Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Keynote speech at today's Bahrain seminar, Moses Room, House of Lords

A year ago our theme was ‘elections without democracy or human rights’. We noted that in Bahrain, there is a pretence of democracy whilst all the sinews of government are bent to maintaining the absolute rule of the al-Khalifa family, with the assistance of others who benefit financially from the regime.

Twelve months later, the people are still powerless, but there is a growing sense of resentment and a feeling that with no sign of progress towards equality, the rule of law, democracy and human rights, the situation is likely to become unstable.

Some people who don’t belong to the exclusive Sunni tribe who hold all the political power have become very rich by collaboration and are dependable supporters of the status quo.

Foreign immigrants have been and still are being granted citizenship and jobs, gradually marginalising the native people and driving most of them downwards into poverty.

The king and members of his family have taken control of several large islands including those regained by Bahrain through a decision of the international court. That annexation showed clearly that King Hamad regards the state of Bahrain as his personal property.

He and his uncle the Prime Minister have also enriched themselves by the sale of valuable land reclaimed from the shallow sea adjacent to the capital, Manama. To quote from Property Development World:

“The Two Seas development is the creation of a luxury waterfront community located across eleven million square meters of manmade island which will offer investors and potential residents the chance to own freehold property in Bahrain within a district dominated by state of the art homes, recreational, retail and commercial space and an expanse of manicured and landscaped gardens”.

It is the ruling family that controls reclamation, though of course the process is opaque, like the rest of the royal accounts.

Nobody demands that the King’s finances be open to public scrutiny, still less that they should be subject to Parliamentary control as they would be in a proper democracy. It’s a taboo subject.

So is the endemic discrimination against the Shi’a, who still form the majority of the population, though not for much longer. The strategy of the al-Khalifas is to continue with their demographic engineering until the Shi’a can be outvoted, so that the inequality of wealth and incomes, of opportunity, and of political power, can be maintained even in free and fair elections.

In the meanwhile, elections change nothing. After the last Parliamentary elections in 2006 the king reappointed the Prime Minister, who has now held that office continually for 37 years, and a cabinet half the members of which also belonged to the al-Khalifa family. The relatives occupied most of the important portfolios such as defence.

This incestuous system leads to corruption and skulduggery of the sort described by De Salah al Bander, a British citizen who worked for the government until he blew the whistle and was expelled. He exposed Sheikh Ahmed bin Atiyatalla Al Khalifa – a minister and relative – as the centre of a multi-billion Dinar conspiracy to manipulate the elections, foment sectarian distrust, and to keep the Shi’as down. These criminal activities are tolerated by the government to this day as far as we know.

The authorities couldn’t rebut the 200 pages of evidence Dr al-Bander published, so they tried to blacken his name. The accused Sheikh Ahmed is still a ‘key minister’ according to The Economist.

The allegations made by Dr al-Bander, like every other report of misconduct by the al-Khalifa such as the land grab, can’t be discussed by the media in Bahrain.

Among other recent examples of censorship was the instruction to the media not to report anything said by the woman activist Ms Ghada Jamsheer. She had criticised the Supreme Council of Women, chaired by the King’s wife, for its failure to promote women’s rights and its steadfast loyalty to the government.

Bahrain acceded to the CEDAW in July 2002 and was due to submit is first report in July 2003. So its now over four years overdue, and the second report is also late.

But now at least, Bahrain is due to answer to the UN Human Rights Council next February, under the new procedure for review of member states. Key features of the procedure are that a State has to prepare the information through a broad national consultation process and the High Commissioner for Human Rights has to compile a summary of the State’s compliance with the human rights treaties including the CEDAW.

Bahrain will have to explain why it hasn’t reported, and why the king’s wife is considered to be a suitable person to head the women’s rights body, when she is unlikely to call her husband’s government to account.

It remains to be seen whether the consultation required will include bodies such as the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, or the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, whose leader Mr Mohammed Al Maskati is due in court on January 21, charged with operating an unregistered society. He says the charge is a violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain has ratified.

I challenge civil society in Bahrain to put together their own report for the Human Rights Council. The National Committee for Martyrs and Victims of Torture could write a note on the continued violation of the government’s obligations under the Convention Against Torture, drawing attention to the excellent report by Redress that we discussed last year. The BCHR could draw attention to the death of Mr Ali Jassim al-Barbari, a young bus driver, only recently married, following a demonstration on Tuesday, a tragic echo on the eve of Martyrs Day of the two who were killed on December 17, 23 years ago. It was said that he had been overcome by teargas, but he hadn’t previously had any respiratory problems that would have made him particularly vulnerable. Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja, the head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights who was at the morgue said that bruises could be seen over Jassem's dead body. And Jassim is not the first unexplained death. The Human Rights Council should be provided with a summary of the many others over the years, to enable them to consider whether the right to life, the most fundamental right of all, is protected in Bahrain.

The Special Forces, largely recruited from other countries had been using excessive force against demonstrators over the last weeks, injuring several people by firing rubber bullets at them from close range and beating up demonstrators, some of them children. Bahrain ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992 and took 6 ½ years to submit its initial report. Exceptionally, it was given until March 2004 to submit its second and third reports, but they haven’t yet appeared nearly four years later. Evidently Bahrain wishes to be thought of as a state where human rights are respected, but doesn’t have any real intention of complying with standard international norms.

Yesterday was International Migrants Day and Louise Arbour, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a statement condemning

“Working conditions that amount to modern forms of slavery, such as long working hours, payment of salaries well below minimum wage established by law, exposure to degrading and dangerous working conditions and confiscation of travel documents”.

She could have been thinking of Bahrain. Those who complain get sacked, like the 50 migrant workers who went on strike against low wages at a Saudi-owned dairy. And its reported that so far this year alone, tens of thousands have been deported without a hearing.

Finally, the attention of the Human Rights Council should be drawn to the report on Bahrain last month from the freedom of expression NGO Article 19. They talk about the recent crackdown, including the banning of books and films, the blocking of websites, and the prosecution of individuals, such as writers and journalists, for exercising their right to free expression.. This year so far 32 cases have been filed against journalists; two writers have been refused leave to publish academic book; several films have been banned; at least 22 websites, including the site of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, have been blocked by Batelco, the only Internet Service Provider in the country, owned by the Bahraini government.
The 2002 Press and Publication Law, and the 1976 Penal Code have been used in justify interrogation and prosecution not only of journalists but even bloggers and website administrators.
It seems that no further progress towards freedom and democracy can be expected, and we have entered what the title of our seminar describes as a post-reforms era, when the hopes that were raised by the present ruler when he inherited, are dashed, and people must either knuckle under to the dictatorship or take new initiatives of their own to seize their rights. Let us appeal to the Human Rights Council, from this meeting, to take this issue very seriously, when they consider Bahrain’s record in a few weeks’ time. The rising tensions we see in Bahrain at the end of 2007 can only be defused if the people can get robust support from the United Nations for their legitimate aspirations.

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