In March 2022, the United Nations (UN) Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) completed its review of Bahrain’s human rights practices and offered concluding observations at the close of its 71st session. The CESCR is the UN body that monitors and oversees implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The treaty outlines the frequency – every five years – with which a signatory must submit a report detailing its progress on the implementation of rights outlined in the ICESCR. The Kingdom of Bahrain joined the human rights treaty in 2007 and after submitting its initial report, it has failed to fulfill its reporting obligations since 2012.
Throughout the review process, the questions posed by members of the committee consistently revealed that Bahrain’s initial report to the CESCR, which was finally submitted after a 10-year delay, was neither a thorough nor accurate portrayal of the reality on the ground. Similarly, by citing numerous instances of government-perpetrated rights violations documented by multiple human rights organizations, the committee effectively exposed the alarming truth that the rights-affirming comments made by the Bahraini delegation to the committee were not offered in good faith.
The concluding observations serve as the culmination of the CESCR’s evaluation of Bahrain’s legislative, institutional, and policy measures taken to enhance the realization of economic, social, and cultural rights as outlined in the ICESCR. They also include a set of recommendations designed to match the Kingdom’s governance and relationship to its people with the values enumerated in the treaty.
The committee offered a brief positive acknowledgement that focused on the Bahraini government’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the promulgation of legislative measures to advance its people’s economic, social, and cultural. However, the specific recommendations which follow have the power to demonstrate to a casual observer the incredible disconnect between legislative actions taken by the government and any appreciable improvement in the economic, social, and cultural freedoms of the Kingdom’s subjects.
Domestic Application of the Covenant
The committee’s first recommendation is a fundamental one in that it recommends to the government of Bahrain that it ensure the rights enshrined in the treaty are fully incorporated in its domestic laws after nearly 15 years of failing to do so. As the CESCR cited during their review process, the Bahraini government has frequently utilized national legislation in the form of overly broad antiterror and cybercrime laws to waive international obligations. Therefore, it was recommended that the government take appropriate action to ensure that “the provisions of the Covenant takes precedence in potential conflicts with domestic law”.
National Human Rights Institutions
The committee has stated its concern that Bahrain’s National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) is not sufficiently independent from the monarchy to function effectively, and as a result serves to minimize the scale of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Bahraini authorities. Without independence from perpetrators of human rights violators the agency is meant to monitor, the promotion and protection of human rights in Bahrain will continue to be stifled. The committee recommended that the government take the necessary efforts to strengthen the independence of the NIHR in accordance with the Paris Principle’s and ensure that its institutional mandate can be effectively fulfilled. Further, the committee has asked that in the next report the kingdom address specific complaints of economic, social, and cultural rights violations that it has received.
The committee was unsatisfied with the Bahraini delegation’s response to questions concerning credible reports of ongoing human rights violations, including harassment, intimidation, and reprisals against human rights defenders. Adding to the concerns of the committee is evidence which suggests that activists continue to experience “retaliation such as nationality deprivation, suspensions and downgrading of professional positions in the public and private sectors, as well as police and judicial harassment, including arbitrary detention”. Specifically mentioned in the committee’s recommendation is the lack of information from the government about the situations of imprisoned human rights defenders, Mr. Abduljalil Al Singace, Mr. Adbulhadi Al-Khawaja, and Mr. Naji Fateel; the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has declared their detention to be arbitrary, and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders has called for the immediate release of all three. The committee recommended that the Government of Bahrain implement measures to protect human rights defenders with the utmost urgency.
Business Human Rights
Completely lacking from the kingdom’s domestic laws are legal obligations for businesses to exercise human rights due diligence. The committee has noted the detrimental impact of business entities on human rights due to the nonexistence of legal boundaries on businesses. The adoption of a legal framework requiring businesses to exercise some level of human rights due diligence is recommended to bring the state closer to its overall obligations under the treaty.
Despite the claims of the Bahraini delegation that the state’s constitutional and legislative framework provides anti-discrimination protections, the committee noted the lack of a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation and policy framework, and further identified several highly vulnerable groups, including persons with disabilities, who continue to face “widespread discrimination in practice, stigmatization, and negative stereotypes”, all of which effectively precludes their access to the economic, social, and cultural rights as codified within the Covenant. As it relates to women’s rights, the committee cited reports of discriminatory legal provisions against women, patriarchal dominance, and exclusion from decision-making positions in private and public. Accordingly, the committee recommended the adoption of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, the repeal of laws which have a discriminating effect against women, and the removal of barriers that interfere with women’s equal participation in the workforce.
In addition, the committee expressed deep concern over the pervasiveness of discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation. Specifically, the CESCR expressed concern that “members of the Shia community and stateless persons as well as those who were deprived from their citizenship, reportedly faced discrimination in education, employment, as well the exercise of their cultural rights”. The committee urged the Government of Bahrain to strengthen its efforts to ensure that anti-discriminatory provisions are enforced and that prejudices not be perpetuated through de facto policy which promotes discrimination against Shia and precludes the exercise of their cultural rights. It also recommended that the government work with Shia communities for the restoration of damaged religious sites.
The concluding observations are an unequivocal refutation of the government authorities who “cannot imagine situations” where human rights violations would occur. The findings of the CESCR, which indicate pervasive human rights abuses and a culture of impunity, prove that no imagination is necessary. With the release of these recommendations, it is now left to the Government of Bahrain to engage with the National Institution for Human Rights, NGOs, and members of its civil society in ensuring their implementation. The government of Bahrain is obligated under the rules of the treaty to issue a follow-up report within 24 months on its work implementing these recommendations. Its next full report is 5 years from now in March 2027.