Stained Glass Transparency: Bahrain’s Latest Obfuscation of International Human Rights Accountability

Bahrain has again indefinitely postponed a visit by the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, the latest in a series of attempts to deter human rights observers from scrutinizing the kingdom’s dismal human records record. The government told the rapporteur, Juan Méndez, that his visit could be “immensely damaging” to the Bahrain National Dialogue, an initiative that should welcome such a visit if it truly seeks to promote reform. This disappointing development follows the recent release of the US State Department’s report that criticized Bahrain for its ongoing human rights violations.

The State Department cited local and international NGO reports, including those from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), which documented torture and other forms of ill treatment on the part of Bahraini security forces, as well as the government’s crackdown on human rights defenders. These practices have continued and show no signs of stopping nearly 18 months after a government-commissioned report documented systematic use of torture and abuse against detainees. While Bahrain is desperately trying to present a sense of normalcy – such as by hosting the Formula One Grand Prix earlier this week – its failure to correct its human rights record only demonstrates the dire need for an independent investigation.

Bahrain’s decision to cancel Méndez’s visit, which was scheduled for next month, is of great concern. The government must put an end to its policy of shutting out independent investigators. Researchers at international human rights organizations, including PHR, have been denied entry despite repeated attempts to investigate ongoing abuse. When PHR has been able to conduct research in the country, we have found evidence of systematic violations against peaceful protesters and those who stand up for them.

Last year, PHR released a report on the Bahraini authorities’ indiscriminate use of toxic chemical agents against civilians. PHR highlighted many of the subjects also included in the State Department’s report, such as law enforcement officials’ failure to minimize harm against protesters. Because the government has still not held a single high-level official accountable for instituting a policy and culture of brutality against its own citizens, we remain skeptical of Bahrain’s claims that its human rights record has improved. The same people are still in power, the same policies are still in place, and the “National Dialogue” has served as a convenient veneer for the Bahraini government while crackdowns against protesters continue.

While PHR welcomed last month’s acquittal of 21 of 23 medics accused of misdemeanors, we remain cautious about progress in a place where acquittals of human rights activists have recently been overturned. Moreover, human rights violations continue to be perpetrated in an environment increasingly hostile to external observation, a movement hidden in the shadow of the doctors’ acquittal. Bahrain’s Parliament is considering a draft law that would essentially erase the ability of NGOs to operate independently by requiring government approval of any NGO activities within its borders. Human rights defenders, including medical professionals who were harassed, arrested, convicted, and sentenced just for aiding protesters or exercising their basic rights, have not yet received any reparation. Many still languish in prison.

With the cancellation of Méndez’s visit and other significant limitations on independent NGO activity, Bahrain is at great risk of becoming a stained glass state, projecting an image that is pretty to look at, but masking the atrocities taking place within. Without independent investigations needed to shine a light on the internal situation, any human rights accomplishments made through the current process will be brief and insincere at best.

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