Bahrain: UNHRCs side event calls for international action to protect rights defenders and solve human rights crisis


At an online side event held during the 44th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, all participants welcomed the release on 09 June 2020 of Nabeel Rajab, one of the most prominent human rights defenders in Bahrain, and called for the Bahraini government to release all human rights defenders and others detained solely for peacefully expressing their opinions. The event, “No prosperous future or sustainable peace in Bahrain without the protection of human rights defenders”, was attended by 80 people and organised by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Americans for Democracy & Human Rights (ADHRB), CIVICUS, International Media Support (IMS) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT).

During the event, moderated by GCHR Executive Director Khalid Ibrahim, speakers noted that there had been widespread international pressure to help free Rajab and other human rights defenders, including repeated reports and communications from UN special mechanisms, resolutions by the European Parliament, designation as a prisoner of conscience by the United States Congress’s Lantos Commission, as well as countless NGO statements and media articles.

In contrast it was highlighted that the widespread releases of almost 1500 common law detainees due to the Covid-19 crisis mostly excluded human rights defenders or opposition members who were detained for expressing critical opinions. They include respected human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who has reported the spread of the disease in Jaw prison. Furthermore, those still detained regularly reported ill-treatment, reprisals for speaking out about their treatment, and the use of solitary confinement. Proper hygiene supplies are not being provided in the overcrowded prison, and medical care, including for people infected with Covid-19, is reportedly inadequate. The prison oversight authority is widely seen as ineffective. 

Both Michel Forst, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of HRDs, and Preethi Nallu, a journalist and IMS Advocacy Consultant, noted they never received permission to enter Bahrain to investigate human rights abuses, despite repeated requests. Vague media laws are used to imprison journalists for any criticism of the government, and websites critical of the government are blocked, said Nallu. 

Husain Abdullah, ADHRB Executive Director, said, "Bahrain is ranked amongst the worst countries when it comes to freedom of press." He noted that Bahrain's biggest Western allies remain silent as the government continues to suppress freedom of press.

Susan Wilding, Head of CIVICUS’s Geneva Office, said, "We call on the government of Bahrain to review laws that restrict freedom of expression."

Censorship can be dangerous. Currently there is no independent information on the effects of Covid-19, notably of the large migrant population that lives in crowded accommodations and have other vulnerabilities due to their status. "Migrant workers and other marginalized groups are overworked and underpaid, and their human rights are being violated," said Ibrahim.

Speakers repeatedly noted that public and diplomatic pressure were the most effective tools and recommended continued efforts through embassies, public appeals, and media attention. Furthermore, approaches should be made to businesses who have or are considering investing in Bahrain to make them aware of reputational risks. 

Forst concluded: "It is now time to start real reforms because it is the only way out of the crisis that is facing the Bahrain government. It is important for governments to meet and support the country, especially citizens who are living in remote areas."