Bahrain: one step forward or two steps back?

22 Nov, 2011 | Comunicati Stampa

With the world’s focus on the recent dramatic captures of alleged war criminals in Libya, the ongoing conflict and daily violations in Syria and the recent violence in Egypt, it is easy to overlook the small island Kingdom of Bahrain. However, an event of great significance is happening soon in Bahrain: the first of the Arab Spring’s transitional justice efforts, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), is poised to deliver its findings within the coming days, some seven months after its establishment.

The situation in Bahrain remains of great concern: the humanitarian situation is alarming and human rights violations seem to continue unabated. Civilians, including women and children, are attacked on a daily basis. People are dying. There is widespread discrimination against the Shia majority of the population, which faces a lack of political power and effective representation within the community. Prominent civil society activists and human rights defenders are being sentenced to life imprisonment by military courts on the basis of emergency legislation. Students are being expelled for using social media and teachers are being sacked for expressing political views. The list continues. And while the US Congress at least is trying to dampen or stop the violations through its adoption of a joint resolution stopping the 53 million USD arms sale to Bahrain, little else is being done about it.

That may change, as the BICI, headed by renowned international law professor M. Cherif Bassiouni, is gearing up to issue its report on 23 November. The Commission has been charged by King Hamad Bin Isa to investigate the events of February and March this year, when Bahrain witnessed an uprising consisting of demands for reform that escalated into violence, human rights violations and Government crackdowns, including with assistance from Saudi and UAE troops. Of course, the Commission is not only the answer to the grave situation in Bahrain. To suggest otherwise will create expectations that will not and cannot be met, which will result in disappointment and disillusionment.

That said, the Commission could be an effective tool to address some of Bahrain’s problems, particularly to acknowledge victims and to erode the culture of impunity by creating a sense -and demand- that people violating human rights will be held to account. To date, however, their track record has been patchy: they have faced a lot of criticism for neglecting to reach out to the public and explain who they were and what they were doing; for the media interviews by the head of the Commission stirred much anger when he claimed there was no evidence of systematic violence and no evidence of involvement at the highest levels, despite the Commission not having completed its investigations; and for their failure to engage non-governmental organisations fully in their work, which has cast doubt on their genuineness and on their independence.

For now, judgment on the Commission as a whole is suspended, as Bahrain waits to see whether the report can overcome – and overtake – these problems. Reports from Commissions like the BICI have the potential to make positive or negative contributions: a good report can promote human rights, encourage reform and heal social and political divides; a bad report can do exactly the opposite and be the catalyst for further violence, bloodshed and division. Reports falling into the former – good – category have some common elements that are necessary to garner public acceptance of their findings and recommendations, which in turn is necessary for a commission’s net contribution to be positive. First, they must clearly explain how they did their work, the types of people with whom they spoke, the criteria by which they chose to speak with which types of people and the criteria they used to analyse the results of their investigations and reach their factual and legal conclusions. Second, they must provide an overall narrative about what happened during the time period they have been investigating, in this case, the events of February and March 2011 and their consequences. This narrative must reflect the experiences of those who bore the brunt of the events and must be presented in a clear, chronological and factual way. Third, they must not be afraid to draw conclusions about the legal characterisation of the facts – and be prepared to explain why and on what basis they are calling certain facts human rights violations or not. Finally, while the investigations have to have been conducted impartially, the report should not be afraid to place responsibility where it lies, including conclusions that some parties are more responsible for violations as a whole than others, where the facts bear that out. Conversely, reports that fall into the latter – bad – category lack these elements, which can call into question their credibility, independence and motivations, all of which risk public rejection, whether or not their conclusions and recommendations are sound. In the case of Bahrain, civil society is also issuing a shadow report; for BICI’s report to be accepted, it needs to be at least as good as that report, if not better.

How the report turns out, and the recommendations it makes, can make the difference between the Commission being an effective tool to assist Bahrain move forward and it is at best, a waste of time and at worst, a step backwards for the country. This also depends on the response from Bahrain’s civil society; if the report’s recommendations are good, Bahraini civil society should establish a monitoring mechanism to ensure the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations. This is very important for the Commission’s contribution to the restoration of stability and building democracy and the rule of law in Bahrain. If the recommendations are not good, Bahrain’s civil society will need to develop its own recommendations for how the country can move forward towards peace, stability and democracy. Either way, the international community should support Bahraini civil society, who ultimately will be the watchdogs of Bahrain’s future human rights record.

In any event, reform is necessary for Bahrain to move forward and regain its positive image as a democratic liberal State. Bahrain needs to start acting like a democracy if it wants to be considered on the international stage to be a democracy. First and foremost, this means protecting human rights, in particular, the rights of its citizens to have a say in who represents them. The human rights of women must be a critical part of a new Bahrain: while women have the right to vote and stand for political office, which is positive, women still face many challenges and hurdles in the recognition and enjoyment of their rights. There is also a deep need to support the participation of children and young people in reform efforts. Bahrain must also ensure accountability for past violations and, looking to the future, by signing the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. These actions would be an important step for eroding a culture of impunity, which is critical to prevent human rights violations in the future, and are crucial for ensuring acknowledgement and justice for the victims.

* Niccolo’ Figa-Talamanca is Secretary-General of No Peace Without Justice

Press advisory:
A No Peace Without Justice Delegation headed by its Secretary-General Niccolo’ Figa-Talamanca will be in Bahrain for the 23 November handover of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s (BICI) report into alleged human rights abuses during mass protests in the country earlier this year.