On 16 October 2014, the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) of the United Kingdom publicly released its bi-yearly update to its country report on the Kingdom of Bahrain. The update specifically addresses the Human Rights and Democracy section of the country report by detailing the most recent developments on the ground. While the report highlights public engagement with Bahrain regarding the deterioration of its human rights situation, it mostly expends its efforts towards praising the government on what the report sees as a nearly unqualified improvement, and even distorts international commentary on Bahrain’s obstinate behavior in implementing human rights reform to reframe the international community’s opinion to better align with the UK’s more positive take. The report’s assessment of the human rights status in Bahrain does not align with the current situation in the country or the opinion of the international community, and.it will be important for London to accurately address the changing environment in Bahrain to conform to the reality of the human rights situation on the ground.
In February 2011, Bahrain experienced massive political upheaval as thousands of people took part in peaceful political protests calling for respect for human rights and greater political representation and democracy. The government responded by attacking the protesters, imposing a several-month long “national safety” period in which it tried dissidents under national security laws. The international community strongly condemned the Government of Bahrain’s actions, with then-UK Foreign Secretary William Hague noting that the UK was “deeply concerned” by the “unacceptable violence.”
Since then, the Bahraini government has continued to repress dissent. In July 2013, the king of Bahrain signed into law a set of 22 recommendations that broadly abused the government’s anti-terrorism powers to allow security forces to target peaceful protesters. The same recommendations additionally banned all forms of protest in Manama. Moreover, in February 2014 the government instituted new sentencing guidelines imposing maximum prison sentences of up to seven years for insulting the King of Bahrain. These three laws combined have had the effect of significantly stifling free speech in Bahrain, and are often used to imprison peaceful political protesters.
In an ostensible effort to alleviate human rights concerns in the country, the government has created several human rights mechanisms designed to provide the government with commentary and instruction on its role in solving the crisis. The government set up the first of these institutions, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), in the immediate aftermath of the national safety period with a mandate towards investigating the government-sponsored violence and human rights abuses that had occurred in the period following the February 2011 protests. The BICI made extensive and concrete recommendations ranging from prosecuting documented instances of torture to releasing political prisoners. In December 2011, the king fully accepted the findings and recommendations of the BICI; three months later, the government declared the BICI to have been fully implemented. In separate reports, both Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) found that the government had implemented the BICI sparingly, and that the government had failed u to prosecute torture offenders or release political prisoners. Notably, the report by the FCO Office implicitly endorsed this stance, although it is slightly more congratulatory in its tone.
On 28 February 2012, the government created the Ombudsman of the Ministry of Interior, another institution to ostensibly monitor its human rights capabilities and implementation. The Ombudsman’s Office was charged with the responsibility of investigating potential human rights abuses made by the Ministry of Interior and Office of the Public Prosecutor, and provide recommendations accordingly. The FCO report noted the government’s creation of the Ombudsman’s Office as a positive step, stating that the Office had responded to a number of complaints and welcoming the government’s implementation of certain Ombudsman recommendations. While it’s certainly true that the Ombudsman has initiated several investigations and that the government has responded to certain Ombudsman recommendations, ADHRB found in a July report that the Ombudsman discharged its mandate selectively and in a manner mostly reflecting positively on the Ministry of Interior. Particularly, ADHRB’s own engagement with the Ombudsman found that the institution selectively chose the complaints to which it responded, that the Office lacked suitable independence from the Ministry of Interior, and that personnel in leadership positions in the Office maintained significant conflicts of interest. Most significantly, ADHRB found that the Office largely failed to investigate allegations of government misconduct resulting in the use of torture or the death of detainees. Accordingly, ADHRB found that the Office functioned as a non-independent government entity, largely existing to endorse government action and opinion.
In August 2014, the government reformed the previously existing Bahrain National Institute for Human Rights (B-NIHR) to provide it with further responsibility to monitor human rights in the country. The following September, the B-NIHR publicly launched its first report, which the FCO endorsed as an “important benchmark for taking forward further human rights reform…” ADHRB agrees with the FCO that the report was largely objective and fairly reported on the human rights situation in Bahrain. However, ADHRB is concerned that the FCO is over-congratulatory on government engagement with the institution; while it is true that the government openly accepted the report, the B-NIHR reported worrisome trends regarding government response to the institution. In particular, the Ministry of Interior and Office of the Public Prosecutor failed to respond to just fewer than 90% of B-NIHR complaints concerning torture or abuse of detainees or protesters. ADHRB is additionally concerned that, while reforms somewhat restricted the king’s control over the organization, the king still maintains appointment authority, allowing the government to staff the B-NIHR with government sympathizers.
Beyond creating its own institutions to complicate the human rights situation in the country, the government has also used international mechanisms for its own ends. In October 2012, the Government of Bahrain accepted 158 recommendations in its Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council. The FCO report stated that the government has made “clear progress” in some areas, although acknowledged that more had to be done. In a February 2014 report, however, ADHRB found differently; as of the date of publishing, the government had fully implemented exactly zero recommendations, and had only made real perceived progress in two of the 158. A September update of the report found similarly, maintaining that the government had not only failed to investigate previous allegations of torture but that new allegations surfaced against the government on a near-constant basis. The report additionally showed that the government had refused to release political prisoners, and in fact maintained a systemic policy of arbitrary detention of political dissidents.
Although the country is making slow changes in the area of human rights, progress is not happening quickly enough, and the government has apparently failed to implement many of its earlier promises. The human rights institutions that have been recently put into place have not been able to fully function, as many of them still maintain affiliations with the Ministry of Interior. In fact, these institutions seem as though they were created by the Bahraini government in an apparent effort to alleviate the human rights concerns in the country and to keep international pressure at bay. It will be important for the international community to continue to engage the Bahraini government to reform its programs and policies and to reconcile with its own people. As an exemplar of democracy around the world, the United Kingdom, like the rest of the international community, must hold Bahrain accountable for the lack of democratic reforms and ongoing human rights violations.
R. James Suzano is Legal Officer at ADHRB