Bahrain: Reform, Repression – or both?

3 Feb, 2012 | Press Releases

Like its neighbours, Bahrain has seen widespread violations of human rights in conjunction with rising pro-democracy sentiment among its citizens over the course of the past year. However, among the many countries affected by waves of civil unrest, Bahrain remains unique due to the singular reaction of its Government and monarch, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, namely the establishment of an Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to review and recommend a response to the violations. While not without flaws, the BICI provides a promising opportunity not only for the people of Bahrain to demand reform and redress, but also for the State to satisfy this demand. In just one week, Bahraini citizens will mark the one-year anniversary of the start of their revolution. However, whether 14 February 2012 will stand out as a day of celebration for freedoms gained, or will merely be another day of struggle and repression for Bahrainis, remains for King Hamad and the Government to decide.

On 23 November 2011, the BICI issued its 500-page-long Report on alleged human rights violations that occurred during mass protests in the country last February and March. According to the Report, the Bahraini security forces perpetrated “massive systematic violations and widespread torture” but could, by implementing a series of recommended reforms, restore to the Bahraini people their fundamental rights. By immediately accepting the report and the recommendations, His Majesty the King of Bahrain pledged the commitment of the State to implement all of the reforms suggested in the Report. However, despite this promising indication, little has changed and the Bahraini people continue to suffer violence at the hands of this same Government.

The BICI Report’s conclusions and methodology are also not without fault. Its comparable emphasis on crimes committed by individuals and crimes against humanity committed by the State appear to be an inexcusable attempt to balance the two. Furthermore, certain recommendations, although progressive, are incongruous. For example, the Report recognises that thousands of peaceful demonstrators were arrested, imprisoned without trial and often tortured. However, rather than advocate for their immediate and unconditional release, it instead proposes that they receive fair trials – regardless of the fact that their initial “crime” of peaceful demonstration was no crime at all, but in fact their fundamental right.

In spite of such flaws, the Report could be a catalyst for positive change – if the Bahraini Government accepts its responsibility to ensure accountability for, and an end to, human rights violations and to answer the Bahraini people’s demands for political rights. Some progress has already been made toward this end. Significantly, the Government has referred all cases involving deaths, torture and inhumane police treatment to the public prosecutor; it has allowed the Red Cross to visit Bahraini prisons; and it has ordered that all individuals fired illegally for their political views are reinstated. However, many of those imprisoned for peacefully demonstrating have yet to be released; victims of abuse have yet to be compensated; and finally, senior figures linked to the perpetration of crimes have yet to be tried or dismissed (and some in fact have been promoted, as in the case of National Security Advisor, Sheikh Khalifa bin Abdulla Al Khalifa,). These deficits all leave Bahrain’s longstanding culture of impunity intact.

Notably, the reforms implemented thus far aid – partially – the rectification of past abuse, but fail to address the very structural deficiencies of Bahrain’s Government and Security Sector that enabled such abuse in the first place. The immediate result is that Bahrain’s political opposition and constituents continue to face exclusion or neglect, greatly hampering the possibility of meaningful change in both the short- and long-term.

Most alarming of all is the continuation of state violence against Bahraini protestors. Last month among those injured at the hands of the security forces was prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab. Over the past two weeks, six more demonstrators were killed – including 14-year-old Yaseen al-Asfoor, who died from inhaling the toxic gas used by the Government to dispel protestors. The perpetuation of such human rights abuses is detrimental not only to the safety and survival of Bahraini citizens, but also to any remaining prospects for national reconciliation and peaceful reform. Each new act of violence antagonises the opposition and radicalises the population, ultimately slowing and potentially obstructing Bahrain’s eventual achievement of freedom and political reform. If the Government is sincere about reform, it must protect rather than deny the fundamental rights of its constituents: violence against demonstrators must cease; freedom of speech and association must at least be respected if not protected; and finally, each of the Report’s recommendations must be implemented in full. These changes must be made immediately.

The current context of denied freedoms and sluggish reforms poses a further danger to the future of a free Bahrain: with every passing day it is becoming increasingly likely that the mere publication of the Report – as opposed to the implementation of its recommendations – may be regarded as sufficient, while the pursuit of justice and promotion of human rights are cast aside in its wake. In order to ensure that this does not occur, the first recommendation of the BICI Report should be fulfilled, namely the establishment of an independent and impartial implementing and monitoring mechanism for the Report’s recommendations. Furthermore, in order to be meaningful, this monitoring mechanism should be driven by local civil society, which ultimately will be the watchdog of Bahrain’s future human rights record.

Foreign governments too must take every opportunity not only to track and assess, but also act in accordance with, the Bahraini Government’s progress in instituting the necessary reforms. The result, in other words, must be that the implementation of reforms – or failure to do so – will influence the foreign policies of governments with respect to Bahrain. The United States Department of State’s recent decision to suspend a planned arms sale of $53 million worth of weapons to the Bahraini Government is a laudable example of this. This decision followed the discovery that American (as well as European and Russian) weaponry has been, and continues to be, used by the Bahraini Government against civilian demonstrators. It is thus extremely crucial that all governments involved in such arrangements suspend or continue to suspend the sales of arms and that decisions by foreign governments promote, rather than hinder, the wellbeing of Bahraini citizens.

Finally, there are three potentially powerful sources of pressure by international bodies – including NGOs and the United Nations – that, if applied, could encourage concrete governmental reform: supervision of the Bahraini Government’s progress; involvement in local monitoring initiatives; and submission of the Report to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The future of Bahrain remains uncertain, caught between possibilities of reform and repression – or, as at present, an incongruous combination of both. Thus far, the Bahraini people have persevered alone in their pursuit of a free and democratic Bahrain, but their success will require the support of both local and international actors. Meaningful and long-term reform, however, can only be implemented from within and ultimately it is up to the Government and King of Bahrain to do so. It is to their credit that they have commissioned the investigation, stated their acceptance of responsibility and promised change. The time has now come to act.

Alison Smith is Legal Counsel and Coordinator of the International Criminal Justice Program of NPWJ