Bahrain: Litmus test for EU human rights
Over the past couple of years, Bahrain’s international image has been transformed from that of a small, quiet Gulf kingdom into a very different kind of country. Today it suffers from deepening human rights abuses. State-sponsored violence oppresses people who express views which conflict with those of the Al-Khalifa family. But while several other Arab states became international pariahs for their egregious human rights violations, Bahrain appears largely to have dodged international, including European Union, censure. Why is this?
Perhaps it has something to do with the island kingdom’s relatively small size. However, having a modest population in no way negates the damage to human rights caused by the Bahraini authorities’ increasingly brutal approach to popular demands. It’s important that we don’t apply different standards to different countries. Amnesty International regards all human rights abuse equally, wherever it occurs. Are torture or the deaths of unarmed protestors at the hands of Bahraini troops any less abhorrent than the killing of civilians in other, more populous, countries?
Early last month, the Bahraini authorities, citing security concerns, revoked the citizenship of 31 people for causing ”damage to state security”. With the recent first anniversary of the report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), it’s becoming clear that the authorities have no intention of listening seriously to the protesters. Whatever promise the Commission may have represented last November, when it accused the authorities of gross human rights violations, has now faded, despite the King’s personal assurance of accountability.
The Government of Bahrain expressed its intention to honour BICI’s findings at Universal Periodic Review (UPR) sessions in May and September this year, ahead of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. But this now appears to be a shallow promise. Little of substance has since been achieved on either human rights or democracy in Bahrain. It may now seem obvious that undertakings like those made at the UPR were a ploy to reassure an increasingly uncomfortable international community, but one can only wonder why the global audience has allowed itself to be appeased so easily.
It’s hard to ignore the distinctly muted EU response to events in Bahrain. As recently as August, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron met the King of Bahrain in Downing Street to discuss opportunities for British business in the kingdom. Only in passing did he mention the need to implement the BICI recommendations. Catherine Ashton, head of EU external affairs, has merely urged “all sections of Bahraini society to contribute to dialogue and national reconciliation in a peaceful and constructive manner.” Should we be surprised when such mealy-mouthed representations fail to galvanise the authorities into delivering convincing reforms? Indeed, far from showing any improvement, we see systematic violations of basic human rights in Bahrain, including a ban on all protests and the imprisonment of anyone who tweets messages of opposition to the King. For the most part these have met with resounding silence from the EU.
There’s scant evidence that the EU is taking Bahrain’s human rights crisis seriously. Not only has Brussels so far failed to put any real pressure on the Bahraini Government, it seems determined to turn a blind eye, especially when trade deals are in prospect. But human rights abuses in small desert kingdoms deserve a full-size EU response. The EU’s new human rights strategy adopted in June committed the Union to defending human rights around the world more consistently and proactively. The people of Europe have every right to expect the EU to honour this policy. Bahrain is a litmus test.
Nicolas Beger, Director, Amnesty International European Institutions Office