The Cable

F1 fact-finding report finds "NO indication of any problems" in Bahrain

UPDATE: Ecclestone now says the race is a no-go due to the opposition of the racing teams. "Of course it's not on," the BBC quotes him saying.


On Friday, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, the governing body for the world of motor sports, announced its decision to return the Bahrain Grand Prix to the island Gulf nation, which has been rocked by unrest, brutal human rights abuses, and a deepening sectarian divide since protests broke out on Feb. 14.

In making its decision, the FIA sent a "fact-finding mission" to Bahrain in late May to determine whether it would be safe to hold the race, which was canceled earlier this year amid the violence. According to Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone, quoted in the Guardian, "The FIA sent people out there to check on the situation, they came back and reported everything is fine."

The report, a copy of which was provided to FP by the New York-based human rights group Avaaz, was signed by FIA Vice President Carlos Gracia, who traveled to Bahrain on May 30 and May 31 along with an assistant, Carlos Abella.

It appears to be a complete whitewash.

According to the report, Gracia and Abella met with several government officials, including Minister of Culture Mai bint Mohammed al-Khalifa, Interior Minister Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, Public Security Chief Maj. Gen. Tariq bin Dana, Bahrain International Circuit Chairman Zayed R. al-Zayani, and BIC CEO Salman bin Eissa al-Khalifa -- and seem to have accepted their views uncritically.

They also met with Tariq al-Saffar of the pro-grovernment National Institute of Human Rights, who was appointed in 2010 by King Hamad. (Saffar is also managing director of advertising firm Fortune Promoseven, which lists the F1 Grand Prix as a client.)

Gracia and Abella did dine with several unnamed foreign business leaders -- a dinner arranged by their government host -- but met with zero members of the opposition or with independent rights groups, and did not tour Shiite neighborhoods that have reportedly been under siege for weeks, though they did visit a shopping mall.

Nonetheless, they concluded, "Life in Bahrain is completely normal again" -- an observation at odds with copious reporting on the state of fear that has gripped the country since Saudi troops intervened in late March.

Other questionable assertions: "Security is guaranteed" ... "visitor figures have returned to the same level -- and are even increasing -- when compared against figures in previous years" ... "atmosphere of total calm and stability" ... "the presence of military forces was limited to a few, certain, strategic points."

In perhaps their most ludicrous claim, the fact-finders found "NO indication of any problems or reason why Bahrain's F1 Grand Prix should not return to the 2011 Calendar."

No problems?

Human Rights Watch Deputy Director Tom Porteous, in a May 26 letter to FIA chairman Jean Todt, urged the FIA to consider the government's harsh crackdown in making its decision.

"The government's violent suppression of all protests in mid-March, in which some two dozen persons were killed, mostly protesters or bystanders at the hands of security forces, has featured large-scale arbitrary arrests, protracted incommunicado detention, and credible allegations of torture or ill-treatment of persons in custody," Porteous wrote.

That advice seems to have been ignored.

"Formula 1 wanted to be told that everything is fine, and that's the answer they got," said Rutgers University assistant professor Toby Jones, an expert on Bahrain.

The Bahraini regime has presented the return of the Grand Prix as a major victory, a stamp of approval from an international community that has largely condemned the crackdown.

But holding the race may have been a miscalculation, warned Jones, "because it gives the protesters a date to rally around."

The race is now scheduled for October 30, but a change of heart by Ecclestone and growing opposition from racing teams could see it canceled yet again.

President Obama was due to meet Bahrain's crown prince on Tuesday.

The Cable

French foreign minister promises Security Council push against Syria

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said Monday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has lost his legitimacy to rule and that France and the United States are prepared to push forward with a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning his regime for its violent crackdown on protesters. However, the path toward the resolution's ratification may not be as easy as he made it seem.

Juppé noted that France refrained from condemning Assad at the outbreak of unrest because it held out hope that he would launch a process of reforms, but those hopes have now been dashed. "In Syria, the process of reform is dead, and we think that Bashar has lost his legitimacy to rule the country," he said.

In remarks at the Brookings Institution on Monday, Juppé said that the difficulty in passing a resolution was that Russia, a longtime ally of Syria, "will veto any resolution … even if it's a mild one." While Russian opposition had long been suspected, Juppé's statement marked the first time an international figure had said definitively that Russia planned to use its veto.

Nevertheless, the foreign minister argued that the best course of action was to press forward with the resolution and force Russia to bear the costs of a veto. "We think it would be possible to get 11 votes in favor of the resolution," he said. "Maybe if [Russia] see[s] that there are 11 votes in favor … they will change their minds. It is a risk to take, and we are willing to take it."

It's not clear, however, that France, Britain, and the United States can actually muster the 11 votes that Juppé claimed were already in favor of the resolution.

"I'm not convinced that we've got this in the bag," a diplomat on the Security Council said.

Of the council's 15 members, nine are said to be firmly in support of a resolution condemning Syria: France, Britain, the United States, Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Gabon, Nigeria, Colombia, and Portugal, according to the council diplomat.

Brazil and South Africa are still on the fence, with Brazil seen as being marginally more sympathetic toward the resolution.

A majority of nine in the Security Council would not put the same sort of pressure on Russia to refrain from using its veto as a majority of 11.

The French foreign minister also addressed his plans to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, framing them as a vital step before the Palestinians seek recognition at the U.N. General Assembly in September. "The status quo is more untenable than ever, particularly in the context of the Arab Spring," he said. "Time is not on the side of peace."

France has proposed to convene a conference in Paris that would negotiate a settlement based on the 1967 borders with agreed upon land swaps, in line with the parameters of President Barack Obama's May 19 speech. After reaching an agreement on borders and security arrangements, a second phase of talks would tackle the more sensitive issues of the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees in negotiations that would not exceed one year.

Juppé acknowledged that the idea has been received coolly by U.S. officials. "I wasn't expecting enthusiasm for the French initiative when I arrived in Washington," he said. However, he said that France was willing to amend its plans in line with suggestions from its allies.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has accepted France's initiative to revive peace talks, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still studying the proposal. Juppé has reportedly indicated that France would consider supporting the Palestinians' request for full membership in the United Nations if the negotiations remain stalled. He did not directly address this issue on Monday, except to say that a U.N. vote would be "difficult for everybody."

David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute, said that the French initiative is being driven both by hope of a breakthrough engendered by Obama's recent speech and fear of a diplomatic conundrum when the Palestinians take their case for statehood to the United Nations. "The importance here is that it reflects a desire of a key European power to follow up the Obama speeches with a practical idea that would be an alternative to the September vote at the U.N.," he said. "Obama has taken some knocks, but the French proposal suggests that it is having a favorable preliminary impact on a key audience."

In another break from the United States and Israel, Juppé argued that the reconciliation agreement signed between Fatah and Hamas could be a positive step.

"How can we imagine that a peace agreement would be respected and guarantee Israeli security if not all Palestinians were to agree to it?" he asked. "[W]e believe that this reconciliation could represent a chance for peace... if it leads Hamas to evolve in response to our expectations."

Colum Lynch contributed reporting to this article.

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