Closing Civil Space: 11 Years After the Arab Springing in Bahrain

On 14 February, Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) held a webinar marking the 11th anniversary of the 2011 Uprising in Bahrain. The webinar reflected on the reforms, or lack thereof, that have taken place in the last decade. It also discussed the challenges facing civil society moving forward in their struggle for human rights. Anthony Hu, from BCHR, moderated this discussion. 

Joe Stork, from Human Rights Watch, opened his remarks by comparing the human rights situation in Bahrain after the 2011 Uprising with the 90s in terms of closed civic space. Joe stressed that although the country has witnessed human rights improvements compared to the 90s, there are still cases of torture and abuse by security forces, and activists are unable to operate inside Bahrain. He touched on the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) Report and the importance of its recommendations, which have not been adequately carried out by the authorities. In providing an overview of the development of the human rights situation in Bahrain, Joe pointed out that Bahrain enjoyed a dynamic civic space for a short period during the early 2000s; soon after, reports of torture and forced confessions reappeared in 2007 and 2008, leading to the 2011 Uprising. The closure of civic space is not only a Bahraini issue, but it is a regional issue. One of the reasons that Bahrain’s civic space is closed is its geographic location and that is adversely affecting how much resonance advocacy efforts create in international capitals. 

Sima Watling, from Amnesty International, agreed with Joe that there are slight improvements on the surface; however, the legal and institutional reforms are inadequate, and the oversight bodies are not working. Sima believes that the authorities’ discourse is not what is really happening in the terrain for people. The civic space has been completely closed in the sense that nobody can say anything without repercussions. Sima gave an example of the Alternative Penalty Law and its implementation to explain the inadequacy of the introduced reforms, where this law benefited a very few and high-profile figures have been excluded. Moreover, it is implemented with harsh conditions: travel bans are imposed, prisoners cannot speak out, and their freedoms are highly restricted. 

Tor Hodenfield, from CIVICUS, started by referring to Bahrain’s position as a “closed country” in the CIVICUS Monitor, which tracks civic space restrictions in real-time around the world. Bahrain is part of a growing group of countries where protest movements, human rights defenders, journalists, media, and civil society organizations do not have the space to operate independently and freely without persecution. CIVICUS data shows that only 3.1 percent of the world population currently lives in “open countries,” where there is a space for people to express diverse opinions, criticize the government, and speak openly. Tor added that despite the severe challenges that Bahrain civil society is subjected to, they are a model of ingenuity and fortitude. Civil society in Bahrain has been able to mitigate the restrictions by developing a whole host of strategies and practices to continue to engage with the international community. They do exceptional research and advocacy despite all the hostility. They have been able to keep the momentum. Tor believes that Bahrain’s civil society has succeeded in keeping Bahrain on the international radar. 

Jostein Hole Kobbeltvedt, from the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights, began his intervention by expressing admiration for how civil society activists in Bahrain have been able to hold on and keep the attention on the human rights situation in the country. However, the civic space situation is very critical. The Bahraini government has been cracking down on activists and human rights defenders utilizing traditional methods, such as policing and imprisonment, as well as using advanced technologies like the NSO Group Technologies. Jostein expressed regret that activists and human rights defenders are still imprisoned, such as Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, and many of them are forced to operate in exile. 

In his answer to a question on the BICI reforms, Joe stated that they were inadequate. He believes that the establishment of the BICI was a testament to the strength of the demonstrations and civil society. There were reforms in the first two years and so. Then, as the regional environment continued to seize up and neighboring countries became much more openly authoritarian, the situation in Bahrain started to deteriorate, and the international actors stopped paying attention. Internationally, the Bahrain crisis seemed to have been managed. Joe pointed out that the UK has played a nefarious role in this with its role in police reform in Bahrain, while it was a charade. 

On the institutionalization of torture in Bahrain, Joe maintained that torture in the 90s was shockingly open and routinely practiced, but his impression now is that torture is not routine anymore. On the other hand, there have been no protests on the scale of 2011. Were there to be the kind of mobilizations in the street that we saw in 2011, we may see a resurgence of the routine use of torture. Joe stressed that although there is improvement in torture, they managed to shut down civil society and all independent media. 

