“The absence of international accountability for systematic and gross human rights violations… paves the way for a culture of impunity,” stated Sheikh Maytham Al Salman via video message at the event “Challenges for Democracy: Human Rights in the Gulf States.” Organized by SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, RADDHO and the Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (GIDHR), the event was held on 8 June, 2017 as part of the 35th session of the UN Human Rights Council taking place in Geneva, Switzerland. Panelists included Fadi Al-Qadi (RightsCable.com), René Naba (Madaniya), Sheikh Maytham Al Salman (Bahrain Centre for Human Rights), J. Choi (SALAM DHR) and moderator Amock Alikuleti (RADDHO) who discussed the deteriorating conditions facing human rights defenders and political activists in the Gulf States, with a specific focus on Bahrain. They specifically mentioned the constant risks that human rights defenders face by speaking out against government actions. Activists, political opponents and government critics have been systematically and brutally targeted in the name of security.
Panelist Fadi Al-Qadi, Middle East & North Africa Human Rights Commentator for RightsCable, joined via video message. He focused on the important role that human rights defenders play and how the context that they are operating under in the Gulf States is important to understand. He mentioned the movement and reforms in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, when the status quo was challenged. “We are talking about countries that are ruled by monarchies and emirs that, in addition to running the countries, in practice are owning the countries,” he noted. The Gulf countries do not, in general, have civil society as part of their function and existence. That is where the role of the human rights defenders enter, as they “represent symbols for their people, for the aspiration to become… fully empowered citizens who can take up their issues and causes with their governments.” Fadi Al-Qadi specifically mentioned Nabeel Rajab, human rights defender and President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who challenged the government of Bahrain, including about their position on the war with Yemen, and has been detained for one year and has faced torture. The degree of tolerance of the government in Bahrain and other countries in the Gulf is declining, he stated. Fadi Al-Qadi ended his message by calling on members of the international human rights community to keep supporting human rights defenders and their important efforts.
He was followed by J. Choi, Senior Researcher at SALAM who shared testimony of her visits and research on the human rights situation in Bahrain over the past three years. She noted the sharp contract between well-maintained areas of central Manama and the local villages; on her first day in Bahrain, there was a protest in a nearby village, as security forces had killed a teenaged boy just the day before. She noted many threats to freedom of expression and of participation. For example, she noted the dissolution of of Wa’ad, the largest liberal and secular political party, and Al-Wefaq, the largest opposition party in Bahrain. J. Choi spoke of her visit to a village called Sanabis “where you cannot find any single household without having no family members in prison.” She brought up the ill treatment of Ebtisam Saegh who was detained for her human rights work, and faced beatings, torture, sexual assault and threats by authorities. On a personal note, J. Choi added that it took courage for her to speak about these issues publicly for fears of being blacklisted or banned from entering the country that she is specializing her research. However, she ended with a call for others to raise their voices and to continue the support until Bahrain implements legal and political changes.
Sheikh Maytham Al Salman was able to join the discussion virtually, where he focused on the conditions that lead to continued human rights violations and the need to pressure the Bahraini government to protect, and not mistreat, activists. He notes that there is widespread impunity in Bahrain and that extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual assaults and other gross violations are committed “in the daylight” in Bahrain. Not punishing human rights violators sends a signal that there are no consequences and that this behavior is accepted, he noted. As well, it messages to the government of Bahrain that there is the absence of international mechanisms to hold it accountable for its human rights violations. “Impunity creates an environment conducive to repetition of violations and a complete failure in the protection of human rights defenders,” he stated. In regards to the treatment of human rights defenders, he quoted the torturers of Ebtisam Saegh, who told her “no one hears you, no once can protect you.” He therefore called for human rights organizations, the UN Human Rights Council, the Office Of The United Nations High Commissioner For Human Rights (UNOHCHR), governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and human rights defenders to directly reply to violations and demand the government of Bahrain to provide the necessary protection for human rights defenders.
Then René Naba, journalist and Director of Madanya and former correspondent of Monde Diplomatique, Middle East, speaking in French, joined the conversation. He focused on giving a historical account and background for the current situation in the Gulf, and elements that contributed to igniting the flames of the Arab Spring. He spoke of the six petromonarchies and stated that each is attached to a Western military base, as just one example of how Arab monarchies are under constant Western “tutelage.” He described in detail the complex relationship between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other regional actors as well as the role and politics surrounding Al Jazeera.
SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights founder Jawad Fairooz was on hand to help answer questions from the audience. He spoke about the formation of a government that sees opposition members banned, half of legislation being appointed by the king, and ineffective outcomes by the current council. He called for a stop to harassments and violations and instead for serious dialogue through national reconciliation and free elections.
The panel expressed a range of views from a number of perspectives but all commented on the need for governments in the Gulf states to take human rights violations seriously and to protect human rights defenders. A dynamic and interested audience provided insightful comments and questions and a chance for dialogue, for example inquiring as to the role of the UN in protecting activists. A video clip described the Universal Periodic Review mechanism, and how it is used to report on human rights abuses, and the shortcomings of the Bahraini government to comply with UPR recommendations. The experts on hand showcased a great number of cases, and therefore opportunities, for the Bahrain government to right the wrongs committed to human rights defenders and ways to create a more inclusive society and representative government.