23 February 2018 – This year, Bahrain will hold the elections for the National Assembly – the second to take place in Bahrain since more than 200,000 people took the streets in February 2011 to demand more openness in the political process. In 2014, the elections were boycotted by the opposition due to a lack of serious reforms. Four years later, Bahrainis’ hopes for reforms are gone, and Bahrain democratic space is now completely shut down. Since mid-2016, an orchestrated crackdown on the rights to free expression, assembly and association has severely undermined the prospects for a political solution to Bahrain’s domestic unrest.
The event “Bahrain: 2018 elections amid human rights crisis” hosted by MEP Julie Ward (S&D) on 20 February 2018 in the European Parliament aimed to analyse the policy options available to EU policymakers and civil society actors, to help ensure human rights reforms, opening of the civic and political space, and how, if possible, to contribute to free and fair elections in Bahrain.
The seminar brought together some EU policymakers, including members of the European Parliament and EU diplomatic community, as well as Bahrain’s civil society experts. Speakers included:
- Julie Ward, S&D, European Parliament
- Javier Nart, ALDE, European Parliament
- Josef Weidenholzer, S&D, European Parliament
- Luis Miguel Bueno Padilla, International Officer for the Gulf Countries, MENA.4 Arabian Peninsula, Iraq and Regional Policies, European External Action Service
- Emma Achilli, Head of the European Union Office, Front Line Defenders
- Yusuf Alhoori, Bahraini activist
- Jean-Marie Rogue, Delegate to the EU, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
Members of the European Parliament opened the floor by stressing the need for strong EU action, condemning the human rights crisis in the Kingdom.
Josef Weidenholzer, MEP, opened the discussion by underlining that peace, security and stability can only be achieved through democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights, not by authoritarian measures. In this respect, he noted that elections are an essential element of democracy but only if fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of expression and freedom of association, are respected. He also stressed the importance of the universal promotion of human rights despite the geo-politic difficulties in the region.
Javier Nart, MEP, who participated with Joseph Weidenholzer to the recent joint AFET-DROI visit to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran, provided instructive comments on the regional dynamics. He denounced the use of counter-terrorism arguments to justify human rights abuses in the region and in Bahrain. He also refused to depict the crisis in Bahrain as just a sectarian division.
Julie Ward, MEP, condemned the worsening of the situation and the current crack down on civil society, including women human rights defenders. She highlight the impact of strong EU action, recalling that Nabeel Rajab was released few days after a joint letter of 103 MEPs in November 2014. She suggested to propose to the Bahraini authorities a European Electoral Observation Mission in Bahrain – at the very least symbolically.
Yusuf Alhoori, Bahraini activist, gave insights on Bahrain’s restrictions of free association. He explained how many organizations have been forced to operate underground, and registered political societies face extreme reprisals, including arbitrary suspensions, asset seizures, dissolution as well as arrest and sentencing of their leaders. There are now no major opposition groups legally operating in Bahrain. In addition, the government continues to manipulate elections through bribery and gerrymandering. “In this context, talking about elections is meaningless” he said. He called the international community to make clear demands on Bahrain to open the space for political and civil society ahead of this year’s vote, or it will be a sham.
Emma Achilli, Front Line Defenders, further developed the harsh crackdown on human rights defenders in Bahrain – including military trials, fabricated charge, use of forced confession, ill-treatment while in detention… She detailed illustrative cases including Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Nabeel Rajab, Ebtisam Al-Saegh, Nedal Al-Salman and Zainab Al-Khamees. She underlined the reprisals faced by human rights defenders for cooperating with United Nations mechanisms, noting that at least 22 of them were summoned, and most faced travel bans, within two days before Bahrain Universal Periodic Review in May 2017 in Geneva.
Jean-Marie Rogue, FIDH, provided a deep analysis on the deterioration of the situation in Bahrain and the corresponding response from the European Union. Following the 2011 report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), the Bahraini authorities emphasized their commitment to reforms and the European Union supported those efforts. In 2014, human rights defenders contested a meaningless national dialogue and opposition societies boycotted the elections for lack of reforms and gerrymandering. Jean-Marie Rogue noted the disappointing response of the EU and its Member States. Willing to maintain confidence and trust with Bahrain, they blame the opposition for boycotting the elections instead of putting their demands for free and fair elections on Bahrain authorities. In 2015, Bahrain joined the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Since then the situation has dramatically deteriorated with the authorities backtracking on BICI commitments in 2017 (executions, implementation of military trials for civilians, enforcement powers restored to National Security Agency, dissolution of opposition societies, closure of independent newspaper,…). Jean-Marie Rogue closed his presentation by calling on the EU to share with the Bahraini authorities their expectations for free and fair elections. He further insisted on the importance of European Parliament’s mobilization and encouraged DROI to request again a visit to Bahrain.
Finally, Luis Miguel Bueno Padilla, EEAS, presented EU engagement with Bahrain authorities including through public statements, private diplomacy, the work of the EU Delegation in Riyadh and the informal working group on human rights. He highlighted the need for EEAS and the European Parliament to support each’s other work in conveying clear and consistent messages to Bahraini authorities, notably on the case of Nabeel Rajab. He also valued EEAS consultation with civil society.
To conclude, ECDHR noted the need for EU institutions and EU Member States to convey a clear early warning message to Bahraini authorities: without any major confidence-building measures from Bahraini authorities such as the release of political prisoners, the reopening of opposition societies, and the presence of independent monitors, there is no chance that Bahrain will see a free and fair election. By preventively stating the conditions for free and fair elections, EU policy-makers will be able to assess the measures adopted by Bahrain’s government in the months leading up to the elections and during the electoral process.
As stated in EU Handbook on Election Observation, “an election process should be carried out in an environment in which the population can fully enjoy all its political rights and freedoms. […] a seemingly well-run election can be meaningless, if essential civil and political rights and fundamental freedoms are not guaranteed.”