Transitional Justice:

Remedying the Past; Looking to the Future

As is the case when radical political changes take place in countries which have moved towards a middle political ground or a transitional period towards democracy, the Bahraini Government and society naturally face many questions with regards to the legacy of the past, in order to move forward and ensure that mistakes are not repeated. In general, the political atmosphere during times of democratic transformation permits serious questions to be posed and allows for the establishment of organizations and societies which deal with the heavy legacy of the past. Most countries have not been able to completely solve the difficult issues concerning this complicated subject. There are three main issues concerning this problem:

Firstly, how can we deal with the legacy of the past without it becoming an obstacle in building the future? In other words, how can we guarantee that dealing with the past will be correct and appropriate without causing political and social upheaval? Accountability should not undermine national reconciliation, and at the same time forgiveness should not contradict justice. Hence, the concept of ‘transitional justice’ was introduced meaning that justice should not be applied retrospectively if this is to cause tension and result in political chaos and the return to dictatorship. Rather, justice relates to the uncovering of the truths behind what had happened before the democratic transition which includes genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture, unlawful detention and extrajudicial executions.

Secondly, concerning financial and moral compensation of victims and their families and helping them to rebuild their shattered lives, whereby they can return to their properties and resume their previous jobs. In general, compensating victims and providing physical and mental treatment as well as paying their expenses.

Thirdly, how can we guarantee that previous violations will not reoccur? And what are the necessary steps that should be taken in order to secure this? The answer to this question includes: promoting the independence of the judiciary, training the security forces on human rights standards and human rights culture, enacting legislations which cannot be used by the violators (i.e. legislations different from the ones that led to all kinds of violations in the past), and creating a social, political and media climate which exposes, and does not tolerate, any new violations.

In more than 35 countries national commissions were formed, most of which adopted the name ‘truth and reconciliation’ or similarly ‘fairness and reconciliation’ or ‘justice and reconciliation’. According to Amnesty International, these commissions have only partially succeeded in their goal to achieve truth through reconciliation due to different reasons including: the lack of political will, amnesty and protection of perpetrators, the collapse of the legal system, the absence of effective national laws to criminalize certain practices, and the existence of other legal obstacles which hinder the course of justice. With regards to Bahrain’s torture file, it was put forward as soon as political change started in 2001. The following are some of the issues which cause the subject to be both ambiguous and problematic:

Democratic change in Bahrain came primarily from the highest political authority, which indicates the intention to depart from the ways of the past. This has coincided with the expansion of public participation, reforming the judiciary, ratification of international human rights conventions, expansion of margin of freedom of expression and establishment of civil society organizations etc.

Most countries where commissions were established had suffered from many social divisions and some experienced civil wars. Others endured genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, extrajudicial executions, and enforced disappearances. These countries needed ‘truth and reconciliation’ commissions in order to heal national wounds. In Bahrain, however previous violations were limited to torture in prisons, which was officially acknowledged but not declared, and therefore there seems to be no urgent need for such a commission.

In general the Bahraini Government’s policies, which came directly after the announcement of reforms, included quick and radical corrective measures. These included the release of all political prisoners, the return of all exiles where a special plane was sent by the King to bring them home, and the re-employment of unlawfully sacked employees and compensating them, amongst other measures.

Some have suggested that Bahrain should compensate victims of torture, and hold those responsible accountable. The Government attempted to tackle the first problem through creating a focal point in both the Office of the Ombudsman and the Ministry of Social Development. However, this step has only partially succeeded in meeting its goal because the idea of separating ‘compensation’ from ‘accountability’ was rejected. In general, accountability was considered a political matter which has nothing to do with either ‘reconciliation’ or uncovering the ‘truth’. In this regard, the concept ‘truth’ has two sides: the first is the Government’s violations of detainees’ rights (through torture), the second is violations committed by the opposition or its affiliations which have affected the lives of tens of civilians, some of whom lost their lives, whilst others lost their properties in arson attacks. In many countries it became evident that ‘accountability’ will snowball into endless ‘accountabilities’, and instead of providing a positive atmosphere which helps to overcome the legacy of the past and encourages looking forward to the future, it could lead to the opposite: i.e. living in the past and politicizing the issue of past violations from both parties, the authority and some members of the opposition, in order to serve the interest of each party. This could result in overturning the democratization process and abolishing the spirit of forgiveness altogether.


*Forgiveness at both the official and personal level plays a primary role in overcoming the legacy of the past, not by denying justice but by relinquishing resort to it, especially if the breaches in question had caused problems which are almost impossible to solve, or may lead to the trial of several parties and not only Government institutions. Hence it can be said that the option of dropping a quest for trial is embedded in the very idea of ‘truth commissions’, for uncovering the truth through revision and self-criticism by both the authority and the opposition provides a middle ground, and allows both parties to adequately learn from the past without causing new wounds. It may also be sufficient to compensate the victims morally and contribute in preventing the recurrence of human rights violations in the future.

*During the post-reform stage one should not be lenient towards any human rights violations committed by the Government or some radical elements in the opposition. Most of the attention is directed at the Government’s security institutions, which have announced on more than one occasion that some of their employees were questioned on the grounds of breaches of human rights. Another justification for not digging up the past or reopening old wounds is to ensure that the current political process remains on the right track and that we are not distracted from scrutinizing the breaches that are taking place now. This would encourage perpetrators to escape from punishment, weaken the state’s institutions and make democratization meaningless. It is necessary to put in place clear and suitable legislations, which criminalize torture and any attempts to conceal it. These legislations should also be strictly adhered to and implemented. It is also necessary to strive for the formation of national institutions with the aim of enforcing the legal accountability against perpetrators, and the judiciary should also be given the power to investigate torture crimes and prosecute those responsible.

* There are those who aim to take advantage of torture cases to serve their own political agenda, whereas this issue should be completely detached from any political agenda whose aim is merely to defame rather than to provide constructive criticism. Bahraini political and civil societies now have an opportunity to work towards guiding the leadership’s course, holding it accountable for its actions and preventing any potential excesses by the security institutions through monitoring as well as legal and legislative frameworks. It is also time to pass more laws which will make it impossible to repeat past mistakes. Furthermore, we are able to build upon what has already been achieved in terms of reforms and to expand the margin of freedom by allowing society to partake in the building of its future.