Sunday

21st Apr 2019

'Friendship group' visit derails MEPs' Bahrain rights probe

  • The Kingdom of Bahrain is cracking down on dissidents ahead of elections (Photo: Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

European lawmakers working on human rights have long complained of interference from 'friendship groups' that offer foreign regimes a backdoor entry into the European parliament.

Earlier this week, their fears became a reality when the Kingdom of Bahrain refused to host a delegation from the parliament's sub-committee on human rights - citing an apparent scheduling conflict with a regime-friendly assembly of euro-deputies headed by a Slovenian liberal MEP.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

In a statement issued by its embassy in Brussels on Monday (7 May), the Gulf state said it had not been given enough time to prepare for the official human rights committee visit set for early May.

In addition, it says Bahrain had "planned several months in advance" to host the separate visit from the informal friendship group, on the same May dates proposed by the committee.

But that statement appears to contradict earlier comments made by the office of Ivo Vajgl, the Slovenian liberal MEP who heads the Bahrain friendship group.

Three weeks ago, it told EUobserver that nothing had been confirmed and that no details on meetings or agenda had been discussed.

"We have been looking at possible dates so it's been in the pipeline for awhile but there are not any practical details yet in terms of agenda, in terms of political meetings," his office said.

When asked which dates they planned to go to Bahrain, Vajgl's office was vague, stating only that it would be within the year.

Regime lobbyists?

Supporters of friendship groups, composed of MEPs and foreign state officials, claim they offer more informal contacts and understanding of governments that are sometimes hostile to liberal democracies.

Detractors says they risk damaging the image of the European parliament, risk conflicts of interest, and make it difficult for more critical MEPs to hold regimes accountable for human rights violations.

Among them is Italian socialist Pier Antonio Panzeri who chairs the subcommittee on human rights.

Panzeri was only informed about the planned friendship group visit after his proposed dates for early May were not available, given Vajgl's trip.

Vajgl then cancelled, to leave the same dates open to Panzeri and his sub-committee on human rights, known as DROI.

But then Bahrain refused to accommodate.

"What we can deduce is that they [Bahrain] have not planned a new date yet, demonstrating that there is an objective annoyance from the Bahrain authorities to receive DROI's visit," said Panzeri, in an emailed statement.

Bahrain insists that it has no issue about discussing human rights, noting it will host a human rights workshop later this month.

But international NGOs like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the international federation of human rights (FIDH), and foreign journalists have all been denied entry. Last year, the UN high commissioner for human rights condemned the country for clamping down on people seeking more democracy.

Panzeri has also cast doubts on Bahrain's willingness to discuss human rights.

"If they claim that they have no problem discussing about human rights, it is also true that they have missed a plurality of opportunities to do so. We insist, we have a strong interest in visiting the country, but as long as they continue to advance alibis, I do not see how they can be called open to dialogue," said Panzeri.

Unlike the 'friendship group', Panzeri's delegation is an official European parliament body and has the power to speak on behalf of the EU institution.

It can also feed into parliament resolutions on Bahrain, which carry EU-level political weight. Vajgl had himself lobbied against resolutions against Bahrain a month after forming his friendship group in 2016.

This makes it the second time Bahrain has denied DROI access, following the first reject in last October.

Other sensitivities are likely at play.

Bahrain is set to hold elections for the National Assembly later this year following widespread public demands for more political openness in 2011.

But activists say the state has forced organisations underground while others are victim to arbitrary suspensions and arrests.

Some 169 dissidents are thought have to been arrested or jailed or threatened and in February this year, Bahrain's leading human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab, was sentenced to five years in prison.

Despite the abuse, some MEPs are still eager to promote good relations without pressing authorities on human rights.

In March, the bureau of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, held its meeting in Bahrain, where it met high-ranking officials, including officials from the ministry of justice and public security.

An ECR statement following the visits makes no mention of human rights.

British conservative MEP Geoffrey Van Orden, who led the delegation, instead praised the country for its tolerance and good inter-religious relations.

Investigation

MEP friendship groups offer 'backdoor' for pariah regimes

MEPs are using so-called 'friendship groups' to cater to foreign governments without oversight and little public scrutiny. Initially set up to promote cultural exchanges, some have become lobbying platforms to push state views from governments with poor human rights records.

Bahrain hunger striker prompts EU response

Entering his 63rd day of hunger strike, Bahraini-Danish activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has finally attracted reactions from EU and Danish institutions.

Lobby register transparency talks collapse

Efforts to set up a better transparency register for lobbyists have collapsed after two years of talks. The impasse revolves around the European Commission's insistence that the register also become mandatory for the European Parliament and Council.

Magazine

The changing of the guards in the EU in 2019

The four most powerful EU institutions - Commission, Parliament, Council and Central Bank will all have new leaders in the coming ten months. Here is an overview.

Magazine

Explained: What is the European Parliament?

While domestic political parties often use the European Parliament as a dumping ground for unwanted politicians - and a majority of citizens don't bother to vote - the parliament, over the years, has become a dominant force in the EU.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  2. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  3. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  4. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  9. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  10. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan

Latest News

  1. Romania drafts EU code on NGO migrant rescues
  2. Bulgaria, Hungary, and Malta shamed on press unfreedom
  3. EU drafts $20bn US sanctions list in aviation dispute
  4. Brunei defends stoning to death of gay men in EU letter
  5. US Democrats side with Ireland on Brexit
  6. Wifi or 5G to connect EU cars? MEPs weigh in
  7. How Brexit may harm the new EU parliament
  8. EU parliament backs whistleblower law

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  6. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  7. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  8. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  9. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  11. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  12. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us