On September 19, 2012, the twenty-first session of the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva is expected to adopt the Final Report on the Kingdom of Bahrain’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR). A relatively new mechanism of the U.N., the UPR constitutes a review of the human rights ‘performances’ of all U.N.-member states. Obviously, it being the HRC, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) focusing on human rights issues will attend in order to discuss Bahrain, also holding “side-events” to highlight the human rights record of the country and its continued problems.
The U.N. being a respected international institution, my concern is about how NGOs at the HRC will present existing tensions in Bahrain and to what degree they will base their conclusions on what the international media have thus far reported on the kingdom’s “Arab Spring.” Will they present an objective review and consider all aspects of the low-level conflict taking place in Bahrain, condemning violations committed by all parties, or will they focus on a singular view, source and presentation which blames mostly one side for the violence the kingdom has suffered?
“A man will fight harder for his interests than for his rights.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
Before the so-called “Arab Spring” and supposed “Arab awakening” swept through my home country in 2011, I never questioned the motives of NGOs, especially prominent ones such as Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and Human Rights First (HRF). I had always held them in the highest regard as neutral, verifiable and dependable sources, but during the Bahrain experience of the past 19 months of civil unrest, a number of these organizations have willfully ignored much relevant information. Sadly, they have based much of their reporting and conclusions on a handful of testimonies (presenting mostly the accounts of only one segment of Bahrain’s multi-ethnic society) along with second-hand information obtained during short country stays (and sometimes not even so). Also, they speak from a moral high-ground seemingly without any acknowledgement or realization of the detrimental effects their “assessments” have on Bahrain’s fragile social fabric.
While no one is denying NGOs and special delegations the right to investigate the unrest in Bahrain and possible human rights violations, these investigations should be conducted according to certain standards. Arguably, the most important elements of an investigation are the data and accompanying analyses and, in the Bahrain case, no conclusions should be drawn without the investigators grasping the historical trajectory, examining behavioral and sociological patterns, and linking events and their consequences in a comprehensive and verifiable manner. Additionally, absolutely no conclusions should be based on journalistic or activist ventures gathering “facts” with a heavy reliance on social media, where little or nothing is known about a source’s background, motives or reliability.
One striking example of divergent understandings and conclusions is reflected in the stark contrast in approach towards the Bahrain unrest in the reports of NGOs like Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Human Rights without Frontiers (HRWF). While both report violations, the latter is arguably more thorough in its documentation.
“Bahrain’s social fabric will not mend and attempts at reconciliation will fail until all parties admit to the differing human rights violations perpetrated by both governmental and societal figures.” – Dr. Mohammed A. Al-Muharraqi
In July 2011, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) was established to truthfully and objectively analyze the unrest that had transpired in the kingdom earlier that year. Over a period of five months, the BICI met with thousands of individuals including representatives of Bahrain’s political and civil societies, prisoners, healthcare workers and government officials. The BICI’s investigators included well known commissioners and experts in criminal and international human rights law whose mandate was to focus on the causes and consequences of the violence and excesses that rocked Bahrain in February and March 2011.
The BICI report not only largely mirrored most of what the aforementioned NGOs reported [Chapter VI – Allegations Of Human Rights Violations Against The Person and Chapter VII – Other Human Rights Issues], but it also highlighted violations perpetrated by ‘non-governmental’ actors [Chapter V – Events At Salmaniya Medical Complex and Chapter VIII – Allegations Of Violence By Non-Governmental Actors], which continue to be ignored by the same NGOs and most of the international media. Violations listed included the politicization of healthcare and the unethical behavior of some medical personnel during the unrest (Findings & Conclusions Pages 211 – 217) as well as vicious and mortal attacks on expatriates (Findings & Conclusions Page 373).
By focusing predominantly on violations perpetrated by rogue elements on the government’s side, these NGOs only exacerbated alienation and sectarian/racial tensions in the country’s multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. They did so with gross disregard for the fact that true reconciliation and progress can only be achieved when even the hidden realities and violations are highlighted and addressed.
I touched on this issue from a healthcare provider’s perspective in my July 2012 post on Middle East Voices. The violations I spoke about remain obscured for the outside world and are barely acknowledged or condemned by most NGOs and media. In fact, when individuals like myself highlight this dimension, it usually gets labelled as a “distraction” or a pro-governmental attempt to whitewash very serious excesses. A personal example I can cite was my appearance on a live internet based talk show to discuss my experiences in Bahrain. At a point, the discussion there degenerated into a one-sided barrage of baseless defamatory allegations apparently aimed only at discrediting valid conclusions and integrity. An allegation of ‘complicity in torture’ was directed at me by a self-exiled dissident who herself represents an organization whose former president has openly refused to condemn the destructive effects of Molotov cocktails, calling their use a justifiable reaction. Sadly, the verifiable evidence the presenter used was a social media comment I made over 15 months ago, preceding the BICI (in which I was absolute about the incidence of torture; but the fact remains that no patient was physically tortured with my knowledge or under my care). In this instance, the spin to sensationalize a story without investigation or corroboration of such allegations speaks volumes.
“I have to be accurate; I don’t have to be impartial” – John Burns, New York Times
A selective approach to the use of information and its presentation is nothing new, be it by the media or investigative entities. However, an acknowledgement of one’s limitations as well as an appreciation of the backgrounds and belief systems against which event occur is crucial. It should be part of the shining mission of journalists and all truth-seekers.
In light of this, it has been particularly disappointing that many NGOs and most contemporary media have not adequately questioned their sources or the information they provided on Bahrain. Their seemingly blind acceptance of a restricted narrative by “opposition” sources has been based on the assumption that some Arab Spring mold exists – namely that all cases of popular revolt or unrest in the countries of the Arab Spring follow a singular pattern both in terms of background and responses. To most, it is simply incomprehensible that the Bahrain situation and evolution of its unrest, could contain instances of deviation from the notion that an honorable movement is fighting a repressive regime to obtain the freedom of its people.
Bahrain’s social fabric will not mend and attempts at reconciliation will fail until all parties admit to the differing human rights violations perpetrated by both governmental and societal figures. Reconciliation will only truly begin with recognition of accountability and justice befitting the “crime(s)” committed and not through a vengeful hate that criminalizes every individual who diverges.
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Dr. Mohammed A. Al-Muharraqi is a UK-trained Bahraini consultant Maxillo-Facial Surgeon and a Senior Lecturer in Anatomy as well as the head of the Bahrain Dental licensing body. He has had numerous publications on head & neck surgery in peer reviewed journals and takes a keen interest in medical ethics, sociology and evidence-based healthcare.