UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Cites Bahrain as “Egregious” Perpetrator of Reprisals

22 September 2017 – On 20 September 2017, United Nations (UN) Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour presented the office’s eighth report on reprisals at the 36th Session of the Human Rights Council (HRC), raising serious concern over the increased attacks on human rights defenders in Bahrain. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes the Assistant Secretary-General’s strong report and calls on the Government of Bahrain to immediately heed its recommendations to cease all forms of retaliation against civil society members for engaging with the HRC or any other UN mechanism.

In the Secretary-General’s eighth report (A/HRC/36/31) on reprisals and the first since Mr. Gilmour assumed his office as Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, the UN finds that 29 states – the highest number yet, including 11 members of the HRC such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE – targeted activists for cooperating with international human rights bodies during the period of 1 June 2016 to 31 May 2017. Adhering to HRC resolutions 12/2 and 24/24, the report presents information on representative cases of state-sanctioned retaliation against any individuals seeking to cooperate or communicate with the UN or avail themselves of its mechanisms, as well as their relatives. Due to issues of confidentiality and the risk of further reprisals, the report is not exhaustive; moreover, its scope is limited to retaliation in connection to interaction with the UN, therefore representing “only a small portion of a far more generalized backlash against civil society and others challenging State authorities, especially human rights defenders.” Nevertheless, the report determined that rates and severity of reprisal for UN engagement are clearly increasing. Among the types of reprisal documented by the Assistant Secretary-General are: “intimidation, harassment, threats online and offline, derogatory media campaigns, travel bans, arbitrary arrests and detention, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, disbarment, and dismissal from their posts, amongst other measures.” The report concludes that, “beyond the grave impact on the life of persons concerned and their relatives, intimidation and reprisals also systematically undermine United Nations action on human rights and shake partners’ trust in the Organization.”

The Assistant Secretary-General specifically finds that, during the period under review, the Government of Bahrain has engaged in an “ongoing trend of major harassment and intimidation against human rights defenders; the imposition of travel bans on selected individuals; the arrest, detention, and ill-treatment of targeted individuals; and one particular case involving sexual assault and torture as a form of reprisal,” referring in the latter case to human rights defender Ebtisam al-Saegh, who remains arbitrarily detained on terror charges linked to her human rights work. In Bahrain, reprisals function as part of an “orchestrated crackdown on civil society,” and “the authorities have resorted to drastic measures to curb dissenting opinions.” The report expressed particular concern about the government’s consistent use of mass travel bans as a “politically motivated strategy to prevent human rights defenders” from traveling to international events, citing recent cases around past HRC sessions, the twenty-second session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 22) of the UN Climate Change Conference, and human rights workshops. It names activists Hussain Salam Ahmed Radhi, Ebtisam al-Saegh, Ebrahim Al-Demistani, Abdulnabi Al-Ekry, Mohammed Jawad, Nedal Al-Salman, Enas Oun, and human rights lawyer Mohammed Al-Tajer as examples of civil society actors subjected to arbitrary travel bans by the Bahraini government in the past year. The report’s section on Bahrain ends with an extended note about leading human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, cofounder and President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and his continued detention for “spreading false news and rumours about the internal situation in a bid to discredit Bahrain.” Echoing the spokesperson for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the report expresses grave concern that the Bahraini government’s repeated targeting of Nabeel Rajab is “connected to his engagement with the Human Rights Council.”

Mr. Gilmour, who is specifically designated to “lead efforts within the United Nations system to address intimidation and reprisals against those cooperating with the United Nations on human rights,” condemned the actions of the states listed in the report as “nothing short of abhorrent.” Addressing the 36th Session of the HRC on 20 September 2017, he cited Bahrain as one the most “egregious” cases, emphasizing that the Bahraini government’s protracted reprisal campaign since June 2016 has created “an atmosphere of fear.” The Assistant-Secretary stressed that, as has been noted throughout the 36th Session, this environment has led to a marked decline in the number of Bahraini civil society actors able to leave and engage the HRC. Mr. Gilmour then explicitly raised the case of Ebtisam al-Saegh, expressing “serious concern” and asserting that her charges “are most likely related to her participation in the March session of this Council.” Bahrain, he added, has been listed in five of the Secretary-General’s annual reports on reprisals since 2010.

This year’s report comes to a close by calling on all states to “end these acts [of reprisal], investigate all allegations, provide effective remedies and adopt and implement preventative measures to prevent reoccurrence.” It additionally calls on “all stakeholders to report allegations of intimidation and reprisals for cooperating with the United Nations on human rights as they occur to ensure follow-up and action” and on “all States, United Nations entities, bodies and mechanisms, civil society representatives and human rights defenders to cooperate fully” with the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights – the representative of the UN’s “collective responsibility to take action to respond to and prevent” reprisals. Finally, among other proposals, the Secretary-General recommends that “all States to follow-up on the cases included in the present and previous reports and provide substantive responses where they remain outstanding” and that “the President…orally update the Council on cases brought to his or her attention at each session.”

“It is difficult to overstate how critical the issue of preventing reprisal is for the development of open societies, and Andrew Gilmour’s remarks put repeat offenders like the Bahraini government on notice for contributing to this disturbing and unacceptable trend,” said Husain Abdulla, ADHRB’s Executive Director. “The Assistant Secretary-General and his report highlight two of the most prominent and extreme cases – Nabeel Rajab and Ebtisam al-Saegh – as well as what their treatment more broadly represents for the kingdom: over five years of relentless attacks on civil society and independent engagement with the international community. Bahrain, as well as actual Council members like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, must not be allowed to so violently undercut the core principles of the UN system.”

ADHRB has regularly documented the forms of reprisal recorded in the Secretary-General’s report, and just this past month – before and during the 36th session of the HRC – Bahraini authorities have subjected human rights defenders, opposition leaders, and victims of abuse to travel bans and judicial harassment. We welcome both the report and Mr. Gilmour’s statement before the Council, and we call on the international community to put political weight behind these remarks by taking strong new action on leading violators like Bahrain, including the passage of a resolution at the HRC. We additionally call on the Government of Bahrain to immediately implement the Secretary-General’s recommendations to end all forms of reprisal against individuals for eitehr engaging with the UN system or peacefully exercising their basic rights to free expression, assembly, and association at home.

For more information on retaliation against Bahraini activists and human rights defenders, see ADHRB’s June 2017 report Crushing Civil Society: Bahraini Government Reprisals for International Engagement.


Photo credit: Moosa Mohammed