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The Inter-Parliamentary Union, Civil Society and the UK

Article by Drewery Dyke

March 15, 2023

The Inter-Parliamentary Union, Civil Society and the UK

The Inter-Parliamentary Union assembly Bahrain: what the revocation of observers’ visas really signifies

On 8 March, the government of Bahrain revoked the visas of two individuals from Human Rights Watch (HRW). They were set to attend an international meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which the government of Bahrain (GoB) has been hosting, 11-15 March. 


The IPU is the global association of national parliaments.  Compared to the relative importance of the gathering itself and the matters that parliamentarians from across the globe are addressing, the exclusion of the two persons from HRW, an organisation with observer status to the IPU, may appear to matter very little. 


Not so.  A whole morality and standards in international conduct is at stake. This matters to the United Kingdom (UK) parliament, government and civil society, each of whom should take action in their own way.


Civil society in the global order

In the global order envisioned by the United Nations (UN), states enjoy sovereignty limited only by international legal agreement, including in areas such as trade and human rights. The UN accords secondary status to intergovernmental organisations  and specialised agencies whose mandates relate to trade, regional governance or other forms of international cooperation or standard-setting. The Inter-Parliamentary Union is one such organisation.


The IPU, in turn, accords permanent observer status to UN agencies; regional intergovernmental organisations, parliamentary assemblies or associations, International political party federations and International non-governmental organisations (INGOs).[1]


The IPU assembly in Bahrain

Today marks the final day of the IPU’s  146th Assembly  which has been taking place in Manama, Bahrain, 11 – 15 March 2023. The IPU comprises 178 member parliaments, a subset of whom are present in Bahrain. While there, they have been addressing, amongst other issues, promoting peaceful coexistence and inclusive societies and fighting intolerance. Given that its slogan is, “For Democracy. For Everyone” this agenda seems logical. 


Yet, its Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians has raised with governments 727 cases of violations of parliamentarians’ human rights, of which two are from Bahrain. The GoB arbitrarily stripped the citizenship of one, Jawad Fairooz, who is now a UK national. By virtue of these cases, as well as the rejection of HRW’s access to the assembly, the GoB not only violates the statutes of the organisation but appears to  show that it holds in contempt the international order of which it is part.


A matter for the UK?

Answering a question about Mexico for the UK government, on 7 March, MP David Rutley (Conservative, Macclesfield) stated that: 


“Democracy and freedom are at the heart of the UK’s values and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) global policy. They contribute to long-term prosperity and security; and democratic societies are the strongest supporters of an open and resilient international order. […] Support for democratic principles in Mexico is a continuing priority for our Embassy, which regularly engages with the Mexican Government to underline the importance of strong institutions and free and fair elections.”


But the work of the IPU is not a governmental one: asked for comment on 15 March, a spokesperson for the FCDO said that insofar as no government minister attended, they had no view about Bahrain’s revocation of the visas to the HRW staffer. 


While understandable, acts that erode democracy and freedom; and a resilient international order, in a context – Bahrain – where elections are neither free nor fair, must be a concern for the FCDO, if they aspire to apply policy equally and transparently. After all, the December 2022 FCDO’s 2021 report on Human Rights and Democracy states that Bahrain is a “priority country” [2]. Is it, really?


The British Group [of the] Inter-Parliamentary Unionmotto: Advancing the parliamentary dimension of Britain’s foreign relations – is believed to have sent a delegation led by MP, Karen Bradley (Conservative), but comprising Labour and Liberal Democrat delegates from both the Commons and House of Lords, as well as administrative staff. While contacted for comment, at the time of writing, the BGIPU had not responded to the question whether they expressed a view over the revocation of the HRW staff members’ visas.


The real price will be paid in Bahrain, by Bahrainis

While the conduct of the GoB erodes the international order and adherence to international human rights standards, the revocation of the HRW staffers’ visas is the thin edge of the wedge. Research by Salam for Democracy and Human Rights has set out how the GoB has persecuted 15 former parliamentarians. The authorities arbitrarily detained 11 of them; unfairly charged a further 11; sentenced 10 following unfair trial; tortured 6 of them, deprived 4 of their citizenship while 6 now reside outside the country.


A joint open letter to parliamentarians issued by 22 human rights groups working on Bahrain, on the occasion of the IPU assembly in Bahrain, reminded MPs that in 2016 and 2017, Bahrain’s judiciary dissolved two of the country’s main political opposition parties, Al-Wefaq and Wa’ad and that political isolation laws introduced in 2018 barred former members of these parties from running for parliament or sitting on boards of governors of civil society organisations [3]. The letter also drew attention to the fact that in 2017, the authorities forcibly closed Bahrain’s last independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, and that the GoB has effectively banned all independent media; as well as the November 2022  parliamentary elections were ostensibly the most restricted since parliamentary elections were reintroduced in 2002. 


The GoB arbitrarily strips citizenship, continues to use the death penalty; detain prisoners of conscience and appears to turn a blind eye to the use of torture. A range of activists have faced brutal treatment, including torture and denial of medical care. Several of them, including Hassan Mushaima, Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Sheikh Mohammed Habib Al-Muqdad, Abdulwahab Husain, Naji Fateel, and Sheikh Ali Salman, have been sentenced to life in prison. A Danish-Bahraini dual citizen, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, has been denied surgery that he requires to treat his jaw, broken by security forces when he was arrested for taking part in the 2011 pro-democracy protests.


For these reasons, civil society – a pillar of the global order – is perhaps right to be dismayed at the muted response by the IPU in relation to the revocation of the HRW staffers’ visas and by what appears to be silence by the BGIPU; as well as be  disappointed at UK’s FCDO’s lack of engagement – when Bahrain is a stated human rights “priority country”.  The IPU assembly ends today.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.


[1]  The INGOs are, in full: Amnesty International Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Human Rights Watch, International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI), Penal Reform International, World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA)

[2] Chapter 5 of the FCDO’s 2021 Human Rights & Democracy report lists the priority countries as: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Central African Republic, China, Columbia, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran and Iraq.

[3] The joint open letter also states that these laws also target former prisoners, including those detained due to their political work. Those impacted by the political isolation laws also face routine delays and denials in their ability to access “Good Conduct Certificates,” a document required for Bahraini citizens and residents to apply for a job or university admission or even join a sports or social club.

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