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 related subjects.

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 motivated.

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 in politics.

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 and parties.