In December 2022, the European Parliament (EP) passed a resolution on Bahrain concerning the situation of detained activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. In essence, the resolution condemned the enduring detention of Al-Khawaja — who was sentenced to life in prison in 2011 solely for exercising his right to freedom of speech — and demanded his immediate release, along with all other detained political prisoners, including Abduljalil al-Singace, Naji Fateel, Abdulwahab Hussain, Ali Hajee, Sheikh Ali Salman and Hassan Mushaima. The resolution also addressed other themes pertaining to the alarming human rights situation in Bahrain, namely the lack of space for civil society and dissent, lack of internet freedom, the use of torture and ill-treatment, the continuing existence of the death penalty, discrimination of women, the arbitrary revocation of citizenship by authorities, lack of rights for migrant workers, and the culture of impunity within the country’s institutions. The text then presented the Government of Bahrain, as well as the European External Action Service (EEAS), the High Representative/Vice President (HR/VP), EU Member States and EU officials in general, with the necessary steps to take to tackle these issues.
This was not the first resolution concerning human rights in Bahrain to be passed in the European Parliament. Several resolutions containing similar or even the exact same requests have been passed since 2011. Although the European Parliament is one of the leading institutions addressing the human rights crisis in Bahrain, it has not taken adequate action in holding government officials accountable and increasing the overall safety of the Bahraini people. The present dispatch aims at providing a detailed account of the EU’s passive approach to improving human rights in Bahrain. To demonstrate this, we develop a comparative analysis of parliamentary resolutions from 2011 to 2023. In doing so, we stress how the EU’s limited concrete action enforces Bahrain’s culture of impunity.
PARLIAMENTARY RESOLUTIONS ON BAHRAIN: A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS
Between 2011 and 2023, the European Parliament has issued 15 resolutions directly concerning the political situation and human rights conditions in Bahrain, along with two other requests contained in the resolutions on the European priorities for the 22nd and 25th sessions of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC).
A comparative analysis reveals that many of them contain identical requests, repeating themselves over the years, sometimes even with the exact same wording.
- For 13 times members of the Parliament have called on the Bahraini government and European institutions for the immediate and unconditional release of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, almost once every year. Yet, many of those persons addressed in their demands, like Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Hassan Mushaima, still remain in jail and are subject to terrible prison conditions.
- The Parliament demanded seven times the swift implementation of the recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) and under Bahrain’s Universal Periodic Review. However, apart from condemning the failure, the EU has not made any further meaningful steps to ensure Bahraini authorities comply with their international obligations.
- A similar situation can be found with respect to the relations between Bahrain and international mechanisms and treaties. European parliamentarians had to remind the Bahraini government six times that the use of any statement made as a result of torture as evidence in any proceedings is prohibited under the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), which the country ratified in 1998. Also, requests concerning either Bahrain’s ratification of CAT’s Optional Protocol or the lack of access to the country for UN Special Procedures have been repeated six times, but have not been followed by a plan of action to implement those statements.
- Over the years, the European Parliament condemned the government’s renewed use of the death penalty on six occasions, while calling for the halt and review of all death sentences charged against Bahraini political prisoners 4 times.
- Finally, members of the Parliament often voiced their concerns over the situation of political and civil rights in Bahrain. In particular, they called on its government to grant freedom of expression both online and offline and to ensure operational freedom for human rights defenders and human rights organizations, six times each.
The continuous repetition of similar (if not identical) requests and concerns over a span of 12 years is already a sign of a lack of implementation of the parliamentary resolutions on Bahrain, which has strengthened the State’s culture of impunity.
This becomes more evident as the analysis of these resolutions focuses on the calls for action addressed to European institutions and officials. Apart from a request made to the Council of Europe in 2014 to take appropriate measures in case of further deterioration of human rights, most demands were addressed to the Member States, the EEAS, and the VP/HR. The former were mainly asked to ensure European companies’ compliance with international codes of conduct in the trade of arms, technologies and equipment with Bahrain. Apart from asking to remain vigilant with regard to the developments of human rights conditions in Bahrain and to raise concerns in all international forums, the EEAS and the VP/HR were requested multiple times, and with repetitive wording, to:
- develop a common EU strategy to push for the release of Bahraini political prisoners, in particular “through the adoption of Foreign Affairs Council conclusions on the human rights situation in Bahrain, which should include a specific call for the immediate and unconditional release of the imprisoned activists;”
- call on the UN Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution for the establishment of an international monitor for the implementation of BICI and UPR recommendations;
- impose targeted restrictive measures on the individuals directly responsible for, or involved in, the human rights abuses.
As far as our research goes, there is no public record concerning the implementation of such requests, despite them being continuously repeated. This situation is also reflected in the European Parliament’s Question for Written Answer (QWA) procedure. Parliamentary questions revolving around Bahrain’s political and humanitarian situation between 2011 and 2022 mainly received highly general and vague answers from EU officials. This is especially true for questions on the concrete actions taken by the EU in relation to specific issues or cases, like the release of Mr. Al-Khawaja and Mr. Mushaiama.
