Bahrain & the International Human Rights Organizations:
Dialogue & Problems

On the eve of the start of its reform project in 2000, Bahrain has opened the door to all international human rights organizations. This attitude was adopted under Bahrain’s belief in the need to cooperate with them, as well as its confidence that it is proceeding in the right direction, as far as human rights are concerned. This openness was also intended to inform the international human rights public opinion on the developments of the situation and the government’s efforts, so that the outcome is refle?ted in the form of balanced and neutral reporting in the reports issued by these organizations.

At that time, all major international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Human Rights First (HRF), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Organization of defenders of human rights activists, and others, had visited Bahrain in frequent delegations. Many of them even held events in Bahrain and launched their reports from there.

Moreover, during that period, officials in Bahrain used to meet with human rights delegations, conduct dialogue with them, allow them to visit prisons, attend trial hearings and even attend parliamentary and other sessions.

However, after the experience of several years, Bahrain did not feel any difference between cooperation and non-cooperation with these international organizations. Bahrain even felt that it was targeted through the reports and statements of these organizations and that its efforts had little or no effect in changing the attitudes of those organizations. But those human rights organizations, justify their actions by saying that Bahrain had the political will for reform; with opportunities for progress, whic? is why pressure was applied to accelerate Bahrain’s progress in terms of human rights. Thus, those organizations were greatly disappointed when the government changed its treatment and reduced the level of relations. Nevertheless, international human rights organizations did not stop monitoring of the human rights situation in Bahrain, and continued to issue relevant reports and statements as well as mobilizing international public opinion in Geneva, Brussels, London, Washington and Paris, among others.

On the other hand, western countries also continued to urge Bahrain with regard to the need for openness and cooperation with the international human rights organizations, by allowing them to conduct field visits.

The need for human rights organizations visits to Bahrain

This necessity stems from the following:

First: The relationship with international human rights organizations is seen as an indicator of the commitment of any country to the principles of human rights. In all cases, the worldview is that: ‘No state can respect human rights, while being hostile to international human rights organizations, by preventing their visits and ceasing cooperation with them’.

Thus, it is essential that Bahrain reflects an image of a state that is open to international human rights organizations, in order to avoid international pressures, which accuse it of isolationism and lack of transparency.

Accordingly, no state can hope to ease the international pressure, except through interaction and openness with all international human rights organizations, especially those major organizations that influence the policies of states.

Second: Today, Bahrain is in a much better position than it was during the past years. The development of the human rights situation and the efforts made by the government are clear to see for those close enough. But information on such developments needs to be conveyed to those who are distant. Such information cannot be of advantage as long as relations are severed with international organizations. In other words, Bahrain now has points of strength and it has to be open to others, to explain to them what it has achieved on the ground, so that hopefully the official views will be taken into account in their reports and statements. This is achieved by clarifying the official position, and giving answers to the issues of concern raised.

The fundamental problem in Bahrain is not in the absence of human rights achievements by the government-as several achievements do exist- but rather lies in the poor presentation and marketing of those achievements at the international level. Therefore, it is necessary to convince international human rights organizations of those achievements, by opening doors, allowing their visits, providing them with information etc.

Third: The Continuing dispute with international human rights organizations, will not lead to any change or reduction in their activity. If anything it will aggravate such activity. In fact, the bulk of the activity of these organizations, as we have seen during the last period, will rely heavily on the information coming from one side, which is the opposition. However, openness to international human rights organizations will, on the one hand, ease the tension in the relations with the organizations and, on the?other hand, when given the opportunity, these organisations will find themselves obliged to refer to information received from the government, as well as the developments and achievements made. Moreover, these organisations are bound to be influenced by and responsive to the government’s answers regarding alleged concerns raised by those organizations. In the end, the outcome of openness is much better than that of the boycott which will render those organizations confined to single-source information.

Even from the government’s perspective, it has to choose what it considers ‘lesser of the two evils’ regarding the relationship with the international human rights organizations and allowing their visits to Bahrain. In any case, those organizations will continue to write and publish statements and reports, which will at least be less acrimonious or less damaging if those organizations are allowed to visit Bahrain.

