaja] die."

The US and UK could defend themselves by saying that they do not have enough influence in Bahrain to get the government to introduce genuine reforms. There is some truth in this, since the Saudi military intervention last year shows that Saudi Arabia considers Bahrain to be very much within its sphere of influence.

But Mr Rajab believes that Britain and the US still have enough influence to persuade the Bahraini government to release Mr Khawaja and other imprisoned opposition leaders. Hitherto, they have done very little, publicly pretending that they believe a new reformed Bahrain is back to business as usual, while privately admitting this is not true.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas