The recent announcement of Bahrain as the host of the 146th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), scheduled for March 2023, represents yet another exemplification of a grim geopolitical truth: the international community is content to excuse egregious behaviors and overlook the abuses of an authoritarian regime that continues to engage in a campaigns of persecution and terror provided that the perpetrating government is a strategic ally and is perceived, however minimally, as committed to progress. Certainly, the strategic importance of Bahrain to influential Western states is well established, as is Bahrain’s adeptness at whitewashing its record of violence and oppression by way of implementing cosmetic reforms and offering empty rhetoric; that the Bahraini government is proudly vocal about reforms which still fail to meet its obligations under international law is perhaps indicative of its own recognition that its efforts to silence dissent are an illegitimate use of power and exist in direct contravention of international human rights standards. However, these circumstances should not, and certainly do not for the victims of Bahrain’s abuse, negate the reality that torture is endemic, arbitrary arrests continue to be commonplace, and civic freedoms remain almost nonexistent.
It is plainly incongruous that the IPU, an organization whose slogan is “for democracy, for everyone”, would choose to hold their Assembly in a state whose oppressive policies treat democracy as a cancer of society that must be stamped out at all costs. It has been eleven years since the Government of Bahrain violently suppressed the peaceful pro-democracy movement that coalesced around collective grievances stemming from a lack of civic rights and fundamental freedoms, and in that time the government has only escalated its violent targeting of human rights defenders, political opposition activists, and children; in 2021, Bahrain arrested and detained 13 children for protest related activities, the youngest being 11 years old, and subjected several of them to serious rights violations including beatings and threats of sexual assault. Despite the claims of the Bahraini government which attempt to minimize systemic abuses as isolated incidents, the prevalence of human rights violations in Bahrain is, in fact, the result of de facto state policy. Further, not only is Bahrain undemocratic, but there has also been consistent reporting from credible human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that exposes the Bahraini government as effectively presiding over a police state.
Article 1 of the Statutes of the Inter-Parliamentary Union states that the IPU shares the objectives of the United Nations and its efforts, yet the decision to have Bahrain host the Assembly would actively undermine the critical work of the UN’ international treaty bodies and disregard a foundational objective of the UN Charter, namely “[T]o promote human rights and fundamental freedom for the people of the world”. At part of its recent 71st session, the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) conducted a comprehensive review of Bahrain’s human rights practices, wherein members of the UN Committee consistently highlighted how Bahrain’s rights-affirming rhetoric and legislative reforms were distinctly at odds with the actual practices promoted by the government. In offering their concluding observations, the CESCR cited the intensification of violent reprisals against human rights defenders and identified numerous ways in which the actions of Bahraini authorities served to further restrict the economic, social, and cultural freedoms of the Kingdom’s subjects.
In a demonstration of the government’s lack of political will to substitute empty rhetoric for meaningful reforms, the Bahraini delegation refuse to acknowledge the existence of political prisoners, despite credible reports which estimate that there are 1,500 political prisoners out of a total prison population of approximately 3,800. Concerningly, the representatives from Bahrain’s frequently implicated Ministry of Interior (MOI) continued this denial even after members of the CESCR repeatedly referenced reports of severe mistreatment and abuse directed at four imprisoned human rights defenders: Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, Mr. Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, and Mr. Naji Fateel.
Additionally, Article 3 of the IPU states that membership in the Assembly is reserved for those Parliaments “… constituted in conformity with the laws of a sovereign State whose population it represents”. The autocratic governance structure currently employed in Bahrain exists in direct contravention of this stipulation. The shortcomings of Bahrain’s National Assembly are manifold, though it is possible to suggest that most issues emanate from the fact that it is decidedly unrepresentative of, and unresponsive to, the population it purports to represents. The Shura Council, or upper house, remains an unelected body whose members are entirely appointed by the king, while the Council of Representatives, the elected lower house, lacks the power to compel the king to act on its votes. Although the promulgation of constitutional amendments in 2012 nominally limited the power of the king and the prime minster, the king maintains the power to dismiss the National Assembly at will. Further, and of particular concern given the upcoming parliamentary elections in November, the 2018 elections were marred by restrictions placed on civil and political society and the use of gerrymandering to disenfranchise Bahrain’s Shia majority. All major opposition societies remain forcibly dissolved, and all political opposition has been effectively banned.
It should be noted that Bahrain’s abysmal human rights record is not unfamiliar to the IPU and its related mechanisms. Confoundingly, the decision to hold the 146th Assembly in Bahrain comes only three years after the IPU’s Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarian conducted an investigation into the Bahraini government’s human rights violations against Matar Ebrahim Matar and Jawad Fairooz Ghuloom, two members of the currently dissolved Al-Wefaq opposition, who were alleged to have suffered torture, ill-treatment and other acts of violence; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of fair-trial proceedings; and other violations including the unlawful revocation of citizenship. As part of its decision the Committee expressed deep concern over these abuses, particularly the prevalence of torture perpetrated by Bahraini authorities and government reprisals in the form of citizenship revocation and noted with regret the absence of any evidence indicating an effective official investigation to ensure accountability for these violations.
The IPU operates with a purported vision of creating a world “where every voice counts, where democracy and parliaments are at the service of the people for peace and development.” However, by choosing to hold the 146th Assembly in Bahrain, the IPU is essentially rewarding a state for its commitment to oppressive policies that are contrary to every fundamental principle embodied within the IPU Statutes.