Throughout the Middle East, human rights defenders (HRDs) are forced to choose between their values and their personal security.

Recent media attention has focused on Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where the governing regimes are consistently targeting HRDs. These are not the only countries in the region where this problem exists, but consistent violations of international law merit a discussion of their implications. By arresting peaceful protesters, not providing fair trials, and criminalizing dissent, Bahrain and the UAE have disregarded the individual rights protected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Arab Charter on Human Rights (ACHR), and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (DHRD).

Recently in Bahrain, human rights defenders have been arrested and detained for organizing and participating in anti-government demonstrations and posting about anti-government protests on social media sites. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) condemns these arrests and detentions, saying that they are aimed at thwarting human rights work in Bahrain. The group claims that government action against HRDs is part of an effort to stop citizens from practicing their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. BCHR believes that Bahraini authorities have been using an unfair judiciary to target critics of the government. The Bahraini government alleges that activists are disseminating false information through social media sites and that they are inciting violence during anti-regime protests. 

Bahrain acceded to the ICCPR in 2006; it is thus legally binding on the country. Article 9 of the ICCPR protects the rights not to be arbitrarily arrested or detained and to be informed of charges. Article 14 of the ICCPR enshrines the right to a prompt and fair trial. Article 19 of the ICCPR guarantees the right to freedom of expression and Article 21 the right to peaceful assembly. In Bahrain, these articles of the ICCPR are being violated through the arrest and trial of HRDs. The arbitrary arrests carried out by the Bahraini authorities are contrary to the standards of international law protecting those who are acting within their rights and calling for peaceful protests.  Human Rights Watch reported that a prominent Bahraini HRD was charged with inciting violence but that the court verdict cited no evidence that the HRD had actually participated in or advocated for violence. Other HRDs have experienced excessive delays in trial proceedings. For example, a lower court neglects to provide the necessary documents to the appeals court, resulting in the postponement of the appeal process and keeping HRDs detained longer. Article 14 of the ICCPR specifically guarantees the right to a fair trial by an independent and impartial court; Bahrain’s courts are not demonstrating impartiality and independence when it comes to HRDs.

Last month, UAE authorities enacted a new cybercrimes decree criminalizing online dissent against the state, effectively closing off the UAE’s last remaining forum for free speech. The law also criminalized unauthorized demonstrations. Recently, several HRDs have been arrested under the new decree for their alleged connection to Twitter accounts that have criticized the government. The Emirates Center for Human Rights(ECHR) reports that the authorities have refused to publicly disclose the reasons behind the arrests and will not say where the detainees are being kept. The ECHR believes that these arrests demonstrate state attempts to silence online criticism. The UAE government insists that the decree is intended to monitor online content to prevent the proliferation of racist or sectarian views and to defend state security.

Though the UAE has not ratified the ICCPR, it is a member of the Arab League, which adopted the ACHR. The Charter confirms the rights outlined in the ICCPR and includes similar articles. The ACHR creates binding obligations on members of the Arab League. By criminalizing dissent and revoking its citizens’ right to freedom of expression, a right protected by the ACHR, the UAE has not acted within the parameters of the ACHR.

A troubling aspect of Bahrain and UAE’s violations of international law is that they are specifically directed at HRDs. The DHRD guarantees the rights of HRDs. The DHRD is not legally binding but contains rights that are protected in other agreements, like the ICCPR. Because the DHRD was adopted by consensus in the UN General Assembly, it represents a strong commitment by the international community to its implementation. Bahrain and the UAE can come into line with international laws and norms by ending the targeting of HRDs and taking measures to protect them.