13 years after unprecedented unrest, do Bahrainis have a voice?

On Friday 9 February, Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (DHR) hosted a webinar commemorating the thirteenth anniversary of the commencement of the mass popular protests that began in Bahrain on 14 February 2011, as part of the broader Arab Spring movement that took place across the MENA region. The event featured a diverse panel of experts who addressed the current human rights situation in Bahrain, the progress that has been made since 2011, and the role played by the UK throughout this period, given the close, longstanding relationship the UK has with Bahrain.

The event was chaired by Alex Buckham, Head of UK advocacy at Salam-DHR, who began by showing solidarity with the people of Palestine, before moving on to provide a brief overview of the demonstrations in Bahrain, centering around major deficits of democratic processes in the country, as well as long-standing oppressive, systematic, authoritarian practices perpetrated by the Bahraini authorities that severely constricted civic spaces, as well as the Bahraini authorities violent, repressive response.

To help provide some important context, by giving his perspective on the events of 2011, as well as how things have changed on the ground in Bahrain over the course of the last 13 years, was Sayed Yusuf Almuhafdha. Almuhafdha is a prominent Bahraini human rights activist, researcher and blogger, currently living in exile in Germany as a result of his peaceful human rights work.

Almuhafdha began by explaining that the 2011 protests, which he participated in, were peaceful in nature and called for democracy, the release of political prisoners and an end of the systematic discrimination of Bahrain’s majority Shia population. He also provided details on the government’s violent response to these demonstrations and explained that, historically, anyone who opposes or criticises the government will find themselves in jail, or forced into exile, or silence, actions which are in violation to Bahrain’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which it is a signatory. He also provided information on repressive new tactics that have been employed by the Bahraini authorities, which include arresting demonstration leaders 24 to 48 hours after an ‘unauthorised’ protest. Almuhafdha then drew attention to Bahrain’s ‘political isolation laws’, which target members of banned organisations and former prisoners of conscience, banning them from being a board member of any organisation and running for election. Towards the end of his remarks, Almuhafdha contrasted the limitations the Bahraini authorities have placed on the free speech of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators, with the tolerance of hate speech and the promotion of violence against Bahrain’s majority Shia population. He also provided details on the worrying use of the death penalty, including the fact that 26 men are currently on death row, having exhausted all available avenues of appeal, following grossly unfair trials that relied on confessions extracted under torture.

Next to speak was Falah Sayed, Human Rights Officer at MENA Rights Group, who addressed the effectiveness of such institutions as the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), implemented by the Bahraini authorities in response to the 2011 protests, in order to address the fundamental grievances fuelling the demonstrations.

Sayed explained that the BICI, led by 5 independent human rights experts, was established in 2011 to investigate the abuses carried out by the Bahraini authorities during the protests: in their report, they found that, for example, at least 19 individuals were killed by the authorties, excessive use of force was used to quell the demonstrations, there were cases of torture, thousands were arrested, protest leaders and opposition figures remain in prison following grossly unfair trials, and made 26 key recommendations to the Bahraini authorities, including prompt investigation of all allegations against the Bahraini authorities and allowing the political opposition access to the state-controlled media. In 2016, the Bahraini government announced it had officially implemented all 26 BICI recommendations: the actual number, according to civil society and BICI members themselves, was much smaller. According to civil society groups, one of the two recommendations implemented pertained to the establishment of independent oversight bodies: however, neither Bahrain’s Ombudsman, nor the National Institute for Human Rights are independent or impartial. Even the staff within these bodies are often former government employees and the bodies themselves are actually subordinate to the Special Investigations Unit, which has a history of enacting reprisals against victims who file complaints of torture. Moreover, Sayed explained that these institutions are actively involved in covering up the authorities’ abuses; the visits organised to the three biggest prisons in Bahrain were insufficiently documented, they lacked transparency and clearly failed to identify issues that have been raised by civil society and international actors.

James Lynch, Founding Co-Director of FairSquare, then provided further information on the heavy investments that Bahraini authorities and their GCC counterparts have made in global entertainment, the art world, sports and other spheres, the end result of which is global attention being increasingly distracted away from human rights violations occuring across the GCC.

Lynch explained that Bahrain was the first Gulf country to see the potential of investing in sports: FormulaOne, for example, was initially held in Bahrain in 2004. Because Bahrain doesn’t have the oil and gas wealth of its GCC neighbours, it had to diversify at an earlier stage. FormulaOne, Lynch stated, is an excellent way for a state to promote itself and become a business and tourist destination. As the repression in Bahrain has deepened over the previous 20 years, Lynch explained that sports have enabled Bahrain to reduce the political cost of repression, and whilst there has been investment in other sports, FormulaOne has been the centrepiece of Bahrain’s efforts. Furthermore, Lynch detailed that, given the close nature of the UK-Bahrain relationship, FormulaOne, which has a rich history in the UK, serves to prevent this relationship from becoming overly contested and controversial within the UK itself: many people in the UK will know Bahrain through the Grand Prix, and not its poor human rights record. However, Lynch also explained that, despite these opportunities, we always see these big events providing a space for campaigners and advocates to highlight abuses, which we have seen repeatedly with Formula One: even Lewis Hamilton spoke out against human rights abuses in Bahrain. Similarly, Bahrain’s royal family is very involved in the royal Windsor horse show: it was very common for the king to be pictured with queen elizabeth, indicating the high-level personalised connection between these parties.

