On March 1st, my colleagues in our London office pulled the plug on Amnesty’s scheduled mission to Bahrain. We had sought to spend a full week in the country, talking to government officials, human rights advocates, victims, and others. But at the end of the day, the government of Bahrain told us that weekend visits aren’t allowed.
In direct conversation and via Twitter, Bahraini officials stated that we could come to the country for five weekdays at a time. But if we wanted to talk to Bahrainis during their Friday / Saturday weekend, the answer was no. Other human rights organizations received the same message.
The big question is — why?
It is difficult to confirm the motivations behind a government’s actions, but one reason why might be that Bahraini protestors have frequently taken to the streets during their days off. If a government prevents human rights organizations from being in the country during those protests, the government makes it harder for independent voices to evaluate their human rights record.
There are good reasons to pay close attention to this record. As my colleagues stated in recent testimony to the UN Human Rights Council, “Despite promises made by the government, victims and families of victims of the serious human rights violations … are still waiting for justice.”
One year ago, the government of Bahrain responded to public protests with a crackdown in which nearly 50 people were killed and hundreds more injured. Even more were arrested and tried before military courts, and thousands were at least initially dismissed from their jobs. Allegations of torture were widespread. For a country of only some 600,000 nationals, the percentage of society impacted by this crackdown was significant.
Unfortunately, in the year since, more people have been detained, arrested, and allegedly tortured. Other Bahrainis have died in protests and clashes with government security forces. Though the government launched a commission of inquiry in 2011, it has yet to implement some of the most important recommendations for protecting human rights. As my London colleagues stated in their testimony to the UN, it remains to be seen whether this process was “more than an elaborate public relations exercise.”
It is precisely for these reasons that international human rights organizations need unfettered access to Bahrain. That’s why we said no to the government’s new visa limitations. We also rejected another new requirement that our visits have a sponsor.
Sponsorship means that a local party puts themselves on the line to let you in the country. When it comes to independent human rights work, such a requirement can put local sponsors at risk – especially if the visiting organization says something that the government doesn’t like.
Unfortunately, human rights organizations aren’t the only voices who have faced obstacles in getting to Bahrain. The government of Bahrain also told UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez that his planned March visit has been postponed until July.
For a government that claims to seek reconciliation with the majority of its people, these are steps in the wrong direction.