17 July 2018 – Yesterday, the Government of Bahrain presented a Voluntary National Review (VNR) of its efforts to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the High-Level Political Forum of the United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), claiming that the kingdom has made significant progress towards the 17 objectives laid out in the agenda. This is false. Bahrain’s review completely omitted the kingdom’s ongoing human rights crisis and the government’s continued failure to meet key SDGs to support good health and well-being; ensure gender equality; reduce inequality; create sustainable cities and communities; promote responsible use of land and natural resources; and establish peace, justice, and strong institutions, among others. On behalf of the ECOSOC Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Major Group, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), in partnership with Habitat International Coalition of the Housing and Land Rights Network (HIC-HLRN), delivered an oral statement raising these concerns during Bahrain’s review and requesting that the government provide detailed information on its efforts to address related shortcomings. ADHRB condemns the government’s evasive and misleading response to the questions of the NGO Major Group, as well as Bahrain’s continued refusal to meet UN reform commitments in good faith. We call on the Government of Bahrain to take real steps toward accomplishing the SDGs – first and foremost by lifting its clampdown on civil society – and we urge the international community to hold it accountable for these reform obligations.

During its VNR, the Bahraini delegation, led by Cabinet Affairs Minister Mohammed bin Ibrahim al-Mutawa, listed the kingdom’s purported efforts to address SDGs pertaining to poverty, housing, infrastructure, finance, energy, environment, healthcare, education, and women’s rights. The delegation concluded with a discussion of SDG 16 on peace, justice, and strong institutions, insisting that Bahrain has made major strides to create accountable institutions, including the National Assembly. The government not only argued that Bahraini authorities remain “committed to the rule of law,” but that they have actually “enhanced human rights” protections through the country’s “independent judiciary” and human rights institutions. The delegation explicitly said that free opinion, expression, and press are guaranteed in Bahrain, before closing by emphasizing the American Department of State’s controversial decision to elevate the kingdom to Tier 1 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) status this month.

Despite the government’s claims, Bahrain’s progress toward the SDGs remains severely undermined by discrimination, political repression, and extreme restrictions on human rights. The government operates as a de facto absolute monarchy, excluding the vast majority of citizens from meaningfully participating in decisions shaping economic, cultural, and social development. In recent years, the authorities have heavily circumscribed fundamental freedoms and targeted virtually every human rights defender, opposition activist, and independent journalist for reprisal or intimidation. Arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture, and excessive force are systematic and widespread, and the kingdom maintains the highest per capita prison rate in the Middle East. Bahrain’s Shia Muslim majority is economically and politically marginalized, and Shia communities are denied equal access to housing, services, and employment. Throughout, the government has fostered a culture of impunity for corruption and abuse, with official oversight bodies lacking the necessary independence to hold perpetrators accountable. Likewise, Bahrain has refused to allow a UN Special Procedures mandate holder to visit the country since 2006, and it effectively cancelled a visit from the High Commissioner for Human Rights. As a whole, Bahrain’s rapidly deteriorating human rights situation demonstrates that it is not committed to the ECOSOSC pledge of “leaving no one behind,” and it ensures that any benefits of the kingdom’s development are distributed inequitably. Together, these problems additionally demonstrate that Bahrain is entirely failing to meet key targets of SDGs 3, 5, 10, 11, 15, 16 and 17.

ADHRB and HIC-HLRN’s oral statement during the review raised concern over the government’s mismanagement of land and resources; corruption; political repression; ethnoreligious discrimination; extrajudicial killing; and suppression of the rights to free expression, assembly, and association. We expressed particular alarm over the lack of land devoted to citizen’s housing; corruption and excessive privatization of land reclamation projects by the ruling family; and the destruction of coastland fisheries and coastal heritage, endangering food security. At the same time, we noted that the government’s elimination of all independent opposition groups and the structural failings of Bahrain’s parliament have ensured that there is no oversight mechanism to check corruption, waste, and other obstacles to sustainable development. Meanwhile, ethnoreligious discrimination remains deeply entrenched, and security forces crush protests over repression, human rights, and rising inequalities.

ADHRB and HIC-HLRN asked the Bahraini delegation what steps it is taking to address corruption land mismanagement; release imprisoned human rights defenders like Nabeel Rajab and reinstate independent civil society and press organizations like the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the Al-Wasat newspaper; and identify and hold perpetrators of extrajudicial killings accountable with a view toward curbing policy brutality. Though these questions pertain explicitly to SDG targets like 16.1, 16.3, 16.6, and 16.10 – and followed directly on the government’s own assertions during the VNR presentation – the Bahraini delegation completely refused to answer them. Instead, the government reiterated foreign praise for its anti-trafficking efforts and then inexplicably asserted that human rights should not be raised in such UN spaces: human rights should be addressed by those with “no political affiliations or intentions…I hope we will not tackle or mention human rights in political fora.”

“Bahrain may think it can distract from its brutal repression by focusing a narrow set of development goals, but the world is watching,” said Husain Abdulla, ADHRB’s Executive Director. “The country simply cannot make sustainable, lasting progress while all power is concentrated in one family and average Bahrainis are denied not only equal access to wealth, services, and resources but also the basic rights to express themselves and have a say in the government. It is absurd and disturbing that Bahrain’s delegation refused to face these hard truths and lay out a real roadmap for development. To everyone else the path is clear: human rights, political reforms, and fundamental freedoms.”

Like the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) reform package, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) recommendations, and its numerous treaty obligations, Bahrain is not working openly and honestly toward the achievement of all SDGs. The Government of Bahrain refuses to institute the necessary reforms to facilitate political reconciliation, guarantee human rights, and jumpstart sustainable, equitable economic growth and development. ADHRB condemns Bahrain’s continued obstinacy and obfuscation on the world stage and we reiterate our calls on the authorities to meet all of these varied reform commitments to protect human rights.