Katie Fallon, Advocacy Manager at Campaign Against the Arms Trade, then addressed the critical issue of the support Bahrain receives from its international allies, most notably the UK, who have  long-standing relationships with all six Gulf monarchies, including Bahrain, with arms sales and various military and security ties (including training programs) – and, for many years, oil imports – at their heart.

Fallon detailed that, before and after the violent crackdown of the peaceful demonstrations in 2011, the UK has continued to export arms to Bahrain. Bahrain is often listed as a core market for UK arms sales, despite Bahrain’s human rights record. In the last decade, the UK has issued arms licences worth more than £181 million to Bahrain, in addition to 80 ‘open licences’ for unlimited items, meaning the figure of £181 million number could be only half of the actual amount, because the open licences system is constructed to avoid transparency (what is exported, where it ends up, quantity). Fallon explained that UK arms exports were temporarily withdrawn in 2011, following public outcry, but business as usual resumed soon after. The UK has renewed its military involvement in the Persian Gulf over the last decade: for instance, there has always been a strong Bahraini presence at UK arms fairs, which allows for strong person-to-person contact – Fallon stated that it is not just about the arms exports themselves, but also the political capital events such as these can purchase. The relationship and the business interests of arms companies, and their impact on lobbying the government, has led the UK government to lend uncritical support to the Bahraini regime, Fallon detailed, despite ongoing brutal crackdowns: up to 2021, Bahrain as listed as a ‘human rights priority country list’; however, recently, in a addition to a massive £1 billion investment, it was removed. Critically, Fallon explained, the entire time Bahrain was on the UK’s human rights priority country list, the UK had also been exporting arms to it, a clear indication as to the nature of the longstanding and close ties that exist between the two countries.

Devin Kenney, GCC researcher at Amnesty International, building on the remarks of the other panellists, then discussed how the nature of persecution of people seeking their civil and political rights in Bahrain has changed since 2011.

Kenney explained that, between 2011 and today, there has been one significant change in the patterns of persecution in Bahrain, namely a decline in the number of allegations of torture, a development Kenney correlated with the decision of the Bahraini authorities, between 2018-2020, to move away from torture as a regular tool of repression, a policy publicly announced by Bahrain’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister in a February 2021 interview. However, Kenney was quick to state that this does not mean the practice has ceased, nor that it  will not be brought back. Other than that, Kenney explained, the nature of persecution in Bahrain hasn’t changed and the government routinely uses arbitrary detention, prosecution for opposition speech or protest and imprisonment as its principle tools of repression. Kenney also provided critical insight into the main legacy of repression since 2011 that is still visible is the continued imprisonment of the leaders of the peaceful demonstrations, including Sheikh Ali Salman. Regarding the status of Bahrain’s current state of freedom of expression, Kenney referenced protests which have occurred in the capital, Manana (a former red line for the government) centring around Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza. Devin noted that Bahrain still hasn’t revoked the law that outright bans all unapproved peaceful assembly in the capital that was passed as decree of Act number 22 of 2013, which is still in place.

Martyn Day, Scottish National Party MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, was the final speaker at the event, who provided his perspective on the UK’s relationship with Bahrain, given his experience working in the UK Parliament. He also addressed the questions of what the UK should be doing to apply more pressure to its Bahraini counterparts, and how concerned citizens can meaningfully engage with the cause of promoting human rights in Bahrain.

Day explained that he has repeatedly asked questions in the UK parliament on Bahrain and admitted that, thus far, he has not been satisfied with the government’s answers. Day’s assessment of the UK’s role in ongoing human rights abuses in Bahrain as one of complicity. Day referenced the opaque fund, the FCDO’s Gulf Strategy Fund (formerly the ‘Integrated Activity Fund’), which has provided millions of pounds worth of support to Bahrain with little to no information being provided as to what this money has been spent on: he explained that the IAF/GSF has funded Bahrain’s Ombudsman, which even the UN Committee Against Torture has described as neither effective, nor independent. He stated the importance of bringing significant pressure to bear on the UK authorities and their support for Bahrain, in order to increase transparency: UK citizens, Day stated, should know how their money is being spent. He also called for a proper human rights appraisal on the projects that the UK is supporting. Day then stressed for the importance of pushing UK state representatives to get the United Nations Human Rights Council to pass a resolution about human rights violations in Bahrain, as well as looking for a UN led commission to investigate the allegations of torture and to investigate Bahrain’s prison population more closely. Day discussed various parliamentary mechanisms that should be utilised to draw attention to, and push for change with regards to, the issues raised in the event.

In summary, Salam DHR’s event, featuring a range of distinguished speakers from across the human rights and political sectors, provided a comprehensive, holistic analysis of Bahrain’s mass popular demonstrations in 2011, as well as how things have changed since then. Speakers addressed the brutal nature of the repression that immediately followed the demonstrations and the critical support the Bahraini authorities have received from regional and international allies. They also provided critical insight into the lack of any tangible progression towards democratisation in the country – as evidenced by creation of oversight bodies that are not independent nor transparent and, in certain cases, are involved in whitewashing and covering up the Bahraini authorities’ abuses.

you can watch the event over on our YouTube channel