Why Bahraini human rights matter in Dublin


Controversy over the involvement of Ireland’s Royal College of Surgeons in Bahrain has prompted new guidelines on human rights for third-level colleges with operations abroad, writes MARY FITZGERALD, Foreign Affairs Correspondent

WHEN THE protests that would later evolve into what became known as the Arab Spring first erupted early last year, few would have guessed that the ripples would be felt in educational circles outside the region, engulfing the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) in separate storms of controversy.

The LSE’s director, Sir Howard Davies, resigned after extensive, and highly compromising, links between the university and Libya’s ruling Gadafy family – then brutally attempting to quash anti-regime demonstrations – were revealed. An inquiry conducted by former British Lord Chief Justice Harry Woolf found that the relationship was allowed to grow unchecked, without due diligence assessments, to such an extent that the LSE was referred to by some wags as “The Libyan School of Economics.”

In Ireland, the RCSI, which has operated a medical campus in Bahrain since 2004, was left “blindsided” as one National University of Ireland (NUI) source puts it, when the Arab Spring arrived at the shores of the tiny Gulf island. Of the scores of medics rounded up as Bahraini security forces tried to snuff out pro-democracy rallies, three – Ali Al Ekr, Basim Dhaif and Ghassan Dhaif – had trained at the RCSI in Dublin. Friends and former colleagues of the detained doctors, including other RCSI alumni, campaigned for their release and pressured the college to condemn what was happening in Bahrain. The RCSI was widely slated, including in an article published in the Lancet, for its failure to take a public stand against a security crackdown that, as an international investigative commission has since confirmed, involved serious human rights abuses by the Bahraini authorities.

The episode, together with the LSE debacle, triggered much soul-searching within the RCSI and wider academic circles in Ireland.

“People were very concerned,” said the NUI source, explaining that the issue was discussed at meetings of the NUI senate, the governing body of the NUI, of which the RCSI is a member. In order to help prevent such situations arising in the future, it was decided that a charter for human rights and code of conduct should be drawn up for Irish universities and higher education institutions operating in countries where “you perhaps have to hold your nose a little bit” as the NUI source put it.

“Irish universities are under tremendous pressure to go out, get involved internationally, and bring in students, but they have no guidelines of any sort.

“We can’t, as a country, sit back and say we’ll have nothing to do with any of these countries when other universities in other countries are free to get fully involved. That’s the dilemma we face.”

The charter and code of conduct has been drafted by NUI chancellor Maurice Manning, who is also president of the Irish Human Rights Commission. “The charter tries to be principled and pragmatic,” said Dr Manning. “The purpose is to provide a framework so that universities know what they are going into and know what their obligations are, and know what the possibilities are for them in promoting human rights.”

Manning would not discuss the details of the draft charter, which was presented two weeks ago to the NUI Senate. The document will now go through a consultation phase involving all NUI member institutions before it comes before the NUI Senate again in June for ratification.

The draft charter, a copy of which was obtained by The Irish Times, notes that “with the intensification of international contacts, there is an inevitability of encounter, both at an individual and an institutional level, with social, cultural, political and religious systems and practices diverging in varying degrees from those accepted in Ireland”.

“Political instability, civil unrest, conflict and reported human rights violations have been notable features of recent history in several countries where NUI institutions are involved in partnerships. These developments have pointed to the need for NUI and its institutions to have clear policies on human rights, strategies to enable them to respond appropriately in difficult situations, and tools for public communication of their approaches.”

The draft code of conduct says NUI institutions must consider “whether their presence in will be interpreted as support for such abuses, or whether their presence will assist in supporting reforms in human rights and academic freedoms”. The document later states that if such a presence or partnership “can be seen as providing support for the repression of the human rights of citizens in that country or would otherwise support repression, the NUI institution concerned should be prepared not to engage or to withdraw from its academic engagement in the country concerned”.

RCSI chief executive Prof Cathal Kelly welcomes the drafting of a charter on human rights for Irish universities with operations overseas. During a robust exchange with members of the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee in February, he defended the college’s handling of the Bahrain crisis. During that meeting Senator Mark Daly accused the RCSI of allowing financial considerations to trump human rights.

“Let us not kid ourselves: this boils down to money. The RCSI has an institution in Bahrain which generates money and it is trying to protect its interests,” said Daly.

Both Kelly and the RCSI’s director of corporate strategy, Michael McGrail, denied this was the case.

“We have invested $70 million in Bahrain from our own resources, for which we are answerable. However, our total investments in Bahrain come to far less than 20 per cent of the total assets of . This is not about a commercial or business investment,” said McGrail.

Kelly articulated the conundrum faced by many Irish higher education institutions venturing abroad. “We will find ourselves working in countries with different political systems and cultures than our own,” he told the committee. “To work in those countries, we must find a way to be true to ourselves and our core missions while being respectful of their cultural, judicial and political norms.”

The experience of the past year has prompted the RCSI to make some changes of its own. “We are developing a ‘whistleblower’ charter for all our staff and students,” Kelly told The Irish Times. “Also, in light of how things have evolved in Bahrain, we are putting in place a more formal due diligence process run by a specific unit in the college. The plan would be for any major projects to interact more with the Irish Government on policy, to adhere to any ethical charters we are part of, and to look in more detail at the governance of areas we might choose to operate in, as well as long-term sustainability.”

In Britain, the cautionary tale of the LSE controversy also shone a light on the prickly issue of how universities raise money from external sources, particularly from countries with poor human rights records, a question academics in Ireland believe will become more pertinent here in years to come.

In the US, universities including Harvard and Georgetown have come under fire for accepting Saudi funding for Islamic studies departments. Other Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, have endowed faculties in the US and Europe. In the US, the expansion of Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes, which have contributed millions of dollars for research to the universities that host them, has sparked concerns that such monies come with strings attached, muting criticism of Beijing. Hanban, a government-affiliated body under the Chinese education ministry, has spent at least $500 million since 2004 establishing 350 Confucius Institutes worldwide, including one at University College Cork and another at University College Dublin.

“When it comes to this kind of external philanthropy, we are at very early stages here in Ireland compared to the US and the UK,” said Ben Tonra, associate professor at the UCD School of Politics and International Relations. “But now, because of the financial crisis and because of the phenomenal financial pressures we are under, we are being told to go out and raise cash from outside sources.

“The real problem is that we have neither a strategy nor transparency structures in place with respect to how we go about this. I think that leaves open the prospect of some institution making a very serious mistake in terms of what they are doing and who they are doing it with.

“There is a genuine desperation [to get] cash and there is a danger that [this]can lead people down byways and pathways they shouldn’t be going down.”


The RCSI bills itself as “an independent, not-for-profit, health sciences institution” and it has the biggest international footprint of any Irish higher education institution.

The RCSI runs programmes throughout the Middle East, with a training campus in Dubai and a university in Bahrain (right). It also runs undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in Asia, the largest being in Malaysia. The college’s relationship with Bahrain dates back more than three decades. In 2003 it agreed to establish a medical university there. The first students were admitted in 2004 and today the college has more than 1,000 students and 120 full-time staff.

The RCSI describes itself as “largely self-funding” and says any financial surpluses generated from its activities are reinvested in the college’s research and academic programmes.

In a presentation to the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee in February, RCSI chief executive Prof Cathal Kelly said the official opening of the Bahrain university in 2009 by then president Mary McAleese marked the “culmination” of the college’s €70 million investment in the country. “This is a substantial investment in line with requirements to fund a well-resourced medical school.

“The university was funded entirely by RCSI resources and is performing in line with our expectations both from educational and financial perspectives,” he said.