Nabli Rajab 7 April 08 - For the first session of the UPR organised by the UN Human Rights Council, activists from Bahrain have not been able to meet the delegations that will examine their country’s human rights record. They have been replaced by “false NGOs” sent by their government. Interview with Nabil Rajab, vice president for the Centre of Human Rights in Bahrain.

Carole Vann/Human Rights Tribune - Human rights defenders from Bahrain came in force to take part in the human rights « premiere » at the UN. Representatives of 7 national NGOs were invited to Geneva by the International Federation of human rights to take part in the universal periodic review as their country is the first to be reviewed. But they were shocked to discover that they must have government permission if they want to meet the 3 people designated by the human rights council to drive forward the review. Interview with Nabil Rajab, vice president of the Centre for Human Rights in Bahrain.

What are the main human rights problems you have?

Religious discrimination. 70% of our population is Shiite and 30% Sunni. The latter hold the reins of power. Fewer than 3% of Shiites are in the army or in the police. Bahrain is the only country in the Gulf where the majority is Shiites. But the ruling Sunni family comes from Saudia Arabia.

The government imports Sunnis from Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Pakistan, and Iraq. They are naturalised en masse and the Shiites are marginalised.

Our country has ratified most international treaties. But there are still numerous violations; the ban on assembly and arbitrary arrests on the pretext of the war against terrorism. You only have to criticise the government and the King and you can be arrested in the name of the fight against terrorism. The freedom of the press and of expression are also suppressed. In 2007 twenty six journalists were arrested and 500 internet sites were blocked.

Are your organisations recognised ?

Most NGOS are banned or have been closed down. My NGO, for example, has been closed down and its internet site blocked since 2004. This is because our president dared to criticise the Prime Minister who has been in power for thirty years.

The Gulf States are often accused of abusing migrant and domestic workers.

The UN special rapporteur on human trafficking, Sigma Huda, published a stinging report on our country in 2007. There are not laws to protect migrants and domestic workers so all type of abuse is allowed.

How significant is the new universal periodic review for you and for your country ?

It is fundamental. Our government sees it as a dream opportunity to boost our image in the eyes of the world. It knows that one of the questions is going to be about religious discrimination. That is why there will be several Shiites on the 27 member delegation. The foreign minister, Nizar Al Baharna, will be there too.

For us the examination is also important. It should allow us to take stock of all of the human rights violations in Bahrain in front of the international community. But before this procedure even starts we have already seen its limits.

You have been able to given your version of the facts in the reports that have been given to the Human Rights Council, But you don t know if these reports will be taken into consideration during the assessment of Bahrain’s human rights record. And above all you have not been allowed to meet the troika delegation made up of Slovenia, Great Britain and Sri Lanka) that is tasked with examining your country. Could you please explain what happened?

On Friday we got a shock. When we wanted to meet these three countries, the office of the president of the human rights council, Doru Costea told us that we had to have the authorisation of our state. He had himself advised governments to favour this type of meeting between NGOs and the troika. Some countries even wanted to play the game such as the Philippines and Great Britain.

As for Bahrain, the International Federation for Human Rights ahs been negotiating with our ambassador Abdallah Abedlatif for weeks to get this autorisation. But on Friday he refused point blank. It is all the more frustrating and shocking as in its report, Bahrain pretends to be transparent with NGOs. It is in reality totally the opposite.

How significant is this setback?

It is a serious backward step. It means quite simply that the country has a right of veto. And the example of the first country under review is fundamental as it creates a precedent and it is a very bad beginning,

But how can the government defend this lack of civil society representation?

Our media announced this weekend that the troika is going to meet NGOs on Monday morning. In fact everybody knows at home that they are fake NGOs acquired by the government. Their representatives are Faysal Fulad and Huda Nunu. In 2005 these same people were chucked out of the committee against torture in Geneva.

Do people in Bahrain known about this universal periodic review?

Yes everybody is waiting to see what will come out of it.

What do you think of the new Human Rights Council ?

The growing domination of muslim countries worries us a lot. When you think that it is countries like Egypt, Saudia Arabia, Pakistan, Bahrain that influence the majority of members, that is a scary thought. They use religion to suppress freedom of expression. It is extremely serious. What is more the Human Rights Council tries to exclude the High Commissioner from its decisions. Seen from the ground, this worries us.

See online: Universal periodic review