Shafaei: We are Worthy of Reforming the Human Rights Situation

Technical Cooperation with the OHCHR a Necessity

Bahrain’s Al-Ayam newspaper conducted an interview with the President of Bahrain Human Rights Monitor (BHRM), Hasan Moosa Shafaei, on the latest developments of the human rights situation in Bahrain, particularly with regard to the technical cooperation with the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR):

Let us begin, brother Hasan, with the issue of the technical cooperation between Bahrain and the OHCHR. What does this technical cooperation agreement actually mean? What benefit or additional value does it provide for Bahrain?

The technical cooperation is a long-established United Nations programme dating back to 1955. It is provided by the UN for countries seeking assistance in the process of establishing national infrastructures and strengthening the structures that have a direct impact on the public observance of human rights and preservation of the rule of law.

But this programme is fairly new to the Arab region, which is lagging way behind, politically and in terms of human rights. In recent years, several Arab countries have requested this type of support from the United Nations, through the OHCHR. These include Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iraq among others.

In serving Arab countries and others, the technical cooperation programme generally contributed to the incorporation of the international standards of human rights in national laws and policies, as well as to the building or reinforcing of national institutions capable of promoting and protecting human rights and democracy. The programme has also contributed to drawing up national action plans to promote and protect human rights. It further provided education, expert advisory services, training courses, workshops, seminars, information and documents, as well as evaluation of the local needs of each individual state.

Therefore, Bahrain is not the only one in this regard, and it actually needs such services, expertise and programmes. Success in this area will render a great service to the political reform and social stability projects. However, it should be emphasized here that cooperation with OHCHR in these projects is by no means a substitute to the role the state plays and the projects, current or future, it undertakes. It does not preclude the state’s primary responsibility in the development and protection of human rights.

All this is very general. What will the OHCHR actually do here in Bahrain, and what does it seek to achieve?

The final step which the OHCHR wants to accomplish through the technical cooperation programme with the government is to develop a comprehensive national plan for the advancement of human rights in Bahrain. Such a national plan will engage the participation of the OHCHR with Bahraini government agencies and the Bahraini civil society. The plan under consideration shall touch upon all the key axes of the human rights issue and Bahrain’s basic needs, whether in capacity building, training, education or assistance in the fulfilment of international human rights and other obligations.

The OHCHR held consultative and educational workshops that was attended by all relevant parties and where discussions and deliberations touched on various topics such as the role of the National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) , the role of the media and the role of civil society organizations in promotion and protection of human rights.

But why couldn’t Bahrain play this role by itself? Does every country need foreign assistance? Why couldn’t the states themselves develop their own comprehensive national action plans for human rights involving all spectra?

I do not think that there has ever been a state that did not need OHCHR assistance in a matter pertaining to human rights affairs. Some countries need little assistance, while others need more, depending on the availability of competent and experienced local capabilities or even the availability of material resources. There are countries which cannot provide both. As for Bahrain, it requires OHCHR assistance not financially, but in respect of experience and advice. This should not be regarded as a defect, since it is a common practice worldwide, let alone in the Arab and the Gulf (GCC) countries. Bahrain has done the right thing by requesting technical assistance from the OHCHR.

Moreover, there is another advantage. The OHCHR assistance lends international credibility as well as recognition and appreciation to the state in question, and will boost the latter’s confidence that it is heading in the right direction, and demonstrating a sincere desire and strong political will to promote the human rights conditions, according to international standards.

It is no secret to you, as you follow the local press, that several parties are sceptical and critical of the role played by international human rights organizations in general. Such parties are also critical of this new role undertaken by the OHCHR. Perhaps you are aware of the statement that was issued to denounce and boycott the programmes initiated by the OHCHR in Bahrain. Are the fears and doubts of such parties really justified?

Let me analyse the positions of the parties directly concerned with OHCHR programmes:

Firstly, as far as the Bahraini government is concerned, it has found that the programme of technical cooperation with the OHCHR involves the participation of unregistered or unlicensed Bahraini human rights organizations. Therefore the Bahraini government rejected the participation of those institutions that were not legally registered. This, in addition to other reasons pertaining to the approach and methodology previously adopted by Bahrain in relation to the OHCHR, has resulted in a two-year postponement of the cooperation project. The OHCHR’s argument was that it cannot exclude anyone, nor can it deem it justifiable to deal with Bahraini human rights associations abroad while refraining from doing so inside Bahrain. The Government’s argument, on the other hand, was that illegal or unregistered bodies could not be allowed to operate under the umbrella of the cooperation project with the OHCHR.

