Hasan Moosa Shafaie

Challenges Facing the Course of Reforms and Human Rights in Bahrain

Hasan Moosa Shafaei

It is undeniable that human rights in Bahrain have developed in various fields since the start of the reforms in 2000. In brief, these are as follows:

  • The establishment of human rights organizations, in particular, and civil society organizations in general, (there are now around 500 of these organizations).
  • National laws were brought in conformity with the country’s international obligations, agreements and treaties it had signed. More and more of these have been signed during the years of political reforms.
  • Imprisonment for political reasons ceased.
  • The Judiciary and its apparatus were modernised, and its independence was supported.
  • In terms of relations between the Bahraini state and international organisations, despite some shortcomings, there has still been some development as these organisations have been permitted to visit Bahrain, meet with officials, run activities and workshops, and establish regional offices in the country.
  • Despite the absence of systematic torture and inhumane treatment, there remain some claims of ill-treatment, which can be placed in the context of individual violations of the law and require certain adminstratative procedures in order to stop them completely. These procedures should for example include the tough application of the law on employees of the Ministry of Interior, preceded by honest and transparent investigations.
  • The development of women’s rights, whereby a radical change occurred in the state’s view of women, and enabling them to be involved politically despite obstacles relating to social customs. There has also been a new Personal Status law, the Sunni section has already been ratified by Parliament, whilst the Shia part is awaiting approval.
  • The expansion of the margin of freedom of speech in the media field, despite the existence of a media law which is not on a par with international standards. Also, a new bill is currently being discussed in Parliament to address the shortcomings of the current law.
  • There are no restrictions on the freedom of assembly or the freedom to join organisations.
  • Lastly, the National Human Rights Foundation was established by royal decree in November 2009.

From all the above, one can be certain that the status of human rights has drastically changed during the decade-long reform project. Although there have been many complaints by local and international organisations on various subjects, the main challenges facing Bahrain stem from the fact that Bahrain is an emerging democracy. These challenges are as follows:

Challenge One: Addressing On-going Issues

These are issues which have been inherited from the previous period, the main two still have an effect on the security situation and mutual trust between the Government and human rights and political societies:

  1. The issue of transitional justice. This relates to the pre-reform period and how best to deal with its effects in a manner that pleases all parties, in order to guarantee that past mistakes are never repeated. The Government had previously attempted (and should try again) to solve the issue by financially compensating victims of that period through the Appeals Committee in the Royal Court, then through the Ministry of Social Development. The Government also succeeded in providing medical treatment to those who had physically and mentally suffered, reinstated their jobs and granted them pensions and social security retroactively. What remains is the issue of those who lost their lives, which has been held up by various political forces who have refused the suggestions of the Committee, and the offers of the Government, and have insisted on using the issue for their political battles. In any case, the failure to resolve this issue does not benefit the democratic and human rights changes witnessed by the country, and will remain present in all regional and international debates, whether political or media related, until the issue is adequately resolved.. To close this chapter, the Government should take an initiative aiming at forming a committee including all relevant parties to find lasting solution to the issue.
  2. The issue of discrimination. Discrimination here refers to sectarian discrimination in its political aspect that relates to participation in the upper echelons of the state apparatus and benefitting from the services offered by the state. This problem does not include the freedom of religious practice, which exists already and is respected. Nor does it refer to the social aspect of discrimination, except in a limited sense, as social integration and cohesion is strong in Bahrain, whether in terms of mixed housing estates, inter-sect marriage and financial partnerships, among others. The Government has implicitly admitted the impact of the legacy of the pre-reform period. Today, the Government is implementing a ‘positive discrimination’ policy for the benefit of the Shia at the administrative and services level, in accordance with the wishes of the King who declared that the reform project was designed to achieve social and political balance. The project has indeed been concerned with absorbing, as much as possible, groups that had been marginalized, and integrating them in the political system by providing equal opportunities and laying the political ground for equal political participation by all groups.

There is no doubt that political integration has been strengthened during the reform period, and that the resulting political balance (and not political quotas) will lead to more social and national integration, and will weaken the hold of sectarianism which is a danger felt by all. Addressing the political and social imbalance is a heavy inheritance, which needs to be solved gently and gradually. Hence comes this call for open discussion of this issue in a true national and rational spirit, instead of leaving bitter sectarian feelings hidden in a way that would form an obstacle in the face of the country’s and society’s progress.

