General: UN Human Rights Council events call for accountability for human rights violations in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia


The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) organised several successful events with NGO partners and United Nations Special Rapporteurs and experts at the UN Human Rights Council’s 40th Session held in Geneva from 25 February to 22 March 2019, focusing on accountability for human rights violations such as torture in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. GCHR also met with many partners and member states to advocate for human rights defenders in prison and at risk in those three countries and the wider region.

At an event on 14 March organised jointly with FIDH, GCHR and sponsors discussed the “Strong measures needed to advance accountability” in Yemen. Co-sponsors were Ceasefire Center for Civilian Rights, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Front Line Defenders, CIVICUS, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), ARTICLE 19, Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights, PEN International, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), IFEX, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Index on Censorship, and MENA Rights Group. 

The event focused on the report of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen (GEE), whose mandate was renewed by the UN in September 2018. Manon Karatas of FIDH and Mark Lattimir of Ceasefire were among the event speakers who expressed support for the GEE’s work due to the numerous human rights violations that have occurred in Yemen, where human rights defenders and civilians have faced enormous challenges.

Kamel Jendoubi, the GEE’s Chairperson, discussed the report issued by the GEE in 2018. “This report found some understanding from many parties, both Yemeni and international. But as you know this report faced criticism and sometimes even rejection by some parties to the conflict.” There were other difficulties with the report, related to time and security conditions.

He continued, “We also believe that no peaceful solution can be achieved, during peace talks, or have seriousness, pragmatism, and action unless addressing human rights violations and the need for accountability is embedded in its context. Because we cannot build the future by ignoring the past when it is full of serious and extensive violations of human rights and when war criminals or others who committed grave violations are free and are not being held accountable.”

Jendoubi concluded that the GEE would draft a new report, which would “address some aspects that were not addressed in the first report, which is of course important because we never said that our report was comprehensive and complete.” The next report will include some material that was already gathered and “also address important new issues related to human rights violations, that are very serious. The results were numerous, and many of the victims were civilians, whether children, women, or elderly people, and even the nature of Yemen itself was affected a lot by this armed conflict.”

Safa Al-Ahmed, award-wining journalist and documentary filmmaker, echoed concerns about being denied access to Yemen. “Even before talking about how we report from Yemen we have to talk about how we gain access to Yemen,” she said.

GCHR Executive Director Khalid Ibrahim, who moderated the event, concluded by noting that the GEE has the support of international human rights NGOs and echoing the principle that “accountability leads to peace.”

A separate UN HRC side event on 13 March, co-organised by GCHR and Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), discussed “the role of the United Nations and international mechanisms to end systematic torture in Bahrain.” The event was co-sponsored by IFEX, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), CIVICUS, the European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR), FIDH, OMCT, CIHRS and Human Rights Watch.

GCHR’s Zaynab Al-Khawaja, a Bahraini woman human rights defender who has spent months in prison, moderated the event. She said, “Torture for me is not just numbers but it's about real people such as my father Abdulhadi who was tortured and was not able to open his jaw to smile in the court in Bahrain.” Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who is serving a life sentence, is one of the Founding Directors of GCHR, along with Nabeel Rajab.

Prominent human rights defender and blogger Ali Abdulemam discussed his experience of torture in detention in 2010 and 2011, after he was arrested in connection with his blog Bahrain Online. He was beaten badly and held in solitary confinement. Following the popular movement protests in 2011, he went into hiding fearing he would be arrested and tortured again. He was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 15 years but managed to escape the country. Abdulemam noted that more than 200 Bahraini human rights defenders have been summoned recently by the National Security Agency in order to silence them.

Human Rights Watch researcher Aya Majzoub said that the case of footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi, who was arrested in Thailand while on vacation in November 2018, shows that Bahrain is capable of committing violations beyond its borders and there is a need to put more international pressure to end the systematic torture in the country. An international uproar helped free Al-Araibi and return him to Australia, where he now has citizenship. Majzoub also noted that Bahrain uses sporting events such as the Formula One race to burnish its image.

ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla said the unconditional support given by the United Kingdom and the United States is the main reason for continued impunity for rights violations in Bahrain. For example, Rajab remains in prison serving prison sentences which violate his right to freedom of expression, including a five-year sentence for tweeting about the war in Yemen and torture in Bahrain’s prisons.

OMCT’s Gerald Staberock also noted the worrisome concern that there is a structure for torture in the country and nobody is looking after the victims who are left behind without any care or treatment.

Finally, GCHR, the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, MENA Rights Group, and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) organised a well-attended event on 4 March on “Saudi Arabia – Time for Accountability”. Panelists including two UN Special Rapporteurs called for the immediate release of human rights defenders, including lawyers, journalists, and women’s rights activists, who have been arbitrarily detained or disappeared in a lengthy crackdown on dissent that peaked in 2018 around the time women were allowed to drive.

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, and Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, continued to urge Saudi Arabia to live up to its international obligations, including allowing UN representatives to visit the country.

Participants also called for an immediate end to the use of torture and abuse, such as solitary confinement and sexual assault, against women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia. The event was co-sponsored by ALQST, CIVICUS, Global Fund for Women, Women’s March Global, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), and Equality Now. Read the full event summary at