The President of the BHRM:

The Future of Bahrain Depends on Respecting
Human Rights & Fundamental Freedoms

The President of the BHRM and member of the National Institution

for Human Rights (NIHR) Hasan Shafaei was interviewed by Al Ayaam newspaper on 3/10/2010, during which he discussed the latest political and human rights developments in Bahrain. He also provided answers to some of the questions posed by the foreign media on the following issues: democracy, the relationship between Bahrain and international human rights organizations, allegations of human rights violations and the future of the political and human rights situation in general.

What is your assessment of the security confrontations between the Government and extremists?

In my opinion, what took place recently came as a result of the escalation of the street violence, including attempts to block highways, vandalism of public properties, the scaring of citizens and tourists and disturbing the civil peace. This persisted for so long and the Government only responded when it had gone too far. Two months ago, the King stated that even if the law permits us to confront advocates of violence, the Government will not forcefully impose the law. However, the escalation of violence that took place afterwards compelled the Government to take swift action and put an end to this unrest.

But the Government says that what actually took place was more serious, and was in fact an attempt to overthrow the regime?

I believe that what was meant by ‘overthrow’ is that the ultimate aims of violence and riots are the overthrow of the regime. This can be clearly seen in the statements of the extremists themselves, as they publically express their desire to do so. However, foreign media read the issue differently, and thought that the phrase ‘overthrow the regime’ meant that there was an armed group ready to attack and take charge of the country. Let us leave it to the judiciary to describe what really took place.

Some have attributed the problem to an increase in sectarian feelings, claiming that this was the real reason behind tensions, as well as behind the mutual reactions at the social and political arenas.

I do not believe that sectarianism is behind recent tensions. However, sectarians from all parties tend to take advantage of any security unrest, which is usually followed by sectarian tension. What took place was seen by some sectarians as an attack on Sunni rule, whilst others saw it as a Sunni government assault on the Shia public. In fact, advocates of violence do not represent the mainstream Shia population, and the upcoming October elections will confirm this. Sectarianism only thrives in a tense environment, and sectarians take advantage of disturbances in order to exploit them politically.

There are those who say that the Shia in Bahrain are subject to genocide and massacres?

Genocide and massacre!! These are big words, and an attempt to form political polarizations in order to exploit them politically. How many victims have fallen as result of these so-called massacres? None. However, this is merely an attempt to create a schism between Sunnis and Shias, and is a false allegation and rumour with no credibility. The Shia are citizens who have the rights of citizenship and are an important segment of society, which no one can or wants to marginalise or exclude. Bahrain cannot fly without its two wings: the Shia and Sunnis.

International organizations view the events as a suppression of the opposition. Is this really the case?

It is not the purpose of the regime to suppress the opposition, but rather to protect the civil peace. Nowadays, the opposition works under the official umbrella. There are 12 political societies, and most took part in the last elections, and will participate in the next one. The one who wants to suppress the opposition will not initiate a political electoral process and undertake legislative and other reforms. The regime attempted to avoid confrontation even with the most violent opposition groups, which have refused to register as political societies in accordance with the law, for the sake of protecting the political process. In fact, many detainees were released several times. The recent confrontations could have been avoided, but violence on the streets of Bahrain has surpassed all accepted limits, and the Government’s reaction was necessary to provide the minimum amount of security.

The international human rights organizations, which I personally work and cooperate with, are basically unaware of the situation in Bahrain, and I do not think their description of the situation is accurate. Although they document some human rights breaches, they do not seem to understand the general political and reforms situation. Hence, they have become preoccupied with the details, rather than seeing the wider strategic dimensions, and have favoured one-sided exaggerated information, ignoring the fact that a wide margin of freedoms and openness exists in the country.

Do you think that the events have affected Bahrain’s reputation negatively, especially among international human rights organizations and the Western media in general?

The world is following what is happening in Bahrain, particularly with regards to the security confrontations. It is obvious that the media coverage and the statements of these organizations do not serve Bahrain’s global reputation. I do not see any big changes in the way international organizations deal with the situation in Bahrain, and I believe they still have some shortcomings. Despite the fact that the Government was criticised for the way it dealt with a number of human rights issues, this time it did not care much about the reactions of these organizations, to the extent that it did not even respond to their letters.

