Universal Periodic Review of Bahrain: A Chance for Genuine Reform?!

Universal Periodic Review of Bahrain: A Chance for Genuine Reform?!

Philip Belau – Human Rights Consultant in Salam for Democracy and Human Rights
Presented in a side event in Human Rights Council


Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends,

It gives me great pleasure to extend to you all a very warm welcome on behalf of Salam for democracy and Human Rights and to say how grateful I am that so many of you have decided to attend this side-event today.I think that I am speaking for all my fellow penalists when I say that this side-event provides an excellent opportunity for ngos as well as for member states to reflect not only on thecurrent human rights situation in Bahrain but also on the promises the government of Bahrain made in response to its second Universal Periodic Review.

As all of you are well aware, Bahrain will undergo its third Universal Periodic Review, which will convene in Geneva in May 2017.Since its second review in Mai 2012, Bahrain’s government committed to introduce the reforms recommended by the Human Rights Council as well as by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. The government’s acceptance of the majority of the recommendations was welcomed by the international community as an incentive to foster reform and reconciliation in the country. Today however, we know that the commitments made by the government of Bahrainhave less to be seen as a sign of good will, rather as a symbol for another missed opportunity. Substantial progress has yet to been made and the recommendations that Bahrain accepted remain largely unimplemented. Instead repression remains the norm, and torture and mistreatment of human rights activists is rife.

While the government of Bahrain may point to changes and reforms that have been put in place, the reality on the ground is very different – these reforms are not really being implemented in practice, and the situation pre-2011, before the handing down of the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) remains largely the same.

When Bahrain was first considered under the UPR in 2008, the government only received 12 recommendations. This was the result of a high level of uncertainty of many member states of how the UPR process functions. The government supported and agreed to implement the recommendations made during the interactive dialogue concerning women’s rights, citizenship, a new family law, the draft press law and signature of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

During its second review in 2012 the member states of the Human Rights Council submitted 176 recommendations out of which the government of Bahrain fully accepted 145. 13 were only partially accepted and18 were rejected.The recommendations accepted were grouped in 20 different issue areas covering a range of issue addressing women and gender equality, criminal justice, national dialogue, abandoning restrictions of human rights defenders, journalists and ngos , to name only a few of them. More than a dozen called on the government to hold security forces accountable for rights abuses, including wrongful deaths and mistreatment of detainees in government custody. Other recommendations called for the immediate release of prisoners convicted solely for exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and free speech during demonstrations in February and March 2011. Due to the tight timeframe, I will focus only on two different issue areasto demonstrate, that the government of Bahrain largely failed to uphold its commitments made in response to their second UPR.

Respecting Human Rights

After a review of the 176 recommendations made during the second Universal Periodic Review in May 2012, the government of Bahrain issued an official statement reflecting Bahrain’s policy to fully cooperate with the Human Rights Council. Regarding the Respect of Human Rights, the government fully supported recommendations 115.37, 115.41, 115.93, 115.103, 115.115, 115.119, 115.123 and 115.161 of thesecond UPR. Due to the limited amount of time I will only take a look at the following three recommendations:

• 115.41 Take immediate actions to restore peace and the respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms (Slovenia)

• 115.93 Prevent incidents of violence against members of ethnic and religious communities (Canada)

• 115.161 Respect the legitimate rights of all its citizens to freedom of assembly and expression, and maintain its commitment to achieving concrete political reform based on respect for the legitimate rights and aspirations of all its citizens (Australia)

In accepting these recommendations, the government stated:

“The Bahrain Constitution guarantees the human rights and basic freedoms of all citizens. Executive and legislative measures have been taken to prevent incitement to sectarianism, violence, and national, religious or racial hatred in the media. National safety cases which were being considered in [national safety] courts were referred to civilian courts, and a special committee was formed to review sentences which were not appealed before the civilian courts. Employment is also allowed for all citizens without discrimination in all government departments, not just in the Ministry of Interior.”

Although the Constitution of Bahrain enshrines the right to assemble peacefully, the government of Bahrain has taken a series of repressive and restrictive measures that are unprecedented since the suppression of the 2011 demonstrations. The authorities have constrained rights to freedom of expression and assembly and implemented new restrictive regulations. In addition,there has been a marked increase in the number of arbitrary arrests in the country targeting human rights defenders, activists, religious and political figures and members of civil society. Bahraini authorities have also increasingly discriminated against the countries’ Shia majority. One of the most prominent cases is the one of the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shia population, Sheikh Isa Qassim, who’s citizenship has been revoked on 20 June. Since then, Bahraini authorities have summoned and interrogated over fifty senior Shia clerics for illegal assembly, preaching without permit or inciting hatred against the government.

