Political Reforms and the Development of Human Rights in Bahrain
Since the beginning of 2000, Bahrain experienced substantial
changes in the political system infrastructure, which led to many
social, economic, cultural, legal, judicial and human rights changes
among others. These changes constituted the beginning of the reform
project adopted by the King of Bahrain Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa,
and inspired many positive stances as well as expanding the margin
of free dialogue and debate both in Bahrain and abroad. Political
changes also led to evaluations of the political experience and
its effects on various fields, and questioned whether it was serious
enough to continue and develop.
Political changes in Bahrain came within the context of a global
move towards democracy, and as a result of a strong public desire
and pressure, and as an interpretation of the political leadership’s
will that was fully aware of the local, regional and international
circumstances at the time. Although it is true that many Arab countries
have made minimal progress in terms of transparency, political openness
and respect for human rights, it is also true that some states,
including Bahrain, are striving towards democracy in spite of local
and regional challenges, including some theoretical obstacles which
assert that chances for democratic change in rentier states are
few and far between, as these states inhabit a ‘grey’ area between
authoritarianism and democracy.
Within a wider global context and the experiences of other countries
in the last three decades, we can deduce that the transition to
democracy is not easy or timely bound, as every experience has its
unique obstacles and mechanisms. This makes it difficult to predict
the nature and course of the change and how long it will take, as
well as making it impossible to compare the democratic experiences
of different countries.
There are various cultural, legislative, social and political
perquisites necessary for the transition to democracy to be complete,
and it may take a long time to reach its target. However, what is
certain is that the political and social forces in Bahrain are eager
for change and that Bahrain’s political leadership is determined
in its attempts to overcome the ‘democratic deficit’ and provide
a suitable environment for change without any legislative obstacles.
A careful reading of the Bahraini political scene is required in
order to reach an accurate evaluation of the positive and negative
aspects of this change.
Political and Human Rights Changes
Before the 2000 reforms, there was a complete absence of any
democratic political process since the annulment of the elected
National Assembly on 26 August 1975. At the same time all constitutional
articles related to the legislative authority and represented by
the Assembly were put on hold. This led to a centralized executive
authority, which played the role of the legislative authority, and
also affected the powers of the judicial authority. This cessation
of the democratic process initiated by the former Prince, the late
Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa led to dramatic repercussions on
the political and social life in Bahrain, including the appearance
of legislations that violate human rights, in particular the 1975
State Security Law. It also led to an escalation of violence and
security tensions in the 1990s as well as a political deadlock and
the speedy deterioration of the quality of life for various sectors
These security tensions have escalated with the increase of economic
difficulties, the rise of unemployment, the lack of state services
and diminished development projects. The 2000 reforms emerged out
of this context, and came to rebuild the state on different political
grounds aiming to develop and rebuild the current state of affairs,
revitalize the state apparatus and respect the choices of citizens.
The King saw that Bahrain was ready for democratic change and that
only with it can the country absorb the requirements of cultural
progress and political and social development. These can only be
met by allowing political participation and consolidating the institutions,
which would lead to the progress of the country, its security and
stability on the basis of organization, cooperation and social cohesion.
The pace of the reform process was fast, surprising observers
and the opposition itself, as the King ordered the release of political
prisoners, allowed the return of the exiled and cancelled the State
Security Law and the State Security Court. He then presented his
political project in the framework of what became known as the National
Action Charter which consolidated the basis of constitutional monarchy
with an elected parliament, the separation of powers, an independent
judiciary and rights guaranteeing the political participation of
The Charter became a political reference point and a new social
contract, laying the ground for a national referendum, which was
approved by 98.4% of voters in February 2001. The Charter:
- Formed the basis of a national reconciliation to strengthen relations
between state and society on the basis of the law and respect of
the basic rights of citizens.
- Paved the way for the establishment of civil society organizations,
including human rights organizations and political parties.
- Allowed public participation in politics through two parliamentary
elections so far (2002 & 2006), and in the local council elections
which allowed new faces to participate in running local affairs.
- Promoted the status of women socially and politically. Bahraini
women today are more active than ever before, and their presence
is felt in all fields including politics, education and diplomacy,
in spite of all difficulties which are in essence due to the new
experience of democracy in the country and social traditions.
- As well as modernizing the political infrastructure of the country.
The Charter paved the way for the establishment of the State of
Law. Consequently, legislations and laws related to political and
social reforms were promulgated.
- The Charter also promoted the independence and authority of the
- It initiated political and legal awareness among the Bahraini
public, in which both the public and private media participated,
and this could not have been achieved without an unprecedented margin
of freedom of expression.
What matters is that the political changes witnessed by Bahrain
are real and serious, and permanent, and have led to changes in
human rights and other areas. Democratic change is also protected
by significant public support, an effective political process, a
wide margin of freedom of speech and daily protests and demonstrations
and celebrations, as well as other mobilizing and cultural activities
and training by all kinds of civil society institutions. This reveals
the active state of Bahraini civil society organizations.
The political reforms, which have led to legal developments,
took place almost ten years ago, and should have given society and
its organizations ample time to mature and gain enough experience
to progress further. However, we have noticed instead political
and legal stagnation and the absence of creativity and creative
What is missing then for the situation in Bahrain to mature?
Some might say that a decade is not long enough to achieve this,
and this is true, but the idea of maturity is also relative, as
are the standards of evaluating maturity which are difficult and
never unanimous. However, the needs of the political and human rights
situations can be summarized in two points as follows:
First: Revitalizing the political process, the state apparatus
and civil society organizations by addressing key issues which have
been openly addressed in the Bahraini media and Parliament, including:
Activation of Parliament, and allowing the newly elected Parliament
of November 2010 to become more active by improving its bylaws,
which are considered an obstacle of progress. There is also a need
for more cooperation between the executive and legislative authorities,
and also for MPs to move beyond their sectarian and party affiliation.
There are those who are dissatisfied with the performance of Parliament,
seeing it as divisive, weak and unable to perform its legislative
and monitoring role in an acceptable manner. This issue could affect
the volume of political participation in the coming elections.
The problem of chronic bureaucracy in the state apparatus must
be addressed, especially in terms of providing services and safeguarding
the interests of citizens, as this has angered citizens.
State institutions must become more transparent in the eyes of
the public, as citizens would like to be more informed about the
issues affecting their daily lives.
There is need for a new and modern Press Law, which provides
more freedom and less censorship and penalties. Likewise, there
is also need for a new law for civil societies (both laws should
be approved by the current Parliament before the next elections)
There is also the issue of the rule of law, and its equal application
on all citizens, especially those in power as this would strengthen
the judicial authority and put current laws into action. It would
also encourage citizens to participate in the political process
which would provide hope and conviction and help eradicate nepotism,
bribery and favouritism.
The second factor relates to the maturity of the political players
and human rights activists, for it is now more important for them
to behave in a more mature and responsible manner than ever before.
A significant amount of time has elapsed since the start of the
democratic experience in Bahrain, and all individuals should have
learnt by now to cooperate and coexist, to accept settlements and
move beyond sectarian and party affiliations, and to accept constructive
criticism however difficult. These individuals should mature in
their writings and public statements, and be aware of the effects
of their actions on the citizens and their partners in the political
We hope to see the positive effects of the last decade of political
and human rights changes, which would reveal that we as a civil
society, political parties and those in power have all learnt something,
which constitutes the start of substantial change for future generations.