Closure of civic space constitutes an existential threat to independent civil society in Bahrain
CIVICUS speaks to Michael Payne (left), Director of Advocacy, and Sam Jones (right), a researcher at Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB). ADHRB is an international civil society organisation of Americans and Bahrainis seeking to expand the kingdom’s rapidly closing civil society space through dialogue and reform.
1. What are the main tactics used to restrict civic space in Bahrain? What have been the most serious recent violations of civil society rights in the country?
In recent weeks and months, Bahrain’s human rights situation has dramatically deteriorated, with civil society space now all but completely restricted. Since January 2017, the Government of Bahrain has taken several unprecedented repressive measures, including allowing military courts to try civilians; re-empowering the National Security Agency, the country’s intelligence body, with domestic arrest authority; ending a de facto moratorium on the death penalty by executing three torture victims; launching two lethal raids on peaceful demonstrations in the town of Diraz, killing at least six protesters; dissolving the last major political opposition group, Wa’ad (also known as the National Democracy Action Society); closing the only independent media outlet, Al-Wasat; torturing and intimidating activists and their families, including human rights defender Ebtisam al-Saegh; and sentencing Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), to two years in prison on charges related solely to free expression.
In many respects, the current level of repression is worse even than in 2011, when the government declared a state of emergency and violently crushed the country’s pro-democracy protest movement. Many of the current restrictions on civil society space have been legislated or implemented under ‘normal’ circumstances – rather than under a state of emergency as in 2011 – leading some activists to describe the present situation as one of “de facto martial law.” Specifically, the expansion of the military courts’ jurisdiction and the restoration of the NSA’s arrest authority may, together, constitute the foundation of a parallel legal system for individuals deemed to jeopardise national security, whereby ‘enemies of the state’ like civil society activists can be more rapidly and quietly disappeared, tortured, imprisoned, or even executed by the authorities. This is a very serious threat to the re-emergence of a functioning, independent civil society in Bahrain, as well as to any prospect of sustainable political reconciliation and stability for the kingdom.
2. Why is the state restricting Bahraini civil society so severely? What are its motivations and what is at stake?
Given the opacity of a state like Bahrain – with all key positions of power occupied by members of the same Al Khalifa royal family – it is not entirely clear what is primarily motivating its current assault on civil society. Notably, at the height of the unrest in 2011, so-called ‘reformists’ in the monarchy – generally understood to be led by the king’s son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad – purportedly urged restraint and sought to secure a sustainable political resolution through dialogue with the opposition. Simultaneously, ‘hardliners’ like Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman and the Khawalid – a branch of the royal family distinct from that of the king and which is infamous for anti-Shia prejudice – pushed to securitise the unrest and crush it with force, at least implicitly working to undermine the dialogue approach. If there is a single motivation running through both camps, it is primarily the survival of the monarchy in either a constitutional or absolute form, respectively.
Throughout 2011, the king appeared to vacillate between both approaches, following the historical precedent of interchanging nominal reforms or attempted co-optation of civil society activism with brute force. These paradoxical approaches culminated in the violent destruction of the Pearl Roundabout protest encampment, on one hand, and the establishment of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), on the other.
Yet, despite the government’s acceptance of the BICI’s 26 recommendations to open civil society space and redress human rights violations, its disingenuous efforts to implement these reforms suggest that the hard-line approach has ultimately come to dominate the monarchy’s strategy. For this camp, and increasingly the monarchy as a whole, the goal appears to be simple maintenance of power, animated by a royal/familial or even sectarian chauvinism aimed at marginalising the non-royal/Shia majority. Though the monarchy is not monolithic, this securitised, anti-Shia strategy dovetails with the entire system’s more pragmatic interest in ensuring another broad-based, cross-sectarian civil society movement does not re-emerge to credibly demand basic freedoms and an end to royal kleptocracy or corruption. Notably, the hard-line leadership also effectively controls the security establishment, and it has used institutions like the Ministry of Interior, the National Security Agency, and the Ministry of Justice to frame the opposition – and even independent civil society at large – as a sectarian security problem to be dealt with through selective law enforcement or sheer violence.
As the government largely coalesced around this core strategy over the last several years, it became a bit easier to see the motivation behind the severity of the current restrictions on civil society. Bahrain’s history of vibrant, independent civil society movements and institutions is unique to the Gulf region, and any government strategy to fully eliminate or dominate this landscape therefore requires significant force. The government’s embrace of a wholly hard-line position on independent civil society necessarily entails the steady escalation in violence and repression that we have been witnessing recently.
