Thursday, 14 February 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I am glad to have the opportunity to raise this issue. It has come about from engagement some of us have had with people from Bahrain and human rights organisations. It is also topical today because 14 February is the eighth anniversary of the pro-democracy movement that took place in Bahrain along with many other countries in the Middle East. In the eight years since then, we have seen the repression of the movement. What is the fear around democracy and democratic movements? When we look at the world, we can see that it is those countries with free democratic elections and the peaceful transfer of power after elections that have stability, growth, health and education.
Bahrain has seen the horrific repression of a democratic movement. It involves the repression of the protesters, be they lawyers, doctors, students, teachers, human rights defenders and members of civil society. The repression continues today with torture, police and military brutality and forced disappearance. I want to look in particular at the treatment of prisoners. The are inhumane conditions in Juw Prison and Isa Town Female Detention Center. Both prisons violate the UN standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners. As well as the inhumane physical conditions, there are concerns over access to medication for prisoners, family visits, degrading searches and above all, the lack of accountability. I want to mention three women prisoners in particular: Hajer Mansoor, Medina Ali and Najah Ahmed Yusuf, all of whom are in need of medical care. Their cases have been raised by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the UN.
There are questions around the relationship our Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, RCSI, has with King Hamad University Hospital. I must ask whether the RCSI is living up to its ethical and moral standards. I have had correspondence from the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on this. I think there is a need to go further.
The institutions in Bahrain supposed to be looking after human rights, such as its Ministry of Interior, Public Prosecutions Service and so on, are not independent and impartial. That is why they need voices like Ireland's.
I thank the Minister of State for attending to deal with this item. I and my party are growing increasingly concerned about the repression of civil and political society in Bahrain. As Deputy O'Sullivan said, this is the eighth anniversary of the violent suppression by the Bahraini Government of the peaceful pro-democracy movement in Bahrain. In the eight years since the crackdown, the situation has worsened, with numerous adverse developments in the past year alone.
The Minister of State will know it has been reported that the Bahraini Government is engaged in a campaign to repress political, civil and human rights and has taken steps to curb fundamental freedoms, including the right of freedom of expression, free assembly and a free press, among others. In 2017, authorities in Bahrain shut down the country's only independent newspaper and the leading secular left opposition political society. Just this month, the Supreme Court of Bahrain sentenced Sheikh Ali Salman, secretary general of the dissolved Al Wefaq political society, and senior Al Wefaq members, Sheikh Hassan Sultan and Ali Aswad, to life imprisonment. Following the sentencing, the spokesperson for the EU said: "Today’s final verdict marks a further step against dissenting voices and undermines the residual chances for an inclusive political dialogue in the Kingdom of Bahrain." The elections in Bahrain in 2018 were neither fair nor free, and human rights defenders and those who have expressed criticism of government policy have been arrested, tortured, interrogated and held in arbitrary detention.
Given the current situation in Bahrain, it is ironic, to say the least, that Bahrain has a seat on the UN Human Rights Council and will do so until its term expires in 2021. The Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body within the United Nations system and is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe, and for addressing human rights violations and making recommendations on them. One wonders how the council can effectively carry out its functions when one of its members is actively and deliberately suppressing human rights.
I ask the Government to show leadership on this issue. The 40th session of the Human Rights Council takes place from 25 February to 22 March. I urge the Government to use this as an opportunity to express our grave concerns and to issue a statement condemning the actions of the Bahraini authorities ahead of the next session of the Human Rights Council.
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. It is, of course, a matter of grave concern for the Government that, eight years on from the beginning of the 2011 pro-democracy protests, Bahrain has not progressed in the way we had hoped. In fact, it has become an increasingly restrictive society, civic society space has contracted significantly and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression and association, are violated with worrying frequency. There are reports that the elections of last November took place in an environment that stifled dissent, and recent reports of torture and other inhumane and degrading treatment in regard to detained persons are especially distressing. We urge all states to safeguard the rights of prisoners and detainees, and our voice has been prominent in highlighting this particular thematic issue.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is engaging with the Government of Bahrain, and this includes with its embassy in London, on a range of issues, including the ones I have outlined. Given the long-standing bilateral links between Ireland and Bahrain, for example, on the training of medical personnel, raising Ireland's concerns about human rights and freedom of expression in Bahrain is a prominent part of the dialogue we have on an ongoing basis. The Bahraini Government has given repeated commitments that it is taking action to improve the human rights situation and to safeguard rights which are enshrined in its constitution. However, the facts are very clear and the facts on the ground show that it has yet to live up to those commitments. I take this opportunity again to call on the Bahraini Government to follow through on its obligations.
