The Centre describes its vision as "a prosperous democratic country free of discrimination and other violations of human rights" and says its mission is to "encourage and support individuals and groups to be proactive in the protection of their own and others' rights; and to struggle to promote democracy and human rights in accordance with international norms" based on four objectives:
- Promoting freedoms and basic rights (civil, political and economic)
- Combating racial discrimination
- Dissemination of human rights culture
- Contributing in providing support and protection for victims and the vulnerable
Although the organisation refers to “human rights” in its title, it has been described in a study by the Florence-based Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies of the European University Institute as the "most radical opposition group currently found in Bahrain", with the activists involved having “chosen to operate as an NGO - although with political goals".
The Centre had its licence revoked by the government of Bahrain, after Al Khawaja criticised the Prime Minister in language "the authorities easily construed as incitement of hatred". Al Khawaja was arrested and pardoned shortly afterwards by King Hamad. In 2007 he was arrested again and again pardoned by King Hamad.
- President Abdulhadi Al Khawaja is an admirer of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, whose regime oversaw gross human rights violations in which thousands were killed, including many human rights activists.
- Al Khawaja is the former head of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain's subsidiary, the “Bahrain Human Rights Organisation”. The Iran-based Islamic Front was considered by critics to be a front for Iranian intelligence; under its auspices there was an attempted coup in Bahrain in 1981, with the aim of installing a theocratic government under an Iran-based Ayatollah.
- Another of the Centre's activists, Zainab Al Khawaja, (who is Abdulhadi's daughter), has used her blog to describe Khomeini, as a ‘great man’ and the ‘reason for the [Iranian] revolution’s success’.
- Only one member of the Centre has contested parliamentary elections: in 2006, Zara Al Muradi, stood (unsuccessfully) for the Islamic fundamentalist Islamic Action Society on a platform to run Bahrain according to Sharia Law. Ms Muradi, despite being a member of the Islamic Action Society, is also a member of Bahrain's largest Islamist group, Al Wefaq Islamic Action, which has called for the introduction of legislation to restrict women's employment and force female public sector workers into early retirement.
- Salah Al Khawaja, brother of Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, was formerly the Vice President of the Islamic Action Society.
The Centre's Zainab Al Khawaja defence of human rights abuses by the Iranian government is based on the Utilitarian argument that the abuses were necessary in order for the Islamic Revolution to survive. The invocation of Utilitarianism is usually considered unorthodox for human rights defenders – particularly when used in defence of abuses. Zainab Al Khawaja has been a member of the Centre's international delegations to meet such organisations as Amnesty International.
Sectarianism and rhetorical strategies
- According to a study by the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies of the European University Institute in Florence “The BCHR and its allies address two main audiences and hence employ two different rhetorical strategies: Pro-democracy rhetoric is mainly directed and UK and US audiences. The Bahraini audience on the other hand is addressed in sectarian terms’
- The Robert Schuman Centre said “In stark contrast to Al Wefaq’s constant effort not to appear sectarian, the BCHR pursues the opposite strategy: while their rhetoric to international NGOs is completely consistent with Western democracy promotion parlance, the symbolism the BCHR uses inside Bahrain is overtly Shiite: even the water dispensers at the mass seminar’s venue were decorated with swords from which Hussayn’s blood dropped.”
- While the Centre has often stated its desire to see women's equality, when women's rights activists launched a campaign to introduce a unified personal status law to give women equal rights in divorce, the Centre lined up alongside Bahrain's main Islamist parties in opposition to the move. The Centre's Nabeel Rajab argued that any new legislation must respect the rights of 'religious communities', a stance that has been criticised as standing in contrast to human rights norms which give primacy to individual rights over group rights. Moreover, it was pointed out that by introducing the concept of 'religious communities', in practical terms this would implicitly give power to those considered the leaders of these communities, i.e. clerics.
- In September 2005, the Centre turned its attention towards Bahrain's women's rights activists and trade unionists who were criticised for not doing enough to assist abused foreign maids. In response, liberals noted that while women's activists were being condemned, the Centre failed to speak out against religious extremist clerics whose use of language had been blamed for providing legitimacy for the sexual abuse of house maids.
- Abdulhadi Khawaja appeared on Hezbollah's Al Manar TV on 12 March 2006 to allege that the Bahrain government had abducted two missing girls. The girls were in fact staying with relatives and the girls' family expressed their "exasperation" at his spreading of false information about the family. The girls' cousin, Fadhel Hussain, said "I don't know where he got this information from. He claims to be a human rights activist but he has hurt us and failed to respect our human rights".
Relationship with Bahrain human rights groups and activists
- The Centre has consistently criticised Bahrain's main human rights group, the Bahrain Human Rights Society. According to the BHRS's head, Dr Sabeeka Al-Najjar, the Centre has sought to portray them as "government stooges".
- Original Left-wing co-founders of the Centre such as Aziz Abul allege that they were forced out by Al Khawaja and his circle.
Links with terrorism
- The Centre's President, Abudlhadi Al Khawaja, is formerly a member of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, that after its attempt at a coup failed in 1981 carried out a series of bomb attacks on civilian targets, such as a 1996 bomb attack on a hotel. Al Khawaja was the head of the Front's subsidiary, the “Bahrain Human Rights Organisation”.
Links with neoconservatives
- The Centre's activists have recently developed close relations with Washington-based neoconservatives. Both Abdulhadi Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab in 2007 spoke at the American Enterprise Institute and have been feted by the Institute's Vice President Danielle Pletka (who was previously criticised for her promotion of the Iraqi opposition leader and alleged Iranian spy, Ahmed Chalabi).