Hasan Moosa Shafaei
On 11 November 2009, the National Foundation for Human Rights (NFHR) was established by a Royal Order. The NFHR aims to promote and protect human rights in Bahrain in accordance with the UN Paris Principles. Bodies of this type are usually established through constitutional institutions. This means that such established institutions are protected by a strong political will and are financed by Governments to enable them to perform the activities that many NGOs cannot do.
These institutions exist in many countries, some of which are Arab such as Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Algeria, Tunisia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The international human rights community assesses these institutions based on their independence and adherence to human rights. The UN established the International Coordinating Committee of NHRIs (ICC) in order to assess their adherence to the Paris Principles and only grants full membership to those that are competent. Consequently, the Committee rejected a number of Arab institutions, which raises many questions and doubts about their credibility and the objectives behind their establishment.
The Bahraini Government voluntarily committed itself to the UN Human Rights Council and set up the NFHR. The NFHR faces many challenges that need to be confronted in order to gain credibility at both the national and international level. The mere establishment of the NFHR is not enough to gain credibility, but only through active and independent work, and fulfilling the objectives set out in the Royal Order can credibility be attained.
During my recent visit to Egypt I met with the President of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) Dr. Boutros Boutros Ghali, the Secretary General of the Council Mukhlis Qutb and Presidents of a number of Egyptian and regional organizations. During the meeting many issues were discussed including the establishment of the NFHR in Bahrain and the possible obstacles it might face. Dr. Ghali believes that the NFHR will face similar problems to that of the Egyptian experience. Dr. Ghali patted my shoulder and said: ‘brother Hasan, I promise you will go through the same experience we did. The NFHR should prove itself through determination and hard work just as we did in the NCHR’. I believe that the NFHR will face four challenges:
The first Challenge: Independence
The Royal Order stressed on the independence and impartiality of the NFHR, however, there is some concern that the NFHR will be treated as a Government agency. All foreign and Arab institutions have struggled in order to remain independent from the state. What makes independency difficult to achieve is due to the fact that the government controls and allocates the budget, appoints staff members and Presidents of the institutions, which gives it the power to impose its will on national human rights institutions.
In Egypt when the NCHR issued its first Report on human rights violations, it came as a shock to some officials since it contained harsh criticism. Some officials attacked the report at first, but the NCHR stuck to its position and demanded that the Government respond to the report. When the second report was published, it included the Government’s response to the first report and the Council’s reaction to it. The NCHR was able to reaffirm its independency and impartiality by resisting Governmental pressure and refusing to be treated like a Government department. The Secretary General Mukhlis Qutb believes that the Finance Minister should sign the cheque and leave; he has no right to interfere with how the cheque is spent. Even if the NCHR has a financial surplus, the Minister has no right to ask about it. In the end, the Egyptian Government respects the NCHR and is proud to cooperate with it in correcting Governmental policies concerning human rights.
The second challenge: civil society doubts
Civil society organizations doubt the role of national human rights institutions because they are set up and funded by the government, hence trust is not given to them easily because of the fact that they are newly established governmental entities. This attitude towards national human rights institutions will only change if these institutions do not conceal Government violations and prove themselves to be serious, honest, impartial, and independent.
Civil society doubts the credibility of any national human rights institutions, and believes that they are tools that polish the image of governments, which aim to contain civil action, and that they are competitors to human rights organizations. This indifference to the national human rights institutions was evident in Egypt. The same applies to Bahrain where initially the civil society organizations welcomed the establishment of the NFHR, but expressed their concern that it might become part of the Government propaganda.
In Egypt most of the civil and human rights organizations openly expressed their reservations on the NCHR when it was established, to the extent that they refused to cooperate or participate in its management. These organizations issued numerous statements that reflect their doubts towards the NCHR, and criticized the Government’s intentions. The first report by the NCHR came as a surprise to many when it included many detailed violations, which took place inside Government institutions. Subsequently, the report became the subject of the media and this helped in changing the views towards the NCHR. The report also proved that the NCHR was independent, impartial and credible, which encouraged human rights organizations to co-operate and contribute towards its success and achieving its goals.
The third challenge: Gaining public trust
Generally, Arab public opinion does not trust the performance of the government agencies and tends to believe any rumours regarding the extent of human rights violations. The reason for this mistrust is not relevant here. However, this mistrust makes gaining the trust and cooperation of the public a very difficult task. Failure in gaining the public trust will undermine the real purpose behind setting up national institutions for human rights, since they are meant to interact with the public, understand its problems and highlight possible solutions.
The public tends to overlook national institutions and accuses them of being inactive, biased and hopeless similar to any other government department with its weak productivity and ineffective bureaucracy. The lack of public awareness has resulted in the public not interacting positively with them. Therefore the real challenge lies in the way in which the public could be persuaded to interact with such institutions and how the latter can benefit the public.
In Egypt the NCHR started its activity through contacting the weakest segments of society and sending delegations to remote villages in order to spread awareness. It also set up branches in various Provinces as well as setting up a permanent committee to: receive, respond and follow up complaints, acquire data and provide statistics and inform the public with the relevant outcomes and developments. The NCHR was successful in gaining the public trust after it accomplished its objectives on the ground, spread awareness and proved its independence and impartiality.
The forth challenge: gaining the trust of the international human rights community
Governments can claim that their national human rights institutions are impartial and independent but they cannot fool the specialized parties in the UN with their claims. These parties assess the credibility of national institution based on the Paris Principles, which categorizes national institutions into three groups (a,b,c). The first group (a) includes national institutions that honestly adhered to the Paris Principles with no UN reservation whatsoever, and thus deserves full membership. Four Arab countries are placed in this category, they are: Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Jordon. The second group (b) includes institutions with some UN reservations who failed to gain full membership e.g. Qatar, whilst group (c) includes institutions that did not adhere to the Paris Principles and thus do not deserve membership e.g. Tunisia.
The Egyptian NCHR failed to get full membership during its first year of establishment, however, after it issued its first report and the UN evaluated its activities, it was granted full membership from the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for Human Rights. The NCHR then became worthy of respect and now has the right to play an important role in UN bodies concerned with human rights.
These are the four challenges that face the newly born project in Bahrain and we all hope that we do not face deep problems, which obstruct the activity of the NFHR, affect its position and undermine its role. Undoubtedly, the maturity of the Government, civil society institutions as well as the public will reduce any problem the NFHR may face. We hope that this experience will be successful and will raise the position of Bahrain as a country and the position of civil society institutions and the Bahraini public. In the end it is the public who will benefit from any development in the human rights situation.