Assessing Bahrain’s Rule of Law and Accountability in Preventing Human Rights Violations

1- Introduction

Bahrain has faced significant criticism due to its local laws and practices that violate international human rights obligations, specifically regarding the freedom of assembly and expression of opinion. Bahrain has been accused of using arbitrary arrests and unfair trials, as well as torture and medical negligence, as reprisals against  opponents and human rights defenders. The Bahraini judiciary has also been criticized for its lack of independence. The UN and international criticisms resulted in a limited response from the Bahraini government, which, in response to the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), established institutions such as the National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) in 2009 and the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) in 2012 with the aim of protecting human rights and investigating any related violations. However, these institutions have failed to fulfill their role, and their work has been widely criticized. Given Bahrain’s recurrent violations of international laws and norms, it is imperative to critically evaluate both national and international legal frameworks and their accountability mechanisms.

2- Assessing Bahrain rule of law in prevention of human rights violations

At the national level, Bahrain has established institutions such as the National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) in 2009, and the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) in 2012, to safeguard human rights and investigate abuses, following recommendations made by Bahrain Independent Commission on Inquiry (BICI). However, these bodies have faced criticism for their lack of transparency and independence from the government as the UN Rights Commitee declared in 2018: “the Institution lacks the independence to perform its functions and regrets the lack of information on the complaints it has received and the investigations it has carried out in response to those complaints”.

Despite amendments aligning it with the Paris Principles, the NIHR in Bahrain has, in the past five years, inadequately responded to severe human rights violations, including torture allegations, unfair trials leading to executions, persecution of rights defenders, and the suppression of dissent. Moreover, it has been accused of being influenced by political considerations, thereby undermining its credibility as a watchdog for human rights within the country.

Similarly, the SIU, tasked with probing allegations of torture and ill-treatment, has been implicated in failing to conduct impartial investigations, particularly in politically sensitive cases since its creation. Over the past five years, the SIU referred an average of 7.72 percent of total complaints received to criminal courts, with the majority resulting in acquittals and lenient sentences, and primarily targeting lower-ranking officers. Moreover, the SIU is still operating within the hierarchy of the Public Prosecution Office (PPO) and reporting its work statistics in the PPO’s annual report. While it was relocated from the PPO’s premises to the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs in March 2020, many of its staff are former PPO officials or seconded from the Ministry of Interior (MOI).

Comparably, BICI’s documentations of the widespread government’s abuses against protesters lead to few prosecutions of security personnel implicated in the allegations. The conclusion of these court proceedings was equally unsatisfactory, since most of the officers were low-ranking, and many cases have frequently resulted in acquittals or disproportionately light sentences. Moreover, the recommendations made by this body, such as the one asking the government to adopt legislative measures requiring the Attorney General to investigate claims of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and to use independent forensic experts for that, have not been sufficiently implemented.

Furthermore, Bahrain’s judiciary has been criticized for its lack of independence, especially in cases involving political dissidents and human rights defenders. Despite that the Bahraini Constitution stipulates that the independence of the judicial power, the king’s appointment and dismissal powers over judges and prosecutors undermine this principle. Judges, often members of the royal family or foreign contractors, lack job security and independence in their rulings. The close relationship between the judiciary, the Public Prosecution Office (PPO), and security forces results in a compromised judicial system that routinely fails to ensure fair trials and due process.

Additionally, Bahrain has been accused of using medical negligence as a tool of retaliation against political prisoners, violating international standards such as the Mandela Rules and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The case of Dr. Abdujalil Al-Singace, a prominent human rights defender on a hunger strike, highlights the deliberate use of medical neglect as a punitive measure.

Internationally, mechanisms such as the United Nations have played a crucial role in highlighting and addressing human rights abuses in Bahrain. Various UN bodies, including the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) and multiple Special Rapporteurs, have issued reports condemning arbitrary detention and mistreatment of political prisoners, calling for their immediate release and compensation for their unlawful treatment.

Despite international efforts, Bahrain has resisted implementing recommendations and has faced criticism for ongoing discriminatory practices against minorities and political dissidents, limiting the impact of organizations like Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) in advocating for international pressure due to Bahrain’s resistance to scrutiny and failure to ratify certain protocols.

3- International rule of law and accountability mechanisms to prevent human rights violations

Bahrain has faced substantial criticism for its domestic laws and practices that violate international human rights obligations, particularly regarding freedoms of assembly and expression. Bahraini authorities have enforced Law 32/2006 on Public Meetings, Processions, and Gatherings, along with Articles 178 to 182 of the Bahrain Penal Code, to justify the wrongful arrest, prosecution, and detention of human rights advocates. These laws impose excessive restrictions and sanctions, incompatible with Bahrain’s commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Efforts by international organizations have been pivotal in bringing attention to these violations and pressuring Bahrain to change. Organizations such as Lawyers Rights Watch Canada (LRWC), Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), and the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) have consistently highlighted the repression of peaceful assembly and expression in Bahrain.

The cases of Nabeel Rajab and Zainab Al-Khawaja vividly illustrate the misuse of domestic laws to suppress dissent. Rajab was incarcerated in July 2012 for participating in assemblies deemed unauthorized and has been re-imprisoned several times, while Al-Khawaja has faced multiple arrests and harassment for her peaceful protests. Both were prosecuted under Law 32/2006 and the Penal Code, reflecting a pattern of using domestic legislation to stifle fundamental freedoms.Nabeel Rajab is not currently detained but have been convicted numerous times during the last decade. As for Zainab al-Khawaja, she is not presently in Bahrain, but that her father is in prison on a life sentence.

International bodies have been instrumental in exerting pressure on Bahrain to reform its laws. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), established in response to the 2011 uprisings, recommended aligning national laws with international obligations and remedying violations of protected rights. Additionally, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) identified detentions like those of Rajab and Al-Khawaja as arbitrary, underscoring that their incarcerations violate the UDHR and ICCPR.

Furthermore, during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Bahrain in 2012, several states urged Bahrain to amend its national laws to protect freedoms of assembly and expression as per ICCPR obligations. The UPR report, adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, recommended the release of individuals detained for exercising these rights and the amendment of restrictive laws. Although Bahrain accepted recommendations from countries like Canada, it has yet to implement the necessary changes.

4- Recommendations

In addressing human rights challenges domestically, several key areas warrant attention:

A fundamental aspect of this effort involves reforming the judiciary to insulate it from political influence. Such reforms should prioritize the appointment of judges based on merit and ensure their security of tenure.

Enhancing the Independence and Effectiveness of National Human Rights Institutions: Empowering institutions like the National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) requires granting them greater autonomy and authority to investigate human rights complaints independently.

To bring national laws in line with international standards, it is imperative to revise or repeal restrictive laws that curtail freedoms of expression, assembly, and association. Additionally, full implementation of recommendations from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) is crucial.

Protocols should be established to guarantee access to adequate medical care for all detainees, coupled with independent medical reviews to prevent the exploitation of medical negligence as a form of repression.

At the international level, concerted efforts are needed to bolster mechanisms for monitoring, accountability, and support:

Increasing the frequency and scope of visits by UN Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups can provide invaluable insights. Moreover, ensuring Bahrain’s compliance with UN treaty bodies’ recommendations is vital for accountability.

Utilizing tools like the Global Magnitsky Act and EU sanctions to impose targeted measures against Bahraini officials involved in human rights abuses can serve as a deterrent. Additionally, sanctioning complicit companies reinforces accountability standards.

Providing protection and support for human rights defenders, both domestically and internationally, amplifies their voices and safeguards their crucial role in advocating for change.

Encouraging Bahrain to ratify and implement optional protocols to international human rights treaties strengthens the legal framework for preventing abuses. Supporting the establishment of independent investigatory bodies at the international level can provide impartial mechanisms for addressing violations.

5- Conclusion 

Bahrain’s efforts to prevent human rights violations involve a mix of progress and persistent challenges. While institutions like the National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) and the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) aim to address such issues, concerns linger regarding their independence and effectiveness. The judiciary’s perceived lack of independence further complicates matters, particularly in cases involving dissent and human rights defenders. Internationally, organizations like the United Nations have highlighted abuses in Bahrain and advocated for reform, yet Bahrain’s resistance to implementing recommendations hampers progress.