Bahrain: a botched whitewashing attempt
In March 2023, the Inter-Parliamentary Union held its global assembly in Bahrain, a country with a mock parliament and no semblance of democracy. Its autocratic government, eager for opportunities to sell the world a false image, seized on the opportunity offered by this global event. But civil society used the spotlight to draw international attention to Bahrain’s systematic human rights violations. More international pressure is needed to urge democracy in Bahrain. International bodies should make sure they only hold events in repressive states if they are willing to take a stand and defend human rights under attack.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an organisation whose motto is ‘For democracy. For everyone’, just held its global assembly in one of the world’s most undemocratic countries.
For Bahrain’s authoritarian leaders, the celebration of the IPU assembly in their capital, Manama, from 11 to 15 March was yet another reputation-laundering opportunity. A week before, they’d hosted Formula One’s (F1) opening race. Human rights groups questioned the role of the International Automobile Federation (FIA), the sport’s governing body, in sportswashing both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, where a race also took place later in the month.
Predictably, FIA’s response, accompanied by the customary declaration of commitment to human rights, offered platitudes about the benefits of engagement and mutual understanding while stressing the principle of non-interference in internal affairs.
But while FIA’s main interest is elite sport, the IPU’s is democracy. This put its choice to hold its global assembly in Bahrain under much closer scrutiny.
The day after Bahrain’s F1 race, Ebrahim Al-Mannai, a lawyer and human rights activist, tweeted that the Bahraini parliament should be reformed if it was to be showcased to the world at the IPU assembly. His reward was to be immediately arrested for tweets and posts deemed an ‘abuse of social media platforms’, along with three other people.
That same week, the Bahraini authorities revoked the entry visas they had previously issued for two Human Rights Watch staff to attend the IPU assembly; the organisation had a right to attend since it has permanent observer status with the IPU.
Rather than opening up in preparation to the IPU assembly, Bahrain was further shutting down. But civil society complaints fell on deaf ears: the IPU’s leadership remained silent in the face of these restrictions, as with countless other human rights violations committed by the Bahraini regime. It went ahead with its celebration of parliaments and democracy in a country with a mock parliament and not the slightest semblance of democracy.
🚨The news is that #Bahrain has blocked Human Rights Watch staff from an international conference on democracy.— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) March 10, 2023
🚨But the real story is what this ban says about mounting repression inside Bahrain.
Read @astroehlein’s #HumanRights newsletter today: https://t.co/K5wIGwsEw3 pic.twitter.com/hLR2SSzrzd
A mock parliament and no democracy
The only reason Bahrain is member of the IPU is that, on paper at least, it has a parliament. But its parliament is neither representative nor equipped with any real power. Its existence doesn’t change the fact that Bahrain is ruled by an absolute monarchy.
Two decades ago, when King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa ascended to the throne, there were hopes Bahrain would progress towards some form of limited, constitutional monarchy – but that never happened. Initial reforms to allow political parties and media freedoms were reversed. When in 2011 Bahraini people rose to demand democracy, along with so many others in the region, they were severely repressed. A crackdown on civil and political freedoms followed to ensure protests wouldn’t recur.
The 2002 constitution gives the king power over all branches of government. He appoints and dismisses the prime minister and cabinet members, who are responsible to him, not to parliament. The two prime ministers the country has had so far – the first served for over 50 years – have been prominent members of the royal family, and many cabinet ministers have been too.
The king appoints all members of the upper house of parliament – the Shura or Consultative Council – and plays a key role in the law-making process: it’s his government that drafts all bills submitted for legislative consideration. The king also appoints all judges and heads of the Supreme Judicial Council, which administers the courts and proposes judicial nominees. There is no judicial independence or due process guarantees in politically sensitive cases.
Parliament’s lower chamber, the Council of Representatives, is elected – but everything possible is done to keep out those who might try to hold the government to account.
Political parties aren’t allowed; ‘political societies’, loose groups with some of the functions of political parties, are recognised. To be able to operate, political societies must register and seek authorisation, which can be denied or revoked.
Since 2016, when it started perceiving them as a threat in the run-up to the 2018 parliamentary election, the government has shut down most opposition political societies, arresting and imprisoning their most popular leaders. Many remain in prison and others have been driven into exile. All members of dissolved groups and former prisoners are banned from competing in elections. And just in case new potential opposition candidates somehow emerge, voting districts are carefully gerrymandered so the opposition can’t get a majority.
