European-Bahraini relations: How the EU has favoured commercial interests over the integrity of its own citizens

Since 2011 the European Union’s (EU) diplomatic engagement with Bahrain has been far from reaching the laudable human rights standards the organization set for itself. Since the 1990’s, an anthology of EU legislation and official declarations have presented the EU as an inherently value-based organization. Article 21 of the Treaty on European Union provides that the Common Foreign Security Policy of the bloc “shall be guided by the principles … of democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, the principles of equality and solidarity.” In the same vein the EU Global Strategy, issued in 2016, spells out that “the EU must act globally to champion the indivisibility and universality of human rights.” In addition, the European Union Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders have been issued, reviewed, and reformed numerous times, as well as scrutinized by the European Parliament to further prove the Union’s commitment to democracy and human rights in the wider world. The External Action Service claimed that protecting human rights defenders (HRDs) worldwide is a cornerstone of the EU’s human rights engagement.

In earnest however, the EU response to the grave systematic abuses targeting HRDs in Bahrain, especially since the Arab Spring, has thus far been virtually non-existent. In ten years, EU diplomatic engagement has yielded no tangible improvements for the situation of Bahraini HRDs. Firstly, there has been a distinct absence of practical coherence on the guidelines concerning HRDs and a lack of follow-up in their implementation. Secondly, there is an endemic lack of political will among EU member states. Their reluctance to tilt the fragile economic-security balance in the Gulf and potentially disrupt close but complex relations with Saudi Arabia has produced apathy, an unwillingness to confront the Saudi-backed Bahraini regime on its appalling human rights record. As a consequence, economic, security and commercial interests have been largely prioritised over concerns of human dignity and democracy, unveiling a certain hypocrisy in the EU and an apparent flexibility in their staunch self-proclaimed values. While the EU has dithered in taking its engagement in human rights and democracy beyond rhetoric, HRDs and peaceful critics of the al-Khalifa regime have been rotting in Bahraini prisons. Notably, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Mohammed Habib al-Muqdad, two EU citizens that have been imprisoned for nearly ten years, in dire conditions, suffering torture and ill-treatment without proper access to medical care.

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is a Danish citizen who returned to Bahrain after the royal amnesty of 2001. In February 2011, he joined the Pearl Roundabout protests. As a consequence of his role in the pro-democracy movement, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in April 2011. He remains in prison to this day where he has suffered sexual abuse, routine torture including violent battery, the holding of painful stress positions, prolonged isolation, overt discrimination and the denial of medical treatment. Despite his numerous hunger strikes and the countless United Nations communications on his case, the EU have not stepped-up their efforts to engage diplomatically for his release. Mohamed Habib al-Muqdad is a Swedish citizen, a Shia religious cleric and an influential Bahraini societal figure. Alongside Abdulhadi al-Khawaja he is among the Bahrain 13, a group of opposition leaders, rights activists, bloggers and Shi’a clerics arrested in connection with their role in the 2011 pro-democracy protests – all of whom received life sentences as a result of their peaceful criticism of the government. He has endured repeated acts of torture, including electric shocks, prolonged isolation, sexual abuse, forced standing, being hung upside down, being forced to drink his own urine, sleep deprivation and other forms of psychological torture. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and is still awaiting proper medical treatment. Their cases underline the fact that for nearly a decade, the EU has failed to observe article 3(5) of the Treaty on the European Union, which specifies that “in its relations with the wider world, the Union shall uphold and promote its values and interests and contribute to the protection of its citizens.”

A precarious implementation of EU Guidelines in Bahrain


In June 2004, the Council of the European Union issued the EU Guidelines for Human Rights Defenders. The EU hereby confirmed on paper, its political commitment to the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and acknowledged the major role of HRDs in leading the global struggle for peace and democracy.  The Guidelines provide European diplomats with operational recommendations to support and protect HRDs in third country missions. Accordingly, EU Heads of Missions (HoMs) in third countries must “receive HRDs in Missions and visit their areas of work”, “monitor and report periodically on the situation of HRDs” and “seek to ensure that HRDs can access financial resources from abroad”. This also details that missions “should adopt a proactive policy stance”.

EU and national delegations are the main interface between Brussels and third countries. Their reporting is thus of prime importance for the design of impactful foreign policies. The Guidelines specify that “HoMs should make recommendations to higher political bodies for possible EU actions” and “report on the effectiveness of EU actions in their reports.” Evidently no such reports have been written on Bahrain. The EU delegation in Riyadh should have expressed their concern over the cases of al-Khawaja and al-Muqdad, especially as the two individuals possess EU citizenship, and that there are serious allegations, echoed by UN special procedures, that they have been routinely tortured. The EU as a self-proclaimed value-based democratic organisation, is morally liable to protect its citizens from blatant and repeated violations of their fundamental rights.

