A UN Human Rights team visited Bahrain from 13 to 17 December last year, on the invitation of the Government, shortly after the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report on the human rights situation in the country. The team expressed concern that the country is deeply divided and emphasised the need for accountability.
Frej Fenniche, who heads the Middle East and North Africa Section of the UN Human Rights office, was part of the team that visited the country. He shares the highlights of the team’s four-day visit.
Q: What were the main highlights during your mission to Bahrain?
A: When we went to Bahrain a few weeks ago, what we found there is a much divided society. There is fear among civil society organizations and many human rights activists, in particular the violence and the human rights violations. The other point is that there is a contradiction in terms of political will from the Government to find solutions based on the report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry and on the other hand, there is also lack of confidence in the society on any decision or measure taken by the Government.
Q: So what were your impressions about the human rights situation there? Do you feel like it is a situation that is volatile?
A: What we found is not very different from the starting point in March and April . In fact, many issues are not yet resolved: in terms of political prisoners; people who were fired from their jobs; in terms of freedom of NGOs to work in a very normal situation; in terms of the legal framework. And, in addition to these, many people are still being arrested; there are many demonstrations on a daily basis. The way the Government is dealing with demonstrations, most of which are peaceful, is the same way it did before. The use of force in many cases is excessive. And while we were there, two people were killed and many others injured during demonstrations.
Q: Looking forward, how does the UN Human Rights office intend to support the protection of human rights in Bahrain to change the current situation?
A: What we can do for Bahrain is first to be there, to improve the dialogue between the Government, governmental institutions and civil society organizations, including the opposition. How do we improve dialogue among these groups? First, it is important to make suggestions to the Government about concrete measures to build confidence between the Government and civil society, particularly in terms of protection. I think what is needed in Bahrain is more protection measures and institutions rather than technical cooperation. Of course, we will help the Government in terms of capacity building in the judicial and police sectors. But one of the main issues is the transitional justice process, meaning the truth, because this is a reality. Despite the fact that we have a report of an international Commission of Inquiry, which very important, the truth is not yet clear for everybody. In addition, based on that, the justice process - justice for victims but also accountability of people or individuals who were involved in violations of human rights, needs to be achieved.
Q: You met with various people. You met with stakeholders in Government and Government actors and also victims. Is there something that is memorable, something you would like to tell us?
A: During our mission in Bahrain, what I remember now as something very important that I should mention is a meeting with doctors and nurses, many of whom were arrested, tortured and also fired from their jobs. Now, some of them have been reinstated in their jobs but many are still out [of their jobs]. I remember a doctor, a physician crying who told us, “please, please we need you in this country, we need your support, and we need your presence here because we need protection.” This is something that conveyed to us the situation in the country. There is fear, and there is lack of confidence in terms of the relationships between the society and the Government and Government institutions.
Q: Is there anything you would like to add?
A: I think what is important for Bahrain is that it should not limit itself to the recommendations of this report, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. But should also look in to other aspects: such as, the issue of discrimination, the issue of marginalised groups and also the principle of citizenship. The Government and civil society organizations and political opposition can built on a national understanding and a common ground regarding citizenship. And to what extent it can improve this notion of citizenship, equality, freedom as well as co-operation.
Confrontation is not the solution and I think the Government, the King himself, is in favour of conducting this dialogue and everybody should participate in it.
1 February 2012