Bahrain in the Human Rights Watch Annual Report 2010

Systematic Errors and Erroneous Conclusions

On Sunday 24 January 2010, Human Rights Watch (HRW) launched its report for 2010 from Dubai, and held a press conference during which HRW highlighted the human rights situation in the region. With regard to Bahrain, the report pointed to a decline in the human rights situation in a number of areas, including: subjecting freedom of expression, assembly, and association to arbitrary restrictions; use of excessive force against demonstrators protesting against discrimination; subjecting detained opposition activists to torture and ill-treatment; use the press law No. 47 of 2002 to restrict coverage of controversial issues; blocking more than 1000 internet sites, political forums, blogs, newspapers and human rights organizations such as the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information; harassment of a student at the University of Bahrain for distributing publications critical of the policy of the University; threat by the Ministry of Interior against political activists for participating in a meeting in Washington in November 2008 without permission, as required by law; denying legal status to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and other associations; violating due process including 11 televised confessions that appeared to have been coerced; adopting anti-terrorism law in 2006 that contains broad definitions of terrorism and terrorist acts, and the prosecution of opposition figures under this law in February 2009 but were released by royal pardon later.

These issues have occurred and some of them were properly addressed. In this article we will expose some systematic errors that occurred in the report:

Firstly; the report did not put human rights in Bahrain in a socio-political context. This sort of analysis would have helped to know whether the overall assessment of the human rights situation in Bahrain is true. This lack of socio-political analysis has made the human rights link either missing or incoherent in many cases, as well as making the report appears to be built on weak foundations, in addition to providing isolated cases without an overarching framework.

Secondly; the report was based on a number of individual cases, which do not represent a trend, and most cases have nothing to do with the Government. For example, the question of the adoption of a new press law is not the responsibility of government alone, as it is the responsibility of the legislature. Also the Government has nothing to do with the case of the student dismissed from the university for distributing publications against the University regulations. Eventually, the university backed down due to pressure from the media and human rights organizations. Another example where the Government was not involved is the case of the prosecution of three or four journalists sued by individuals on the basis of defamation. However, no one had been sentenced to imprisonment. It is noted here that the report repeats cases from previous years, such as the ratification of the Anti-Terrorism Act in 2006, a law passed by Parliament. This law is not satisfactory to the human rights activists because it is incompatible with international standards. There is also the old issue of denying legal status to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, which is officially dissolved in 2004, as well as the Bahrain Youth Society, which is another face of the Centre.

Thirdly; the HRW report is not neutral significantly this year. It did not recognize any development in Bahrain according to the Deputy Executive Director of the Middle East, Joe Stork. On 9/1/2010, Mr. Stork stated in Dubai that: (the leadership of Bahrain spent the last ten years reiterating its commitment to political reform and human rights but, excluding issues related to migrant workers, the human rights record deteriorated in 2009). The report did not carry out any research in order to reach this conclusion on issues related to women’s rights, freedom of expression and joining associations. Despite this, Mr. Stork requires the government to allow people to express themselves and to freely join organizations. The report also criticized denying legal status to the Bahrain Centre and the Bahrain Youth Society, which is another version of the Centre. By contrast, the report did not mention the tens of associations allowed to operate during the last year. The report also ignored highlighting the progress in freedom of expression and the role played by the local press in criticizing officials and ministers on some hottest issues. The report also did not mention the hundreds of demonstrations and marches held in the last year, nor to the hundreds of seminars and workshops, and dozens of forums and seminars held by international organizations in Bahrain each year. On the other hand, the report did not refer to international conventions ratified by Bahrain, or to measures taken by the government in response to international recommendations within the framework of UPR, nor to the government’s relationship with local human rights organizations. The report did not revealed the extent of development in prison conditions and, furthermore, ignored visits undertaken by the Bahraini Society for Human Rights to prisons, as well as ignoring reports by the Society on the prison conditions.

Such inadequate findings that appeared in the report are not convincing to anyone.