By limiting freedoms of association and assembly and the right to peaceful religious expression, Bahrain’s government promotes exclusion and intolerance.
Against the backdrop of a severe crackdown, in November 2022 Bahrain went through the motions of an election for the sixth time since the current constitution came into effect in 2001. A large number of eligible voters were excluded from the electoral roll as punishment for abstaining in previous elections – a tactic used to ensure any attempts at a boycott by the opposition wouldn’t affect turnout. Exactly as it was meant to, the election produced a legislative body with no ability to counterbalance monarchical power.
Unsurprisingly, the latest report by the V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute classifies Bahrain as a closed autocracy, the same rating it’s had since the index started in 1972. The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index also assesses that Bahrain has an authoritarian regime.
The EIU’s global democracy index shows several authoritarian rulers tightened their grip. Discover where your country ranks https://t.co/AFwEPz0zng pic.twitter.com/b6TEMzrAVV— The Economist (@TheEconomist) February 2, 2023
No space for dissent
After dissolving the most popular opposition political societies under fabricated charges of violence and terrorism in 2017 and 2018, the king issued the decree that became known as the ‘political isolation law’. This decree banned members of dissolved opposition parties standing for election. It also gave the government control of the appointment of civil society organisations’ board members, limiting their ability to operate, and has been used to harass and persecute activists, including by stripping them and their families of citizenship rights.
2017 was also the year when Bahrain’s last independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, was shut down. No independent media are now allowed to operate. The government owns all national broadcast media outlets, while the main private newspapers are owned by government loyalists.
Vaguely worded press laws that impose harsh penalties, including long prison sentences, for insulting the king, defaming Islam or threatening national security encourage self-censorship among journalists. To publish online, newspapers must apply for one-year renewable licences. Foreign online outlets are mostly inaccessible, international journalists face difficulties in obtaining entry visas and several Bahraini journalists working with foreign outlets have had their credentials revoked.
Many people, including journalists, bloggers and others active on social media, have been detained, imprisoned and convicted for their opinions. This has been enabled by widespread monitoring of public and personal communications, including through the use of Pegasus spyware against journalists, civil society activists, opposition members and other government critics.
This has turned Bahrain into a prison state. It’s estimated that almost 15,000 people have been arrested for their political views over the past decade, at least 1,400 of whom are currently in jail. Most have been convicted on the basis of confessions obtained under torture. Appallingly, 51 people have been sentenced to death. Six have so far been executed and 26 sit on death row having exhausted their appeals.
Over the years, the situation of Bahraini political prisoners has been repeatedly denounced in international forums, including the United Nations (UN) and the European Union, and has been the focus of major civil society campaigns, including CIVICUS’s #StandAsMyWItness campaign. National parliaments and the European Parliament have expressed concern and called for political prisoners to be released.
A shaky commitment to democracy
Self-defined as ‘the global organization of national parliaments’, the Geneva-based IPU grew from a small group of parliamentarians in 1889 to the present-day global organisation of 179 members plus 14 associate members. Its vision, it states, is that of ‘a world where every voice counts, where democracy and parliaments are at the service of the people’.
The IPU claims its guiding values include those of democracy and human rights. This is reflected in its five strategic objectives, three of which focus on ‘strong democratic parliaments’ – everything that Bahrain’s parliament isn’t. The IPU claims to work to help parliaments and members of parliament (MPs) to ‘exercise their mandate effectively and freely as well as to scrutinize governmental action’. The IPU Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians exists to defend parliamentarians in danger. Among the cases currently being monitored by the Committee are two MPs from Bahrain.
In 2022, the IPU launched a preliminary version of its indicators for democratic parliaments, with criteria to measure parliaments’ effectiveness, accountability, transparency, responsiveness, inclusivity and the degree to which they are participatory and representative. But while self-assessment tools for parliaments have been available since at least 2008, the IPU doesn’t undertake any assessment of member parliaments, and instead continues to take their claims at face value, as reflected in its treatment of Bahrain in its most recent Global Parliamentary Report, issued in March 2022.
Outrageously, the longest reference to Bahrain in the latest IPU report is a quote from a staff member of the Shura Council, the unelected chamber, singing the praises of social media – access to which is heavily restricted and subjected to censorship for regular Bahrainis – as a tool for the body to ‘reach a wider range of people’. The other, briefer mention of Bahrain references an initiative by its Council of Representatives, a body that is unable to exercise any of the normal functions of a parliament, to deliver ‘design thinking training to its public engagement staff’.
