SALAM DHR: European Union / Bahrain – Without durable change the legitimacy of the EU-Bahrain human rights dialogue now in the balance

18 February 2021

On 22 February 2021, on the tenth anniversary of mass social unrest in Bahrain, which called for social justice, representatives of the European Union (EU) will meet with Government of Bahrain (GoB) counterparts to conduct the fifth round of bilateral discussions on human rights. 

Within six months of its conclusion, EU and GoB officials must see an objectively verifiable change in laws and practices in Bahrain or end this largely futile human rights dialogue.

Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (SALAM DHR) urges the EU and GoB to agree to robust new measures to reduce the incidence of torture and application of the death penality with a view to the immediate reinstatement of a moratorium on its usage and eventual abolition. 

SALAM DHR urges that the GoB, supportd by the EU, accede to the Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture and the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to take concrete steps towards ending torture and the use of the death penalty.

If Bahrain were to accede to these standards, it would, uniquely, be the only Arab Gulf state to have done so, one that could set an example of others.

In 2017, Bahrain abandoned a de facto moratorium on the death penalty. The GoB has, since then, executed six individuals. In 2017 and 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions ascertained that five of these executions were arbitrary. According to SALAM DHR’s research, the administration of justice in at least 12 death penalty cases was flawed. In May and June 2020, prior to raising its concerns with the government, the organisation raised its concerns with the Ombudsman, which told SALAM DHR that this issue was not part of its mandate.

SALAM DHR urges the two parties to agree that:

  • The GoB will commute the commute the death sentences of at least the twelve individuals referenced above and any others about which credible sources have expressed concern, and all those who are at risk of imminent risk of execution;
  • The GoB will fully, if belatedly, implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (see below), a government-sanctioned assessment of events in 2011, which made wide-ranging recommendations.
  • By September 2021, the Bahrain Lawyers Association will attain a legal status and legal independence commensurate to European Bar Associations, and that it should be able to join the International Bar Association, and that 
  • The government and parliament of Bahrain will likewise implement recommendations made to it by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).

SALAM DHR further calls on the GoB to: 

  • Release, immediately and unconditionally, all political prisoners of conscience and rights activists,  imprisoned following unfair trials, some of whom may also be infirm and in need of medical attention, including (in alphabetical order by substantive part of surname): Naji Fateel, Ali AlHajee, Abdulwahab Husain, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Habib al-Muqdad, Hassan Mushaima, Sheikh Ali Salman and Abduljalil al-Singace;
  • End grossly disproportionate restrictions on freedom of association through the government’s arbitrary bans on political associations, public figures banned from standing for election, civil society groups including SALAM DHR, whose objectives are consistent with those of the government insofar as they wish, to see society develop and prosper in a context of sustainable development;
  • Respect and protect the right to freedom of expression, including by rescinding bans on independent, private media initiatives and journalists, and
  • Expressly involve civil society, including human rights organizations currently mainly based outside the country, in the development of socio-economic and human rights initiatives, in order to promote inclusion and sustainable development.

These discussions follow the 10 February 2021 signing of the Cooperation Arrangement between the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain.The Cooperation Arrangement advances a bilateral institutional framework for political dialogue as well as cooperation on trade, research and innovation, and clean energy and renewables, which seeks to support Bahrain’s efforts to diversify its economy.

While the EU has repeatedly expressed the importance of human rights in the relationship, SALAM DHR notes that the four earlier rounds of dialogue do not appear to have contributed to the creation of a durable, positive change or a climate in which political or human rights reform has or will take place. 

Abbas Taleb, SALAM DHR’s EU Advocacy Director said:

All parties want these discussions to be meaningful and fruitful. But the legitimacy of the EU human rights dialogue with Bahrain is in the balance at this, the fifth round of discussions. If it, like the earlier rounds, objectively fails to create conditions for durable change and fails to persuade the Government of Bahrain of the importance of implementing both the spirit and the letter of international human rights norms, including its treaty obligations, the EU must revise its policy towards Bahrain, including in relation to positions taken by EU member states that are members of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Background

There is a degree of disquiet amidst Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) concerning the human rights dialogue: on 22 January 2020, 16 MEPs sent a letter to the European Commission’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell Fontelles. The MEPs highlighted EU-Bahraini prisoners of conscience and the increased use of the death penalty.

In February 2011, amidst a regional wave of mass social unrest, tens of thousands of Bahrainis demonstrated, principally at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout, for greater freedom and social justice. 

The government resorted to violence, supported by a Saudi and Emirati intervention. Bahraini and other officials committed numerous human rights violations. 

In response to global concern, the government commissioned the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), to provide information and an assessment of the unrest, including alleged crimes committed by demonstrators and grave human rights violations committed by officials. Its November 2011 report stated that the authorities killed at least 19 people between February and April – the peak of the unrest – eight on account of excessive force used by security forces and five on account of state torture. It is unclear whether any officials were held accountable in an internationally recognisable manner consistent with principles of justice. 

The BICI report detailed cases of arbitrary arrest and unfair trial: specific public figures (see above) remain in custody to this day, in contravention of international norms. 

The report urged prompt, thorough and independent investigations into claims of ill-treatment and a speedy return to a socio-political climate conducive towards establishing a rights-respecting environment. As stated by Amnesty International: “Ten years later, none of these recommendations have been implemented by the Bahraini authorities, in violation of their obligations under international human rights law.” The impact of the unrest in 2011 remains an open wound for thousands of Bahrainis.

SALAM DHR’s research shows that the Government of Bahrain has attempted to create a narrative of reform for international audiences whilst failing to meet the expectations set by the UN and tightening its control over numerous facets of everyday life in Bahrain. Whilst promising and advertising reform, Bahrain has instead become a security state.

SALAM DHR echoes the contents of the 7 February 2020 Joint Letter to the European Union Ahead of Meeting With Bahraini Delegation. It shares the concern that in 2020 alone the human rights situation in Bahrain continued to deteriorate and, as Human Rights Watch has stated, the government has escalated repression against critics. As Amnesty International has reported, Bahrain’s authorities have used the COVID-19  pandemic as a pretext “to further crush freedom of expression.”

The GoB has ignored or feigned engagement with United Nations human rights mechanisms and has refused to implement core recommendations for at least the last decade. 

In November 2020, SALAM DHR set out its concerns and recommendation in relation to the EU-GoB human rights dialogue in its Briefing: Human Rights Situation in Bahrain November 2020. 

For more information:

President – Jawad Fairooz @JawadFairooz (English and Arabic) +447449926577

Abbas Taleb @abbastalebb (French, Arabic, English) +31617679486

Drewery Dyke @drewerydyke (English, French) +44780989221

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