National Action Charter and Human Rights

Hasan Shafaei

Hasan Shafaei

The turning point that Bahrain has witnessed since 2001 began by the adoption of the National Action Charter in a national referendum, in which 98% of voters were in favour of the document. The validity of the referendum was never in dispute, and no claims of forgery were made against this high percentage. Almost all the various political parties supported the Charter, which was prepared by around 50 national figures. This charter has been regarded as a significant step towards change, political modernization and development in Bahrain in many fields, such as political and religious rights, freedom of expression and the promotion of human rights principles, as well as issues related to the legislative and juridical foundations of the state.

This Charter was not intended to merely pacify the tense situation in Bahrain at the time; rather it was directed at the most important issue of all, which was the political one, among others. In fact, the Charter presented a solution to a political blockage which often creates security crisis, hampers development and causes violence and anarchy. It also put forward a political solution based on the modernization of the political state system, which few regimes are willing to adopt. Even if tensions reoccur, because of this Charter Bahrain is now more stable than ever before, as the existing political structure is capable of absorbing the consequences of the change that has occurred, and is able to find a way out of the existing or future crisis

The eighth anniversary of the Charter has received extensive coverage from the local media and commentary from political and human rights activists. This reveals that the charter was a crucial reference point in the past and through it the country will we be able to move forward to the future.

In evaluating the Charter eight years after its endorsement, there seem to be no serious objections to its articles; on the contrary, there is political consensus on its contents. Any objections seem to stem from the practical application of its articles.

The achievements of the Charter can be summarized as follows:

1) The Charter has laid the foundation for a national reconciliation, and has strengthened relations between state and society on the basis of respecting both the law and basic citizens' rights.

2) The Charter has paved the way for the establishment of civil society organisations including human rights ones, as well as the establishment of political parties (albeit under the label of political 'societies'). The number of these societies is in the hundreds, which is sizeable in a small country like Bahrain. Not only this, but the Charter has also obliged the government to support these societies and organisations without forcing them to comply with any rules, other than adherence to the authority and rule of law.

3) It provided the opportunity for political participation through parliamentary elections in two consecutive sessions so far. In the council elections, the Charter also encouraged the participation of new faces in the management of local affairs.

4) The Charter has enhanced the political and social position of women. Women in Bahrain are currently more active than ever before, and participate in all fields including politics, education and diplomacy among others. This comes despite the objections and difficulties, many of which may be due to the relatively new experience or the prevalence of specific social norms

5) As well as the modernization of the political system of the state, the Charter sparked an appropriate beginning for the establishment of the state of the rule of law, and many laws and legislations were introduced regarding political and social reform.

6) The Charter has promoted the authority and independence of the judicial system, although there are still many issues that need to be addressed.

7) The charter has spread political and human rights awareness among Bahrainis, with the participation of state and public media. This could not be possible without the unprecedented expansion of the margin of freedom of expression in the history of the State. Furthermore, the Government itself has adopted the promotion of human rights culture and educates citizens about their rights

8) The post-Charter period has almost completely eradicated abuses in detention centres and prisons despite some claims to the contrary which require verification, investigations and bringing violators to account. The period has also witnessed the termination of the infamous State Security Law.

However, some political and human rights activists have noted certain shortcomings in the course of the discussion of the Charter to the media in the eighth anniversary of the Charter. Commentators have suggested the revision of some of the charter's articles, without specifying a particular article in need of amendment or the addition of new ones. It is understood from the commentators’ points that the Charter has been prepared many years back, and, therefore, there can be no objections to revising it if necessary, bearing in mind the previous practical experience.

The main criticism was directed towards the various authorities responsible for the implementation of the Charter, in particular their hesitant attitude and shortcomings regarding the equality of citizens and non-discrimination. Despite the efforts made, there remains a great need for new legislations to eradicate this provocative issue.

There is also an urgent need to activate the terms of the Charter in matters relating to the distribution of wealth, where several groups of society have not yet felt a remarkable change in their daily lives. Additionally, there is a strong feeling that services are not being provided equally, despite all efforts. This may be due to faults in the bureaucracy and culture, or due to political problems which should be addressed as some believe.

The value of the Charter lies in the application of its provisions. Bahrain, as an emerging democracy, can tolerate the slow pace of implementing the Charter, but cannot tolerate any disruption.