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 in society.

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 women.

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 Judiciary.
  • 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.

Lessons Learnt

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 initiatives.

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 process.

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.