Monday

28th May 2018

'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.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

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.

Visual Data

EU budget: Biggest cuts and increases

The European Parliament accused the EU Commission of not providing clear figures for a comparison of the proposed and the current EU budgets. We take a look at the main differences.

Visegrad Four 'nothing to hide' on rule of law issue

Central European countries say they have "nothing to hide" on rule of law issues - while justice commissioner Vera Jourova said they should agree to the Commission's controversial budget plans on rule of law conditionality.

Opinion

EU budget must not fortify Europe at expense of peace

Given the European Commission new budget's heavy focus on migration, border management and security, many are asking whether the proposal will fortify Europe at the expense of its peace commitments.

Opinion

Europe's budget stasis

The EU's budgetary muddling through might not be enough when the next crisis hits.

News in Brief

  1. Italy set to pick eurosceptic finance minister
  2. UK foreign minister fooled by Russian pranksters
  3. Rajoy ally gets 33 years in jail for corruption
  4. Close race as polls open in Irish abortion referendum
  5. Gazprom accepts EU conditions on gas supplies
  6. Facebook tells MEPs: non-users are not profiled
  7. Commission proposes ending France deficit procedure
  8. UK households hit with Brexit income loss

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman requests more lending transparency from European Investment Bank
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  3. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and reconciliation is a process that takes decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  4. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up
  5. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  6. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersIncome Inequality Increasing in Nordic Countries
  8. European Jewish CongressEU Leaders to Cease Contact with Mahmoud Abbas Until He Apologizes for Antisemitic Comments
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual Report celebrates organization’s tenth anniversary
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cooperation Needed on Green Exports and Funding
  11. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li Confirms China Will Continue to Open Up
  12. European Jewish CongressCalls on Brussels University to Revoke Decision to Honour Ken Loach

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Sustainable Energy Week 2018"Lead the Clean Energy Transition"- Register and Join Us in Brussels from 5 to 7 May
  2. EU Green Week 2018Green Cities for a Greener Future. Join the Debate in Brussels from 22 to 24 May
  3. Nordic Council of Ministers12 Recommendations for Nordic Leadership on Climate and Environment
  4. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOxford Professor Calls for an End to the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  5. ACCAPeople Who Speak-Up Should Feel Safe to Do So
  6. Mission of China to the EUProgress on China-EU Cooperation
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersWorld's Energy Ministers to Meet in Oresund in May to Discuss Green Energy
  8. ILGA EuropeParabéns! Portugal Votes to Respect the Rights of Trans and Intersex People
  9. Mission of China to the EUJobs, Energy, Steel: Government Work Report Sets China's Targets
  10. European Jewish CongressKantor Center Annual Report on Antisemitism Worldwide - The Year the Mask Came Off
  11. UNICEFCalls for the Protection of Children in the Gaza Strip
  12. Mission of China to the EUForeign Minister Wang Yi Highlights Importance of China-EU Relations