Open Letter to Professor Timothy O’Shea, Principal of The University of Edinburgh

Professor Timothy O’Shea, Principal, University of Edinburgh and Mr. Peter McColl, Rector (elect),
The University of Edinburgh,
Old College,
South Bridge,
Edinburgh EH8 9YL
Friday, 13th January 2012
Dear Professor O’Shea and Rector McColl,

Links between the University of Edinburgh and Bahrain


As a British academic who was active in higher education reform in Bahrain 2007-2011, I write to express my deep concern at the visit of the University of Edinburgh’s Director for Academic Quality Mr. Bryan Martin, and David Griffiths, of the University’s Office of Lifelong Learning, to Bahrain. According to a post published by the Bahrain News Agency on 9th January 2012, Mr. Martin and Mr. Griffiths met with Dr. Majid bin Ali Al-Noaimi, Bahrain Minister for Education, to sign a co-operation agreement with the Bahrain MoE.

http://www.bna.bh/portal/en/news/488318

The Bahrain MoE is deeply complicit in repression. I was Academic Head of Continuing Professional Development at Bahrain Teachers College, University of Bahrain, a key part of the “Bahrain 2030” initiative during the academic year 2009-2010, and was a faculty member of the University of Bahrain from August 2007 until May 2011. Following the marginalization of the reforming wing of the regime from mid-2010 onwards, I witnessed the toxic effects of institutionalized sectarianism, the suppression of academic freedom and the violation of civil and human rights at the University of Bahrain. These continue to this day.

While I am a strong advocate of the transformative power of higher education, I am convinced that at this time any agreement between the University of Edinburgh and the government of Bahrain is inappropriate for both the University of Edinburgh and for Bahrain and her people. The United Kingdom has a long-standing relationship with the Bahrain regime, whether the replication of the UK’s foreign policy is the best way forward for an emergent Scotland is a matter for debate.
Abuses of academic freedom and civil rights at the University of Bahrain have been well-documented by such diverse organisations as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, The
Higher Education Chronicle, and the Middle East Studies Association, as well as in the international quality media.

In December 2011 the Middle East Studies Association presented its Academic Freedom Award to:
“…all faculty, students and staff of Bahraini institutions of higher education who, by speaking out, documenting abuses, and engaging in myriad other forms of resistance have struggled against a range of brutal assaults by the Bahraini government upon academic freedom and upon the autonomy and integrity of the country’s educational institutions.” http://www.mesa.arizona.edu/pdf/2011-AFF.pdf

On 20th September 2011 MESA wrote its third letter of 2011 to Dr. Al Noaimi to express its “serious concern over the ongoing assaults, arrests, and dismissals of individuals connected to academic institutions in Bahrain” http://www.mesa.arizona.edu/committees/academic-freedom/intervention/letters-bahrain.html

On 27th November 2011 The Higher Education Chronicle reported “…attacks on academic freedom, including the dismissals of professors and students for participating in political demonstrations last spring’ http://chronicle.com/article/2-Reports-Denounce-Bahrain-for/129907 while on the 16th May it reported that “The University of Bahrain is requiring students to sign pledges of support for the government of King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa”.

On 12th December 2011 Amnesty International stated that:
“Bahrain still has lot to do to repair the damage of its crackdown on the protests this year. There should be no death sentences and no ‘revenge’ convictions. Bahrain’s human rights record is still heavily tarnished…” http://amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=19854

On November 21st 2011 Human Rights Watch and individuals representing 29 US human rights organisations and higher education institutions wrote to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging that:
“[The] U.S. Government should urge the Government of Bahrain to:
* Unconditionally release political prisoners and end torture, arbitrary detention, and incommunicado detention;
*Protect Shi’a places of worship and religious buildings, rebuild destroyed mosques, and end systematic discrimination in political representation, government recruitment, employment, and naturalization policies;
*Take measures to ensure the reinstatement of all workers and employees who were dismissed from their workplace for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, political opinion, and assembly;
*Allow and fully cooperate with independent human rights organizations and observers, including U.N. bodies such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to investigate claims of human rights abuses;
* Investigate and hold accountable all individuals who authorized, condoned, or committed human rights abuses, including the use of violence or torture against peaceful protesters and detainees
*Release medical professionals and political prisoners who have been detained without charge or convicted and sentenced for political offenses; and
*Allow access by local and international journalists to activists, protest sites, hospitals and other public institutions.” http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/11/21/joint-letter-secretary-state-clinton-regarding-reform-bahrain

Further, I have personal experience of the viciousness and unprofessionalism of which the Bahrain Ministry of Education is capable. At witness to a violent sectarian confrontation at the UoB campus on 13th March 2011, I resigned from BTC/UoB when it became clear that the human and civil rights situation on- and off-campus made ethical professional practice in Bahrain impossible. A key factor in this was an Order of Communication I received dated 3rd May 2011 stated:

“…2. Action taken by MOE/Gov’t: a. Over 30 BTC students have been detained, including 3 females b. The vocational education program is terminated; the students dismissed or detained. c. Several staff members have been investigated; their computers searched. d. Mr. Ibrahim has been dismissed. e. Student, staff & faculty Facebook pages have been reviewed; as have postings on Utube [sic]. 4. Discussions regarding students: a. Take advantage of the events to dismiss all failing students b. Provide a studies skills course through Tom’s dept. for students on probation or warning….” c. Reduced numbers of new BTC students will eliminate problems”

Principal O’Shea and Rector McColl, I ask you to focus especially on item 4.a above. This OoC was distributed at a time when ANY association with anti-government activities could very well have resulted in the detention or worse of students. Without substantial verifiable evidence of reform from observers external to Bahrain, do you really think that it is appropriate for and in the best interest of the University of Edinburgh to have any sort of relationship, direct or indirect, with Bahrain government organisations, or higher education institutions that report directly to it?

