Geneva to London: How Bahrain dodges human rights accountability

From Geneva to London: How Bahrain dodges human rights accountability
8 min read
28 Sep, 2017
Comment: Bahrain has established a pseudo-civil society to help it gain credibility on the international stage and avoid accountability for its human rights abuses, writes Marc Owen Jones.
Bahraini protester mourns the death of fellow protesters at Pearl Roundabout 2011 [Getty]
Three Bahraini men, Ali al-Singace (21), Abbas al-Samea (27) and Sami Mushaima (42) were executed in Bahrain on 15 January 2017, for their alleged role in a bombing in Manama 2014 that killed three police officers

The clothes they were executed in, bloodied and full of holes, were sent to the families afterwards. As videos of the bodies circulated, each being ritually prepared for their burial, a striking image of the patterns made by the bullets on each of their chests was created by an unknown artist and circulated on social media. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killing, Dr Agnes Callamard, even stated that these were extrajudicial killings.

This execution occurred only a month Bahrain's February deadline for filing its report to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights' Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR, which functions as an audit of UN member states' human rights records, is also a forum for the discussion of human rights "best practices".

This corporate nomenclature mirrors the somewhat clinical nature of the process, where member states and other "stakeholders" are invited to issue recommendations on how to improve the human rights situation in their country.

Bahrain was given until September 2017 to respond to the recommendations given in May 2017. Given the events of January 2017, it is unsurprising that the recommendations were characterised by an emphasis on abolition of the death penalty. At least sixteen countries recommended either the abolition or moratorium on the practice. The concern over the death penalty in Bahrain is a perennial one, yet 2017 has been one of the most deadly in Bahrain's history in terms of executions.

2017 has been one of the most deadly on record in Bahrain

Prior to January, the last execution in Bahrain occurred in 2010, but the last time as many people were executed in one instance was March 1977, when three men were sentenced to death for the alleged political murder of Abdullah al-Madani.

Even during the 1990s intifada in Bahrain, when the Bahraini security forces were once again accused of repeated instances of extrajudicial killing and torture, only one man, Isa Qambar, was officially executed.

GONGOs whitewashing

For countries such as Bahrain, with a long record of human rights abuses, one might expect the UPR report to be an ordeal, yet authoritarian states and their allies are often innovative when it comes to circumventing mechanisms promoting accountability.

For such a small country, Bahrain has an unusually large number of human rights NGOs to commend itself, many of which are engaged in whitewashing human rights abuses.

Young protester holds up a sign decrying international silence [Getty]

Young Bahraini protester holds up a sign
decrying international silence 2011 [Getty]

During the UPR, these groups submit reports to be factored into consideration. However, many of these are government-organised non-governmental organisations (GONGOS).

These organisations provide a thin veneer of credibility to civil society in an attempt to legitimise the human rights record of their human rights abusing governments. In Bahrain, these organisations include the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, and the Manama Centre for Human Rights. 

The reports submitted by these GONGOS at the UPR are characterised by their absence of substantial criticism of the regime. Instead, they focus on broadly apolitical recommendations, such as agreeing to amend the Criminal Code so that pregnant women cannot be executed, for example.

Among the reports, a national report is also submitted. In many countries, this is done with careful and proper consultation with numerous legitimate civil society organisations. But in Bahrain, where NGOs critical of the government often exist in exile, the body responsible is the National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR).

These organisations provide a thin veneer of credibility to civil society

This institution, which was set up in 2009, has been criticised by groups such as the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights a number of reasons, but most notably because all 11 members are appointed by the King, and thus lack independence.

While omission or obfuscation of human rights abuses by these GONGOS is a virulent form of censorship in itself, sometimes these organisations are blatant in their support for actions that clearly contravene international norms of human rights.

The NIHR made headlines in the human rights community in January when they released a statement actually supporting the execution of the three Bahrainis killed in January. It also lauded the highly problematic Bahraini anti-terror law, which has been criticised for its impingement on freedom of expression and assembly.

Read more: Arms deals, speculation and repression: A very British Brexit

Unsurprisingly, while the GONGOS Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society and the Manama Rights Watch Society drew attention to certain important issues such as the personal status law affecting Shia women in Bahrain, they completely omitted any mention of the death penalty in their May 2017 submission.

Beyond the pseudo-civil society performance at the UPR, there exists the crudest forms of intimidation and exclusion.

