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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Senior Infrastructure Consultant

£50000 - £65000 Per Annum potentially flexible for the right candidate: Clearw...

Public Sector Audit - Bristol

£38000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Do you have experience of ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

It’s two decades since ‘education, education, education’, but still Britain’s primary school admissions are a farce

Jane Merrick
United Nations special rapporteur Rashida Manjoo addresses journalists in central London  

We could have had a proper debate about sexism after Rashida Manjoo's comments. Instead, we’re fencing over a media-garbled paraphrase

Archie Bland
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
Supersize art

Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
James Dean: Back on the big screen

James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
10 best activity books for children

10 best activity books for children

Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books