Challenge Two: Violence and Rioting

The political reforms did not meet the aspirations of all, if not most, political forces in Bahrain. In fact a group which called itself the ‘Haq’ movement broke away in 2006 from Al Wefaq society, the largest political party, calling for the complete overthrow of the political process and the political regime. From this point onwards, organized street violence and rioting appeared, and have been continuing up to this day. The Government has not used its full legal power to face this violence and rioting, which has claimed many lives. The Government was keen to maintain an appropriate political atmosphere for the development of the electoral political process on the one hand, and on the other, in the hopes of absorbing these rebellious forces. The King himself attempted to achieve this but to no avail.

Violence and rioting are some of the worst violations of human rights in Bahrain, as they cause great harm to victims and properties alike. The human rights debate in Bahrain today, which revolves around claims of violations and torture, all originate from this violence, which makes riots the endless source of human rights transgressions and provokes arguments and debates about legal issues.

Notably, international human rights organizations, which publish reports and statements about Bahrain, do not have a complete picture about local political and social circumstances. They have also fallen victim to false and politicized information provided by certain parties claiming to be human rights defenders, making them complicit with extremist political forces in igniting street tensions.

However, if the Government reaches a dead-end due to pressure from the public and effective political forces, it could very well resort to a strict application of the law. On the other hand, containing violence and rioting requires a creative political initiative from political forces represented in Parliament and civil society.

It is important to note how interrelated political, security and human rights issues are, whereby solving the outstanding issues mentioned above would contribute greatly in finding solutions for all kinds of tension and stagnation without the fear of escalating dangers, which could threaten the internal stability of the country or divide the efforts supporting the course of reforms.

Challenge Three: Building Trust

This means the building of trust between the Government on the one hand, and political societies and civil society on the other hand. Although the political process is continuing (albeit in slow pace) the development of the human rights situation and the political regime itself all depends to a large extent on the trust built by different parties soon after the King’s launch of the reform project in 2000. What does the lack of trust between civil society, political and governmental parties mean?

  • It means that the political system is developing very cautiously in its political reforms for fear of losing power, not to real partners who care about developing the political process, rather to competitors who could become enemies and turn against the entire political process. For this reason, it is notable that a process, which was initially radical in its nature, has lost its momentum, and has tended towards extreme caution.
  • This also means that in return, there has been a lack of cooperation by political parties and civil societies with Government projects, and dealing with them sceptically. All this stems from the fear that there are hidden Government agendas, aimed at weakening political forces or controlling civil society organizations. Both the Government’s slowing down of the pace of reforms and civil society and political forces’ suspicions and lack of cooperation have weakened the spirit of initiative and reinforced suspicions, which could drag the country into endless political bargaining, where each side refuses to invest its political power for the sake of national interest.

One could say that a fair amount of trust was built during the positive years of the political changes in the last decade, but suspicions between the Government and political and human rights parties remain an obstacle of mutual political, developmental and reform projects even inside Parliament. Why did this happen?

There are many reasons for this, some of which relate to Bahrain’s pre-reform past, for the political players of today were the same political combatants of the past, despite the existence of good intentions and a suitable political atmosphere for building trust, there remains an amount of fear on both sides, fed by the each party’s mistakes due to the novelty of the political experience in the country in terms of cooperation. These mistakes appeared in the form of irresponsible statements and practices which have led to diminished trust between the two parties and brought to mind former fears. Lastly, the emergence of a violent and extremist movement, which openly declares its opposition to the essence of the political process, the regime and royal family has caused tensions and weakened the trust that had previously been built.

The political process in Bahrain cannot expand and develop without the existence of trust between various political players, and human rights cannot improve without a suitable atmosphere of a reasonable amount of trust. When those who work in the field of human rights practice a policy of looking out for faults and politicize them without admitting the achievements that have been made, or disregard their importance, this weakens any possibility for cooperation with Government apparatus, who will return this lack of trust with distrust as well.

All political players from official, public and human rights backgrounds bear the responsibility for building mutual trust and for blocking any factors aimed at weakening this trust whatever the source, for everyone reaps the benefit of the reform project. Suspecting the other party’s intentions in particular will inevitably lead to stagnation and a political dead-end.