Fourth: It is possible to establish a new relationship with international human rights organizations in accordance with a well-defined mechanism between the two sides. When visits of delegations of these organizations take place, it is necessary to search for the best framework for a fruitful relationship with them. Some officials often think that it is detrimental to establish relationships with international human rights organizations, or to allow them to visit Bahrain. Those officials believe that this will le?d to the issuing of negative reports or to the politicization of visits by the activists. However, these officials need to look at the other side of the coin, to see the benefits of visits.

The benefits here have two aspects:

• First: The amount of damage warded off from Bahrain by the visits: The international community will view these visits positively; and reports are likely to be less severe and the government will be able to explain its achievements in detail and on the ground. It will be able to prove that it is making efforts to address human rights problems. It will also be able to prove that the causes of concern are overstated, and that one-sided information is not accurate, and perhaps mostly incorrect.

• Secondly: The aspect that is mostly overlooked relates to the possible benefits that could be gained from international human rights organizations. These organizations possess a lot of expertise, relationships, experiences and information. Instead of thinking about how to ward off what is believed to be a harm coming from them, it is necessary to think about how to benefit from these organisations to improve the human rights situation. For instance: What if the itinerary of the visit to Bahrain by these organizati?ns, included the allocation of time to promoting the human rights culture through workshops, in which the Bahraini civil society, parliament, relevant official bodies, as well as the media and the press could participate?

In sum, it is necessary to reconsider things in favour of the establishment of a balanced relationship with international human rights organizations, especially the major ones, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), among others.

Alleged International issues of Concern

The dispute between Bahrain and international human rights organizations revolves around two main issues:

The first issue can be entitled as ‘concerns’ about human rights in Bahrain. The dispute here, relates to the size of these concerns, and perhaps whether some of them actually exist at all.

The second issue relates to the ways of expressing these concerns. The government believes that international human rights organizations overstate these concerns and use exaggerated phrases and vocabulary. Moreover, the government is of the view that these organisations use confrontational and defamatory language.

The mere existence of human rights issues causing concern among the international human rights community, is not new, nor is it restricted to a particular state. In most, if not all, countries world-wide, issues of concern do occur, and are classified as human rights violations, according to international standards.

Hence, it is necessary from the outset to acknowledge the legitimacy of such concerns in the event of occurrence of violation issues in Bahrain. Secondly, we have to acknowledge that sources of concern are a common factor between states and international human rights organizations, and will always be the subject of debate and dialogue, and may be controversy, between the two sides.

This is why it is advisable for officials in Bahrain to turn their attention to such concerns and to think about addressing them through dialogue with these international human rights entities. Such a dialogue represents the appropriate channel to enable both parties to find a common ground for mutual understanding, which would reflect positively on Bahrain and the seriousness of its efforts to improve and promote the human rights situation, and restore the mutual trust.

The following are the key international human rights issue of concern, as expressed by all human rights statements and reports (texts mostly from Amnesty International reports):

First: (The exposure of those regarded by the international community as political dissidents or human rights activists, to severe repression, which includes arrest, trial, imprisonment, and may reach the extent of the deprivation of citizenship in some cases)

Relevant official Bahraini bodies are supposed to present evidence of their commitment to due legal process. This should include the specifying of the legal articles upon which accusations are made, providing the evidence used against defendants and demonstrating the application of the criteria and elements of a fair trial for them. This also includes demonstrating the compatibility of the local laws and legislations applied in this regard with the international standards that are binding on Bahrain, whic? are included in international agreements ratified by Bahrain.

Second: (The imposition of restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly and demonstrations, in addition to the use of excessive force against protests).

Again the competent authorities should provide evidence of Bahrain’s commitment to allowing freedoms, and explain the compelling circumstances that require the adoption of exceptional measures.

Third: (The subjection of many detainees to torture and other forms of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment).

It is the duty of the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission (PDRC), the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the Ombudsman’s Office in addition to the National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR) to inform on their investigations on this matter, presenting evidence of the existence or non-existence of abuses, as well as indicating the procedures and measures taken or being taken to prevent violations.