Lastly, perhaps the most proximate motivator is the upcoming elections for the lower house of Bahrain’s parliament, the National Assembly’s Council of Representatives, expected in late 2018. The National Assembly, as a whole, is legislatively hamstrung and the upper house remains royally appointed, so it is largely unable or unwilling to act as an effective check on the executive. However, the government likely sees the elections as a symbolic opportunity to persuade the world it has made democratic progress while simultaneously engineering a pliant lower house with a false claim to international legitimacy. To be sure the monarchy’s core supporters – sometimes referred to as “tribal independents,”or members of families with traditional patronage ties to the Al Khalifa that remain unaligned with any organised political group – secure a large proportion of the vote, the government has been actively clearing the stage of any licensed opposition in advance of the election. Formal political parties remain illegal in Bahrain, but the authorities have dissolved all major opposition societies, which act as de facto parties, since the events of 2011: Amal in 2012, Al-Wefaq in 2016; and Wa’ad in 2017. Leading members of all three of these groups – as well as smaller opposition organisations like Al-Wahdawi – are either currently imprisoned, facing charges, or have been subjected to some other form of judicial harassment or intimidation. Moreover, the government has continued to engage in targeted gerrymandering to undermine the constituencies of not just these opposition groups but also societies traditionally allied with the monarchy, such as the Al-Minbar Muslim Brotherhood affiliate and the Al-Asala Salafi organisation. All these trends suggest that the government may intend to seize the opportunity presented by the 2018 elections to dispense with organised political groupings and establish new, reliable patronage networks of non-aligned ‘independents’ loyal to the royal family. If the government can succeed at restricting independent media coverage of the elections, as well as any effective local monitoring, it may think that it will be able to present self-serving political consolidation as evidence of genuine democratisation – at the expense of the actual opposition.
3. What roles are being played by outside government in the repression of Bahraini civil society?
Bahrain is a very small country with growing economic problems, chief among them the virtual depletion of oil. Both strategically and financially, it is extremely dependent on external allies like Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the former colonial power, the United Kingdom. The governments of all three have had a significant impact on the evolution of repression since 2011.
Saudi Arabia has played the most visible role, leading a contingent of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s Peninsula Shield Force into Bahrain to support the kingdom’s final push to clear the 2011 Pearl Roundabout protests. While it is unclear if these troops have directly committed any human rights violations – the BICI found that they predominantly guarded infrastructure, freeing up additional Bahraini security forces to attack the demonstrations, but some form of the Peninsula Shield Force remains stationed in Bahrain and has faced sporadic allegations of abuse – the deployment either forced or confirmed the government’s turn towards a securitised, hard-line approach to the unrest. It is speculated that the Saudi leadership, which has rarely abided any semblance of independent civil and political society, long disapproved of Bahraini government concessions or reforms, urging it to forcefully quell all dissent. Similarly, the Saudi government, competing with Iran over regional dominance, has historically propagated or at least tolerated anti-Shia hate speech and a narrative of sectarian conflict that casts Arab Shia people as a disloyal fifth column. In recent years it has dealt violently with uprisings in its own predominantly Shia Eastern Province and has reportedly funded Bahrain’s largely pro-government Al-Asala Salafi political society (foreign funding is illegal in Bahrain, but the offence is typically alleged selectively against independent civil society or opposition groups). Altogether, Saudi influence has fallen squarely behind the hard-line approach in Bahrain, entrenching a toxic sectarian narrative and driving a securitised response to dissent.
The US, meanwhile, has taken a complex and often contradictory position on Bahrain in recent years, with the consequent impact dependent on the administration or even branch of government in question. Bahraini-American relations are most strongly centred on the defence partnership, which is oriented around the US naval facility in Manama – one of the most important US military bases in the region and home to the US Fifth Fleet. In 2011 and its aftermath, the US largely sought to moderate the Bahraini government’s response, urging reform and restricting security assistance over human rights concerns. Privately, it appears the US failed to bring all possible pressure to bear – such as threatening to move the Fifth Fleet, something which truly rattles the Bahraini government – allowing the GCC to do what it would with Bahrain in exchange for its support for the NATO intervention in Libya. In the ensuing years, under the Obama administration, the US mostly played a rhetorically positive role, while lifting some restrictions on arms holds. The Trump administration, however, has walked remaining Obama-era restrictions back even further, approving old and new arms transfers devoid of human rights conditions. President Trump’s decision to make Saudi Arabia the destination of his first trip abroad and to meet with Bahrain’s King Hamad – promising a relationship without “strain” – cannot be separated from the kingdom’s move, just days later, to violently raid a peaceful sit-in, killing five protesters and injuring hundreds. It is not a coincidence that Bahrain’s bloodiest day since before 2011 occurred only months into the Trump administration; in fact, the current acting secretary-general of Bahrain’s fatally flawed National Institute for Human Rights – which endorsed the executions that ended Bahrain’s de facto moratorium on the death penalty – summed up the general sentiment among government officials when he tweeted hopefully after the US election: “With @realDonaldTrump as president, the curse of the Arab Spring is officially over.”
