By David Binns, UCU London Retired Members branch
The lecturers’ union UCU debates this weekend a motion calling for a trade-union led inquiry into British backing for repression in Bahrain. David Binns, provides some background on the initiative in this guest post.
UCU London Retired Members branch first took up the issue of Bahrain’s teachers, and of wider regime repression in that country, in the Autumn of 2013. Around that time I began to raise the need for a concerted union response, not least in Britain, to the suppression of the Bahrain Teachers Association (BTA) and incarceration of its leadership. The trigger for my own involvement was a vivid account of the assault on the BTA and its aftermath from Education International – a body with which the BTA, like UCU, is associated.
At that stage some of us in the branch were, in a fairly general way, aware that two years previously a large scale movement for democratic reform had emerged in Bahrain, most visibly in the capital, Manama. Spring 2011, of course, was the moment when the much better known mass struggles against the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes, in Tunisia and Egypt respectively, erupted into global consciousness. But by contrast with Egyptian and Tunisian developments, the events in Manama rapidly lost salience. To some extent media coverage continued, but it soon became sparse and intermittent. It is true that human rights organisations, notably Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, produced informative accounts and updates on Bahrain, especially concerning the hounding of human rights activists. Little of this, however, entered public awareness, including that of the organised left. Attention was mainly focussed elsewhere.
So it soon became clear that we were looking at a violently suppressed social mobilisation for reform, with a core labour movement dimension, that was little known outside specialist academic and human rights circles. Opposition was expressed through some teachers unions internationally. Sometimes imaginative tactics were developed, but often there seemed little in the way of inter-union coordination. So while not entirely unreported and unopposed, the Bahraini events, including the physical and political smashing of the BTA, were at best marginal phenomena within debate on the “Arab Spring”, its social character and the possibilities for meaningful political development that it posed.
In addition to proposing a unanimously passed motion at UCU’s 2013 Congress, our branch has followed developments both in Bahrain and in the wider Middle East and North Africa region. Our main focus, however, remains Bahrain, the ongoing faux
-legal persecution of our sisters and brothers of the BTA and other workers’ unions there, and the closely related struggles for human rights and democratisation.
Our website carries coverage of Bahrain as a matter of concern for the labour movement globally, but perhaps especially in Britain, where the state is a core ally of the absolute monarchy. The first item we published, in September 2013, was my Defend the Bahrain Teachers: An Open Letter to UCU Members. The Open Letter was an attempt to contextualise the attack on the BTA as a precondition for increasing awareness of that experience within both educational and wider union milieux. Other reports of related events and issues followed and are continuing. Most recently we have published Oppose Opening of British Base in Bahrain!, a contribution to the growing resistance to plans for a permanent UK military presence.
Others, of course, have recognised the core involvement of non-Bahraini forces within the political and cultural life of Bahrain. Writing in the Guardian last Autumn, leading rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja made the following observation regarding international dimensions of repression in that country:
What has become increasingly clear to me is that international pressure on the United Kingdom and the United States, the closest allies to Bahrain, is how we can have an influence. Unfortunately, the government of Bahrain has become increasingly comfortable with its state of impunity for human rights abuses. Such impunity, enabled by governments such as the US and UK, can only be reversed through a tough universal stance by the international community.“
London Retired Members’ 2013 motion, as much as the one we are bringing to this year’s Congress, equally addressed the key role of the British and American states. Oppose Opening of British Base in Bahrain! touches on historical aspects of this, in particular the recurring use of British military force in Bahrain to suppress democratic aspirations and the right of workers to organise independently. Conscious of that history, and of ongoing multi-dimensional British state complicity, we are raising the call for an international union led inquiry into repression in Bahrain and the contribution of the British state.
What we are seeing in Bahrain post-2011 is the latest moment of a form of historical paralysis arising from the character of the national “independence” secured forty years earlier. Substantively, that arrangement amounted to the independence of the ruling family and its associates to continue security and related military-industrial relationships with neo-colonial powers, chiefly the UK and USA. This not only takes place without even the semblance of democratic accountability. Further, the specific and distinctive contribution of those powers, above all Britain, is prevention of democratisation as a threat to prevailing relations.
Finally, the call for a labour movement inquiry raises an issue concerning parameters of social development much wider than Bahrain itself. Of course the immediate issue is the plight of domestic victims of the regime and its allies. We want the prisoners to be freed and the workers at liberty to organise without fear of attack from substantially British armed state gangs. Beyond this, the type of solidarity expressed through our motion implies a renewing of a severely weakened and – where it can be said to exist – fragmented global labour movement.
Renewing, indeed, may understate the significance of developing effective class solidarity in its most crucial, global form. Such a line of development points beyond the compromised national surrogates that predominated through the twentieth century. Every fighting step toward international workers’ solidarity, especially against depredations imposed by “our own” state on workers elsewhere, is a step beyond the present common nightmare. Each such step, moreover, makes discussion of an international community, with corresponding educational potential, more credible. This, above all, is why UCU should support the call for an international trade union-led inquiry.
The plight of Bahraini workers and denial of rights, it should be acknowledged, remain little known among many potential allies. Because of that situation, motions at local and regional levels of UCU and other education unions, as well as through national and international union forums, are an important contribution to the type of support that is needed. Such steps will accelerate the momentum of developing solidarity and are the beginning of an reply to the repressive alliance of the Bahraini and British regimes. As such they will become known by our sisters and brothers in Bahrain and across the Gulf region, not least within the suppressed BTA.
A few links to internet materials
The scale of British diplomatic covering for state repression in Bahrain is made clear in Bite the Bullet, a report published December 2014 by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Development (BIRD). A summary of BIRD’s critique of UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office policy on Bahrain, with a link to the full report, can be read at: http://birdbh.org/2014/12/bite-the-bullet-a-year-on-from-the-foreign-affairs-committee-report-on-the-uk-relationship-with-bahrain/
Maryam al-Khawaja’s discussion of international aspects of Bahraini repression, referred to above, is posted at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/20/bahrain-human-rights-attack-tortured
The current Bahrain main page at UCU London Retired Members website is: http://www.ucu-retired-london.org.uk/bahrain3.html. This page links to the Open Letter and Oppose Opening of British Base in Bahrain!, both posted on the branch site.
In addition much documentary material relevant to our motion and to Bahrain more generally is archived at the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch websites.
Finally, tensions within the Gulf Co-operation Council presumably have influenced Qatar-based Al-Jazeera to continue making available Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark, a justifiably graphic documentary report on the crushing of Bahrain’s 2011 mass protests by the local friends of the British state. It is a unique record which deserves to be shown and discussed in open meetings everywhere that UCU has a branch. Shouting is online here: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/2011/08/201184144547798162.html.