MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Mar 31 (IPS) — The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an organisation whose motto is ‘For democracy. For everyone’, just held its global assembly in a country with a mock parliament and not the slightest semblance of democracy.
For Bahrain’s authoritarian leaders, the hosting of the IPU assembly was yet another reputation-laundering opportunity: a week before, they’d hosted Formula One’s opening race.
The day after the race, Ebrahim Al-Mannai, a lawyer and human rights activist, tweeted that the Bahraini parliament should be reformed if it was to be showcased at the assembly. His reward was to be immediately arrested for tweets and posts deemed an ‘abuse of social media platforms’.
That same week, the Bahraini authorities revoked the entry visas for two Human Rights Watch staff to attend the assembly.
Rather than opening up to host the event, Bahrain further shut down.
A mock parliament and no democracy
Bahrain is member of the IPU, which defines itself as ‘the global organization of national parliaments’, because, on paper at least, it has a parliament. But its parliament is neither representative nor powerful. Bahrain is an absolute monarchy.
The king has power over all branches of government. He appoints and dismisses the prime minister and cabinet members, who are responsible to him, not to parliament. The two prime ministers the country has had so far – the first served for over 50 years – have been prominent members of the royal family, and many cabinet ministers have been too.
The king appoints all members of the upper house of parliament, along with all judges. Parliament’s lower chamber is elected – but everything possible is done to keep out those who might try to hold the government to account.
Political parties aren’t allowed; ‘political societies’, loose groups with some of the functions of political parties, are recognised. To be able to operate, they must register and seek authorisation, which can be denied or revoked.
In recent years the government has shut down most opposition political societies, arresting and imprisoning their most popular leaders. All members of dissolved groups and former prisoners are banned from competing in elections. And just in case new potential opposition candidates somehow emerge, voting districts are carefully gerrymandered so the opposition can’t get a majority.
In November 2022 Bahrain once again went through the motions of an election. A large number of eligible voters were excluded from the electoral roll as punishment for abstaining in previous elections – a tactic used to ensure any boycott attempts wouldn’t affect turnout. Exactly as it was meant to, the election produced a legislative body with no ability to counterbalance monarchical power.
No space for dissent
In 2018, the king issued a decree known as the ‘political isolation law’. It banned members of dissolved opposition parties standing for election. It also gave the government control of the appointment of civil society organisations’ board members, limiting their ability to operate, and has been used to harass and persecute activists, including by stripping them and their families of citizenship rights.
In 2017, Bahrain’s last independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, was shut down. No independent media are now allowed to operate. The government owns all national broadcast media outlets, while the main private newspapers are owned by government loyalists.
Vaguely worded press laws that impose harsh penalties, including long prison sentences, for insulting the king, defaming Islam or threatening national security encourage self-censorship. Many people, including journalists, bloggers and others active on social media, have been detained, imprisoned and convicted.
This has turned Bahrain into a prison state. It’s estimated that almost 15,000 people have been arrested for their political views over the past decade, at least 1,400 of whom are currently in jail. Most have been convicted on the basis of confessions obtained under torture. Appallingly, 51 people have been sentenced to death.
An advocacy opportunity
Given the IPU’s evident lack of interest in the human rights records of host states, civil society focused its advocacy on parliamentary delegations from democratic states.
Ahead of the assembly, two dozen civil society groups published a joint statement addressed at parliamentarians who would be attending, urging them to publicly raise concerns over Bahrain’s lack of political freedoms, including violations of the rights of parliamentarians, and to ensure their presence wouldn’t be used to legitimise the authoritarian regime.
Civil society’s calls for the freedom of political prisoners were loudly echoed by parliamentary delegations from countries including Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands, among several others.
The director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy described the event as ‘a PR disaster for the Bahraini regime’, a failure of its image-laundering plan.
The response of the Bahraini authorities was however far from encouraging. They reminded foreign parliamentarians they shouldn’t interfere in Bahrain’s domestic affairs and continued to deny evidence of imprisonment and torture.
Sustained international pressure is needed to urge the Bahraini regime to free its thousands of political prisoners and allow spaces for dissent. That, rather than high-level image-laundering events, is what will fix the country’s well-deserved bad reputation.
Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.