Abandon any Restriction on Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, NGOs

Regarding the restrictions on human rights defenders, journalists and NGOs, the response of the government of Bahrain to the UN illustrated that Bahrainfully supports recommendations 115.147, 115.150, 115.156 and 115.158 of the UPR pertaining to the abandonment of restrictions on human rights defenders:

• 115.147 That human rights defenders must be protected and allowed to conduct their work without hindrance, intimidation or harassment (Norway)

• 115.150 Abandon any restriction or obstacle to the work of persons and institutions engaged in the protection and promotion of human rights (Switzerland)

• 115.158 Cease all intimidation or repression against human rights defenders, journalists, and Non-Governmental Organizations (Spain)

In accepting these recommendations, the government stated:

“Bahrain is adhering to the declaration on human rights defenders adopted by the UN General Assembly resolution 53/144. At present, there are no controls to restrict the activities of non- governmental organizations as stipulated in Law No. 21 of 1989, except in matters which con ict with the State’s laws and regulations, as is applicable in all similar international legislation. ey are allowed freedom of movement without restriction except as necessary to ensure their security and safety. The Kingdom always welcomes constructive cooperation with international organizations, and does not prohibit their entry into Bahrain. To expedite decisions on applications submitted by international organizations, a committee was formed to review those applications, as stipulated in Cabinet Resolution No. 19 of 2012.”

Recent developments however have shown, that restrictions against journalists, human rights defendersand civil society in Bahrain is still rife with many being imprisoned or threatened with imprisonment.Sheikh Ali Salman, GS of Alwefaq party now serves a nine-year sentence after appealing against a four-year sentence, whilst the prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab has been charged with “defaming the state” by publishing “false news… and malicious rumours that undermine the prestige of the kingdom”, following the publication of an article by him on the op-ed page of the New York Times. In July 2016 a court in Bahrain ordered the country’s main Shia opposition group Alwefaq to be dissolved in a further crackdown on national civil society, one of the sharpest blows yet against civil society activists in the country. All these examples demonstrate that the government of Bahrain still fails to meet the commitments to its international human rights obligations. Instead it only escalated its use of criminal charges and restrictive legislation to silence human rights activists, religious scholars and civil societies in the country.

The abovementioned issues along with a number of still standing and unresolved crises in Bahrain intensely indicate that Bahrain has intensified its repression rather that meeting its own commitments to its international human rights obligations. A worrying new set of methods repressing the human rights of its own people have come into practice including revoking nationality, forcible deportation and religious persecution. As a consequence, the human rights situation in the country has significantly deteriorated since the second UPR of Bahrain. I strongly support the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that ‘repression will not end people’s grievances’ and encourage that stronger and more coordinated action is required, and alternative measures may be needed to halt further human rights violations in Bahrain.For that purpose I urgethe members of the Human Rights Council to take meaningful action at the 33st Session in order to contribute to providing justice to the victims of the grave human rights situation in Bahrain. For this particular purpose I would like to propose the following recommendations:

To the Government of Bahrain, we call for:

• To recommit to its international human rights obligations

• The establishment of proper timelines for the implementation of the 2011 recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry

• The full implementation of the recommendations of the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry and the recommendations of the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council.

• The immediate release of all prisoners of conscience, including activists, political dissidents, and those detained for merely exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

• To lift the restrictions on the freedom of movement including travel bans imposed on different Shia religious leaders and human rights defenders.

• Stop using the Bahrain Citizenship Act or the Protection of Society against Acts of Terror law to revoke citizenship, leaving people stateless and facing deportation from the country

• A review of domestic laws and practices to ensure compliance with Bahrain’s obligations under human rights law

• Standing invitations to be issued to the UN Special Procedures to visit Bahrain

• Amend any article of its Penal Code that can be used to prosecute individuals for the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly or association, and bring its laws into line with international standards established by the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights

• Undertake all efforts to relax censorship and to grant oppositional groups the possibility to establish their own media outlets

• To enter in dialogue with all relevant parties in order to prevent unnecessary conflict and violence.

To the Members of the Human Rights Council, we call for:

• A thorough review during the 2017 UPR process, particularly on issues such as civil society consultation and the protection of human rights defenders in Bahrain

• Continued support, encouragement and pressure to ensure Bahrain implements the legal and policy changes needed to ensure the real promotion and protection of all human rights for all people in Bahrain, and to hold the government of Bahrain fully accountable if this does not take place in a prompt manner.

Let me conclude by saying that I strongly believe in the value of dialogue and the importance of focusing on using this to work towards finding solutions. It is not enough to blame those responsible for the lack of justice in the country, without also proposing solutions and improvements. We have seen other opportunities in the past where similar events have explored the challenges facing civil society and human rights defenders in the country. Lets try to ensure that we take advantage of the opportunity and privilege of working in this highly distinguished environment and to develop innovative ways to overcome the challenges facing the people in Bahrain. Thank you.