On 12th of May 2022, the European Centre of Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) followed an exchange of views with Fawzia Abdulla Yusuf Zainal, the Speaker of the Council of Representatives of Bahrain at the Foreign Affairs (AFET) Committee of the European Parliament. It was the Speaker’s first visit to the European Union and she was warmly welcomed by the Chair. Shortly after the formalities, the chair invited Fawzia Abdulla Yusuf Zaina to share her views on the current affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain, concentrating on the partnership with the European Union and the burning geopolitical question of the Russian aggression on Ukraine. After the initial speech of the Bahraini speaker, she was further presented with questions from MEPs, especially regarding the current human rights situation in Bahrain.This blogpost is written since ECDHR felt it necessary to bring to the public’s attention the alternative vision of the Kingdom of Bahrain that was portrayed by the Bahraini representative and to discuss the awakening of the European institutions towards the human rights situation in Bahrain as well as to question whether the European Union has true influence in the field of human rights.
The portrayal of an alternative vision of the Kingdom of Bahrain
Fawzia Abdulla Yusuf Zainal, the Speaker of the Council of Representatives of Bahrain started her speech by voicing Bahrain’s interest in seeing a roadmap be laid down between Bahrain and the European Union, in order to create a new era between the two international players. It also became clear that Bahraini representatives visited the European Union with high hopes of forming a tighter relationship. This was shown as the speech, on multiple occasions, invited the representatives of the European Union, particularly the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, to visit the Bahraini parliament in order to build a meaningful relationship and see for themselves how well Bahrain is doing and how the country is all about cooperation and moving forward.
Regarding the question of the human rights situation in Bahrain, the Speaker’s statement indicating his Majesty’s inclusion of women in leadership positions, clearly revealed the vision the speaker wanted to portray of Bahrain before the European Union. Furthermore the speaker characterised Bahrain in her speech as conveyed by the government through propaganda, state-backed media, diplomatic relationships and sportswashing such as the Formula 1 race, which to our surprise was positively highlighted by one of the MEPs, showing the positive effect sportswashing has had on building an appealing image of the Kingdom. In this version of Bahrain, the Kingdom considers respect for human rights as a central issue, there are no prisoners of conscience and women have equal rights to men and no limits to their ambitions. This is a wildly distorted version of the reality, as prisoners of conscience indeed exist in large numbers and face torture, ill treatment and negligence of basic human rights on a daily. Concerning the reality of gender discriminations, it’s not a myth that Bahraini women do not enjoy the same rights as men. Despite the abolition of the guardianship system, this system is still deeply rooted in the traditions and in fact, women are still highly dependent on their male guardians.
Lastly, the Speaker assured that Bahrain has set up a national human rights commission and that it accommodates multiple human rights NGOs that promote freedom of expression and human rights in the country. This, the speaker said, was done in order to improve and protect human rights in Bahrain.
A sign of the awakening of the European institutions towards the human rights situation in Bahrain
During the Exchange of views at the European AFET committee, several MEPs asked questions to the Speaker, highlighting their concerns about human rights in Bahrain. MEP Hannah Neumann asked about the key findings of the National Human Rights Action Plan in Bahrain and about the agenda of future improvements of the situation. On another note, MEP Dietmar Köster asked for the immediate release of political prisoners, particularly highlighting the cases of H. Mushaima and Dr AlSingace, who have been imprisoned for more than 11 years for their peaceful pro-democracy activism. He also underlined the dire treatment of people in the country, adding that the cooperation between Bahrain and the EU would be strengthened much easier if Bahrain committed to respecting human rights. MEP Bernard Guetta showed his concerns about the situation of human rights in Bahrain, particularly stressing that the imprisonment of individuals who protested for democratic change and greater freedom for almost a decade was a sign of weakness from Bahrain. Finally, MEP Mick Wallace asked the Speaker to elaborate on the steps taken by the government of Bahrain for the human rights of political prisoners and to secure their release. He also brought up the abuse, torture, and military trials perpetrated against them.
