Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Turning Up the Volume on Rights

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Turning Up the Volume on Rights

Article excerpt

The E.U. and European governments face a dilemma: How can human rights -- supposedly at the center of Europe's foreign policy -- best be promoted?

When Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, and Stavros Lambrinidis, her human rights envoy, recently visited the Gulf state of Bahrain, there were high hopes from democracy activists that both would speak out about that country's human rights record.

During the two-day ministerial meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council, hosted by Bahrain, Mr. Lambrinidis spent much time discussing human rights with officials and nongovernmental organizations.

He also visited Jaw Prison, where many activists are being held for participating in pro-democracy demonstrations that were crushed in 2011 by the Bahraini government. Despite the meetings, democracy activists criticized the E.U. officials. In their view, they did not speak out loudly enough against Bahrain's suppression of human rights.

The dispute over Ms. Ashton and Mr. Lambrinidis's visit confirms the dilemma facing the European Union and its member governments: How can human rights -- supposedly at the center of Europe's foreign policy -- best be promoted?

On the one side are diplomats like Ms. Ashton, who believe in quiet diplomacy. On the other are human rights organizations, which favor a much more vocal stance.

In her remarks after the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting, Ms. Ashton put trade before human rights. Even then, the comments about Bahrain's record on human rights were cautious. "We do have honest and open discussions on issues, for example on human rights," Ms. Ashton said. "We may have different perspectives at times, but we're able to have that honest dialogue."

Maryam al-Khawaja, who is acting president of the independent Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said she was extremely disappointed with Ms. Ashton's public statement.

"The regime barely received a slap on the wrist," said Ms. Khawaja, whose father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the democracy demonstrations of 2011. This was all the more disheartening, she added, because hundreds of activists remained behind bars, torture was common, and social media were under strict surveillance.

A new report by the European Union Institute for Security Studies, based in Paris, said the Bahraini prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has been in power since 1971, showed no willingness to change. "Bahrain is caught between reforms it is not willing to undertake and an uprising it is unable to suppress," wrote Florence Gaub and Boukja Kistemaker, the report's authors.

This has placed the European Union in a situation in which it is torn between pursuing quiet diplomacy, in order to be able to keep the lines of communication open with the Bahraini government, or speaking out publicly with the risk of Bahrain breaking off any dialogue on human rights. The Bahraini government already canceled a visit by Juan E. Mendez, the United Nations' special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. …

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