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.
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.
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.