The European Parliament has been vocal several times about human rights abuses in Bahrain in the past. In March 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution expressing its concerns about the human rights situation in the country, and particularly about the arbitrary arrests, use of the death penalty, judicial and political harassment of human rights defenders, and the continued breach of the human right to freedom of expression and assembly. Numerous NGOs based in Europe have been highlighting these issues for years, especially since the 2011 uprisings, and have been engaging in lobbying efforts towards the members of the European Parliament as well as the European institutions, to push for such bold statements. However, the resolution was rejected by both the Arab Parliament and the Bahraini authorities. The Arab Parliament even considered this resolution to be a foreign interference in the domestic affairs of the country.
Towards a true influence of the European Union in the field of human rights?
Despite these questions and resolutions showing a certain interest by the members of the European Parliament for the issue of human rights in Bahrain, we must wonder whether the Bahraini authorities will take these concerns into account. Instead of responding to the questions, the Speaker engaged in a speech about the security, peace, and peaceful coexistence in Bahrain. She followed a narrative built by the Bahraini government about a country respecting human rights, with a particular focus on freedom of religion, without taking the inquiries of the MEPs into account. While we are aware of the Speaker unable to speak freely to the European Parliament, as she was under pressure from the authorities, her speech demonstrates a certain unwillingness of the Kingdom to abide by its obligations to respect human rights under international law.
The likelihood of the Kingdom being open to Western influence in the field of human rights is questioned even more by the views of the Speaker on foreign interference. While both the Speaker and the MEPs showed a common willingness to expand their cooperation in many fields, mainly economic, the Speaker specified that she, and thus the Kingdom, didn’t wish for any foreign interference with domestic affairs. This strong statement raises the question of how the European Union can manage to influence the Kingdom in its policy regarding human rights and democracy, without it being regarded as foreign interference by Bahrain. The European Union considers it to be in its interest to deepen its cooperation with the Kingdom, particularly in the context of the war in Ukraine. However, this partnership needs to be rooted in the respect of human rights and democracy, as key European values, and thus the European Union needs to be able to influence Bahrain in this regard. Yet, we can wonder whether Bahrain is really ready to be influenced by the EU. Still, it remains a duty under international law for the European Union and its member states to make Bahrain respect International Human Rights Law, and the European Union may need different strategies to respect this commitment.
Finally, we can wonder whether the situation of human rights in Bahrain was truly acknowledged by the European institutions and the MEPs. Indeed, there is a common willingness to strengthen cooperation despite human rights abuses, which could hinder a preference for economic interests rather than rights. Moreover, some MEPs highlighted sportswashing events such as the Formula 1 in Bahrain, praising the Kingdom for organizing the event and portraying the country and the people in a very positive light, or congratulated Bahrain for its role in fighting terrorism. Some of the MEPs thus seemed convinced by the propaganda put in place by the Bahraini authorities, and failed to mention the issue of rights in the country. We can only hope that the advocacy of several NGOs and the calls for awareness released by international organisations such as the UN will highlight the situation of human rights and democracy in Bahrain in an efficient way.
The Exchange of views between the AFET Committee and the Speaker of the Council of Representatives of Bahrain thus demonstrated the contrasted state of the place of human rights in the cooperation between the European Union and Bahrain. On the one hand, most MEPs who intervened during the event seemed aware of the human rights situation in the Kingdom, and highlighted their concerns to the Speaker in a very concrete way. But on the other hand, the reaction of the Speaker illustrated the current narrative put in place by the Bahraini authorities, which is that of portraying the Kingdom as respecting human rights, to whitewash the violations that have been taking place in the country on a daily basis since before the 2011 uprisings. Thus, we believe that the European Union needs a concrete strategy in human rights advocacy towards Bahrain, as well as the other countries of the Gulf region, for example by conditioning economic cooperation to respecting human rights and democracy in the Kingdom. As Bahrain hasn’t been showing any true willingness to change its policy regarding human rights, the European Union needs a strong and bold statement, demonstrating its commitment to its values of respect for human dignity and rights.
Picture: Alain ROLLAND
Copyright: ©European Union 2022
Source : EP