At the convening of the Human Rights Council, representatives from governments and various legitimate NGOs descend on Geneva to both laud and criticise Bahrain's achievement. As an example, Bahrain's close allies usually just offer vague and non-committal support.

The Bahraini government has clamped down on their freedom of movement, issuing travel bans to those suspected of heading to Geneva

In 2012, Saudi Arabia noted that Bahrain should, "Continue cooperation with the United Nations human rights mechanisms in order to protect and promote human rights."

It also is an opportunity for both confrontation and intimidation. As the Bahraini government has become more mindful of human rights defenders (HRDs) engaging in this para-state diplomacy in Geneva, it has clamped down on their freedom of movement, issuing travel bans to those suspected of heading to Geneva, or arranging public prosecution hearings on dates when HRDs would be in Geneva to attend the relevant sessions.

Some have even reported intimidation from Bahraini government officials while at the UN headquarters in Geneva. Abdulnabi al-Ekry, president of the Bahrain Transparency Society, and Hussain Abdulla, executive director of ADHRB, reported that they were threatened by a Bahraini MP and the then chairman of the country's human rights committee, Khalid al-Shaer.

During the side event, al-Shaer reportedly said to Abdulla, "I know that you still have a family residing in Bahrain and you can imagine what would have already happened to them if the government was truly bad". Al-Ekry and Abdulla also reported that the delegation was taking photos of them.

Other ways of avoiding accountability

The process of avoiding accountability is a performance that spans from Geneva to Bahrain. The manner in which the Bahraini regime attempts to "play" these mechanisms tends to underscore, rather than mask human rights abuses.

Beyond this, Bahrain also relies on influential allies to fight its corner and provide political cover in the international arena.

The UK's special friendship, along with the recent election of Donald Trump, has special resonance in Bahrain, and arguably allows for the continuation of human rights abuses. For the UK, Bahrain remains an important trade partner, for arms and other exports.

This will be especially true post-Brexit, where the UK will want to secure even more lucrative sales with authoritarian regimes to make up for potential trade deficits after leaving the EU.

Added to that, the reform of authoritarian regimes is big business. Recently, the UK's college of policing was recently discovered to have made about half a million pounds from training the Bahrain police. The Home Office response to this was that such police training assists and improves human rights compliance and judicial reform.

Yet despite these claims, Amnesty International's most recent report on Bahrain, published on 7 September 2017, is a litany of human rights abuses.

It details how Bahrain's crackdown on any form of dissent has actually increased since 2016. In reality, 2017 has been one of the most deadly on record in Bahrain.

Since January 2017, a dozen civilians have been killed in interactions with the authorities. This includes those executed in January, but also a number of others killed in suspicious circumstances. While these deaths occasionally make headlines in the worldwide media, they are also underpinned by constant reports of unfair trials, harassment, surveillance, torture, forced disappearances and a general clampdown on freedom of expression.

If anything, the assistance of British bodies that lack the collective accountability of the UPR mechanisms provided a cover for a lack reform, or apathetic reform at best. In the national report submitted to the May 2017 UPR, UK assistance and approval was cited several times as a caveat when justifying non-commitment to the ratification the optional protocol to the prevention of torture.

A shadow of civil society within the state

As Ala'a Shehabi and Luke Bhatia note, "the government is engaging with human rights, manufacturing a shadow of civil society within the state, and even hailing its own human rights record. This liberalising facade is a smokescreen and thwarts the efforts of genuine human rights organisations working locally and internationally."

Bahrain has adapted to the international mechanisms designed to hold it accountable

It is a smokescreen abetted by Bahrain's allies and one that plays out under the very noses of world officials at the UN headquarters in Geneva, and abetted by a cadre of PR experts, often based in western countries.

Authoritarianism is an industry with far-reaching tentacles, and Bahrain has adapted to the international mechanisms designed to hold it accountable.

For the latest recommendations, Bahrain will likely do little to address issues such as the death penalty. Any recommendations it does adopt should also be taken with a pinch of salt. As a monitoring report from human rights societies indicates, many of those adopted have not been implemented. 

Marc Owen Jones is a lecturer in Gulf History at the University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, and Director of Bahrain Watch.

Follow him on Twitter: @marcowenjones

This is an edited translation of an article originally published by our partners at Orient XXI

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.