Fourth (Not putting an end to the culture of impunity that allows many perpetrators to avoid facing justice and escape bearing the responsibility for their actions).

It is the duty of the public prosecutor and the SIU, to submit the outcome of their efforts in prosecuting the perpetrators of violations, in a manner that illustrates Bahrain’s seriousness in dealing with this matter. They need to show that legal action has been taken against those who committed violations. Thus, it could be proven that there is no ‘culture of impunity ‘in Bahrain.

Fifth: (Guaranteeing freedom of expression, ensuring that official media agencies are independent, impartial and balanced and ensuring that they accommodate all, without excluding or antagonizing any one).

The responsibility for elucidation of this matter lies with the Ministry of Information. This is achieved by demonstrating that official media are independent, impartial and balanced with regard to the participation of all the segments of the society and the varying opinions. The Ministry should indicate the steps taken in this regard, whether in terms of legislation or the rationalization of the practice.

Sixth: (Poor cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and faltering in the arrangements to conclude technical cooperation between the two sides), as well as (poor cooperation with the mechanisms of the Human Rights Council procedures - particularly those related to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders- as well as any other special procedures requiring visits to Bahrain). Added to that is (Bahrain’s adoption of the boycott policy, and putting obstacles in the path of international human rights organizations that wish to visit Bahrain to assess the human rights situation).

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs- which is also responsible for the human rights dossier at the national and international level – exerts intensive efforts towards addressing international concerns regarding cooperation with the OHCHR, and openness to international human rights organizations (e.g. Amnesty’s recent visit). What is required from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to review the efforts made, the plans laid out, and the progress made on the level of cooperation with the international human righ?s community with all its components. It also needs to justify the failure to allow the visits of the special rapporteurs, and to move ahead towards concluding the technical cooperation agreement.

Seventh: (Deficiency and tardiness in Bahrain’s fulfilment of all of Bassiouni’s Report recommendations which Bahrain has pledged to implement, as well as those recommendations it endorsed within the framework of the universal international review of its human rights dossier).

The committee responsible for monitoring the implementation of the recommendations, together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are both required to submit a comprehensive statement supported by documents and evidence concerning those recommendations that have been implemented in Bassiouni’s report as well as those in OHCHR’s Universal Periodic Review. This statement should also clearly identify the recommendations that have not been implemented, together with the reasons for this and the anticipated im?lementation period in the future.

On the methodology of Dialogue with Human Rights Organizations

To pave the way for a good, sustainable and positive relationship between Bahrain and international human rights organizations, and to eliminate the causes of tension, the following is proposed:

1 / Both the international human rights side and the official Bahraini side are required to abandon the confrontational attitude, in language and actions. Both sides must adopt a policy that accomodates the other. They should not allow the domination of the emotion charged language, use of rough phrases, the hurling of unsubstantiated accusations. The purpose is not to score points over the other to the extent of alienating each other, but rather to search for a common ground on which to cooperate.

2 / To put matters in perspective and to treat problems according to their true size, the content of human rights reports should not be underestimated, nor should the policy towards them be based on total denial . On the other hand, human rights organizations, should not believe that what they publish is one hundred percent true. Any observer of the Bahraini domestic situation, realizes that there are many gaps in the reports issued about Bahrain, which include exaggerations, and sometimes incorrect inform?tion. It is important to refrain from the belief in the infallibility of human rights organisations, but it is also essential to recognize the existence of violations and abuses. It is necessary that both the international human rights advocate and the official party agree to address those issues that are real and true, within the boundaries of the actual size of the problem.

3 / Both sides are required to appreciate each other’s efforts in improving the human rights situation, each in its own way. International human rights organizations reveal errors and abuses, which is a key element in human rights work; but these organizations also need to appreciate the government efforts to correct the situation. Both sides need to realize that they need each other’s cooperation and that the human rights situation cannot be developed without joint efforts. Certainly, both the official pa?ty and the international human rights side have contributions that could benefit each other’s work.