We acknowledge and commend the numerous efforts already undertaken by the EU and the EEAS in this regard, especially through the Human Rights Dialogues conducted with Bahrain on issues like: the release of political prisoners (Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja) and the abolition of death penalty or halt of executions (Mohammed Ramadan, Husain al Moosa). However, we regret that they have not been sufficient to bring about the desired changes. Moreover, the vagueness of the answers to parliamentary questions, and even more the generalist approach of the European institutions to parliamentary requests, contrast with the EEAS’ EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024. Indeed, the obligations contained in it revolve around the effective and transparent implementation of the Parliament’s resolutions. While hoping to gain some clarity after the Plan’s mid-term review due in June 2023, we want to stress how all of this directly affects the deterioration of Bahrain’s political and humanitarian situation.
INCREASE IN ABUSES AND IMPUNITY
Since the violent crackdowns on the peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011, the Government of Bahrain has increasingly restricted the space for activists and civil society actors to freely voice their opinions and defend human rights in the country.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) offered hope for Bahrain to peacefully reform the country. However, as the seven calls by the Parliament for the kingdom to implement BICI’s recommendations suggest, these hopes were short-lived, and Bahrain maintains a regime with autocratic tendencies which effectively controls every institution in the country, preventing independent and impartial investigations and prosecution of human rights violators. Authorities vigorously prosecute individuals solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Activists like Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Abduljalil al-Singace and Hassan Mushaima, mentioned in Parliament’s resolutions more than a dozen times, remain imprisoned, serving life sentences unlawfully issued to them for criticizing the Bahraini government. In addition, their health conditions have constantly deteriorated since their arrest as they are being denied adequate medical assistance by Bahraini authorities. These constitute just a few cases among the hundreds of activists, human rights defenders, political opponents, or religious leaders who have been jailed for criticizing Bahrain’s authoritarian tendencies.
Bahrain praises itself for having established several mechanisms that are supposed to address human rights concerns, such as the Ombudsman for the Ministry of Interior and the National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR). However, these lack the necessary will or independence to objectively investigate violations and enforce human rights in Bahrain, failing to fully comply with international standards outlined in the Paris Principles. Authorities’ investigations rarely prosecute security personnel implicated in human rights violations and abuses, especially among higher ranks, and prisoners and their families continuously file complaints with no result. Essentially, these institutions have served as facades to attempt to deceive the international community, including the European Union, into believing that the country is taking steps to reform. Difficulties with the vagueness of the resolutions and repetitive demands made by the Parliament, bears all the hallmarks of a failed intervention. Apart from condemning Bahrain’s failure to reform, the EU has not made meaningful steps to ensure Bahraini authorities comply with their international obligations.
Thus, a culture of impunity has thrived at large in Bahrain over the last decade and solidified over the last five years, fostering an entrenched belief that Bahraini authorities are above the law. Bahrain’s criminal proceedings are marked by police brutality and repression, arbitrary detentions, torture and denial of due process, all of which have been highlighted not only by human rights organisations but also by US State Department reports and the UN Special Rapporteurs. Lack of accountability is likely within high level authorities of Bahrain. Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, one of the king’s sons and a high-ranking official, serves as an example. He allegedly participated in the torture of activists during the government’s suppression of pro-democracy protests in 2011. Despite such accusations, Prince Nasser has not been dismissed from his positions of National Security Advisor, Royal Guard Commander and Representative of HM the King for Humanitarian Works and Youth Affairs. He also remains deeply involved in national affairs, including sporting events and diplomatic activities.
To conclude, in order for Bahrain to abide to international human rights obligations, real accountability for crimes of torture and other human rights violations must not only be demanded through resolutions but also effectively pushed for by the European Union. Justice must always take priority over impunity. Though the resolutions issued by the Parliament and the EEAS Action Plan and Human Rights Dialogues represent significant efforts to drive positive change in Bahrain and draw attention to specific issues, this approach is no longer sufficient for the scale of ongoing human rights violations and the dismissive attitude of the Bahraini government. To effectively pressure the government to reconsider its intensified assault on civil society and political and civil rights, the EU must implement concrete measures to sanction those responsible for and involved in violations, showing that it will not tolerate the continued violation of basic human rights.
The lack of significant change in human rights in Bahrain following the passed resolutions reflects the EU’s apathetic approach to this issue. Inconsistency in the implementation of existing resolutions still allows government officials to perpetuate injustices and promote the culture of impunity in Bahrain. We firmly assert that the EEAS should take advantage of the existing resolutions.
Therefore, we count on the essential action of the European Parliament and the EEAS to:
- ensure the “asks” of resolutions are effectively implemented in the long term;
- attend follow-ups by the European Parliament on the passed resolutions;
- impose travel bans and financial sanctions on the Bahraini government officials responsible for human rights violations; and
- create an independent authority to make sure EU funds are correctly spent on the improvement of human rights in Bahrain.