Bahrain: Putting the EU’s human rights policies into practice

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Flag of Bahrain [Brandon Atkinson]

The EU can help improve the human rights situation in the Persian Gulf, writes Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei.

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei is Director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.

The European Union Delegation to Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia has a positive role to play in promoting human rights in the Arab Gulf, but it has not yet actualised its potential. These five states, plus the United Arab Emirates (which the EU has a separate delegation for), are highly interconnected, both politically and socially. They are simultaneously stalwart geopolitical allies and intense economic rivals, and all have poor human rights records. What happens in one affects all the others.

Take Bahrain’s case first. The country’s major issue is the criminalisation of peaceful activities and dissent since 2011’s Arab Spring uprising and the systematic use of torture against protesters. The EU’s commitment to the protection of human rights defenders, through its 2008 Council Guidelines, has great potential to be exercised in this country, where a strong civil society exists, albeit under severe attack by legislation criminalizing peaceful operation. Most of the high profile human rights defenders are in prison, or have served in prison, or are currently on trial for their peaceful advocacy – or in exile.

Some, like Nabeel Rajab, the imprisoned President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, have strong international links. In Rjab’s case, 67 MEPs called on the government of Bahrain for his immediate release in April 2015 in a joint letter?. Others, like Nabeel’s imprisoned colleague Abdulhadi Al­Khawaja, are EU citizens in need of support.

While the EU is limited in helping sentenced human rights defenders, there is greater scope for providing protection for those activists still operating in the Persian Gulf. Just as the respective states are allies and rivals, the human rights defenders in each state are friends and mentors to one another. Bahrain’s human rights defenders have led the way – two Bahrainis co-­founded the Gulf Center for Human Rights, while men like Nabeel Rajab have worked with and inspired human rights defenders in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and further afield.

By putting into practice the protection of human rights defenders as stated in its Guidelines, the EU would in time also positively influence human rights defenders across the Gulf. It is this kind of holistic approach by which the EU can help improve the human rights situation in the region. The protection of human rights defenders has been the main case study to this article, but it isn’t the only EU human rights policy which can strengthened with this approach.

The use of the death penalty has grown in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In Saudi Arabia, 98 persons have already been executed in 2015. Bahrain is following Saudi’s example and escalating: four sentenced so far this year, compared to three in 2014. Women still face considerable economic and social disparity with men. Across the Gulf, migrant workers are offered little protection against abusive employers.

Acting effectively on human rights policies is difficult, not least because the European Union’s Gulf delegation is based in Riyadh and more difficult to reach for non­Saudi Arabian human rights defenders and rights victims. But this is all the more reason why an approach which engages on inter­regional issues is all the more important.

The recent EEAS human rights delegation to Bahrain, led by Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinis, which met both civil society and government actors, is a success which should be followed with more high profile human rights work. While quiet diplomacy has its place, the EU can do a lot more than it has to date in the Gulf by way of more public diplomacy and greater engagement with human rights defenders on the ground.

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