Bahrain has said it will host a pan-Arab court of human rights in a move condemned by a campaign group as a "PR stunt" by an oppresive state which could be turned on those it should be protecting.
The official Bahrain News Agency (BNA) reported on Monday that the kingdom would host the permanent headquarters of the Arab Human Rights Court following its approval at an Arab League meeting in Cairo.
The BNA reported Bahrain's foreign minister, Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, as saying that the court's creation "keeps pace with the aspirations of the Arab peoples" and was a "a quantum leap forward and major step for human rights in the region and the Arab world".
"The initiative to establish the court stems from the King's firm belief in the importance of human rights and basic human liberties," he added.
|Maryam AlKhawaja, acting head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights
However, Maryam AlKhawaja, the acting head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said the court's creation was a public relations stunt that would do nothing to improve the rights of those in Bahrain, or other Gulf states.
"The Gulf states are not held accountable for their human rights abuses. No one will take this seriously. For them to have a court such as this is a slap in the face to those who have documented abuses in Bahrain, for which there have been no consequences."
She said that if the court does become established, it would be used as a political tool. "It will probably file against people like Bashar al-Assad," she said, referring to the president of Syria. "But it will have no role in the Gulf countries and I would not be surprised if it was used to go after those who are actually trying to promote civil society."
Bahrain, which is ruled by a Sunni monarchy and has close ties with Saudi Arabia, has for years largely ignored calls for reform from its Shia majority population.
At the height of the Arab uprising in February 2011, Bahrainis protested in the capital, Manama, for greater political freedom and an end to what they say is autocratic rule. The king, Hamad Al-Khalifa, appealed to the Gulf Cooperation Council for assistance in ending the protests, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent troops to end the dissent.
Human Rights Watch said that an independent commission of inquiry, appointed by the king, found that security forces had used excessive force against peaceful protesters, and had arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured, ill-treated, and denied them fair trials.
Security forces also used excessive force in 2012 to disperse anti-government protests and the authorities jailed people who participated in peaceful demonstrations or criticised officials, rights groups say.
Freedom of expression and association is tightly controlled and the kingdom, like many Gulf states, operates a secret court system that is criticised by international observers. Criticism of the monarchy can lead to long jail sentences.
The Bahrain News Agency said the move to create a court of human rights stemmed from a call in 2011 from the King.
Shaikh Khalad described the endorsement of Bahrain as permanent host as "a positive step on the right path to disseminate and protect human rights in the Arab world".
He stressed Bahrain's "firm resolve to spare no effort for the court to achieve its goals and promote the protection of human rights in the Arab world".
The Arab League's secretary-general, Nabil Elaraby, said: "The court will be a civilised move that will contribute to the efforts of Arab states to support and encourage human rights."