The Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly is tasked with monitoring global human rights developments. At the meetings of the Third Committee, delegates hear reports by a team of UN experts known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council.
On 23 October 2014, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders spoke at the 25th meeting of the Third Committee. During the interactive dialogue, when states pose questions to Rapporteurs after they have submitted their findings, Liechtenstein delivered a statement addressing Bahrain: “We are concerned by the fact that the government has toughened sentencing guidelines for whoever has insulted, in any kind of public manner, the Kingdom of Bahrain, or its flag, or national Emblem… This is in stark contrast of the acceptance of Bahrain of UPR recommendations made in 2012 in regard to the abandonment of any restrictions on human rights defenders.”
Liechtenstein’s statement referenced the recent imprisonment of several high profile human rights activists in Bahrain on charges of insulting the king of Bahrain and state institutions. On October 1st, days after he participated in the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, Bahrain’s Department of Justice summoned Nabeel Rajab for interrogation and subsequent arrest. Mr. Rajab, president and co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was detained and charged for comments made on his twitter account which were considered insulting to the Ministry of the Interior of Bahrain. Two weeks later, the government arrested another prominent human rights, Zainab al-Khawaja, for tearing a picture of the King.
At the 26th meeting of the Third Committee, Bahrain responded to Liechtenstein’s statement: “The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bahrain protects and guarantees enjoyment of the right to free expression. We remain convinced that there is a fine line between use and abuse in the context of social media.” (1:42:00)
In this response, the Bahraini delegation justified the arrest of Mr. Rajab and Mrs. al-Khawaja by arguing that the right to freedom of expression must be balanced with security concerns. The Bahraini delegation refrained from addressing the specifics of each case, perhaps because they know that if they had, it would be clear that Mr. Rajab and Mrs. Al-Khawaja were arrested for peacefully expressing their political views, and not because of security concerns to the country.
Bahrain’s disregard for the right to freedom of expression comes as no surprise. The Kingdom of Bahrain has routinely used fear of violence and foreign intervention to silence or delegitimize critics of the government. In his report to the Third Committee, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression noted this trend, as well as the cancellation of several planned visits by his mandate to the country.
While Bahrain nominally participates in UN Human Rights bodies, it is clear from these interactions that it has no intention of enforcing international human rights standards domestically. It is therefore the responsibility of the international community to hold Bahrain accountable for its attempts to misguide and evade questioning. Only with intense international pressure will the Bahraini government live up to its international obligations to respect the human rights of its people.
Peter Bogdanich is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB