Bahrain's Youth Crackdown: Hard Lessons in Democracy Building

The Bahraini government has some key lessons for young people participating in the nation's Arab Spring-inspired uprising -- codes of silence, promises to not participate in political freedom efforts, and limits on free speech. It's this sort of clumsy repression that exposes the reality behind the Bahrain regime's attempts to present things as returning to normal. For Bahraini students, things are far from normal.

The Bahraini government's inept handling of its students is a great example of why the kingdom is increasingly seen as a pariah state. Dozens of students were arrested and hundreds more were expelled earlier this year following large-scale peaceful protests calling for democratic reform in the Bahrain. These students faced aggressive interrogations about their possible participation in political protests and some were even asked to identify classmates in demonstration photos that appeared on social networking sites such as Facebook.

In August, in a much vaunted gesture of reconciliation, Bahraini King Hamad publicly ordered all students to be reinstated. Around that same time, he also ordered that all dismissed workers should be reinstated and he abolished military trials for civilians. Clearly he did not get the memo that these steps will only gain favorable publicity if they are actually carried out. Hundreds of workers are yet to be reinstated and dozens of students at the Bahrain Polytechnic are still dismissed.

The students of Bahrain Polytechnic remain caught up in the king's doublespeak. Bahrain Polytechnic presents itself as the modern, progressive face of Bahrain. Its faculty is largely comprised of international teachers and its website claims that the university's students will:

"Comprise the core of the new intelligentsia in the kingdom: competitive, highly qualified and world-class. The new Bahrainis who are poised to fill up the gap in the market, who will provide the Kingdom with the knowledge and expertise it needs to secure its position as one of the Gulfs leading economies [sic]. They will be the energizing change agents at the very nucleus of the Kingdoms economic development."

Sadly, Bahrain Polytechnic's students are now forced to abide by a medieval set of rules denying their fundamental, internationally-recognized rights to basic freedoms of expression and association. The university often reminds them of that and has gone so far as to issue the following decree:

"Bahrain Polytechnic is a government institution, and students are advised that participation in any activities of a political nature could lead to disciplinary action or your dismissal from Bahrain Polytechnic. Therefore:

• distributing leaflets or publications • putting posters or other material on noticeboard • collecting signatures and/or donations • arranging gatherings or rallies without permission from the relevant Student Services area is strictly forbidden."

It's hard to see what sorts of "change agents" the Polytechnic is hoping to encourage with such a philosophy. Those students who have been readmitted to Bahrain Polytechnic have been required to sign a primitive code of conduct, a code that includes this startling attempt to curtail peaceful political activity: "Bahrain Polytechnic is a government institution, and students are advised that participation in any activities of a political nature could lead to disciplinary action or your dismissal from Bahrain Polytechnic."

Meanwhile, the Bahraini government has ratified without reservation both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). That's a problem because Bahrain Polytechnic's code -- and others like it -- directly inhibits students' freedom of opinion and expression by preventing those who are involved with political activities from full membership in the institution. Article 19 of the ICCPR says that states cannot interfere with the right to political opinion. The freedom of association with others, such as engaging in political activity, is also protected in Article 22 of the ICCPR. Likewise, the right to engage in political affairs, protected in Article 25 of the ICCPR, includes the ability to associate with others to achieve political goals.

Similarly, Article 13 of the ICESCR frames education as a right that belongs to everyone, allowing every to "participate effectively in a free society." It states that where higher education is available, it must be "equally accessible" to all "on the basis of capacity," and discrimination on the basis of political opinion in availability of education is impermissible.

One of the dismissed Bahraini students told me, "What kind of an 'educational' institute would ask their students to tell on their classmates? What 'code of ethics' are they following when they ask students to printout the private Facebook posts of their classmates? What kind of 'lessons' are they teaching?"

Bahrain Polytechnic is violating students' rights by forcing them to choose between their personal rights of expression, opinion, and association, and to their right to education. Sadly, it is not the only institution -- academic or otherwise -- to insist on these sorts of codes of conduct or loyalty oaths. These odious documents reveal little about the loyalty of those signing them and everything about those who would insist on such public displays of fidelity to the king and his government. Agreeing to respect international standards and then systematically overriding them is why the Bahraini regime's reputation is in free fall.

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