I believe that international organizations have never appreciated the developments achieved in human rights in this country. Today, and after the strict security measures and decisions taken by the Government, I wonder what these organizations will say. However, sometimes I feel that some of these organizations have (unintentionally) participated in aggravating political and social tensions in Bahrain, which in turn has reflected negatively on human rights. Perhaps the political regime in Bahrain felt that the negative assessments of some international organizations will not change even if positive developments took place. This could be the reason for not responding to their letters. Of course we do not like to see any problems in the relations between the Government and international organizations. We also understand that it is in the interest of Bahrain and civil society organizations that relations and communication between the two continues. It is good that the Government allowed the representatives of Human Rights Watch and Front Line to visit Bahrain and meet the families of the detainees and officials, and that they received media coverage of their activities and statements.

As President of the BHRM and as a member in the NIHR, were you surprised at the resignation of the President of the NIHR? And why did you not resign yourself as well?

Why resign when we have not started working yet? We are still in the preparation and building stage. I believe that the regime gave the opposition an important role to play in the NIHR, despite the fact that they kept their membership in their own political parties. This indicates that the regime was honest in cooperating with the opposition and civil society institutions. Some opposition members, with clear political affiliations and history, were given the leadership of the NIHR, in addition to some previous opposition members, among them myself and the former Secretary General of the Bahrain Human Rights Society.

Despite this, some failed to appreciate the value of former political opposition or human rights figures heading the Board of Directors of the NIHR. The actions of the King and the Government reveal that there was no intention to exclude any one from the political process and public affairs. However, in the end, political affiliations were behind the resignation of the President of the NIHR, Kamal Al Deen. It is obvious that he was subjected to pressure from his colleagues in the political party ‘Waad’. Abdulla Al Drazi was previously subjected to similar pressures, which ultimately led to a setback-albeit temporarily- in the position of the NIHR, as well as to a strategic loss for ‘Waad’ as a political society.

If the reason for Kamal Al Deen’s resignation was due to a difference of opinion regarding strategic human rights issues, your question would be valid. But it is unacceptable to impose a political resignation on a human right issue. The reason behind the resignation of Kamal Al Deen is unrelated to human rights or to a position taken by the NIHR. I would like to clarify here that I was against the issuing of any statement regarding the recent events, as this is not part of the national institutions’ work or mandate. National human rights institutions differ from human rights societies; the former should follow human rights events on a daily basis but not issue statements, rather they should present a strategic vision, work plan and an annual report which illustrates their interpretation of events and their recommendations. On the other hand, local human rights organizations have the job of issuing statements and condemnations.

Despite this, and in response to the desire of the majority of the NIHR’s members, we all agreed to issue a statement regarding the recent events. The president proposed a statement, which some saw as weak from a human rights perspective, then another was formulated with the help of the President and everyone agreed to it. But after its publication, the President was subjected to pressure and announced his resignation before we even knew about it in the NIHR. This is what really happened and hence, it is not right to resign just because the President has resigned. What the President did is not right, and we as members should now work towards bringing back the vitality of the Institution and maintain its credibility.

Where is the political and human rights situation heading in Bahrain? Do the observers who talked with such hope about the Bahraini experience have the right to be disappointed regarding the recent developments?

My assessment is that what took place during the last two months was necessary and limited, and does not harm or constitute a setback on previous reforms. Rather, it was just a necessary measure aimed at bringing the security situation under control. I hope that my assessment is correct. So far, any violations have been limited, and should not have taken place in the first place. There have been assurances in the statements of Bahraini officials and the King that the democratic process will continue and human rights will be respected. In addition, parliamentary and council elections will take place as scheduled and this carries hope of a better future. It is expected that the turnout for the coming elections will be high, and the election campaigns by political societies are currently at the centre of public debate and attention.

The recent events should not disappoint citizens and foreign observers. The future of Bahrain depends very much on freedoms, reforms and the respect of human rights and the law. The accomplishments achieved in this regard are great, and political parties should strive to maintain them for a better future.