While the US influence has been mixed, the UK has more consistently and quietly played a very negative role. Having initially created many of Bahrain’s security institutions, the British government has continued to advise the authorities in their purported attempts to conduct human rights training programmes and establish human rights oversight mechanisms. These initiatives have been decided failures, if they were ever undertaken in good faith at all. While core abuses like torture, enforced disappearance, excessive force, and arbitrary detention have continued apace and, in some cases, increased, the UK has continued to help institutions like the Ministry of Interior Police Ombudsman obscure or even cover up government malfeasance. Though ostensibly created with good intentions, these oversight mechanisms are stymied by flawed mandates and a lack of political will to hold officials accountable. So many years on, rather than restrict support or forcefully rebuke the Bahraini government, the UK still backs these institutions – ultimately allowing the Bahraini authorities to pretend they are implementing reforms while the security forces continue with their primary function: violently suppressing dissent.
Lastly, though the BICI found no evidence of Iranian involvement in the country’s pro-democracy movement, Iranian posturing and its geopolitical competition with the Saudi-led GCC have had a negative impact on Bahraini civil society in a broader sense. The Government of Bahrain has strategically calibrated sectarian rhetoric and policy initiatives to frame independent civil society as solely Shia and Iranian-backed - a narrative that plays well in the GCC and in the US and the UK - and opportunistic Iranian statements often lend rhetorical credence to the otherwise baseless claims of Bahraini authorities.
4. What roles do private sector interests play in these processes?
Private sector interests have unfortunately played a negative role in many cases as well. In 2011, the domestic private sector had a directly negative influence on civil society engagement by cooperating with the government and dismissing thousands of employees on suspicion of participating in protests. The International Trade Union Confederation described the campaign as “an economic massacre following the deplorable human massacre.” Though most of these individuals were ultimately reinstated, ADHRB has received credible reports from local labour activists that many remain dismissed from their positions, and that others have been deprived full compensation and beneﬁts as aﬀorded to them under the government’s agreements with the International Labour Organization. Notably, due to the extreme sectarian hiring bias exhibited in the Bahraini public sector, members of Bahrain’s Shia majority community predominantly find employment in the private sector, and many employees – Shia or otherwise – remain wary of expressing controversial political views for fear of reprisal.
Another form of private sector involvement in Bahrain’s current human rights crisis comes during major international events like the Bahrain Formula One (F1) Grand Prix. For years, the government would increase its violent suppression of protests and gatherings near the Bahrain International Circuit in the weeks leading up to, and throughout, the annual Bahrain Grand Prix race. In response to this, ADHRB filed a complaint with F1 through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) complaint mechanism. This complaint ultimately led to arbitration, and the ultimate adoption of a human rights due diligence policy by F1.
Further evidence of detrimental roles of international business interests is found in the security sector. While arms manufacturers are not typically sympathetic when individuals are killed using the weapons they produce, Bahrain has caused controversy in the arms industry regarding their lethal misuse of non-lethal crowd control weapons. For example, Bahraini security forces have on many occasions fired long-range teargas canisters at individual protestors at close range, thus using these gas canisters as projectiles themselves. Ministry of Interior forces also often fire birdshot shotgun blasts at protesters at close range, as happened in the lethal Diraz raid in May 2017 where five protesters were killed. Industry experts have commented that the extent of Bahrain’s violation of end use agreements and abuse of teargas and other crowd control weapons was “unprecedented.” As a result, a number of countries including the US and South Korea have ceased all teargas and light arms sales to Bahrain.
5. How has Bahraini civil society responded to these restrictions?
It has been extremely difficult for Bahraini civil society to respond. The current restrictions effectively constitute an existential threat to independent civil society. Since 2011, we have consistently expressed grave concern that civil and political society space is closing – since 2016 that space has virtually closed. As reflected by the CIVICUS Monitor rating for Bahrain, nearly every independent civil society activist or organisation in the country has faced some form of attack, from judicial harassment to outright forced dissolution. Labour unions, trade associations, religious organisations, political societies and human rights groups have all come under assault. Many activists and organisations are simply unable to keep up the same pace of work, occupied instead with legal battles or avoiding reprisal. Others have left the country seeking asylum, hoping to continue their work from abroad.