However, Patrick Simonnet, the newly appointed EU ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Sultanate of Oman, has so far not explicitly called for the release of prisoners of conscience. The Head of EU Mission has made a few vague mentions of the need to observe human rights, but no specific cases have been raised with Bahraini officials. In September 2020, Ambassador Simonnet, during a visit to Dr. Awwad Al-Awwad, the head of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, praised the country’s efforts to include women in country’s the Vision 2030 programme,  commenting how such progress would benefit further bilateral ties. At the same time however, Saudi women’s human rights defenders Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah are being kept in detainment for  peaceful political dissent.

Furthermore, the instances where EU representatives have actually monitored the trials of HRDs are anecdotal rather than systematic. This hardly matches the seriousness and scale of the judicial abuses perpetrated by the Bahraini authorities. The EU Guidelines have not been implemented in a pre-emptive and pro-active way, rather, they are reactive in nature formulated a posteriori. There is a blatant lack of systemisation and prioritisation, with the awareness level of the Guidelines themselves diverging significantly among different missions. Studies have found that mission staff are often not trained on the Guidelines and that specific benchmarks and standards for engagement with HRDs are lacking, as well as sufficient cooperation between national and EU delegations. Amnesty International have also discovered, through a detailed comparative study on the implementation of EU Guidelines between 2015 and 2019, that geographic position mattered greatly. Namely, Saudi HRDs have received considerably less public endorsement by EU HoMs, compared to for instance, Chinese HRDs. This is linked more broadly to the politically awkward stance the EU faces when confronted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The EU enjoys deep diplomatic and commercial relations with Bahrain and other GCC states, meaning in theory, that it could use that relationship to leverage the release of its citizens. The EU is the largest trade partner of the GCC, and respectively the GCC is the EU’s fourth largest trade partner. The EU’s reluctance to support profound democratic reforms comes from an aversion to compromise a comfortable and long-established relationship. In 1988 the EU and the GCC signed a Cooperation Agreement, and since, the EU has largely given priority to immediate economic and security interests over human rights and democratic reform. The 2011 mass pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, sparked by the Arab Spring, were received in Europe with much embarrassment and discomfort. Denmark at this point suggested a stronger common condemnation and put forward the idea of sanctions against regime members, however security, investment, and the arms trade were deemed more important by other EU member states, especially France and the United Kingdom. These elements have contributed to a virtually unchanged geopolitical stance in spite of incessant well-documented human rights violations.

In parallel to the EU Guidelines, Bahrain is the second Gulf country with which the EU initiated an annual human rights dialogue in 2016. HDRs themselves however have not been included in the process, which likewise has not been sufficiently publicised and ironically happens far from public scrutiny; this not only severely restrains the inherent utility of the dialogue, but also detracts from its legitimacy.


National Embassies in Bahrain: An overwhelmingly business-centred approach


Italy, Germany and France are the three EU Member States who have embassies in Manama. Theoretically national delegations should constitute a significant part of the EU Guidelines implementation, however in reality this is far from being the case. Paola Adame was appointed Italian Ambassador to Bahrain in January 2020 and has so far raised minimal concern regarding the systematic persecution of the political opposition. While Italy has endorsed the human rights Guidelines at the EU level, the Ambassador’s public declarations have mainly emphasised the promising bilateral business relations between Italy and Bahrain, claiming that “the Kingdom is an important political partner for Italy as well as a key regional actor.” In an interview she mentioned that Italy’s top priority is “to expand and strengthen the involvement of several Italian companies that are interested in establishing their own presence in Bahrain through the excellent quality of products and services they provide.” Her portfolio in Bahrain is overwhelmingly business and trade-oriented, with the human rights agenda being roundly ignored. She has met with no civil society actors or HRDs, nor has she delivered a single statement about the release of  the prominent activist Nabeel Rajab, or even condemned the death sentences upheld in June for Zuhair Ibrahim Jasim Abdullah and Hussein Abdullah Khalil Rashid.

The Ambassador’s silence helps Bahrain whitewash its human rights violations and contributes to an overall positive international image. In Rome six trade agreements worth 330 million USD were signed between Bahrain and Italy nurturing “greater cooperation in key sectors such as energy, defence, infrastructure and transport, manufacturing, food, agro-business, pharmaceuticals and health, but also financial services, information technology and mutual investment”. Major Italian enterprises such as Tatweer Petroleum and Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi were part of the deal. Several memoranda of understanding (MoUs) were also signed between the Italian Trade Commission and Bahrain’s Economic Development Board, SACE S.p.A (a major Italian export credit agency) and the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism. Bahrain is navigating on exceptionally clement waters with Italy when it comes to human rights accountability. No human rights conditionality or even a superfluous mention of HRDs have been included in the numerous agreements and visits with Italian officials.

