Human Rights Organizations and Political Activity
There are 16 political organizations (parties) which aim to make
political changes through elections and participation in the Bahraini
parliament. Whoever wishes to participate in political life or desires
to work for the political development of the Kingdom, can do so
directly by joining one of these parties or forming a new one after
fulfilling the necessary requirements. There are several civil society
organizations in many fields including, media, intellectual, art,
legal, environmental, youth, family, women and Islamic societies
as well as trade unions etc. The number of these societies is in
the hundreds so far, and all are practicing their expected role
within the political framework, but are far from being too involved
in political life.
The problem with human rights organizations in the Arab world
and in Bahrain in particular is their inability to distance themselves
from politics. However, it is equally impossible to achieve a complete
separation of the two either in Bahrain or elsewhere. Nowadays,
it has become difficult to distinguish between 'political' and 'human
rights' activists in the Kingdom, to the extent that some activists
describe themselves as 'political and human rights activists'. It
is also difficult to distinguish human rights subjects and their
organizational aims from political subjects and their parties' aims.
Furthermore, the titles 'human rights activists' and 'human rights
defenders' have been used to describe teenage youths burning tyres
and rubbish bins and vandalizing public property; for when these
individuals are arrested for their crimes, human rights activists
immediately label them as 'prisoners of conscience' and the whole
issue comes under the title 'arrests of human rights defenders.'
This merging of human rights and politics is intentional in some
cases, and has caused confusion among all relevant political and
human rights parties in Bahrain. The main reason for this ambiguity
is that the political organizations in question have used it as
a cover for some illegal political activities, which they cannot
accept or publicly adopt. On the other hand, a human rights activist
can always claim that his activities represent 'freedom of expression'
thus entitling him to the protection and defence which the term
offers. This is why some human rights activists involve themselves
in politics in the name of human rights, and become more radical
in their political views than political organizations themselves.
We should not be surprised then, to see provocative political speeches
placed and defended within a legal framework.
This intentional ambiguity also weakens human rights defenders
and portrays them as bypassing the very values and principles which
they claim to defend. It also lessens sympathy for them on an international
legal level, when they are found to use a vague language which makes
it difficult to distinguish between what is political and what is
concerned with human rights. This is especially true when human
rights activists are seen to be completely engrossed in politics,
even more so than radical opposition leaders.
The human rights issue in Bahrain is on its way to becoming a
source of great social and political tension, and could anger the
authorities. Therefore it is necessary to redraw the lines between
human rights and political issues however ambiguous these lines
are. The question which frequently comes to mind is: is Bahrain
a special case or part of a general phenomenon which includes Arab
and third world countries? It is indeed a general phenomenon which
includes many countries, but Bahrain represents a special case due
the accumulation of several factors, which have directed human rights
activists away from what is internationally accepted as human rights
Politics in Bahrain, as with other countries, has cast its shadow
on other social, economic, security and human rights issues, so
these latter have become directly influenced by the local political
situation and by the nature of the political system. As a result,
it is not possible to separate human rights issues from the political
climate and from developments in the political system.
It is no surprise then, that political organizations in Bahrain
before the 2001 reform period have established their own human rights
committees, in order to follow up on human rights files and to defend
their prisoners (whom they consider prisoners of conscience) on
the one hand, and on the other, in order to wrestle with the regime
on a political and media level and to expose it before public opinion.
In these political organizations, human rights issues are a subsidiary
of politics, or more precisely of the political conflict, aside
from the level of conviction for the rights on which the regime
is judged. Thus the Bahraini politician appears as a human rights'
defender when necessary, for he is able to perform both roles at
the same time, carrying the label 'political and human rights activist'
and can use either term in their distinct contexts.
When opposition members returned to Bahrain, they participated
in the country's reform projects and many human rights organizations
were established. It is notable that the founders of these organizations
are political activists affiliated to officially recognized political
parties and organizations, and were able to participate in the elections.
Some of them remained heads of human rights organizations and were
at the same time members in their respective political parties.
What does this all mean? It means precisely that there remains
an imaginary separation of human rights and politics, and it is
possible to benefit from human rights issues to serve a political
purpose and according to political standards. For this reason we
notice that the evaluation of the human rights situation in Bahrain
by several human rights organizations is almost always politically
If truth be said, international conventions themselves do not
allow for a clear and complete separation between politics and human
rights. As long as there are political and social rights for individuals
and communities, it is possible to approach the subject from a human
rights perspective without immersing it completely in politics.
However, what is happening in Bahrain is the complete opposite,
where human rights activists in the Kingdom have not produced well
trained and well qualified human rights activists, but rather they
have produced political activists with a human rights façade. A
potential reason behind this could be due to a lack of training,
or due to the fact the political field is a polarizing one and is
able to involve human rights activists consciously or unconsciously
Whatever the reasons, human rights organizations in Bahrain need
to rethink their aims, practices and the extent to which they are
adhering to international human rights standards. There are many
human rights issues which need to be addressed in the Kingdom, but
how can this be achieved if activists leave what concerns them and
immerse themselves in politics, a field which has its own figures