Bahrain took a rare public reprimand this morning at its United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review. Countries are assessed on human rights progress every five years, and the Bahraini government’s delegation had to sit and listen as country after country listed concerns about the country’s failure to introduce real reform despite promises made at its last UPR in 2012.
While a few countries, including its repressive ally Saudi Arabia, played along with Bahrain’s claims to have made progress, delegations from across the world admonished the kingdom for its repression.
One common theme was the resumption of executions in Bahrain this year for the first time since 2010. Another was Bahrain’s preventing civil society activists from attending the UPR session, raised by Estonia, Germany, Luxembourg, Ireland and others.
Human Rights activists in the country regularly complain that the international community does little to prevent the repression against them, and while today’s criticism was expressions of displeasure from states and without promises of further sanction, the criticism was widespread and embarrassing.
Even the U.K., whose condemnation of Bahrain is usually horribly muted, publicly “registered concern” at the resumption of executions, while the U.S. criticized the restrictions on political opposition groups, and specifically mentioned targets groups Al Wefaq and Wa’ad. The U.S. had also submitted a series of written questions to Bahrain before today’s hearing, including “How does the government of Bahrain plan to respect its international obligations with regard to freedom of association ... in light of recent legal action against political societies?” and “What is the status of the government’s efforts to create an inclusive place force, including at the leadership level?”
The latter question refers to Bahrain’s failure to address the problem that its security forces are drawn almost exclusively from the ruling minority Sunni sect. Ghana also raised the issue of religious discrimination against the majority Shia population.
Several countries including the Netherlands raised the issue of a new constitutional amendment that will allow civilians to be tried in military courts. “What human rights protections will be maintained in military courts to protect against abuses?” asked the U.S.
Denmark raised the case of jailed human rights defender and Danish citizen Abdulhadi Al Khawaja. Iceland spoke about international human rights organizations still being denied access to Bahrain (thanks, Iceland), France expressed worry about freedom of the media and Chile about continuing reports of torture. It went on all morning, with Bahrain’s delegation being piñataed by countries from every continent.
Austria urged Bahrain to finally allow the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture into the country, Switzerland and Slovenia pushed for the implementation of the recommendations of the 2011 independent inquiry into violations that year, and Mexico criticized the stripping of citizenship. Honduras also raised the issue of religious discrimination, Argentina and Bulgaria criticized the return to executions.
The Bahraini delegation responded weakly, attempting to defend the indefensible, claiming untruthfully that Bahrain enjoys media freedom and freedom of expression. It’s a bad day for the ruling family.
Today’s session won’t magically transform Bahrain overnight , but is some attempt by the international community to hold Bahrain accountable for its violations. Other governments clearly know what’s happening in Bahrain, and today they said they cared. The real test is what Bahrain’s allies will do about the repression, if they’re prepared to continue to enable it, or finally to confront it.