The University of Bahrain refused to accept my resignation letter of 23rd May 2011, citing in a five-page letter from their legal office surveillance of my Internet usage as a reason not to pay me a substantial five-figure sum in end-of-contract settlements. I have been threatened, and branded a “terrorist” and a “threat to national security” simply for speaking out about the abuses I witnessed there. My wife, my son and my three-year-old daughter (who was born in Bahrain) have been forbidden from entering the country, and my wife and I are on an employment blacklist and an arrest list. This is despite my professional practice as an educator-manager in CPD 2009-2010 being awarded a Distinction at Master’s level (overall grade 82) by York St. John University, and my work in education reform being recognized by a full Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, awarded in May 2011.

Bahrain Human Rights Watch states that:

“[Dr. Diboll] was subjected to discrimination for his witnessing of events of March 13 which is a threat to the university as he had witnessed what truly happened. BCHR holds the University of Bahrain accountable for any harm done to students on the events of March 13, as they cooperated with the authorities to bring harm towards student demonstrators by allowing strangers with deadly weapons on university campus. We further hold them responsible for the losses that Dr. Diboll was subjected to, which include: “loss of job, loss of any potential employment in Bahrain, loss of earnings and damage to (his) professional reputation”.

Accordingly, the BCfHR calls for:

• “An independent, qualified commission to look into the events of March 13 objectively and hold those responsible accountable for their actions

• Moral and material compensation to all harmed students in the events of the thug attack on the University

• Bring the attackers, of who are students and strangers, to justice before a court of law. This includes those of who allowed and instructed for the attack

• Drop all charges against those currently detained UOB students accused of being involved in the thug attack despite their innocence.

• Dr. Diboll should be compensated for the losses he has incurred following the events of March 13.” http://bahrainrights.hopto.org/en/node/4862

In September 2011 I submitted some 15,000 words of testimony and supporting evidence to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, mainly about the situation in Bahrain education http://www.bici.org.bh/ This testimony concerned the events of 13th March, and the wider context of Bahrain higher education. The Commission concluded that UoB and MoE investigations into the disturbances “generally relied upon hearsay and circumstantial evidence” (364), adding that “the expulsions by the University of Bahrain and Bahrain Polytechnic as related to the events of February/March 2011 were of such an extreme nature that some of the students are ostensibly prevented from ever again attending an institution of higher education in Bahrain” (http://files.bici.org.bh/BICIreportEN.pdf 365). Moreover, the UoB and Bahrain Polytechnic “infringed [students’] right to free expression, assembly and association” (366).

In a December 2011 video, Middle East Minister Alistair Burt flagged up the positive role which “British expertise” could play in “helping to find a Bahraini solution to Bahraini problems” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFyuH2X0sWs&list=UUZ-Nx-VOvhbe298z09Yt1KQ&index=1&feature=plcp

 Mr. Burt’s optimism notwithstanding, many observers are of the opinion that the security situation in Bahrain has worsened since the publication of the BICI report, with an increase in the number of deaths attributed to the actions of the Bahrain security forces.

While I can of course see ways in which the University of Edinburgh’s expertise can help create a better Bahrain, I am of the strong opinion that the agreement mentioned at the beginning of this letter is premature and inappropriate. A more appropriate time might be when there has been substantial, verifiable third-party evidence that the remedial steps outlined by MESA, AI, HRW, BRfHR and above all the BICI have been implemented. That time is clearly not now. My experience working in Bahrain 2009-2010 with courses referenced to the Higher Education Academy’s Professional Standards Framework for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education demonstrated how the UoB and MoE coveted the external ephemera of international accreditation (e.g. logos on headed notepaper, certificates, presentations, conferences), while acting against practitioners who tried to implement the substance of the HEA’s PSF in their actual practice.

The Internationalisation agenda is pressing for many UK higher education institutions, in part for financial reasons arising as a result of recent UK government changes to higher education funding and student finances. Nonetheless, I ask you as Scotland’s leading university, and as a world-class institution, to consider the very real harm that a premature relationship with the Bahrain regime could do to the global reputation of an ancient university, ranked 20th in the world. I further ask you to consider that any sort of relationship between the regime and the University of Edinburgh would be presented in Bahrain as a substantial legitimization of the regime, and this would have a serious detrimental impact on the lives of many thousands of Bahrainis, who are still protesting for civil society, democratic reform and representative government.

Yours sincerely,

Mike Diboll

CCs:
Mr. David Griffiths, UoE
Mr. Matthew McPhereson, President, UoE Student Union
Mr. Alex Salmond, First Minister of the Scottish Parliament
Mr. Alistair Burt, UK Middle East Minister
Mr. Iain Lindsey, HM Ambassador to Bahrain
Mr. John McLellan, Editor, The Scotsman
Dr. Majid Al Noaimi, Minister of Education, Kingdom of Bahrain

One thought on “Open Letter to Professor Timothy O’Shea, Principal of The University of Edinburgh

  1. Pingback: Update: University of Edinburgh and Bahrain « Dr Mike Diboll

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