Gulf states lash out at Switzerland over criticisms of Bahrain

The Gulf's autocratic rulers have joined forces in denouncing Switzerland after it complained about human rights abuses in Bahrain.

The row began last Tuesday when Switzerland's representative at the UN Human Rights Council made a brief statement expressing concern about five particular countries: Bahrain, Vietnam, Colombia, Egypt and South Sudan. The statement began:

"Switzerland is alarmed at the repression against civil society in many countries and in breach of the latter's international obligations. In Bahrain this concerns both human rights defenders and the political opposition as well as everyone who exercises their right to freedom of expression and is critical of the government. 

"The resort to torture, inadequate guarantees of fair trial and excessive use of force during peaceful demonstrations, as well as reprisals against victims of human rights violations or people who cooperate with the United Nations, are of concern. 

"Switzerland calls on the government [of Bahrain] to guarantee respect for the human rights of all individuals, to release all those detained solely for having exercised their fundamental rights, including Nabeel Rajab and other human rights defenders, and to cooperate fully with the special procedures of this council."

Although the Swiss statement did nothing more than reiterate some well-known abuses by Bahrain's repressive regime, on this occasion it has provoked an unusually ferocious reaction in the Gulf.

On Thursday Bahrain hit back with an angry statement from the foreign ministry which "strongly rejected" the Swiss representative's remarks. A report of this by the government news agency referred to "some allegations" about human rights (without mentioning what the allegations were) and continued:

"The ministry affirms that the statement includes clear fallacies, untrue claims and bare accusations on the human rights status in Bahrain which in fact boasts of a clean record in this respect that stands for a model in reinforcing and protecting human rights within the national constitutional institutions and at par with international standards.

"As the ministry expresses its utmost condemnation of, and protest against, the statement that overlooks the Kingdom’s legal framework, national preemptive mechanisms and its efforts to safeguard and underpin human rights along with its pioneering projects in reinforcing human rights, it affirms the need to cease delivering similar statements that are alien to reality and void of objectivity.

"It stresses the need to observe facts, adhere to consultations with the Kingdom of Bahrain, respect its sovereignty, abide by the basic principles that are ingrained in international cooperation principles, obtain well-sourced news and not to be dragged into a quagmire of the fallacies propagated by sides of special agendas and susceptible goals that are incompatible with the legal criteria of human rights respect."

The report added that the ministry "has already sent a protest memo" to Switzerland.

Up to that point it seemed like a fairly typical diplomatic row – the sort that usually fizzles out after a couple of exchanges. It was also not the first time that Bahrain had verbally attacked Switzerland.

On Saturday, however, the Gulf Cooperation Council (representing Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) stepped up pressure on Switzerland by launching its own attack. The council's  secretary-general, Abdullatif al-Zayani, denounced the Swiss statement as containing "false information" about a GCC member (though without saying what was false about it). The Kuwaiti government news agency quoted Zayani as saying Bahrain has been "making strenuous and noticeable efforts" on human rights. Its report added:

"GCC states urge the Swiss government to stop issuing such claims and accusations against the kingdom at the UN humanrights gathering.

"They also asked of the Swiss government to depend on reliable sources regarding human rights in the kingdom and not to receive information in this dossier from suspicious sources which have certain agendas ..."

On Sunday, in a further escalation of diplomatic pressure, the UAE summoned Switzerland's ambassador in Abu Dhabi. The Emirati government news agency reported:

"Dr Abdul Rahim Al Awadhi, Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation for Legal Affairs, has summoned Maya Tissafi, Ambassador of Switzerland to the UAE ...

"Al Awadhi expressed to the Swiss ambassador UAE’s denunciation over the Swiss statement against Bahrain at the Human Rights Council, adding that it was better if such issues were resolved through established bilateral channels between Bahrain and Switzerland. The statement was also perceived as not representative of the truth, as Bahrain has made numerous steps to improve its human rights record.

"Dr Al Awadhi informed Ambassador Tissafi that the security and stability of Bahrain is integral to security and stability of the UAE, and such statements give a pretext for committing destructive and terrorist acts. He added that the UAE is looking forward to Switzerland’s reviewing of their position on this issue."

Commenting on these developments, Sayed AlWadaei of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said: "This is clear evidence of a unified policy by the Gulf states to escalate repressive measures in Bahrain and to deflect legitimate international criticism."

One factor lurking in the background is that Bahrain is due for its periodic review by the UN Human Rights Council in May and the GCC's moves may be aimed at deterring complaints about its performance. In Bahrain's case there will certainly be plenty to criticise – including its recent decision to let military courts try civilians.

Over the last few years, however, countries with poor human rights records have become more adept at manipulating the UN, mostly by supporting each other in the face of criticism. Bahrain can also count on support from its long-time friend, Britain, and the United States – which had become more critical under the Obama adminstration – is likely to be far more supportive under President Trump.

Switzerland, meanwhile, still claims to take human rights seriously and Valentin Zellweger, who was appointed last year as its ambassador to the UN, regards the work of the Human Rights Council as one of his priorities.

A further sign that Bahrain is trying to organise some reputation management (as PR firms call it) ahead of the UN review came last week when its parliament invited Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to visit the kingdom with "unrestricted access". 

A previous UN mission to Bahrain, last year, was not allowed to visit detention centres and, according to Reuters, the commissioner greeted Bahrain's latest invitation with some wariness, saying it would have to be more than "a photo opportunity".