US State Department Releases Overdue Report on Human Rights Situation in Bahrain

After several months delay, the US Department of State has released its report on the Bahraini government’s implementation of the 26 recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) in 2011. The report reviews the progress made on each recommendation from 2011 through to early 2016; it fails to thoroughly examine the government’s continued failure to reform. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) highly disapproves of the lack of scrutiny and criticism exhibited in the State Department’s report. We call on the State Department to publicly condemn Bahrain and urge immediate, concrete steps to lift its extensive restrictions on civil society and improve the country’s human rights situation.

Although the US Congress mandated that the State Department complete its assessment in February 2016, the report was not issued until June 2016 – nearly five months past its deadline. It offers vague suggestions for Bahrain to meet the BICI recommendations, without analyzing many of the root causes of the government’s ongoing human rights violations. The State Department’s examination of each recommendation also lacks extensive research into the Bahraini authorities’ claims of reform. In many cases, the report’s incomplete assessments directly contradict the findings of international human rights mechanisms and organizations, which almost universally conclude that the Bahraini government’s steps toward reform have been mostly – and strategically – cosmetic.

While the State Department’s report does not provide explicit judgments on the implementation of each recommendation, it often suggests that the government has instituted reforms that remain patently unfulfilled. In the case of recommendation 1722b, for example, which concerns the establishment of an independent human rights body, the State Department found Bahrain’s National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR) to be “administratively independent” and adherent to the relevant international regulations, known as the Paris Principles. This conclusion is wholly inconsistent with the decision of the International Coordinating Committee (ICC) of the Paris Principles earlier this month, which reportedly assigned the NIHR a “B” partial compliance rating, indicating a failure to achieve full accreditation. According to Bahrain’s Al Wasat news, it is precisely the NIHR’s lack of independence from the government that – a feature displayed by virtually all of the oversight bodies created by the government in the wake of the BICI recommendations – that motivated the ICC’s decision.

Such cursory assessments are made throughout the State Department’s report, largely accepting the Bahraini government’s illusion of reform as fact. Ultimately, the report presents an image of Bahrain that is at odds with the situation on the ground. Last November, on the fifth anniversary of the BICI’s report, ADHRB, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) released Shattering the Façade, a report demonstrating that only 2 of the BICI’s 26 recommendations have been fully implemented. Rather than progress, the Government of Bahrain has actively regressed on the majority of key recommendations to increase protections for free expression, assembly, and association, and to refrain from targeting peaceful activists for reprisal.

“The State Department’s weak critical analysis stands in stark opposition to the investigative findings of human rights organizations around the world,” said ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “The US must not be appeased by false assertions made by Bahrain. The State Department must take further steps to thoroughly investigate the widespread torture, arbitrary detention, and other infringements on the rights of Bahraini people.”

The State Department’s consistent failure to openly reprimand the Government of Bahrain for its human rights violations has further enabled an unprecedented assault on the country’s civil society in recent weeks. Just this month, Bahraini authorities have re-arrested human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, closed the major opposition party al-Wefaq, arbitrarily imposed travel bans on multiple activists, and revoked the citizenship of a prominent Shia spiritual leader, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim. The government’s actions have culminated in massive demonstrations, with hundreds of protesters taking to the streets. ADHRB fears that Bahraini authorities will violently suppress the protests, clashing with demonstrators and causing a degree of unrest not seen since the 2011 uprising.

The international community must no longer tolerate empty promises to improve the human rights situation in Bahrain. ADHRB calls on the United States to publicly and firmly condemn the recent actions of Bahraini authorities, and to urge the government to take immediate measures to prevent further human rights violations. We also urge the US to ban arms sales to the Government of Bahrain until all 26 recommendations of the BICI have been fully implemented. Lastly, ADHRB calls on the US to raise the cases of Nabeel Rajab, Sheikh Isa Qassim, and all those who have been targeted by the Government of Bahrain for their peaceful dissent.