Jostein, in his assessment of the performance of Bahraini civil society in the last decade, praised their efforts to bring international attention to Bahrain, in which they have succeeded but paid a heavy price. The crackdown on civil society is the result of its ability to frighten people in power. However, draining civil society of resources and its ability to communicate, enacting restrictive laws, and strict surveillance make civil society work very difficult. Long prison sentencing is another way to stop people from standing up for human rights. Overall, human rights work is a marathon, and in Bahrain, they are trying to make it a very challenging marathon.

 In a question about the best ways to overcome these challenges, Jostein talked about the importance of keeping the international attention on Bahrain. He argued that the biggest challenge to global civil society moving forward is overcoming authorities’ attempts to take away its global networks and prevent them from working together. Civil society has to maintain and develop these networks and ensure that we are able to build solidarity across borders and counter “foreign agents” laws.

Tor touched on some of the methods used to silence civil society in Bahrain, such as unlawful arrests, revocation of citizenship, enforced disappearances, prosecutions, and torture, making Bahrain one of the most restrictive countries in the world for civil society. Tor maintained that Bahrain authorities are particularly intolerant of any attempts to communicate dissent internationally, as they fear damage to their international reputation. Bahrain’s international connections are crucial in enabling it to repress dissent; it is evident when the Peninsula Shield Force intervened to crush democratic demonstrations in 2011. He pointed out a report by CIVICUS examining the sustainability of the protest movement globally. The report found that international pressure on the Bahraini authorities is the most important factor in keeping the pro-democracy movement alive. Tour cited the BICI establishment as an example of successful international pressure. Now, this pressure has largely faded and more has to be done to motivate the UN and international actors to pressure Bahraini authorities to ease restrictions. Greater diplomatic pressure is critical for the survival of the Bahraini human rights movement. 

Tor also highlighted the inadequacy of international advocacy and pressure regarding Bahrain citing a CIVICUS report, which indicated that 50 percent of respondents said that they did not believe that they received adequate solidarity and support from international civil society; 56 percent indicated that the global protest movements from other countries did not show adequate support and solidarity; 80 percent believed that foreign states and multilateral bodies, including the UN, did not adequately support the movement; 72 percent stated that international media outlets failed to cover the movement and the backlash against it adequately. Many believed that the international support from the UN and foreign countries was the most important but also the most lacking. Tor concluded that international solidarity makes a huge difference in the context of Bahrain. 

Sima stressed that international powers, such as the US and the UK, have invested in the Gulf countries and Bahrain, in particular, through sportswashing and other means, so they are accepting what they have been fed by the Bahraini authorities, which have an excellent system of PR. She maintained that Bahrain allies are not willing to accept that there is another narrative because it creates economic issues for them internally. They brush the other narrative under the carpet for their own interests. Sima believes that more should be done as the punishment continues in Bahrain for those who dared to speak out, citing the case of Dr. Abduljalil al-Singace. In his case, the authorities are not being reasonable. Torture signs are not visible, as they know where to kick, so it does not show, but it is even more subtle. Sima also raised the issue of “general fatigue” and the dilemma of how to motivate the people to carry the voices from Bahrain. 

Sima reflected on the alternative sentencing law. It has benefited some prisoners but not high-profile figures and dissidents and those who have been campaigned for by international human rights organizations. Sima added that those who have been released under this law are placed under unfair conditions. They are banned from travel for long periods, up to life in some cases. they cannot participate in political gatherings. Sima wondered if there is a need for these conditions to be so harsh. She cited the case of Kameel Jumaa, who was imprisoned on fabricated charges because of his mother’s activism, to clarify the harshness of the conditions of alternative sentencing in Bahrain, where he was banned from travel for life. Sima concluded that such reforms are cosmetic. Bahrain has to release political prisoners and allow them to speak out and be part of the opposition to prove its seriousness in carrying out reforms. 

In their concluding remarks, Joe stressed that international pressure must continue on the Bahraini authorities and that incremental changes are a positive way forward. He maintained that the Arab spring is not over in Bahrain. On the other hand, Tor called on the Bahraini government to free human rights defenders. He also encouraged NGOs to submit reports on Bahrain in the upcoming UPR in November 2022. Tor believes that the UN Human Rights Council must prioritize Bahrain. Sima pointed out the need for transparency in Bahrain. She called on the Bahraini government to allow independent monitors to access the country. 

To watch the webinar, click here