human rights & business (and a few other things)

Bahrain, the Grand Prix and Human Rights

Since February 2011, the tiny island of Bahrain, ruled by Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah, has experienced a harsh government response to a wave of protests demanding more freedom and better respect for human rights. This was documented in great detail by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Professor Cherif Bassiouni, in its December 2011 report. The report clearly points to evidence of people being killed and tortured. Because of the ongoing unrest, the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled.

One year down the road, what is the current situation in Bahrain? Without a doubt there is less protest than a year ago. Those who hoped to see the so-called “Arab Spring” spreading throughout the Arab world planting the seeds of democracy in countries plagued by corrupted and violent regimes have realised the road is not an easy one. Some human rights activists, still committed to make things change for the best, are continuing to fight in various ways. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, for example, has been detained since April 2011 and today is his 64th day of hunger strike.

In this context, the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix is scheduled for Sunday 22 April. In a letter to the editors in yesterday’s Financial Times, Kirsty Hughes from Index on Censorship asked for the Grand Prix not to proceed. Today, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) announced that the race would go on as planned, as “all the proper security measures are in place”. Clearly, the two parties here do not have the same objectives in mind. The point is not whether the place is safe for the race to go on, although obviously that is an important concern. The point is whether it is morally acceptable to hold an event which is going to bring substantial amounts of money to a regime who tortures its own people. It’s as simple as that.

On a side note, Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone should really have thought twice before saying: “There’s nothing happening. I know people that live there and it’s all very quiet and peaceful.” I simply cannot resist the urge to point out that surely after 64 days without food, one is quiet and at considerable risk to be on the way to a very peaceful place indeed.

So, is boycott the way to go? I have long had a love-hate relationship with boycotting events, products or even countries on human rights grounds. I’m sure I will have the opportunity to address boycotts again in this blog but to make a long story short I think boycotts should be personal and not institutional choices. In general I find them patronizing and not appropriate. This being said, I am also uncomfortable with the idea that nothing can be done.

This is why I was happy to see that yesterday the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre issued a press release on “Bahrain, the Grand Prix and Human Rights”. They invited a number of companies involved in the upcoming Grand Prix in Bahrain to respond to human rights concerns over the current situation. The responses will be posted on the Centre’s site by Wednesday 18 April, four days before the race.

I believe this approach to be the right one. It is not a boycott. It is not “business as usual” either. It is potentially constructive and will force companies to face their responsibilities. By remaining silent and accepting to go to Bahrain, they are siding with the regime in some way despite the claims that will surely come soon about them not getting involved in politics.

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