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British MPs question 'slush fund' aid spending in Bahrain

Report into $1.24bn aid programme raises questions over funding for Gulf state which critics say is being used to 'whitewash' rights abuses
Protesters clash with Bahraini security forces in May 2016 (AFP)

British parliamentarians have questioned the use of money from a £1bn ($1.24bn) annual aid programme to fund projects in Bahrain despite continuing human rights concerns in the Gulf kingdom.

A report published on Tuesday by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy found that management of the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) was “opaque” and that most funded projects were hidden from public scrutiny.

The committee also highlighted concerns raised by Bahraini human rights activists and the human rights advocacy group Reprieve about projects funded by CSSF money in Bahrain.

Middle East Eye last month revealed that the programme was being used to fund Bahrain's parliament even as the country's government faced complaints over the banning of opposition parties, the reverse of human rights reforms and the executions of political activists amid a continuing crackdown on pro-democracy campaigners.

UK funds parliament of Bahrain as it halts reforms and backs executions

Other projects facilitated by the CSSF included the funding of an ombudsman for the Bahraini prison system which Reprieve and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said had “repeatedly failed to investigate torture allegations” including in cases where allegedly forced confessions had resulted in death sentences.

Addressing those concerns, the committee questioned whether Bahrain was a suitable recipient for aid money that was intended for countries that are considered unstable or affected by conflict.

“Bahrain is a trusted ally of the UK. It poses no threat to the UK, and it is a source of neither refugees nor terrorists. The money allocated to the ombudsman of the Bahraini prison system is small, but it is questionable whether this is a good use of CSSF funding,” the report said.

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, BIRD's director of advocacy, called on the government to give serious consideration to the committee's findings.

“The funding to Bahrain is unaccountable, opaque and a waste of taxpayer money. Despite the millions spent in Bahrain, the human rights situation has degenerated, and the most vulnerable people in Bahrain - torture victims on death row - have been utterly failed by the FCO's policies, while Bahrain has used it to whitewash their sustained abuses,” he said.

“As it stands today, this training programme is a sham, and it is time for the UK to suspend its unconditional funding to Bahrain until real guarantees are in place."

'Slush fund'

The CSSF is a cross-government fund that was launched in April 2015 to fund projects tackling the causes and effects of conflict and instability in regions and countries of strategic importance to the UK.

But the committee concluded that it had not been given enough information about the nature of the projects that the CSSF was being used to fund to assess whether it had proven successful, and raised concerns that it was effectively being used as a “slush fund”.

“The lack of a clear framework by which to evaluate country-level investment decisions means that the NSC is in effect marking its own homework in relation to the CSSF,” it said.

“There is a risk that the CSSF is being used as a ‘slush fund’ for projects that may be worthy, but which do not collectively meet the needs of UK national security.”

Margaret Beckett, the chair of the committee and a Labour MP, said there was no central source of information explaining how the fund was managed and no published list of programmes and projects which have been funded, nor published measures of the impact of CSSF-funded projects.

No single minister is responsible – or accountable. The jury is still out,” said Beckett.

“This Fund has great potential. At the very least, Government must appoint a Cabinet Office minister to take responsibility for this £1 billion fund. If not, a lack of collective responsibility risks degenerating into no responsibility at all.

“While we appreciate the need to maintain security, Government must bring forward plans to make the Fund more transparent.

'Lack of oversight'

Maya Foa, a director of Reprieve, said: “The Committee is right to raise serious concerns over the secrecy surrounding the CSSF.

“This lack of oversight is deeply worrying, given the risk of complicity in terrible abuses – including torture and the death penalty – in countries like Bahrain and Ethiopia. Such substantial, high-risk security assistance surely deserves proper scrutiny by MPs, and by the public.”

Reprieve discovered in February 2016 via Freedom of Information requests that more than £1m in CSSF funding had been allocated to Ethiopia despite previous aid funding being halted in 2014 amid concerns raised about the involvement of Ethiopian security forces in the kidnapping and rendering of a British man, Andargachew Tsege, who is still being held on death row in the East African country.

Tsege is believed to have been detained in 2014 in Yemen during a stopover while flying from Dubai to Eritrea and subsequently handed over to Ethiopian authorities.

Tsege, known as Andy, had fled to the UK in the 1970s having previously been a senior member in an opposition party calling for democracy and civil rights.

Evidence submitted by the UK government included details of CSSF-funded work in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan

According to evidence submitted to the inquiry by the government, more than £188m ($233m) was allocated from the CSSF for projects in the Middle East and North Africa region in 2016-17.

One case study submitted by the government was an ongoing project to equip, train and mentor Lebanon's armed forces to prepare them to defend the country's border with Syria.

“We aim to have trained over 11,000 Lebanese soldiers in the specialist techniques of urban counterterrorism by 2019,” the government said.

The report also cited projects in Jordan involving training the military and working in Syrian refugee camps, while evidence submitted by CSSF suppliers and contractors also revealed details of civil society-building projects in Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Israel and Palestine.

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