GENEVA — The tiny oil-rich kingdom of Bahrain pledged Wednesday to improve its treatment of political activists, crack down on torture and prevent violence against ethnic and religious communities while accepting the vast majority of the U.N.'s recommendations regarding human rights.
Bahrain is now the first country to be subjected to the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council's reviews of all nations' records in 2008 and this year. Each time, Bahrain has been subjected to a bright, somewhat harsh spotlight.
This time around, the council had issued 176 recommendations for Bahrain. Some of these focused on the government's response to the unrest that has hit Bahrain since early 2011, calling for fair trials in the wake of arrests and prosecutions of demonstrators and guarantees against the use of torture.
Others called for stepped-up cooperation with the U.N. in its attempts to investigate alleged abuses in Bahrain where Shiites have been demanding a greater political voice in the Sunni-ruled country.
For 19 months, there has been unrest in Bahrain between Shiite protesters and police, leaving at least 50 people dead in the strategic kingdom, a key American ally that is the base for the U.S. Navy's 5th fleet. Charges have been filed against some police for allegedly extracting forced confessions from suspected anti-government protesters.
In Geneva on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa told the council, the U.N.'s top human rights body, that Bahrain would accept 158 recommendations, including calls for fair trials and improved religious protections. But he rejected the recommendations for abolishing the death penalty, saying that would violate his country's constitution.
He also offered to provide an interim report on the nation's progress.
"Our actions, more than our words, should dispel any doubts regarding my government's commitment to upholding human rights through the rule of law," he said. "Let us follow the path of dialogue, not propaganda."
Al Khalifa promised his government would tolerate dissent — within what he called "the limits of orderly discourse in a democratic society." But, he added, "no one has the right to force factionalism upon a society against its will. We welcome peaceful expressions of disagreement, but not incitements to hatred and violence which damage the social fabric of a nation."
In November 2011, Bahrain released a 500-page report detailing widespread abuses in the Gulf kingdom's crackdowns on the Shiite-led uprising. Bahrain's rulers authorized a special commission to investigate the nation's turmoil in a bid to ease tensions and promised a broad range of reforms as a result.
The seriousness of the situation that Bahrain continues to face, however, was underscored by the presence of both the foreign minister and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, who came to Geneva for the Bahrain session. A private meeting between the two was planned later Wednesday.
Posner said Bahrain's government showed "great courage" by sponsoring the commission. "Ten months after the release of the report, however, we are concerned that the government is losing momentum on implementation," he said.
Activists focused attention on Bahrain at the U.N.'s European headquarters in Geneva. Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said the government's acceptance Wednesday of the U.N. recommendations must be "quickly followed by releasing leaders of peaceful protests, holding accountable high officials responsible for policies of torture, and adopting broader reforms to uphold human rights."