by Eldar Mamedov
On June 14, the European Parliament has adopted, with an overwhelming majority, a strongly worded resolution condemning Bahrain for human rights violations.
The immediate trigger for the resolution was the sentencing of Nabeel Rajab, a prominent Bahraini activist, to five years in prison for his criticisms of the kingdom’s human rights record. Remarkably, one of the accusations was “insulting a neighboring country,” in reference to Rajab’s tweets criticizing Saudi Arabia for its atrocious war in Yemen. This is an alarming example of how the repressive hand of the Saudi state reaches to other countries’ domestic political spheres. It is also a much underreported one, overshadowed by all the hype about Iran’s real or alleged meddling in the region.
The resolution took a broader view on the ongoing crackdown on human rights and democracy in Bahrain. It regrets that with the approach of the general elections planned for October 2018, the authorities have offered none of the minimum guarantees to ensure free and fair elections. On the contrary, as noted by the International Federation for Human Rights, an advocacy group, the last months have been marked by a further restriction of space for debate and liberties, including through the closure of the only independent newspaper, al Wasat, and the dissolution of the opposition political societies al-Wefaq and al-Wa’ad. Most recently, on June 11, the authorities adopted an amendment banning most members of the political opposition from seeking election.
The European parliamentarians also condemned the Bahraini practice of stripping citizenship as a tool of repression. They noted that this measure disproportionately affected the Shia majority of the country. This statement is particularly welcome given that it’s not just Wahhabis who are demonizing Shias but even now a spokesman for the Israeli Defence Force.
Given the gravity of the situation, the MEPs decided that words were not enough and the time has come for real action. That´s why they called, for the first time, for sanctions against human rights violators in Bahrain. They also demanded that EU member states halt all transfers of weapons, surveillance, and intelligence equipment that can be used by Bahrain for its ongoing repression.
Yet the adoption of this resolution was more like a parliamentary thriller than a smooth process. The politics of the action says a lot about the stakes involved for authoritarian Persian Gulf regimes when it comes to pushing their narratives and polishing their international image.
Once the political factions of the European Parliament agreed on the joint motion, it turned out that two key blocs—the European People´s Party (EPP), the largest, centre-right bloc in the EP, and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a group to the right involving British Tories and more unsavory forces such as Poland’s Law and Justice Party and the Islamophobic Danish People’s Party—reached a backroom deal on a separate text.
That text, reflecting ECR more than EPP views, offered only the vaguest of concerns over Nabeel Rajab’s sentencing, while praising Bahrain for its “religious tolerance, moderation and cultural diversity.” It also stressed that Bahrain is “a key ally of the EU in the Arabian Gulf” and that the stability of this “Arabian Gulf” (!) is of strategic interest to NATO. The text also duly attached “great importance to non-interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs by forces seeking to subvert the stability and security of the Kingdom,” in an obvious reference to Iran. In fact, Iran was mentioned explicitly in this context in the individual ECR motion, and was removed only in the EPP/ECR joint one.
So, on the day of the vote there were two motions tabled: the critical one by a coalition of progressive forces led by social democrats and a much more lenient one tabled by EPP/ECR.
International human rights groups mobilized to reach out especially to the EPP members to vote for the social-democrat-led motion. The Bahraini embassy, meanwhile, sent a letter to the MEPs calling on them to vote for the EPP/ECR text. Rather brazenly, it called the social democratic text “filled with inaccuracies, which do not reflect the real situation in Bahrain or an understanding of the security challenges in the region.” The EPP/ECR text, by contrast, was praised for “understanding the security/regional concerns.” The emphasis on security/region is a clear indication that the Bahraini authorities are keen to use Iran’s alleged interference as a way to deflect a conversation on human rights.
The EPP/ECR motion was voted on first, and rejected with 285 voting in favor and 339 against. The social-democrat-led resolution was then adopted by 479 votes to 97. This overwhelming support resulted from civil society pressure shaming the EPP into voting for it, leaving only the ECR and the extreme right voting against.
That the Bahraini regime lobbied heavily to sway the vote confirms once again that it is not enough for the authoritarian regimes in the Gulf to enjoy security and trade relationships with the West. They also care about their international image, and they want to be liked and accepted. The fear of exposure of the real situation is what led Bahrain to twice refuse to accept a visit of the European Parliament´s Subcommittee on human rights (DROI). Indeed, Bahrainis proved to be more intransigent than their Saudi neighbors who did host a DROI delegation in November 2017. Instead, Manama prefers to shower hospitality on assorted MEPs from the informal “friendship group,” which has no official status yet is used to gain a valuable foothold in the EP. Rather extravagantly, Bahrain also hosted a bureau meeting of the ECR in March 2018, which explains this group’s willingness to push for Bahrain’s agenda.
Yet, it’s not the friendship groups or individual political factions that determine the official position of the European Parliament. It is the resolution adopted on June 14, which sends a clear, unequivocal political message of disapproval of the actions of the Bahraini regime.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.