ODVV Interview: Bahrain is now a profligate...
The situation of human rights in Bahrain has usually been a contentious issue given the way the kingdom’s women, Shia majority, migrant workers and political prisoners have been treated. Bahrain has experienced frequent episodes of democratic backsliding in the recent years, and the government’s heavy-handed response to the 2011 uprising that was part of the broader Arab Spring movement sweeping the region demoralized the civil society.
Bahrain withdrew from the October election of the United Nations Human Rights Council following mounting criticism from several member states over its human rights record arguing that the kingdom did not deserve to run for a seat on the multinational body. In the Cato Institute’s 2019 Human Freedom Index, Bahrain is ranked the world’s 143rd country, and according to the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index 2022, it has got one of the most restricted media landscapes globally with a ranking of 167 out of 180 nations surveyed.
Ghina Rebai is a researcher at the Bahrain Forum for Human Rights based in Beirut. Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Ms. Rebai to discuss some of the pressing issues in Bahrain’s treatment of minorities, migrant workers, political prisoners, and its ongoing pattern of human rights violations.
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Q: In September, Bahrain retracted its candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council election to run for a three-year seat at the Geneva-based body under increasing pressure over its human rights violations. Do you see the withdrawal as a sign that debate around and attention to Bahrain’s rights record can yield results?
A: There could be clear effects on the reputation of Bahrain in the International community regarding the subject of human rights. However, we doubt that there would be any change in the repressive behavior of the government since it was frequently condemned for its repressive actions but [it has] never improved.
Q: Human rights group have long warned against the deteriorating conditions of the Jau Prison in Bahrain, noting that medical negligence toward the inmates, torture and ill-treatment of particularly prisoners of conscience, use of excessive force by the prison guards, overcrowding and unsanitary cells have put the wellbeing of thousands of prisoners in the all-male facility at stake. Do you believe the kingdom will eventually revise its practices in the formidable prison?
A: Persistent demands by advocacy groups to make reforms in the deteriorating conditions in Jau Central Prison never stopped. Yet, the Bahraini government still has not responded. Based on these continuous experiences, it does not seem that there is any positive government response on the horizon.
Q: In its 2021 report on the situation of human rights in Bahrain, Human Rights Watch lamented the government’s 2017 end of the moratorium on the use of death penalty, and that executions have been handed down ever since in significant numbers. Are you concerned that Bahrain could become one of the profligate practitioners of capital punishment?
A: Bahrain has already executed five prisoners of conscience who were totally innocent and should never have been arbitrarily imprisoned and sentenced in the first place, and whose arbitrary sentences were based on confessions that were extracted under torture during interrogation and disregarded by the consecutive judges who tried them in all levels of prosecution. Hence, Bahrain is already a profligate practitioner of capital punishment.
Q: The revocation of citizenship is one of the methods used by the authorities frequently to retaliate against journalists, civil society activists and ordinary citizens deemed to be a challenge to the national security. Almost 300 people who have been stripped of their citizenship in recent years remain without Bahraini nationality. Are citizenship revocations, still practiced by some governments, consistent with international law and the international obligations of UN member states?
A: Since late 1990s, the nature of the international view towards citizenship became collectively – at least in public speech – oriented towards democracy and towards the concept of having the people decide whom to be ruled by and how, as a main citizenship right and a primary standard of respected citizenship. Therefore, international law and obligations in general do not align with limiting the rights that constitute citizenship. Having clarified that, citizenship revocation is totally inconsistent with international laws and obligations [of countries] and represents the exact opposite of the collective view of United Nations member states that citizens should assign their rulers and dismiss them, not vice versa.
Q: Half of Bahrain’s population is made of migrant workers who are routinely subject to abuse and vulnerable to lack of protection for their rights. According to Bahrain’s Labor Ministry, only 30 percent of complaints filed by migrant workers in 2009, 2010, and 2011 were resolved, implying they are markedly vulnerable in the judicial system despite constituting three quarters of the workforce. Is this a situation that can be improved under international pressure?
A: In the recent Universal Periodic Review cycle on Bahrain that was held at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, a high percentage of recommendations from different countries demanded reforms in the conditions of migrant workers. Migrant workers have been suffering discrimination and abuse in Bahrain. Yet, on many occasions, the Bahraini authorities treated, and still treat specific sects of its own people even worse than migrant workers are being treated, and prioritizes foreigners over those sects. Objectively, we think the government might exploit the idea of migrant worker reforms, and other subjects such as the environment and employment of women in high-ranking positions, to cover up its vindictive response towards public demands on political reforms and the right to fair representation in decision-making, in order to create a false humanitarian reputation for itself in the international community.
Q: Formula One has been accused of ignoring human rights violations in Bahrain and continuing to run its annual Bahrain Grand Prix since 2004, with the exception of 2011 when the event was called off over the popular uprising. Does such a high-profile competition lend credibility to the government and spare it international scrutiny over its rights track record?
A: Any high-ranking international activity in Bahrain under the supervision of the Bahraini government, with disregard to its repressive measures towards its people, is considered an indication of tolerance for those government measures which will attract further international activity to Bahrain. In turn, this will invite more international negligence and tolerance towards the Bahraini authorities’ oppressive policies and nature.
Q: What are the factors describing the relative immunity Bahrain enjoys over its human rights violations on the world stage? Why are not so many governments willing to point out these infractions and demand accountability for the kingdom authorities?
A: The Bahraini government relies completely on its strong foreign alliances especially with the United States and Britain as it has no popular base to lean on. Hence, it utilizes its resources to satisfy those strong allies, and normalizing with the Zionist entity is an example, in order to gain their protection in the international community, their strong impact on other countries, and for the Khalifa dynasty to stay in power.