Human Rights Culture in Bahrain: its Importance and Challenges

The protection of human rights depends on various mechanisms. This includes spreading human rights culture in society, especially among the new generation and teaching them how to practice this culture on the ground. Despite the difficulties that some societies face in accepting human rights culture, the latter has become an international culture whereby no society is able to free itself from its effects. Also, no country is at present able to openly disregard this issue whether at the national, regional or international level.

Arab societies in general are some of the least able societies in terms of absorbing or even accepting human rights culture. One reason for this could be attributed to the oppressive political legacy which still dominates Arabic culture. Another reason may be attributed to the perception that human rights- despite their international appeal- are perceived as a foreign product coming from an environment which is perceived as hostile in the eyes of Arab societies. They are, therefore, challenged because the source of this product is hostile to their specific culture, the way they live and the nature of their political system. In addition, the Arab mentality is of a suspicious nature and tends to blow conspiracy theories out of proportion, constantly connecting human rights culture with political conspiracy.

One of the most serious challenges relates to double-standards in dealing with human rights and exploiting them as a political tool particularly by some countries that are regarded as the producers and protectors of such rights. We have seen examples of this unfortunate application by some countries which claim to defend human rights and democracy. Apparently, the West’s involvement and support to Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict has created a climate of suspicion in which Arabs and Muslims have felt the need to return to their own history and culture in order to protect themselves from the perceived external threats and injustice.

In addition, the dominance of a conservative religious spirit, which positions all or some religious texts in opposition to international human rights values, has led Arabs to believe that some human rights standards are at odds with their religious culture. This so-called clash, despite its limitations, has been highly exaggerated. In fact, most international human rights standards are very much in line with the spirit of Islam, but religious scholars and especially those concerned with tafseer have not make any efforts to provide new interpretations of religious texts and to adapt them to human rights standards. This is due to a weakness of religious ijtihad and the fact that current interpretations of religious texts are outdated.

For all these reasons, religious culture has been posited as an opponent of international human rights culture, either as a result of ignorance or as a means of escaping political accountability, just as some regimes have done by pointing to religion as the ultimate reference point in order to get away with abuses, which are unacceptable internationally and religiously. Thus spreading human rights culture in the Arab world faces many challenges that need to be addressed. At the religious level there are very few human rights standards which contradict religion or society’s traditions. In this case it is possible to find ways of adjusting traditions in accordance with modern human rights standards (without imposing such adjustments) considering that culture –regardless of the religious aspect- is characterised by rapid change and is by no means sacred.

In order to succeed in spreading human rights culture, we should initially solve the problem of it being perceived as a western product. This culture should instead be regarded as a civilised human product to which all religions and cultures have contributed. Secondly, the culture of democracy and human rights should be valued as a tool for the development of all countries and nations, regardless of whether it has been politicised by an international body for example, or whether the concept has been misused to undermine a particular country. The fact that human rights have been misused does not change the fact that they are universal principles. Nor should it deny the intrinsic value of democracy or justify dictatorship and human rights violations under the cover of religion, for no religion condones injustice, oppression and backwardness.

Thirdly, human rights and democracy should be integrated in local cultures, for as Arabs and Muslims we do not perceive any contradiction between our religious culture and the human rights. There are even some among us who have issued human rights conventions based on religious culture itself, and in accordance with international standards. This assimilation requires an effort in order to reconcile what is being presented internationally and what can be adopted religiously and culturally, so that both can be presented together. It is possible to produce a democratic culture based on Islamic standards and in line with international human rights culture, even with the existence of minor differences between the two.

Fourthly, there are appropriate tools and methods which should be followed when sowing the seeds of a human rights culture amongst the new generation. It is clear that we are not only distant from human rights culture but also from our own religious human rights culture as well. Spreading this awareness of human rights within an Islamic framework can only be achieved by incorporating human rights culture in all aspects of our daily life such as in the mosque, school, civil and official activities, politics, media, at home with one’s spouse and children, and in social relations.

Fifthly, spreading human rights culture is the Governments’ ultimate responsibility and it should therefore issue clear policies and give the subject special attention, as well as working towards applying it through training the police and security forces, teachers, clergymen, judges and public servants.

Exposing serious human rights violations and punishing perpetrators is not enough and cannot replace human rights education. Human rights education provides the best guarantee that violations would not occur in the first place. Therefore, education should come first and before punishment, or at least side by side with it, as ‘prevention is better than cure’.

The dissemination of human rights culture has become a priority for international human rights organizations. This interest was developed during the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (January 1995 - December 2004).

Bahrain is going through a critical time in enforcing the rule of law and the desired democratic transition, which is why spreading human rights culture is crucial in order to develop the concept of participatory democracy on the ground. This can only be achieved by incorporating human rights culture in school and university curriculums on one hand, and on the other, encouraging individuals to be proactive in defending it as it is a guarantor of public participation in political decision-making.

It is obvious that spreading human rights culture helps in establishing new social values which target the behaviour of individuals and become embedded in the public consciousness as well as reflecting practically on the ground. Therefore, human rights education should begin from the family, school, street, work place and public and private institutions. Spreading human rights culture amongst the security forces and law enforcement institutions is especially important, as many human rights violations are committed by such institutions. This would help in building public trust in these institutions.

What Bahrain needs at this stage is the promotion of the values and principles of human rights which centre on equality of rights and obligations on the basis of citizenship. This will ultimately lead to a citizen who is capable of confronting calls to violence as well as violations of his economic, social and cultural rights.

Spreading such a culture in Bahrain will help limit the political fluctuation which has characterized the reform period. In this sense, it is useful to draw upon and benefit from the experiences of other countries in spreading human rights education, in order to overcome past grievances. These countries achieved their desired goal mainly by integrating human rights principles in their school curriculums. It is worth mentioning here the importance of the role of civil society organizations in building and creating a positive balance, which Bahrain requires, and presenting special programs on human rights culture.

In light of the relative openness in Bahrain, it is now possible to rely on various institutions in order to spread the culture of human rights. These include the media, theatre, conferences and seminars, posters and paintings, training courses, discussions, and educational leaflets.

Finally, there are several elements which help overcome the challenges facing the spreading human rights culture:

It is important that there is a genuine will from all the concerned parties even if they have different political positions.

Schools should be the basic framework for spreading human rights culture as well as the family and society at large.

Incorporating human rights values in education, including school and university syllabuses, and providing training to the teachers will facilitate the process.

Allowing civil society organizations to participate in devising educational programs.

Ratification of the relevant international conventions, and the harmonization of national laws to conform with international conventions.