Eventually, however, the Government found that public interest necessitates its acceptance of the participation of all parties of the civil society, which would also serve as an illustration, to the international community, of its flexibility and of its keenness to promote human rights conditions, and that it is not the party that is hampering such development.

Secondly, those parties of the community which refused to participate, when the time came, have backstabbed the OHCHR which had previously defended their right to participation. Moreover, those parties have even demanded the exclusion of others from participation. Their argument for non-participation, at least in the first event pertaining to the role of the Bahraini NIHR, was to claim that the NIHR lacked credibility. I believe that this sort of conduct has come as a surprise to the OHCHR and revealed, to some extent, how the political agenda of these groups take precedence to the human rights agenda.

Thirdly, some of the other parties have initially doubted the feasibility of technical cooperation with the OHCHR, on the grounds that it represents a foreign intervention in domestic affairs. Such an argument is so weak, because the United Nations does not interfere in the internal affairs of states, but rather adopts an approach of cooperation and dialogue with states regarding the implementation of the development plans required by the governments themselves.

You are closely associated with the official efforts to promote human rights conditions in Bahrain through the consultations you provide; and you have direct contact with the OHCHR, and have participated in the detailed discussions concerning the issue of technical cooperation. In your view, do you think that the international community will look favourably upon these government efforts?

I was present at the meeting of the Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, with the High Commissioner, Navi Pillay, in Geneva last January, where the framework and content of the technical cooperation between the two sides were discussed. I can honestly say that the High Commissioner extended ​​thanks to His Excellency for meeting her and for the role he has played in relation to the agreement of technical cooperation. The High Commissioner praised his Excellency’s credibility that helped to restore and promote the confidence between the two sides, which was almost non-existent, and without which the technical cooperation agreement would not have come into existence, nor, as she said, would it have been approved by the Commissioner herself.

The step taken by Bahrain will undoubtedly receive positive endorsement, particularly since international human rights organizations as well as states used to encourage and demand this approach. Moreover, there are many countries which have publicly welcomed this cooperation, such as the UK, France, Germany and a number of Arab countries, because this cooperation agreement confirms once again the seriousness of the Bahraini government in addressing the root causes of international concern.

This does not mean that criticism will stop. It is likely to abate and decrease further as outstanding issues are resolved. On the other hand, we should not be afraid of criticism if it is true and based on accurate information. We should not shy away from admitting and rectifying mistakes. Our country is not a home of angels, nor is there any such country in the world that is immune from criticism and human rights problems. What is important, however, is that we should have the will to carry out reform, rectification and development. We should have confidence in ourselves and in our ability to solve the problems that confront us in accordance with the law and the conventions to which we have committed ourselves.

In case the criticism is invalid, we ought to address it by responding to it, using evidence, information and an open, objective, professional interaction with the outside world.

We should not be preoccupied with what the world says about us, as much as we should preoccupy ourselves with answering a perpetual question: How can we continue to develop and reform our conditions in all aspects?

There seems to be some out there who are not satisfied with the great efforts and official achievements, particularly with regard to the implementation of the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) which have been recently documented in a report released last February. Why?

What has been accomplished is known to everybody, in the sense that no one denies it, except perhaps for some of us who are politicized. However, the international human rights community awaits the provision of documented information on topics such as the outcome of the political dialogue; accountability; compensations and the role of human rights institutions created by the government as well as transparent reports on their accomplishments. The international human rights community also awaits information on the development and amendment of some legislation pertaining to NIHR, the media and civil society to conform with international standards; as well as information on the extent of the government‘s openness to international human rights organizations in terms of establishing closer relationship with them and allowing them to visit Bahrain.

Any development in these aspects cannot be denied by anyone. As to the politicized human rights activity, its aim is politics and political, rather than, human rights gains. Such activity loses its credibility with time. Unfortunately, there are some entities which tend to give credence to claims depicting everything in Bahrain as negative and bad. Such entities base their stance on certain human rights’ issues that are yet to be resolved, or have not been resolved completely.