Bahrain: the Question of Freedom of Association

“The last few years witnessed, as a direct result of the launch of the Charter that laid the foundations of reforms by the King, a big increase in the number of civil society organizations (CSOs). While not more than 260 societies were in place at the end of 2001, the number of societies exceeded 474 in the current year, an indication of the vitality and activity of civil work in Bahrain”. (Fatima Al Balushi, Minister of Social Development, 7 July 2009).

Establishing CSOs, unions, societies and trade unions has been a struggle for a long period of time in Bahrain due to the lack of having a law in place organizing the establishment of such entities. For example, it took the Bahraini Women’s Union more than 30 years to materialize. The dream of establishing a women’s union started in the early 1970s and became true only in 2006. The real step to register the union started in 2001 but was met with a legal obstacle, which is the absence of an express provision governing the work of unions in the Law of Associations. In February 2006, a Bahraini court ruled in favour of establishing the Women’s Union, after 5 years of tension between the Union and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, and latter-on between the Union and the Ministry of Social Development. This example shows the difficult road most of the Bahraini CSOs had gone through in the past. But is the situation nowadays is different from the past? What are the challenges faced by NGOs in Bahrain? What is the best approach to deal with these challenges? The question of freedom of association in Bahrain has drawn domestic and international attention at the same time. While CSOs in Bahrain resorted to address the challenges they face, legal and political, the relevant international organizations opted to deal with the issue in a broader context of the Gulf region with special focus on Bahrain. In all cases, efforts focused on the legal challenges faced by CSOs including: the right to form associations and trade unions; the dilemma of registration; freedom of organizing activities; receiving funds; the closure, suspension and integration of organizations; joining regional and international organizations, etc.

At the local level, CSOs fought for the modification and development of the Law of Associations, 1989. CSOs expressed their displeasure at the delay of amending the Law, which limits their activity; gives the Government absolute power to refuse the formation of political societies, trade unions, and human rights societies; places CSOs under close control and scrutiny by the Government, even in internal matters that concern them. Most importantly, the Law gives the government wide powers to close and suspend any association that does not abide by the law.

The Law of Associations was widely criticized by lawyers and human rights activists. In an article by the human rights activist Sabika Annajjar under the title: (The Law of Association and the return to square One), (al-Waqt, 12/4/2009), she described the law as a (true interpretation of the State Security Law, because it curbs the activities of the societies and stifles the freedom of associations). On the other hand, on 12 April 2007, the Parliament questioned the Minister of Social Development about: (the legal reason which led the Ministry of Social Development requesting the charitable funds to shift to charitable societies, after they were registered under the umbrella of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and after being active in collecting funds from citizens for many years). On 4 April 2007, the Minister for Social Development Fatima Al Balushi said in a workshop dealt with the Law of Association: (the amended Law of Association will be issued after a few months, where we seek to develop the legal framework for associations).

This activism emphasizes the need and importance of amending the Law of Associations swiftly to meet the needs of associations and release their energy in different areas in line with the reforms that began in 2000. However, after more than two years of this statement no amendment has been made in respect to the said Law.

On 9 July 2009, an important amendment was made to the Law of Associations, where a new article was added by Decree No. 42, allowing private associations to become societies provided that all the requirements of establishing societies are met before the desired transformation takes place. This amendment has apparently resolved the debate, which lasted for a period of time, over the needed conversion of private associations to societies under the pretext that private associations should not have access to donations and fund-raising (the Minister of Social Affairs was questioned in Parliament about this issue as mentioned above).

At the international level, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) had issued a report in September 2008 on: (Freedom of Association in Bahrain, Kuwait and Yemen), which dealt with several issues related to Bahrain including: the legal and policy framework relating to freedom of association; the formation, functioning and dissolution of associations ; the right to establish an association or a union; the right of associations to freely carry out their statutory activities (the right to be free of control, interference and supervision, the right to seek and receive funds, the right to join regional and international organizations); the right to protection from suspension, closure and dissolution; the right of members to protection from prosecution and discrimination.

Although a year has passed since publishing the report, and although some matters raised in the report are no longer relevant (such as the question of the sponsor system, which was abolished by Bahrain), but the report remains useful for addressing the challenges that continue to hamper CSOs in Bahrain. Special attention should be given to the recommendations contained in the report, especially with regard to freedom of association, the establishment of societies and access to fund.

It could have been useful if the report looked into the internal deficiency experienced by CSOs in Bahrain, especially human rights societies. This sort of qualitative analysis could have added a useful impetus to the study in order to address the shortcomings and crisis of CSOs in Bahrain given that despite the huge number of CSOs in Bahrain, but few are effective and distinguished. For the report and recommendations, please visit:, 6476