Thursday, August 21, 2008

Bahrain seminar

Bahrain:; failed political experiment, serious human rights violations

At the seminar on Bahrain held today at 1 abbey Gardens the main speakers were: former MP and political prisoner Ali Rabia; Kevin Lau of Redress; Hassan Mushaima, Secretary-General of the Haq Democracy Movement; Dr Abdulhadi Khalaf of Lund University, Sweden; Ms Faiza Haq of the Islamic Human Rights Commission; Hussain Abdulla, Director of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, and Marc Pellas, a human rights activist from France.

My speech at the seminar:

For the last few years, we have held this event to review the human rights situation in Bahrain, to coincide with the two most important events in the state’s recent history: independence on August 15, 1971, and the dissolution of the Parliament and suspension of the constitution on August 26, 1975. And every year we have to acknowledge that in spite of the paper commitments to human rights by the hereditary dictatorship, there has been no real improvement on the ground.

This year, we have the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Bahrain, like the rest of them so far a low-key affair but all the same pointing to the main areas of concern. The High Commissioner’s Office, for instance, takes up a theme which has been highlighted every year at these meetings: that although Bahrain has signed the Convention Against Torture, Decree Law 56 of 2002 extended a blanket amnesty to the perpetrators of torture before that date, and denied access to redress to the victims. The Committee Against Torture expressed concern in the same report about extended periods of incommunicado detention after the Convention was ratified; inadequate safeguards for detainees including access to legal advice, medical assistance and visits by family members, and the absence of any mechanism for allowing independent monitors to visit places of detention without prior notice, despite assurances by the government. In the UN compilation of stakeholders’ reports, the Asian Center for Human Rights say that security forces continue to practice torture, an allegation repeated separately by Frontline Defenders. Indeed the US State Department reports allegations of torture by Human Rights Watch and the newspaper Al Wasat, which are not included in the UN summary.

In these circumstances, it was alarming to read the king’s threats against human rights defenders, who are being targeted for their alleged loyalty to ‘foreign agendas’. The agendas in question are those of the UN Human Rights Council, the Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures, established by the General Assembly without dissent, and if Bahrain doesn’t endorse these agendas, it should resign its seat on the Council.

The king’s menaces were particularly directed towards “those whom we pardoned after being in exile”, implying that the exiles had committed criminal offences. If that had been the case, they wouldn’t have qualified for refugee status under the Convention, and their offence in the eyes of the régime was to stand up for human rights and democracy. When the reforms were instituted in 2001 that led to the recall of the exiles, the king used the language of human rights and democracy, so it was his late father who might have been pardoned, not the exiles.

But its when we turn to what the High Commissioner’s report says on freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly that we see the hollowness of the 2001 settlement, and the strenuous efforts made to stifle criticism of it. The Committee Against Torture recommends that inappropriate restrictions on human rights NGOs be lifted, and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination criticises particularly the banning of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, as also does the Special Representative of the Secretary-General. The Special Representative expresses concern about what appears to be a pattern of arrests by human rights defenders, all too likely to continue in the light of the fact that some of the most prominent human rights activists, like Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, President of the banned BCHR, are amongst the returnees. Mr Al-Khawaja and Mr Hassan Mushaima, the Secretary-General of the Haq Democracy Movement, had already been arbitrarily arrested by the security services for their legitimate and peaceful activities, and their case was highlighted in the report to the UN General Assembly in March 2008 by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on human rights defenders, Hina Jilani.

Another case taken up by the Special Representative, together with the Rapporteurs on freedom of expression and on violence against women was that of Mrs Ghada Jamsheer, against whom a ban was imposed from being reported by either the print or broadcasting media after she had called for the dissolution of the Supreme Council for Women, which is headed by the king’s wife, on the grounds that after the Council spent $660,000 on the empowerment of women, not a single woman was elected to the Parliament or municipal councils. Ms Jamsheer also committed the unforgivable sin of listing the women members of the ruling family and their hangers-on who had been appointed to prestigious jobs, albeit without real power, such as members of the Shura Council.

Finally, in these brief introductory remarks, I have to mention the régime’s stealthy but inexorable policy of demographic engineering, not adequately covered by the UPR because it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories of human rights violations covered by the Treaty Bodies or the Special Procedures. All the same, it is covered in the submissions by the Islamic Human Rights Commission and the Asian Commission for Human Rights. The IHRC point out that thousands of foreign Sunni Muslims in the military and security services are allowed to vote, and ACHR report on the granting of citizenship to Sunni Arabs from elsewhere in the region to reduce and in the end reverse the Shi’a majority. We have had evidence of this practice over several years, and apart from the dilution and ultimate elimination of cultural identity, which Haq proposes should be examined by a UN commission of inquiry, it leads to the impoverishment of the original population, by the preference granted to Sunni immigrants in jobs and housing. Dr Salah al-Bander was expelled from Bahrain in 2006 for his detailed exposure of high level corruption and discrimination against the Shi’a, and before that the International Crisis Group reported in May 2005 on Bahrain’s Sectarian Challenge. But since the UN are not going to examine the grievances of the majority community and the government’s plan to make them into a minority in their own land, perhaps we should solicit the detailed evidence that would be needed to build on the ICG report and Bandergate. If this meeting agreed, we could establish a web address to which people could email facts about immigration, the granting of citizenship to newcomers, and their own experience of discrimination, in confidence. Lets see if we can do something more than talk about these issues, valuable though it is to send a message to the masses who are silenced in Bahrain.


At the end of the meeting it was agreed unanimously that we would initiate a web-based inquiry into the irregular granting of citizenship to persons from the neighbouring Arab world which the Minister of Cabinet Affairs said recently had raised the population from an expected 746,000 in 2008 to an actual 1,047,000. The number of foreign Sunnis granted citizenship is said to be 360,000.

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