Towards Closer Relation with the Office of
the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The relation between Bahrain and the High Commission for Human Rights is currently going through a rough patch, which is a far cry from the substantial improvement it had witnessed courtesy of the personal efforts exerted by the Foreign Minister during the 21st session of the Human Rights Council in September 2012.

The following elements were largely credited for the improvement in relations at that time:-

  • Bahrain’s affirmation of its seriousness in honouring both Bassiouni’s and the Universal Periodic Review mechanism’s recommendations.
  • The renewal of the invitation to the International Rapporteur on torture to visit Bahrain.
  • Bahrain’s declaration that it would seriously consider the possibility of joining the Optional Protocol to the convention against torture.
  • A technical delegation from the Office of the High Commission paid a successful visit to Bahrain with the objective of establishing a programme for cooperation between the two sides.
  • The extension of an invitation to the High Commissioner to visit Bahrain, which she had tentatively welcomed.

But not long after that initial improvement, the year 2013 witnessed some degree of coldness in the relations between the two sides that included open criticism of Bahrain Human Rights record within the Human Rights Council.

The Factors that contributed to that setback were:

  • Bahrain had put on hold the scheduled visit to the country by The UN international rapporteur on torture.
  • No progress had been made by Bahrain towards joining the optional protocol to the convention against torture.
  • There were stumbling blocks that appeared in the path of the cooperation between Bahrain and the Office of the High Commission due to delays in finalising the reviewing and the subsequent approval of the proposals regarding the terms of reference for that cooperation.
  • The conception by the Human Rights Commission and several international human rights entities that a significant deterioration is taking place in some aspects of Bahrain’s human rights situation, particularly in the fields of freedom of opinion and expression, the increasing rate of detention, and the targeting of those considered by the commission as peaceful political or human rights activists. Moreover there was an overwhelming international belief, if not conviction that the culture of impunity was still rampant in Bahrain, because the issue of accountability had not been properly addressed as recommended by Bassiouni’s report.
Bahrain’s Foreign Minister meets
the High Commissioner, Navi Pillay

Therefore the relation between Bahrain and the High Commission is at present going through a critical stage that could lead to grave consequences, especially in the presence of a powerful way of thinking within the commission and influential international circles pushing for the exertion of more pressure on the Bahraini government. This trend feeds on the belief that Bahrain is not serious with regard to meeting its commitments and obligations. There is some inclination towards convening a special session to deal exclusively with the Bahraini issue during the upcoming 25th session of the Human Rights Council scheduled to take place next March. The main purpose of this special session would be to consider taking specific measures against Bahrain, one of which could be the appointment of a special international rapporteur on human rights. Such a measure will have serious negative implications on Bahrain, as it would entail direct international supervision that includes regular visits and reporting by the international rapporteur, leading to the widening of the sphere and intensity of the international pressure to include the majority of the countries in addition to the UN Organization, Agencies and institutions.

To avoid reaching such a situation, Bahrain has to take urgent and serious steps towards addressing all aspects of its human rights file that constitute sources of concern to the High Commission and the rest of the international human rights community, in such a way that could allay the fears and restore the confidence of the international community in its serious adherence to its commitments and obligations.

A positive Development

A positive shift has taken place in January 2014 in two interlinked tracks:

The first track is political, and it concerns the issuance of a royal decree assigning the Crown Prince to invigorate the political dialogue with the opposition to reach the desired conclusions.

The second, relates to the human rights file, and has been taken by the Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa who pledged to inject it with new impetus.

The political and human right files are so intertwined and inextricably linked that it is important to address them simultaneously, as the world views an advancement in any of them as is if it is a catalyst to solving the other, without necessarily replacing it.

Within this context Bahrain’s Foreign Minister met with the High Commissioner, Navi Pillay, in a bid to clear the air and sort out the outstanding issues relating to Bahrain’s human rights file. The issue of the technical cooperation was soon ironed out, paving the way for an OHCHR team to visit Bahrain on 19th February 2014.

On the other hand, the Foreign Minister renewed his invitation to the High Commissioner to visit Bahrain. On her part, the latter praised the national dialogue initiated by the Crown Prince. The foreign minister pledged to adopt a new approach in addressing the human rights issues in Bahrain, and to improve relations and cooperation with the International Human Rights Organisations on the solid basis of transparency and credibility. True to his word, the Minister met at later dates with some of these organisations and invited them to visit Bahrain with a view to benefit from their expertise.

The main sources of international concern

Following is a summary of these issues of concern as presented in reports published by the international human rights organisations:

  1. The arrest and harassment of those defined by the international community as prisoners of conscience or human rights activist and the continuous flow of allegations pertaining the subjection of detainees to torture.
  2. The lack of cooperation with the UN human rights mechanisms, as illustrated by the cancellation of the scheduled visit to Bahrain by the UN special rapporteur on torture, as well as the poor interaction with the International human Rights Organisations to the extent of placing obstacles and restrictions to curtail their access to Bahrain.
  3. The continuous restrictions imposed on the freedom of peaceful gathering and the right to free expression of opinion.
  4. The banning of political societies from contacting foreign diplomats.
  5. Not putting an end to the culture of impunity that, according to the International human rights organisations, allows the perpetrators of human rights violation to evade facing justice, and not bear the responsibility for their actions.
  6. The absence of the principles of equal opportunities and equality, and the lack of social and economic justice among the different segments of the Bahraini community.
  7. The slow pace of the process of implementing the recommendations of both Basiouni’s report and the Universal Periodic Review.

Cooperation with the High Commission is the key to the solution

Bahrain’s way out of its human rights crisis should not be by locking horns with the international human rights community or by taking its criticism lightly, but rather by seriously working to regain the confidence of this community by cooperating with it and seeking to benefit from its capabilities and available resources. Cooperating with the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights represents the gateway to resolving Bahrain’s unsettled relations with the outside world.

A closer cooperation would benefit Bahrain in the area of capacity building. This could be achieved by reaching an agreement on specific terms of reference under which a comprehensive programme could be drawn in coordination with all the relevant human rights entities in Bahrain, which are undoubtedly in a dire need to such an exercise, bearing in mind that the majority of the human rights violations that are committed are due to the low standard of training available to individuals and establishments entrusted with upholding the law and protecting human rights.

Bahrain could, for example, make good use of the UN programme designed to provide consultative services in the field of human rights. This programme was basically established to meet the needs of those states aiming at building and consolidating their institutions or infra structures in the field of human rights, in order to elevate them to the internationally recognised standards.The assistance offered by the programme includes training and capacity building within all the ministries and institutions involved in the field of human rights.

Needless to say that Bahrain will, by soliciting the necessary international support needed to bolster human rights reforms in the country, and by involving the relevant international parties in such an endeavour, send a reassuring message to the international community indicative of its seriousness towards addressing its human rights crisis.