Amnesty in Bahrain:

Openness and Concerns

In the context of its response to international recommendations and human rights organizations, the Government of Bahrain has agreed to working visits being carried out by these organizations. Amnesty International has recently visited Bahrain (3-9 May 2014) and thereafter issued a statement entitled: “Bahrain: Openness on Human Rights, but Serious Concerns Remain”.

It had been Bahrain’s approach until two years ago to allow, and even officially welcome, international organizations’ visits to Bahrain and to permit them to carry out their activities without intervention. But the Government has found that these organizations do not reflect in their statements and reports the Government’s strenuous attempts to reform the human rights situation. Thus, the Government responded with intransigence to the subsequent visit requests by such organizations. This has been considered as deterioration in the level of transparency, which made the Government appear as if it was attempting to hide abuses away from the eyes of the world.

However, this approach has changed since the beginning of 2014. Bahrain and its officials have adopted an open door policy vis-a-vis such organizations. The Bahraini Foreign Minister has met with Amnesty International’s Secretary General as well as the officials of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and other organizations. Accordingly, Amnesty International recently visited Bahrain, an approach which is supposed to, and should, continue to include all other international human rights organizations.

The content of the aforementioned Amnesty statement is amply summarised by its title. Amnesty International has sensed an official desire to work on tackling the human rights dossier. The statement has confirmed the candour and openness of government officials during Amnesty’s talks with them. It further confirmed that those officials have taken legal and institutional steps to address the violations.

According to the statement, the Bahraini authorities have emphasized their commitment and willingness to rectify the situation, and pleaded for more time as well as an effective contribution by the international community to help prevent the occurrence of violations. Such contribution could include the training of security personnel and the provision of expertise; the creation of the necessary mechanisms to realise the goal of supporting and protecting human rights and the activation of the national institutions created by the government for this purpose.

But the statement also reflected Amnesty’s concerns. These include the lack of real reform of the judiciary and continuing restrictions on the freedom of expression, association and assembly. Among the concerns are the continuing detentions even among women and the issuance of harsh sentences in connection with rioting which included children, according to Amnesty’s statement.

What concerns us here is to emphasize the need for the government to take legal and institutional steps to address violations. It is necessary to activate the human rights organizations that have been established with the aim of achieving justice for victims, supporting the rule of law and protecting human rights. The activities of these organisations need to achieve tangible progress that can be felt by both the victims and the observers of human rights conditions in Bahrain. Otherwise, those institutions can neither earn the trust nor the cooperation of all segments of the society. Moreover, without real results on the ground, those official institutions cannot earn credibility in the eyes of the international human rights community.

In general, the Amnesty International statement can be assessed as follows:

The statement was balanced and positive, especially in expressing the seriousness of the Government of Bahrain regarding addressing its human rights dossier, and the steps taken in this regard. It was expected that the statement would refer to the concerns which the entire international community awaits to see some serious official steps towards addressing. The Bahraini human rights dossier will keep lingering on unless the causes of concern are addressed including the existence of prisoners of conscience, in the eyes of the international human rights community, in addition to matters pertaining to the space available for the freedoms of expression, association and assembly;

During the period following the visit of Amnesty delegation to Bahrain, preparations were under way for the meetings of the 26th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. International organisations have assembled to sign a joint statement that was issued later, on the situation of human rights in Bahrain. Amnesty’s signature was notably absent from the statement. This was interpreted by some as indicating that Amnesty did not find that hard-line statement expressive of the reality of the situation in Bahrain. It has also been said that to avoid pressure, Amnesty opted to issue a statement about its visit to Bahrain instead of signing a hard-line statement.

Amnesty delegation’s visit to Bahrain and the fact that the authorities there have allowed the delegation to freely conduct interviews with official bodies and civil society; has led the organisation to come out with a good impression on the genuine tendencies and seriousness of the Bahraini government, which was largely reflected in Amnesty’s statement. Through its delegation, Amnesty enjoyed a first hand experience with the situation in Bahrain, via transparent dialogues with all parties and access to information from all official and other bodies. Officials also listened directly to the concerns and recommendations of the delegation’s members. All this, has been sufficient enough to alter the semi-stereotypic perception of the domestic human rights situation in Bahrain held by the organisation, and to persuade the latter not to adopt some of the more harsh criticism and calls for the tightening of international pressure on the government of Bahrain, as was the case with other organisations.

Hence, Bahraini officials need to understand the nature of work of international human rights organizations; and not to rush into preventing them from coming to Bahrain. Officials should handle data and reports with a professional, open-minded mentality aimed at reforming the human rights situation, rather than wrangling with one side or the other. They should also understand the political and international human rights climate and pressures that breed different positions and reactions ranging from extreme harshness to moderation. However, it should be noted that moderation does not mean silence or refraining from criticism or from issuing statements or to simply wait for praise of official achievements.

At the official level, Bahrain is also required to take a bold initiative aimed at achieving a breakthrough in the issues of concern raised by the international community. Officially, Bahrain is also required to reaffirm its willingness to continue cooperation with all international human rights entities, for a better future for Bahrain and its people.