An advocacy opportunity
The IPU aspires to universal membership: it welcomes all parliaments to join as long as they’re lawfully established national bodies operating in UN-recognised states. It doesn’t make differences among its members and holds its assemblies, which take place twice a year, through rotation in response to invitations from member states. Its 2022 assemblies were held in Indonesia and Rwanda, and its second of 2023 will be held in Angola.
Given its evident lack of interest in the human rights records of host states, civil society saw there was little point in focusing advocacy on the IPU, and instead engaged with delegations from democratic states.
Ahead of the assembly, two dozen civil society groups published a joint statement addressed at parliamentarians who would be attending, urging them to publicly raise concerns over the lack of political freedoms in Bahrain, including violations of the rights of parliamentarians, and to take precautions to ensure their presence wouldn’t be used to legitimise a blatantly authoritarian regime.
Voices from the frontline
Drewery Dyke is a senior researcher specialising in analysis and international human rights advocacy and works with Salam for Democracy and Human Rights, a human rights organisation that promotes democracy and human rights in Bahrain.
The Bahraini government invited the IPU to hold its 146th Assembly in order to project an image of a democratic country and boost its international standing.
The theme of the 146th Assembly was ‘Promoting peaceful coexistence and inclusive societies: Fighting intolerance’. Yet by limiting freedoms of association and assembly and the right to peaceful religious expression, Bahrain’s government promotes exclusion and intolerance.
Links between Bahraini parliamentarians and civil society are uneven. Some have few if any links while others have better connections and communication with their electorate, including civil society. Some seek to hold government action to account, albeit timidly. The IPU Assembly could be an opportunity for Bahraini members of parliament to learn how their counterparts in other parts of the world engage with their electors and effectively represent their concerns.
Salam for Democracy and Human Rights is urging parliamentarians from across the globe to call on the government of Bahrain to rescind all provisions that restrict parliamentary life and freedom of expression and association of Bahraini members of parliament. We want them to call for the government to resolve two outstanding cases the IPU’s Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians has lodged with the government of Bahrain, and examine the cases of 15 former parliamentarians targeted with arbitrary arrest and detention, unfair trial and imprisonment and arbitrary stripping of citizenship.
We’re also asking parliamentarians to urge the government to implement all recommendations arising from human rights treaty obligations and as many as possible of those made by UN Special Procedures and arising from Bahrain’s 2022 UN Universal Periodic Review.
We urge parliamentarians to inform themselves of other widely shared human rights concerns in relation to Bahrain, including the denial of political rights and women’s rights, the use of the death penalty and the tactic of revoking citizenship as punishment.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Drewery. Read the full interview here.
Civil society used the event to expose the systematic violations of civic freedoms and human rights in Bahrain. Its calls for the freedom of political prisoners – including Abdul-Hadi Al-Khawaja, a dual Bahraini-Danish citizen in jail since receiving a life sentence in 2011 – were loudly echoed by parliamentary delegations from countries including Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands, among several others. The director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy described this as ‘a PR disaster for the Bahraini regime’, a failure of its image-laundering plan.
The response of the Bahraini authorities was however far from encouraging. They reminded foreign parliamentarians that they shouldn’t interfere with Bahrain’s domestic affairs. The official spokesperson of the Bahraini delegation, a member of the Shura Council, denied that Al-Khawaja had been unjustly imprisoned and tortured, and claimed that if he had been, the Ombudsman and the Special Investigation Unit would have intervened – although the two bodies were created a year after the reported torture had taken place.
Clearly more international pressure is needed for the Bahraini regime to free its thousands of political prisoners and allow spaces for the expression of dissent. That, rather than high-level image-laundering events, is what will fix the country’s well-deserved bad reputation.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Bahraini government must reverse its strategy of political isolation, release all political prisoners and allow political parties and civil society organisations to operate without constraints.
Democratic states should refuse to take Bahrain’s whitewashing attempts at face value and instead urge genuine reform.
International bodies must refrain from hosting their events in Bahrain and other countries where human rights are systematically violated unless they are willing to use their events as opportunities to pressure for change.
Cover photo by Inter-Parliamentary Union/Twitter