Deputy President of Bahrain Transparency Society, Yousef Zainol Abideen Zainal:

We are facing a Difficult Task to Eradicate Corruption

Mr. Yousef Zainol Abdeen Zainal

The Bahrain Human Rights Monitor (BHRM) met with Mr. Yousef Zainol Abdeen Zainal, former MP and Deputy President for Bahrain Transparency Society (BTS), in which he spoke of his Society, explained the obstacles that it faces and its achievements as well as its relationship with similar civil society organizations. The interview was lengthy yet illuminating:

To what extent has the Bahrain Transparency Society achieved its stated objectives after more than seven years since its launch?

No organization, regardless of its capabilities and facilities can achieve all its objectives, even after decades of operation. As for the Bahrain Transparency Society (BTS), it is laying the foundations for unprecedented work to curtail corruption and cronyism, and to promote transparency and integrity in the State and society, although it is a difficult task. However, one can say that our Society with its limited staff members operating in tough conditions has achieved some of its goals. The most important achieved goal was monitoring the 2006 general elections in the Kingdom of Bahrain, followed by the publication of a full report of the session. This as well as overseeing dozens of elections of civil and political societies, associations and trade unions over the past seven years, whilst preserving its integrity and impartiality.

As for drafting of legislation, the Society both proposed legislation and expressed an opinion with regards to draft laws curtailing corruption. BTS, whilst consolidating transparency and integrity, it works at all times with other like concerned people in the legislature and in the community of Bahrain to ratify the International Convention against Corruption. At the level of monitoring the Government, we participated with the Council of Representatives in the State budget workshop for the years 2009 – 2010. We have also presented our future vision to the Finance Committee of the Council of Representatives. In the area of awareness raising we have organized several workshops and seminars for training and spreading awareness of the danger of corruption for the public, private sectors as well as the community.

Our Society ranks highly amongst Arab organizations and networks in the fields of transparency and elections’ monitoring. It has participated in numerous forums, as well as being a participating member in Transparency International.

Despite this, we have many tasks that remain un-accomplished which can only be achieved once our country undergoes a complete eradication of corruption, nepotism and favoritism, whilst simultaneously consolidating transparency which would strengthen the state of justice and the rule of law.

What are the obstacles that hinder the work of the Society?

The Society deals with sensitive issues in the State, the private sector and the community such as the issue of corruption, nepotism and cronyism, which serve the interests of influential institutions and figures at a time when the culture of self-interest and abuse of public funds dominates public life. The Society was left exposed to possible prosecution as was the case with journalists who bypassed so called ‘red lines’ in the absence of legislations that protect civil society institutions. Access to information is common to democratic regimes, and whilst operating under a weak legislative authority, we are going nowhere.

In addition, the reluctance of competent talents to volunteer with the Society, which is a common complaint amongst specialized societies, puts a burden on the Board of Directors and deprives us of much needed potential. This is in addition to the reluctance of the State and private sector to finance projects, limiting our abilities and ambitions.

How do you evaluate the impact of political reform in the detection and combat of corruption?

There is no doubt that reforms have positive effects on the political climate in the country and on the state and civil society organizations that deal with the issues of corruption and cronyism.

There is no doubt that reforms have positive effects on the political climate in the country and on the state and civil society organizations that deal with the issues of corruption and cronyism. The licensing of the Bahrain Transparency Society is one of these effects which have led to a boom in the formation of civil society organizations, political, civil and specialist, and to the expansion of freedoms. On the other hand there was the creation of the Office of Financial Supervision [Audit office] and the publication of its annual report to provide us with tools to help detect corruption and its sources in the state whether directly or indirectly. There is also the boom in the field of the press, as now you will find newspapers catering for every taste and operating within a wide margin of freedom, which helps reveal many cases of corruption, whilst providing all with information that would otherwise be withheld. In addition and despite the limited powers available to the Council of Representatives, the Council was able to deal with a number of corruption cases in the first and second legislative sessions.

Notwithstanding the existence of laws regulating clubs and associations, the Penal Code, the Press Law and others, as long as there is an absence of legislation to combat corruption and allow freedom of information, this will continue to present obstacles in the uncovering of corruption and those behind it. All this would also curb the activities of whistle blowers but regardless, the forces of reform should stand firm against the forces of corruption.

Corruption exists all over the world. What are the tools for detecting and combating corruption at both public and official levels?

It is true that corruption is a worldwide phenomenon which exists in all countries, even the most democratic ones with the strongest regulatory tradition of transparency. The latest example being what happened in the United Kingdom and for which the Prime minister Gordon Brown had recently apologized as this scandal involved both the ruling Labour Party and the opposition party (the Conservatives).

The difference, however, is that in truly democratic countries, there are legislations, institutions and mechanisms which control and combat corruption and favoritism. This helps consolidate transparency and integrity, not only in the State apparatus, but also in private institutions and global corporations, as well as political parties and civil society organizations, religious institutions and charities. In the event that corruption, abuse of authority, nepotism or favoritism is uncovered, the perpetrators are punished, even if this happens to be the head of the state, as for example the former U.S. President Nixon. We in the Kingdom Of Bahrain need to closely examine the experiences of countries that have moved from being corrupt authoritarian systems to transparent and democratic ones, for example Malaysia a neighboring Islamic state. We need legislations and regulatory institutions as well as a genuinely independent and impartial judiciary with a strong legislative authority which represents the interests of society effectively, and an executive authority serving the best interest of people and homeland, coupled with a strong and effective civil society institutions, as well as a fully responsible private sector.

In short, we need a lot more in order to be satisfied and content with our situation.

Is there a relationship between the culture of the society and the definition of corruption on the one hand and the degree of its seriousness, on the other?

Yes, there is a relationship between the culture of society and the phenomenon of corruption and lack of transparency, nepotism and favoritism, and despite the fact that our Islamic religion and culture of the pre-oil society favored integrity and rejected injustice, favoritism and corruption, but the values created by a rentier state, based on the use of oil revenues, abuse of state land, licensing companies and donations of all kinds has created a culture of expediency to justify corruption, nepotism and cronyism in the absence of transparency and integrity. This prevailing concept allows for the abuse of public funds and public office which has also spread to the private sector where corruption abounds and has left negative repercussions on society and its institutions. It has also reversed traditionally recognized values in that honest and honorable members of society have become rare.

Is there coordination between your society and similar ones in other countries, particularly Transparency International, and how can these organizations be of benefit in the current situation?

Yes, there is coordination between our society and similar Gulf and Arab societies and international ones. We are also members of Transparency International and a number of its subsidiary organizations.

In the Gulf region we are living in similar situations produced by the rentier state and with the exception of Bahrain and Kuwait there are no transparency organizations in the Gulf. These two societies along with the Omani Economic Society are working for the establishment of a strong base to combat corruption and to promote transparency and integrity, while in the Arab region there are societies in some countries but not in others. But we all face similar situations, in terms of difficulties as corruption is now taken for granted in economic and political institutions, politics, money and position. There is a network comprised of a number of associations of transparency in the Arab countries, members of the Transparency International working to cooperate and exchange experiences and holding conferences and seminars. Bahrain has hosted an important workshop aimed at publicizing the international directory of integrity and its important contribution to knowledge in diagnosing corruption that is unique to the Arab region.

Whilst we have participant status at present we aim for full membership which will allow us to gain from the experience of Transparency International and its subsidiary organizations, whether through training or knowledge, and to exchange experiences.

We have also participated in the Third International Conference to combat corruption which was organized by Transparency International in Athens in November 2008 and we received many delegations from the Organization who provided manpower support in the monitoring of the 2006 General Elections.