Mizriya Maryam Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is a Bahraini human rights activist. She is the daughter of a prominent Bahraini activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and the vice president for the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. Freedom House has awarded Maryam and her father for their determination in the pro-democratic struggle in the Kingdom of Bahrain.
We’ve recently passed the second anniversary of Bahrain’s Jasmine Revolution uprising, marked by yet another death of a young dissenter from wounds induced by a security force birdshot into the rioting crowd. How do you see the situation in your country right now?
Unfortunately the human rights situation in Bahrain continues to deteriorate. Due to the reality of local and international impunity, which officials of the Bahraini regime enjoy, little progress has been made to put an end to the ongoing almost daily violations.
On the other hand, the protests have not stopped. On the contrary, they continue almost on a daily basis. People understand that they’re in this for the long haul, but they also firmly believe in the idea of “no government can outlast its people”.
The unwillingness of the government to acknowledge some opposition and, in instances, choose to repress certain voices, has seemingly pushed many, mostly poor Shiites, to extreme political convictions. Bearing in mind the current state of countries like Egypt or Tunisia, do you also now also demand a full-blown revolution, or still believe in institutional cooperation towards pro-democratic reforms?
The people on the streets, one of the main groups being the February 14th Coalition are demanding the stepping down of the regime, regarding the self acclaimed king of Bahrain as being directly responsible for the ongoing violations. On the other hand, the political societies, whose popularity is decreasing as more people start to support the coalition, are demanding reforms and a constitutional monarchy.
As human rights defenders we do not have political asks. Our demands are more directed towards accountability, justice and the protection of human rights. The demand for accountability includes the heads of the ruling family; which means putting the king, crown prince and prime minister on trial.
In 2011 you’ve openly implored then-Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton for US to take a stronger stance on Bahraini injustices. How do you feel the relationship between the West and Bahrain has changed, if at all?
We have seen the situation of international impunity for Bahrain worsen. President Obama in 2011 called for the release of the political leaders who are in prison in Bahrain. This never happened. There aren’t even consistant topic-specific statements from the US administration, let alone actions against the ongoing human rights violations inside Bahrain. To add insult to injury, the US administration decided to commence selling arms to Bahrain, in a message of business as usual. Since then the Bahraini regime have become more confident that they can get away without consequences for their violations.
President Obama has recently visited the Middle East, reaching out diplomatically to countries like Israel, or Turkey. There was however, no mention of the Bahrain situation or any other critical issues that are troubling the Gulf region. Why do you think that is?
The US administration unfortunately has a policy of double standards towards holding governments accountable on issues of human rights when it comes to their allies and interests. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Gulf countries get away at many times with the same things the US makes noise about in other countries they do not regard as their allies.
Bahrain’s situation has been compared to that of pre-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland. Given the separation between the poor Shia majority and the rich Sunni minority in power, do you think sectarianism is still a relevant issue in the Bahraini political discourse?
Yes, unfortunately the regime has been successful to a large extent in creating an economical and political separation between the Sunni and Shia communities. For many years now they’ve systematically marginalized and discriminated against the Shia majority in the country. To solve the sectarian issue though we have to first solve the outstanding human rights issue. There needs to be equality for all citizens under the law, politically and economically; but as long as this regime exists in this form that is not possible.
In the Gulf, Bahrain has a reputation as one of the most open and transparent economies in the region and remains a significant regional financial centre, having developed the most diversified economy in the Gulf with development in banking or tourism. Bearing this in mind, do you think the post-oil demand Bahrain can survive as a successful state without honest liberalisation?
Of course not, when a large part of the Bahraini population is polarized and not given access to the job market, this will always create an unstable situation in the country. There’s a very high level of corruption in Bahrain, much of it including members of the ruling family. The financial harbor in Bahrain was reportedly sold to the prime minister, who is the longest serving prime minister in history, for 1 BHD. It will be difficult to build a thriving economy when so much of the country’s income goes into the pockets of members of the ruling family and their close supporters.
Given the prevalence of seemingly repressive angle of Islamic fundamentalism in law mixed with depleting natural resources on which the Gulf States have amassed their wealth, what do you think the future holds for the Gulf region as a whole?
The situation as it stands is not sustainable. It is only a matter of time before the Gulf countries will be faced with the choice of serious reform or the complete break down of the ruling monarchies. So far, it seems they have chosen the latter.
Bearing in mind the slow progress the pro-democratic movement in Bahrain and your family’s own personal struggles as documented on Twitter, I’d like to ask; why do you make time talking to Western university students about your cause?
Raising awareness of the situation on the ground is important. People in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom can actually make a difference to the situation in Bahrain. Through their voting power, through writing to their members in congress, they can raise the issue of Bahrain, and put pressure on their governments to stop their policy of double standards. When students like you know that in Bahrain there are students in prison, students expelled for merely liking a picture on Facebook, and students subjected to torture; it is my hope that the humanity of those reading this will compel them to act about it.
Words: Michael Borowiec