Human Rights Council- Geneva

Moving Bahraini Human Rights Dossier Abroad, Why?

Indeed! Why do we see Geneva and some European capitals becoming the main battleground for human rights’ battles between the Bahraini opposition and the government?

Is it mainly because the human rights centre of gravity is currently located in Geneva, seat of the highest international human rights authority in the world i.e. the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights? Or is it also due to the presence of the UN Human Rights Council, with all its powers, tools and capabilities and international influence; in addition to the presence of the headquarters of a large, unlimited and ever expanding number of the most important international human rights organiz?tions; and the existence in Geneva of a persistent and continuous human rights activity by countries and human rights organizations throughout the year?

Is this sufficient a reason to move domestic human rights battles, between states and their opposition groups to Geneva? and perhaps to Brussels, London and Paris?

It is also a basic principle that the local civil society in each country should enjoy protection and respect, and that there should be a legal reference capable of protecting the space necessary for the growth of the civil society. Such legislative reference is also necessary for the proper guidance of the civil society and for its participation in sharing, with the government, the responsibility for developing the human rights situation.

However, in the absence of this free domain and where there is a diminishing space for an active civil society, combined with a poor, non-constructive, or even non-interactive relationship with the authorities, it is obvious that the battle will move abroad.

This may also occur even if there is space for movement within the state. There may exist a reasonable degree of regulatory laws that protect the freedom of human rights activity, but this may not be enough in the absence of a trust-based and constructive interaction, between the political authorities and the civil society.

What matters in the end, is the interactive work that could lead to real change in the human rights situation. The objectives are not served when the authorities and civil society act separately in parallel tracks that never meet, except maybe once a year. Because in the end, this will not bring real change, and could ultimately create a large gap, characterised by mistrust and lack of cooperation, between the authorities and the civil society.

In Bahrain, the official human rights agenda needs to interact and even intertwine with the civil society’s agenda, so that everyone is involved in working towards reaching specific goals, and that both sides can always cooperate through consultations; and even through direct support and joint projects to accomplish a proper and sustainable human rights development.

Human rights accomplishments cannot be achieved, in the desired manner, through the authorities alone. Nor can they be reached via the civil society alone, when it is detached from the state and its institutions, activities and support. There should be some understanding, interaction, cooperation, as well as a unified vision and agreement on practices to realize the goals.

This has not happened in Bahrain.

What happened exactly is that the government had allowed the civil society to be established, but the government’s tools were not mature or capable enough to interact and cooperate with the civil society after sanctioning its activity.

The most senior officials in Bahrain were hoping and wishing for Bahrain’s new-born civil society to reach maturity. We’ve heard many statements, including those made by His Majesty the King, wishing that the civil society will undertake some of the burdens and responsibilities of the state, whether in the field of human rights or other areas.

It was the belief of almost all state officials, at the beginning of the establishment of hundreds of civil societies, that it is a necessity for them to be independent. The government even provided some funding for those fledgling organizations.

But despite all these hopes, the shocking truth was that the civil society was in its infancy, and that the sincere intentions of the government, alone, were not sufficient to create the proper collaborative relationship with the civil society. Even the officials of the ministry concerned with civil society needed to understand the mechanisms of action and communication with the societies. They themselves, same as the new civil society leaders, were devoid of maturity.

Since the start of the civil society in Bahrain, the official and civil sides were working in two separate spaces, even though they shared the same subject: human rights. Naturally, this state of affairs entailed a build-up of mutual doubts between the two sides, and a diminishing degree of trust. In the absence of meetings and cooperation, the mistrust sometimes escalated to conflicts and confrontation.

For this reason, the movement of Bahraini human rights dossier abroad was a highly expected eventuality. This did not happen just in one push. It is true that it is normal for a relationship between the local Bahraini civil society and international human rights organizations abroad to exist; but it was clear that such reliance on the outside began to grow even before the events of 2011. Today, we reached a point where any meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (held three times a year) is marred?by battles and clashes. It has even become known to the UN security personnel that when any confrontation or clash occurs in Geneva, Bahrainis will always be involved.

Surprisingly, that Bahraini human rights activists travel to Geneva to attend meetings and carry out opposition activities there and then return to their country. The government does not prevent them from travelling, nor does it hold them accountable for the activities they undertake. The government’s behaviour is attributed to its commitment to an international law requirement preventing any government from harassing or holding accountable human rights activists, because of their human rights activities, ?articularly those activists who interact with the relevant United Nations mechanisms.

There are some who believe that the problem does not revolve around the ability of activists to express their opinion and practice their activity at home. According to holders of this opinion that is not necessarily the root cause of the problem. It is, according to them, the fact that human rights dossiers-or at least some of them- have become so intractable to be resolved domestically, and their referral of the dispute about them abroad is an indicator that issues cannot be resolved by mutual agreement; ?earing in mind that the human rights dossier cannot be resolved by the government single-handedly nor by the activists on their own.

Another view, which may have some truth in it, is that Bahraini activists have planned to get external support from like- minded human rights organizations, which are able to understand their views and positions. Those activists see the ‘outside’ as a tool of empowerment over their own government inside. This is annoying for the authorities, and lead them to be skeptical of international human rights organizations and to doubt their neutrality and impartiality, particularly as the Bahraini authorities are ?ot good at using the human rights language, nor are they able to use the appropriate human rights tools. To them the world of human rights activism is totally new, while, in contrast, Bahraini activists feel quite at home in this world that they know well, due to their old relationships with international human rights organisations, and their ability to use the Human rights language, and to exploit the subject of human rights for the benefit of their own political issues.

Moreover, the civil society, being the weaker party, feels the need to bring in external human rights support and to generate pressure on the government to force it to change its positions, irrespective of whether that leads to defamation of the government or exaggeration of its mistakes. In addition to that, human rights activists also believe that strengthening relations with their counterparts in international human rights organizations provides them with a protective umbrella.

Therefore, governments cannot blame their opposition groups or activists for seeking support from the outside, unless the tools of change are available at home; and the prospects of a successful cooperation between the civil society and the authorities exist, and that the civil society has been engaged in official activities, and given its due rights of support, independence and protection. However, involving activists for public relations purposes, while maintaining a skeptical view of them and the civil ?ociety in general, can only result in the eventual transfer of the issue abroad.

So, have the governments done their share by providing the proper atmosphere?

Some might say yes, adding that those activists deliberately seek to harm the government, and do not accept the status quo because they are politicized and are not interested in confidence-building and cooperation between the two sides.

This is a debatable matter, but the government in Bahrain has a responsibility to fulfil two main requirements, without which the problems will leave their domestic enclosure:


To secure the safe and adequate space conducive to the emergence of a civil society capable of expansion, growth and contribution, where activists are not subject to arrests, neglect, harassment or defamation.


The government needs to be serious and creative in exploring the ways and means of involving the civil society and contributing to its maturation through participation; viewing it as a helper rather than a trouble-maker. It is the government’s duty to contain the civil society’s immaturity through breadth of mind and tolerance; and to adopt a policy that is inclusive and to demonstrate forbearance when dealing with mistakes, for the sake of guiding the domestic human rights and political experience towards success.