|Hasan Moosa Shafaie
Challenges Facing the Course of Reforms and Human Rights in
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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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.