Saturday, January 10, 2009

My speech at the Bahrain Seminar

This week Bahrain was hosting a regional security summit, and the Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohamed Al Khalifa, a close relative of the King like most leading members of the government, gave the keynote speech. He had the nerve to say that in Bahrain “individual rights are protected, and ….the fundamental principles of democracy, the rule of law, and economic freedom prevail”. As we have noted on previous occasions, one of the principles of democracy is that the people have the right to change the government through the ballot box, whereas in Bahrain, the electorate has no right or power to dislodge the ruling family. The Prime Minister, the king’s uncle, has held office as Prime Minister for 38 years, a world record. The king himself appoints all the Ministers, under a constitution that preserves the hereditary dictatorship.
Another principle of democracy is that the majority decide public policy. Again as we have noted before, on Bahrain the Shi’a did constitute 70% of the population, but they hold less than 13% if the top positions in government departments. I say ‘did’, because the ruling family has a long term strategy of encouraging immigration by Sunnis and emigration by Shi’a, in a unique piece of demographic engineering that was reported by Human Rights Watch and others. In the census of 2001 there were 406,000 citizens, and this has leapt to 529,000 by the end of 2007 . Although there are reports on how this is organised from reputable international organisations like the Islamic Human Rights Commission, the Asian Commission on Human Rights and the International Crisis Group, up to now there has been no systematic collection of the evidence, as I suggested when we met in August. I repeat: the conspiracy to change the cultural identity of a population is a crime against humanity that must be exposed, and the process of setting up a mechanism for receiving testimonies in confidence and publishing them on the web is now in train.
Collecting and publishing this material has to be done abroad, since freedom of expression is another of the rights which are not protected in Bahrain. Last week a writer and journalist, Maryam al-Shoroogi, was charged with sedition for an article she wrote on discrimination in public employment, based on her own personal experience. Whistle-blowers who report inconvenient facts are generally liable to prosecution, but we do know how the conspiracy is organised from the report by Dr Saleh al-Bander, a British citizen who was expelled when he published details of the plan master-minded by Sheikh Ahmed bin Atiyatalla Al Khalifa, yet another member of the royal mafia.
When three prominent human rights activists spoke at a meeting in Washington DC about the exclusion of Shi’a from higher education and public sector jobs, they were branded as ‘traitors’ and ‘stooges of the Unuted States’ on returning to Bahrain, and the Interior Minister, one more al-Khalifa, called for the enforcement of Article 34 of the Penal Code, which provides that a person who criticises Bahrain abroad is liable to three months imprisonment and a fine. I wrote to the Foreign Office Minister who deals with Bahrain, Bill Rammell MP, and he said our Ambassador was seeking a call on the Interior Minister to discuss his Article 34 demand, and also the wider issues of Bahrainis speaking at conferences abroad. But the British Consulate in Manama is an accomplice in making it difficult for human rights activists to speak at overseas meetings, by delaying the granting of visas, as with our speaker from the Bahrain Youth for Human Rights today. This is not the first time our invited speakers have had delays in getting their visas, and as there is no record of any of our speakers over many years complying with the immigration rules, one is tempted to suspect collusion between the consulate and the Ministry of the Interior.
Our Minister said he wasn’t aware of the coordinated smear campaign against Nabil Rajab, chairman of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and his two colleagues, who attended the Washington meeting. Human Rights Watch, IFEX, the network of free expression groups, and Frontline Defenders, have all carried notices about the threats, and its clear that the regime’s plan is to intimidate human rights activists in the hope of silencing them without having to use more drastic tools of repression.

In the same way, the al-Khalifas use the monopoly service provider Batelco to block websites that deal with human rights abuse in Bahrain, including the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. The al-Bander report also shows that large sums of money are paid to organisations running websites and Internet forums which foment sectarian hatred, and to GONGOs – Government Organised NGOs – such as the Jurists' Society, the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, the Bahrain First Society and the Bahrain Political Society. The regime is also spending money on a US lobby firm, Patton Boggs, to peddle the line that the Shi’a are getting a fair deal in Bahrain.
Unfortunately, it has turned out that the UN’s Universal Periodic Review, which was intended to be the mechanism for identifying and rectifying human rights abuses in every country as its name implies, is ineffective. In the case of Bahrain, there were submissions from 12 ‘stakeholders’ with serious criticisms of inequality and discrimination; violations of the right to life, liberty and security of the person; maladministration of justice and breaches of the rule of law; denial of freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and right to participate in public and political life, and the right to an adequate standard of living. But the report which followed doesn’t have a single word to say on any of these matters. It simply repeats some of the minor recommendations made by other member states, such as that Bahrain be invited to inform the Human Rights Council in four years time what plans it has to pass laws for the protection of domestic workers, and that the draft press law ought not to unduly restrict freedom of expression.

We just held the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was the occasion for much self-congratulation. It would have been far better, to have recognised the insufficiency of the UN processes it has taken the world all that time to create, and to underline the necessity of holding seminars like this, to allow genuine debate on the persistent and endemic human rights crises that still undermine many people’s freedoms. The submerged half of Bahrain’s population looked in vain to the new system in Bahrain, but until there are the fundamental changes to their own system of governance they will continue to rely on us to keep their flag of liberty aloft.

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