Similarly, the German Ambassador to Bahrain, Kai Boeckmann, described the relationship between Germany and Bahrain as “excellent”. In an interview regarding the German diplomatic presence in the Gulf, he described security in region as crucial, since “stability is a very important factor for investors when choosing their destination”. This statement ascribes itself well within the ‘democracy versus stability’ dilemma, characterising the lukewarm Western approach to supporting human rights in the Gulf.

Analogously, the French Ambassador to Bahrain, Jérôme Cauchard, affirmed during an interview in July this year, that “both Bahrain and France want to improve their bilateral economic and commercial ties”, referring to Bahrain as “a partner of choice for French companies”. A series of MoUs have been signed between Bahrain and France in recent years, notably between Export Bahrain and the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Bahrain (FCCIB). In April 2020, Ambassador Cauchard endorsed the Bahraini authorities’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic praising the King’s management of the crisis. The Ambassador decided to completely overlook the atrocious situation in detention centres, mainly affecting prisoners of conscience, and the appalling treatment of migrant workers, which have on many occasions been called out by NGOs. Overall it is evident that by favouring commercial and security interests, the three European ambassadors in Manama have failed to fulfil their obligations under the Guidelines and have neglected their responsibility to monitor the cases of imprisoned HRDs.

Overly influenced:  The EU and the official Bahraini story


The European HoM to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman has not provided a qualitative follow-up to the allegations of political repression since 2017. This however is not reflective of the number of alarming developments seen in the country: the official dissolution of Al Wafaq – the only remaining political opposition, the end of the de facto moratorium on the death penalty, the multiplication of unfair mass trials, the reinstatement of powers of the National Security Agency (reversing the previous implementation of UPR recommendation 1718), the intensified pattern of arbitrary citizenship revocations and the increased issuance of life sentences and death penalties. These developments have not been scrutinised by either the EU or the present national delegations, reflecting the outdated account of Bahraini efforts to bring about democratic reform.

The official perception of the socio-political situation of Bahrain post-2011, remains incredibly shallow and fails to take into account the work produced by numerous NGOs. While the Guidelines specify that HoMs “must incorporate local NGO and HRD’s own expertise”, this is rarely enacted. The Ambassadors are happy to accept the official government discourse, which paints a picture of Bahrain making progress towards an inclusive democratic society. On the rare occasions that human rights concerns are raised, they are met with counter-claims of progress through mechanisms such as the National Dialogue, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry and other human rights supervision mechanisms, which have in reality proven deeply flawed sometimes even serve to greenlight further human rights abuses.

There is striking proof of the EU’s disconnection from the actual human rights situation in the country. The most obvious perhaps, is the fact that the EU delegation awarded the Ombudsman of the Ministry of Interior and the National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) with the Chaillot Prize in 2014, for “its outstanding efforts on the promotion and protection of human rights in Bahrain”. The EU lauded the NIHR’s “clear observance of the human rights situation in the Kingdom”, although the institution itself has failed to fulfil the Paris Principles and to get the accreditation of the Global Alliance of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (GANHRI).

More recently, the German, French and Italian ambassadors to Bahrain met with NIHR chairperson Maria Khoury in September. Again the ambassadors praised the work of the NIHR and its role in promoting peace and human rights in the region, despite multiple sources having long-proven the systematic dysfunctions of the NIHR. As the NIHR is not sufficiently independent from the Ministry of Interior, it lacks transparency and it is not endowed with adequate investigatory powers. Its effect on the country’s human rights record has been abysmal: it has failed to report CID abuses and even endorsed governmental actions that were blatantly violating international human rights standards. The three ambassadors nevertheless expressed their readiness to support the NIHR, without voicing any criticism about their well-documented shortcomings.

Expertise-sharing projects and the financial Instrument for Stability and Peace have been the main tools for EU political engagement in Bahrain. Time has proven that the ardently desirable ‘National Dialogue’ is simply ineffective – rather there is an increasing trend of brutal repression. A different strategy needs to be adopted. If the EU is to remain credible it must stop turning a blind eye to human rights violations and adapt its official stance and discourse towards Bahrain. A more politically brave approach needs to be adopted, an approach that calls out injustice and that criticises human rights abusers as opposed to awarding them prizes.