Fourthly; it is clear that the report lacked information on the human rights situation in Bahrain. The report comes with less substance, and clearly dependent on a single source of information, which is the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. The Centre’s name was repeated three times, while no mention to other human rights societies, trade unions, women’s societies or press institutions. At the best, reference was made to ‘some human rights organizations’ without naming them. Furthermore, the report attached the description of ‘independent’ to the Bahrain Centre, a hint from HRW that the rest of human rights organizations in Bahrain do not enjoy the required independence.

Fifthly; the report correctly pointed to human rights violations, which had been condemned locally and internationally in a timely manner, such as: TV broadcast of confessions of detainees before trial, and blocking many websites. We believe that the Government lacks transparency with regard to allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and we have demanded the formation of independent commissions to investigate the matter. However, all this does not paint a bleak picture like the one portrayed by the Human Rights Watch report. Some of the information is controversial, for example, the report says that there are 1000 internet sites were blocked. But the important question to ask in this regard is whether any of these sites has to do with freedom of expression. Most of these sites were pornographic, and others had gone beyond the limit in inciting sectarian violence, according to the government. This closure may not be sufficiently justified, electronic newspapers and forums should be given a wider margin of freedom and should not be closed by an administrative decision but by a court ruling. Things must be put in their normal size with respect to the reaction of the Minister of Interior in 2008 over the participation of political activists in meetings in Washington without prior notification. Although the issue is old, but in practice the political and human rights activists and opponents are overstepping the law and do what they want to do. This means that the law is outdated and needed to be reviewed, especially as it is inconsistent with human rights standards.

In general, there are many issues against the report, including that the report did not highlight the obstacles facing the reform process and institutions reform. Additionally, the report did not make recommendations to assist Bahrain to continue in the reform path. This is evident in the issue of foreign workers and lack of knowledge of the authors of the report of legal developments that have occurred, and the obstacles on the ground facing the implementation of new policies, especially on the question of the sponsor. The report is also flawed in not referring to economic, social and cultural rights. Bahrain has recorded major developments in this area, particularly with regard to the provision of work for the graduates; the provision of adequate housing for families or the provision of housing allowances; the development of educational curricula; as well as other areas related to easing the burden of living for every citizen.

On the other hand, the HRW report was not objective or professional when the offender or violator of human rights is not governmental personnel. For example, the report said, “In March and April the clashes resulted in the killing of a Pakistani worker (his car hit by a Molotov cocktail) and a member of the Pakistani security forces.” But the report did not mention those who caused the deaths, nor alluded to those responsible for violence, which is instigated by people who claim to be human rights activists.

Human Rights Watch was not accurate when referring to the proposal of the Minister of Labour ‘to review the sponsorship system in Bahrain’. In fact, the ‘sponsorship system’ has been cancelled in Bahrain sometime ago. And in line with the same inaccurate method, the report pointed to “the death of domestic workers” in 2009 without specifying the number, the date and how the authorities dealt with the issue. And in a complete absence of information, HRW said in the report regarding the establishment of the National Foundation for Human Rights, that: “Bahrain established a National Institution for Human Rights, a government body charged with reviewing and developing legislation to comply with international human rights instruments.” In fact, the mandate of the national institution is not only limited to what appeared in the report, but includes: the development of an integrated strategy to promote and protect human rights; addressing human rights issues; policy development related to human rights; dealing with regional and international organizations and NGOs; preparation of reports; recommendations to the Government on human rights issues, including the adoption or amendment of national legislation and reporting on human rights violations; cooperation with partners at home as well as regional and international partners and human rights bodies of the United Nations, through contributions to the drafting of national reports to the Human Rights Council and the respective committees.

The Bahrain Human Rights Monitor welcomes any reports dealing with the human rights violations in Bahrain, and hopes that there will be cooperation between international organizations and local organizations as well as with the Bahraini government in order to improve the human rights situation in Bahrain. Such efforts are appreciated. Just as there are advantages in the reports, which can be built on, they also contain in many cases an amount of errors and flaws that Human Rights Watch and other organizations should pay attention to in order to address them in the future.