Explaining Human Rights to Bernie Ecclestone

The Formula One boss doesn't see anything wrong with Bahrain's awful human rights record.

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22 April 2013, 2:15pm


Bernie Ecclestone at the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix. (Photo via.)

Bernie Ecclestone has a wonderful knack of saying the dumbest shit you've ever heard in your life.

For example, in 2009 the Formula One overlord simultaneously praised Hitler and suggested that he was just a pawn in someone else's grand Holocaust plan: "In a lot of ways – terrible to say this, I suppose – but, apart from the fact that Hitler got taken away and persuaded to do things that I have no idea whether he wanted to do or not, he was [good] in the way that he could command a lot of people, able to get things done."

More recently, when asked whether Bahrain should be allowed to host a Grand Prix because of its terrible human rights record, he equated human rights to how various countries have different speed limits. He then went on to say, "I keep asking people what human rights are. I don't know what they are. The rights are; the people that live in a country abide by the laws of the country, whatever they are.”

So I’d just like to take this opportunity to enlighten Mr Ecclestone about the concept of human rights, which – to me – are relatively simple and quite hard to get confused with traffic legislation.

Human rights are an international institutional regime created by the countries that formed the UN after the Second World War in order to protect people if their rights were being abused by their own state. Human rights are constructed through a process by which people fight to reclaim their dignity from oppression or persecution, rather than being natural or God-given rights. They are also aspirational, providing guidance about what should happen, not what does happen.    

Mr Ecclestone seems to have "rights", which are obligations on states to respect their citizens, confused with "laws", which are obligations on citizens enforced by states.


Bahraini protesters clashing with authorities.

Yesterday was the Bahrain Grand Prix, a business relationship between Formula One and the Bahrain government, which has been held since 2004. Back then was a somewhat happier time for Bahrainis. In 2002, a parliamentary system was reinstated for the first time since 1975, giving women the right to vote and releasing all of the country's political prisoners. But, over the following decade, it became clear that these reforms would do absolutely nothing to stop the roots of institutional discrimination and corruption in Bahrain.

Bahrain has laws that prevent people from claiming their internationally-guaranteed human rights. It's illegal to criticise the king, the penal code has ambiguous laws that allow authorities to jail anyone who "disseminates false information" (i.e. posts photos on Twitter they don't like) and "illegal gatherings" can be defined as five or more people in the same place, which makes demonstrations a little tricky.   

My friend Nabeel Rajab, the President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, is currently serving two years in prison for encouraging illegal protests. Meanwhile, 13 other opposition and human rights leaders in Bahrain languish in jail with long prison sentences on unsubstantiated charges of "trying to overthrow the government". The authorities conveniently can't reveal information they claim to have tying these men to some sort of Iranian-backed plot, because the evidence is labelled as classified information.


Nabeel Rajab and Abdulhadi Alkhawaja (another Bahraini human rights activist) help an elderly woman after a peaceful protest was attacked by police in Manama, Bahrain, 2010. (Image via.)

The Bahraini government is not a legitimate government. Unfortunately, all too often, states don't do what they're supposed to: protect the rights of their citizens. When the power of a state – with the monopoly on force that this brings – has been captured by a minority party, citizens can only appeal to outside forces for aid. Little wonder then that these bodies wholeheartedly sympathise with the plight of the Bahraini people, who continue to demonstrate against their government in their hundreds of thousands.

Back to Bernie – he also told the media that the Bahraini government is "stupid" to keep holding the Grand Prix race every year because it gives political protesters an international soapbox to stand on. But that doesn't seem to be stopping him from taking his race back there every year, completely ignoring the human rights issues or his own arguments. That said, you have to give him a hand there for blindly insulting the people who reportedly pay him £26 million a year, seemingly without any worry of the consequences. 

The reasons for continuing with the race are internal. It is the pet project of supposedly moderate heir apparent Crown Prince Salman. The US and UK bank on this guy to be better than the conservative faction of the Bahraini regime, but he has little power, as he's been sidelined from the start of the uprising. He also has little chance of gaining control of any important government ministries while his great uncle – Prime Minister Khalifa, the longest serving PM in the world – is still alive. Western nations fear that the cancellation of the Grand Prix would be bad for the Crown Prince’s position, but these fears are unfounded and irrelevant.

Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff comments on the arrest of Nabeel Rajab in 2012. (Image via.)

What is relevant is that people’s rights are still being abused. They are being killed. They are being tortured. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in jail, hospitals are still militarised and protesters are subjected to an excessive show of force on a daily basis.

Human rights are quite simple. As human beings, we know what is right and what is wrong. Murder, torture, discrimination and corruption are always wrong. Human rights are an expression of your humanity, your dignity as a human being. The first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” These words – as you should know, Bernie, by virtue of your own humanity – are also ideals that we should all aspire to achieve, unless you're more concerned with being an awful human being, in which case keep on keeping on.

Human rights are dynamic. We created them after centuries of bloodshed, in the knowledge that there has to be something we can do to combat the baser aspects of human nature.

Bernie Ecclestone: when you look around you, you cannot be deaf to the cries of those whose family and friends have been falsely arrested, tortured or even murdered. The question for you is this: Do you feel any obligation to give your fellow man dignity and justice, or is your conscience so weak that the only obligation you feel is to the bottom line of your bank statement?

Follow John on Twitter: @jwsal

More stuff from Bahrain:

I Was Tortured As a Bahraini Political Prisoner

Things Are Still Going Terribly in Bahrain

Apparently There's A Revolution In Bahrain

Bahrain's PR Campaign Is Doomed to Fail