Bahrain UN Side Event on Religious Tolerance Omits Rampant Discrimination and Abuse

2 October 2018 – On 29 September, the Bahraini government launched a renewed effort to whitewash its abysmal record of state-sponsored religious discrimination in one of the world’s most prominent international forums. At a side event in New York City, coinciding with the 73rd Session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly (GA), Bahraini officials gathered under the ambit of the King Hamad Centre for Peaceful Co-existence to reiterate last year’s Bahrain Declaration on Religious Tolerance, originally signed by the king’s son, Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, in September 2017. Although the ceremony and the declaration purportedly commit Bahrain to guaranteeing the right to free belief, systematic religious discrimination against the kingdom’s Shia Muslim majority remains rampant. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) condemns the government’s consistent refusal to combat sectarian prejudice amid a disingenuous public relations campaign to launder its poor human rights record.

The UNGA side event is only the latest episode in a series of publicity stunts intended to mask persistent discrimination against the country’s Shia population. In September 2017, Prince Nasser launched the campaign when he visited the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, an institution whose stated mission is to promote religious understanding and tolerance internationally. There, he signed the Bahrain Declaration on Religious Tolerance, the anniversary of which was marked by this past weekend’s ceremony. The Washington Times published a column by King Hamad shortly after the original launch of the declaration, in which he extolled the government’s supposed efforts to ensure tolerance and coexistence and spelled out excerpts from the declaration, hailing “religious diversity [as] a blessing to our people.”

Sheikh Nasser, the original face of the international religious freedom campaign, is also directly implicated in suppressing peaceful political opposition at home.  In addition to playing a senior role in Bahrain’s sporting establishment, Sheikh Nasser is a member of Bahrain’s Supreme Defence Council and the commander of the Bahrain Defence Force Royal Guard, the elite military unit deployed as part of the Saudi-led coalition’s disastrous intervention in Yemen. In 2011, evidence emerged that Sheikh Nasser personally oversaw the arbitrary detention and torture of activists. As president of the Olympic Committee, Sheikh Nasser was tapped to lead a special commission to identify and punish more than 150 members of the sporting community for peacefully demonstrating. He publicly called for “a wall to fall on [protesters’] heads … even if they are an athlete…Bahrain is an island and there is nowhere to escape”, and tweeted: “If it was up to me, I’d give them all life [in prison].” Sheikh Nasser denies involvement in torture, and the government has refused to investigate.

Despite the abysmal record of lead messengers like Sheikh Nasser, the campaign continued into 2018. In July, at the United States (US) Department of State Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Bahrain announced the creation of an Ambassador-at-Large for Peaceful Coexistence and Religious Freedom, receiving praise from the State Department spokesperson for its “welcoming environment for religious minorities and their right to worship.”

However, while Bahrain is relatively tolerant of religious minorities, the government has escalated its attacks on the religious rights of the Shia majority. In 2017, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) placed Bahrain on its Tier 2 list of violators for the first time, citing  “deteriorating religious freedom conditions.” Bahrain maintained this poor ranking in USCIRF’s recent 2018 report.

As noted by independent monitors like USCIRF, sectarian discrimination is widespread across Bahrain, and particularly in public sector hiring and the provision of services like housing. The security services are an especially extreme example, where Shia employees are estimated to make up less than five percent of personnel, despite accounting for as much as 70 percent of the citizen population. There is also evidence that security institutions like the police and military distribute hyper-sectarian religious materials and disseminate hate speech among the ranks. Shia clerics are repeatedly harassed and targeted by the government, with over 70 religious figures being interrogated, arrested, or prosecuted in 2017. The authorities have similarly harassed over a dozen clerics and orators from just 14 September to 19 September this year, around the Shia holy day of Ashura. The government has additionally suppressed Shia political participation, forcibly dissolving the Al-Wefaq opposition group, which represented much of Bahrain’s Shia population, and arbitrarily imprisoning Shia political leaders like Sheikh Ali Salman and Hassan Mushaima. Amendments to election laws have set further bars on Shia participation, prohibiting religious figures from discussing political issues in sermons and banning members of dissolved groups like Al-Wefaq from running for office. As a result, large portions of Bahrain’s Shia community face even more obstacles to freely participating in the upcoming parliamentary elections this November.

“We have seen time and time again that Bahrain has no intention to carry out any of its very public promises on religious freedom when it comes to the country’s Shia Muslim majority,” says ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “From the Bahrain Declaration and Nasser’s visit to the Museum of Tolerance to this past Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Bahrain has wholly refused to live up to its lofty words at home. Saturday’s ceremony is undoubtedly just another deceptive attempt to distract from Bahrain’s human rights crisis and make false claims of progress or inclusivity. The international community mustn’t be tricked by another hollow show put on by government officials. Rather, it must hold Bahrain to its real commitments and treaty obligations to eliminate religious discrimination and protect human rights with substantive reform – not empty ‘declarations.’”

Bahrain’s superficial public relations campaign cannot be allowed to divert attention from its continued failures to adhere to international human rights standards, as confirmed by recent observations issued by UN experts at the Human Rights Council, the Human Rights Committee, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and the Committee Against Torture. ADHRB calls on the international community to hold Bahrain accountable for its failures to meet these concrete agreements, and to press the government to take meaningful steps to end discrimination. We also call for the international community to push Bahrain to lift restrictions on civil society and religious freedom, allowing all Bahrainis – including the Shia population – to fully access their rights to free belief, expression, assembly, and association.