The Deputies have raised many issues of concern, in particular in regard to specific people who have been detained. I am aware there is particular consciousness of Sheikh Ali Salman, secretary general of what was once Bahrain's largest opposition political party, who was sentenced to life in prison in November of last year. This is something we are monitoring and are extremely concerned about, particularly in regard to Sheikh Ali Salman's trial but also other trials in recent times.
Protection of fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression and opinion, is a cornerstone of our foreign policy. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade receives regular reports from NGOs on the situation in Bahrain. As a small country, Ireland amplifies its voice on human rights issues through multilateral engagement and measured recommendations offered as part of constructive dialogue. We continually advocate in favour of a free and fair democratic process and for the right of civil society actors and human rights defenders to operate in a safe environment, but also without fear of reprisals for speaking out. Ireland also urges all states to safeguard the human rights of prisoners and detainees, and is committed to the prevention and eradication of torture and other forms of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.
Deputy Niall Collins raised the issue of the UN Human Rights Council. Ireland has always used the Human Rights Council as a means of keeping human rights issues in Bahrain under examination. We have raised Bahrain in the past eight statements on human rights situations that require the council's attention and I assure the Deputies we will raise the matter again in the upcoming meeting. We have expressed concern about the restrictions on civil society space and the treatment of human rights defenders in Bahrain, and called on Bahrain to respect freedom of opinion and expression and the right to a fair trial. At the Human Rights Council in June last year, the statement by the European Union also highlighted the deterioration of the human rights situation in Bahrain, with particular reference to the shrinking of political space. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade constantly monitors developments in regard to human rights in Bahrain and will continue to call on the Bahraini Government to deliver on its stated commitment to making progress in all of these areas of human rights.
It is important to say that we have positive bilateral relations with Bahrain, which is home to some 800 Irish citizens, but this does not prevent us from raising the concerns through the appropriate channels, whether it is directly with Bahraini officials or at an international level with our colleagues throughout the European Union and, of course, at the UN Human Rights Council.
There has been documented police brutality yet no senior officials in Bahrain's security forces have been held accountable for allegations of torture, excessive force or extrajudicial killings to date. Peaceful protests are treated with brutality, arbitrary arrests, coerced confessions and, alarmingly, the resumption of the death penalty. What we are seeing is the suppression of civil society organisations and there is no independent media outlet. There is a hereditary dynasty but that dynasty is excluding all but the minority Sunni and is discriminating against the other groups within Bahrain.
The Minister of State mentioned going through the appropriate channels. To go back to Deputy Collins's question, can Ireland raise this at the next Human Rights Council in Geneva? It appears the Bahraini authorities will only act when there is international scrutiny and international pressure. We hope the Minister of State will take that opportunity at the council.
I thank the Minister of State for her reply and her interest. To recap, what we see in Bahrain is a lack of proper independent oversight bodies and gerrymandering in elections and electoral areas. There is evidence of whitewashing of abuses, the attempt to rewrite history, revisionism in regard to what happened to people and an attempt to cloud it all out. We see persistent use of capital punishment and a crackdown on freedom of expression, including on online platforms. We have also heard reports of torture and denaturalisation, making people stateless when they speak up and call out the abuses.
What I would like to see the Government do when it makes the next approach is to call for a moratorium on the death penalty, reform of the accountability and oversight mechanisms, the release of all political prisoners and the reinstatement of the dissolved political parties. Without other political actors on the stage, there will not be any sort of fledgling or proper democracy. The Government should also call for freedom of expression and assembly. If the Government can take on board these reasonable core requests, I believe we will progress this matter in some small fashion.
I thank both Deputies for raising what is an extremely important issue. The Government's position remains the same as it was in the previous eight statements, which is that the situation requires the attention of the UN Human Rights Council. We have raised the issue of Bahrain with the council and we will be sure to raise it again. I reassure both Deputies that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will continue to raise our voice about the human rights situation both multilaterally and through various organisations. We co-sponsored the UN Human Rights Council resolutions calling on states to investigate alleged human rights violations. That is abuse suffered by detainees and in particular where there is death, torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, as well as to ensure there is proper investigation which provides effective remedies to victims, as Deputy Niall Collins has raised. We are also co-sponsors of Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly resolutions which concern human rights and the administration of justice.
I am especially worried and the Department is gravely concerned that after seven years of a moratorium on the death penalty, the Bahraini Government has again begun executing prisoners. I reaffirm Ireland's unequivocal opposition to capital punishment in all circumstances and cases. The abolition of the death penalty is an international priority for this country. Our officials regularly visit and convey our stance at various levels with the bodies on the ground or with member state colleagues and we will continue to do so. We are highlighting our grave concern at the ending of the de facto moratorium on the death penalty and reaffirming our unequivocal opposition to capital punishment in all circumstances.