Britain is giving money to groups that ‘whitewash human rights abuses’ in Gulf states, MPs say

The government has been accused of using “secretive” payments to channel public funds to institutions that have “whitewashed human rights abuses” in the Gulf region. A cross-party group of MPs, including Tory MP and father of the house Peter Bottomley, said government funds had been used to send GBP53.4m to the six Gulf Cooperation Council states between 2016 and 2020 According to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf, which drew up the report, the money is going to institutions that are complicit in human rights abuses.

And the MPs accuse the government of making “misleading and deceptive” claims about the way UK funds are being spent in the region. They say the government has “repeatedly ignored evidence” that beneficiaries of UK funding in the Gulf have been implicated in human rights abuses. And it is alleged that the government’s mandatory human rights impact assessments are “flawed, improperly applied and entirely absent in some cases”.

The warning comes as the UK seeks closer relationships with the Gulf states following Brexit – and amid concerns the pressure to find alternatives to trading with the EU could bush Britain into the hands of states with poor human rights records. “Millions of pounds are being taken from the British taxpayer and spent secretively in Gulf states, some of the richest nations on earth,” said Andy Slaughter, Labour MP for Hammersmith and APPG Vice-Chair.

“Despite a severe deterioration in human rights in states like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the government continues to ignore warnings from parliament, human rights groups and their own evaluations and throw millions of pounds of public funds at institutions consistently implicated in human rights violations. This funding should be halted pending an immediate investigation.”

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman, which make up the Gulf Cooperation Council, all have poor human rights records, according to NGOs. The investigation by the MPs focuses on payments made to these states through the government’s Integrated Activity Fund (IAF), which operated between 2016 and 2020, and its successor, the Gulf Strategy Fund (GSF). Beneficiaries of the funding include the Saudi Arabian National Guard, and the country’s Joint Incident Assessment Team, which has been repeatedly criticised by NGO Human Rights Watch for “failing to provide credible, impartial, and transparent investigations into alleged coalition laws-of-war violations”.

“UK funding to Saudi Arabia thus supports bodies accused of breaching international law and whitewashing war crimes in Yemen,” the MPs say. In Bahrain, the UK has been providing Bahrain with “technical assistance”, aimed at supporting “progress on building effective and accountable institutions, strengthening the rule of law, and justice reform”.

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Beneficiaries include organisations that the MPs say are “internationally discredited” with regards to human rights such as the country’s the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman and the National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR). Josie Thum, secretariat of the APPG and Research and Policy Associate at the Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy (BIRD), commented: “Despite pouring millions of pounds into Gulf states over the last five years, this report shows that UK-backed institutions continue to be implicated in appalling human rights violations, including alleged war crimes, executions and the torture of children.

“As they seek to deepen trade ties with the Gulf, the government must start putting people above profits and come clean with the public about how their money is being spent in the region.” An FCDO spokesperson said: “The UK works with partners around the world to improve their human rights records, including in the Gulf. All cooperation through the Gulf Strategy Fund is subject to rigorous risk assessments to ensure all work meets our human rights obligations and our values.

“We do not shy away from raising legitimate human rights concerns, and encourage other states to respect international law.”