Equally troubling is the consequent risk of increased violence following such complete closure of peaceful avenues for mobilisation and dissent. Fortunately, as noted by the US State Department, last year actually saw a decline in terror attacks in Bahrain; however, it is a constant concern that the government tactic of falsely equating all peaceful activism with terrorism is a self-fulfilling prophecy that will ultimately generate heightened violence and instability.
Q: What would it take to build democratic institutions in Bahrain, and what roles could civil society play in it?
As has been observed of Iraq, the Ba’athist regime and American invasion together devastated what had once been a robust civil society, leaving those that survived the war and occupation with a vastly diminished civil society infrastructure to draw on in rebuilding the country. This left a void that all manner of negative actors could exploit for their own ends, distorting and forestalling the development of strong democratic institutions.
Bahrain is not yet at a stage that compares to post-war Iraq, but it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which such total repression or violence similarly undermines the country’s traditionally vigorous and extensive civil society networks. Fortunately, Bahrain’s mainstream civil society and opposition movements have remained steadfastly committed to nonviolent activism and international engagement, and if they can endure the government’s intensifying restrictions they will play the key role in building sustainable democratic institutions.
For this to happen, however, will require a near total reversal of the government’s current approach, and a re-empowerment of whatever ‘reformist’ strands still exist within the monarchy. The government would need to be willing to offer at least some genuine democratic reforms upfront to demonstrate that any ensuing dialogue or reconciliation process was being undertaken in good faith, rather than a stunt. Unlike countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain does have the basic parliamentary infrastructure to build on as well, so a critical, viable first concession the government could make would be to reform the National Assembly to make it a fully representative, bicameral parliament. Allowing this parliament to then select a new Prime Minister to replace Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has held the post for more than 40 years, would represent a major step toward ensuring accountability and oversight for the cabinet, in addition to symbolically indicating a new era for the country.
6. What support does Bahraini civil society need from international civil society and the intergovernmental system?
Bahraini civil society has long sought the support of the international community, including international institutions and mechanisms, and from international civil society organisations.
We have worked extensively with a range of Bahraini civil society actors to empower their engagement in forums like the UN Human Rights Council, and helped to facilitate bringing their on-the-ground documentation of human rights abuses to the attention of the UN Special Procedures. Since this programme began in 2013, we have worked with our partners to document and report on hundreds of human rights violations in Bahrain. This has helped to create a growing body of documentation and reporting issued by UN human rights experts, and endorsed by the UN system.
Further advocacy campaigns with coalitions of Bahraini civil society groups, UN, European Union and other international actors have resulted in a number of victories and success stories over the years. In response to diverse international pressure, the Bahraini government has, at times, released various political prisoners or human rights defenders like Nabeel Rajab, Maryam al-Khawaja, Zeinab al-Khawaja and Ebrahim Sharif. Several years ago, Bahraini civil society, with the support and protection of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), was able to carry out a series of technical missions in Bahrain, which included conferences, training seminars and consultative visits. While this level of cooperation and access has declined in recent years, Bahrain’s civil society remains very committed to international cooperation and support.
Bahrain has also enjoyed a significant amount of attention in international political forums such as the UN Human Rights Council and the European Parliament. Since 2011, there have been a series of five successive, multilateral, and cross-regional joint statements issued in the Human Rights Council on the human rights situation in Bahrain. With as many as 48 governments raising collective concern over on-going abuses in the kingdom, these statements have served as a valuable tool for maintaining important scrutiny on Bahrain’s human rights record, and provide validation and protection for the work of domestic human rights actors. In the European Union too, Bahrain has received repeated scrutiny from members of the European Parliament through repeated human rights resolutions that have addressed cases of human rights defenders, political prisoners and executions, among other systematic abuses.
Given today’s increasingly closed domestic civil society space, Bahraini human rights defenders and activists rely more and more on external protected spaces for furthering their human rights work. Access remains a key problem, both for international actors to enter Bahrain to carry out human rights work, and for Bahraini civil society to travel freely outside Bahrain without fear of arbitrary travel bans, or violent reprisals upon return. However, civil society still works to organise conferences, events and training programmes within their region and further abroad, and has relied increasingly on exiled Bahraini communities to further their work from outside the country.
ADHRB, and our Bahraini and international partners, will continue to work to support Bahrain’s human rights defenders and civil society activists in furthering their struggle for human rights, accountability, transparency and redress in Bahrain and in international forums.
- Civic space in Bahrain is rated as “closed” by the CIVICUS Monitor.
- Get in touch with ADHRB through their website or Facebook page, or follow @MichaelBPayne and @SamuelAJones_ on Twitter.