Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from the Bahrain Human Rights Monitor

1. Introduction

The UK, more than any country in the world, is well qualified and adequately equipped to deal with the affairs of the Middle East, particularly the Gulf Region. This could be attributed mainly to the deep knowledge it acquired of the region during the colonial era, not only from a Geo-political perspective, but also from the platform of a profound understanding and appreciation of the complex social, cultural and religious heritage that contributed to shaping its political infrastructure and influencing its way of thinking.

Though the end of the colonial era and the two World Wars and lately the collapse of the Iron Curtain have ushered a new World Order characterized by the emergence of new global powers with economic, military and subsequently political might, the UK’s status on the world stage has never diminished, particularly in matters concerning its former spheres of influence.

As such, the stance the UK adopts towards any emerging regional or international issue carries a considerable weight and a tendency to resonate and influence opinion within its allies, if not worldwide.

That is why the role the UK could play in helping Bahrain resolve its current crisis is crucial and should never be underestimated.

2. About us

We, the “Bahrain Human Rights Monitor” are a London-based Independent Human Rights Organisation that concerns itself with the protection and promotion of Human Rights in Bahrain. As such, we strive to strengthen relations between the civil society organisations, official bodies and International Human Rights Organisations. We provide news follow ups, in-depth analysis and advice on Human Rights issues in the country, through a monthly Bulletin in addition to periodic and occasional statements and publications, symposiums and seminars. One of our major objectives is to help, through our work, in bringing unity and cohesion to a Bahraini Society that has been blighted by divisions, sectarian strife and violence. Since the break of the recent sad events in Bahrain, we have worked doubly hard to document and condemn Human Rights abuses perpetrated by any of the parties involved, official or civil, and to call for an end to the cycle of violence and the sectarian incitement that threatens to derail the Country’s march towards Political reforms and greater respect for Human Rights.

As we welcome the opportunity to submit this written contribution on the situation in Bahrain to the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee as it prepares to hold an inquiry into the FCO’s Foreign policy towards the Gulf Region, we would like to confirm our readiness to participate in any future event the House of Commons and its Foreign Affairs Committee might consider organising on the Bahraini issue.

3. The Crisis in Bahrain

Until recently, Bahrain was renowned for its religious freedom and tolerance. Nowhere in the whole of the Gulf Region had all religious beliefs, creeds and practices coexisted in total harmony as in Bahrain.

What made Bahrain an oasis of serenity and religious tolerance was the fact that the state took it upon itself to act as a custodian of all creeds, not just allowing each and every individual, whether a citizen, resident or even a visitor, the freedom to worship and practice according to their faith and religious beliefs, but also offered substantial financial contributions to all existing religious groups and sects such as Christians, Jews, Shias, Sunnis, Hindus and Sikhs. This fact was duly recognized by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s (BICI) report which stated that Bahrain is a model of ethnic and sectarian cohesion when compared to neighbouring countries.

Religious or sectarian affiliations had never before been an issue in the Bahraini community, or an element that restricted any interactions or even intermarriages between followers of different religious beliefs.

Then, why has the sectarian element suddenly become one of the focal points of the recent Bahraini crisis?

The roots of the current Bahraini crisis are political in essence... Bahrain had embarked on a reform process initiated since 2002, but the slow pace of the implementation of the political reforms has led to a simmering resentment that burst onto the surface inspired by the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, in what has been dubbed (The Arab Spring).

It is fair to say that the initial Bahraini popular protests were political in nature, demanding legitimate and reasonable wider political reforms until a minority of fanatics derailed the course of the protests.

The turning point could be traced to the call by an extremist faction of the Shia opposition for the overthrow, not only of the government but also of the Monarchy... That in turn raised suspicion and concern among the Sunni population who felt that any threat to the Monarchy would eventually affect them, and would mean the end of the road to what had hitherto been achieved in the field of political and economic reforms.

The harsh measures taken by the security forces combined with the hijacking of the peaceful protests by hardliners led to the violence and confrontation that have sadly resulted in the perpetration of grave human rights violations.

Consequently the sectarian card entered the frame as the political leaders on both sides of the sectarian divide succumbed to the extreme elements that were mobilizing the streets and sought, therefore, to employ that card in the political point-scoring.

This precarious situation was not helped by a hasty decision taken by the relevant Bahraini authorities to demolish what they had identified as unauthorized Shia places of worship, whereby around 30 of these places, according to the BICI’s report, have been demolished between March 1st and May 11th 2011. The BICI’s report criticised the procedure as well as the timing of that decision.

The role played by the Media, official, social and otherwise, has unfortunately, not been conducive to easing the tension and rebuilding the shattered trust between the opposing sides...

3. The Remedies

The government of Bahrain, faced by an International outcry, soon realised the error of its ways and sought to remedy the situation.

To be fair The King of Bahrain tried his utmost to contain the situation from the outset by ordering the minister of interior to publicly apologise to the families of the victims of the unrest and later addressed the nation himself acknowledging the legitimacy of the protesters’ demands. The King later took the bold and unprecedented initiative in July last year by establishing the BICI, and later endorsing its findings and recommendations. That represented a breakthrough and a clear indication of his willingness to address Bahrain’s problems in a manner that would allow the country to move forward and continue the process of political, economic and social reforms, he himself had initiated a decade ago.

The implementation of the BICI’S recommendations went ahead with some tangible results in the areas of training of Judges and members of the General Prosecution, compensations, investigating violations, rebuilding of the religious sites, reinstatement of dismissed workers, in addition to taking advanced steps towards instilling Human Rights culture in the education system and drafting legislative amendments to support freedom of expression and enhance media performance.

The pace of the implementation of some of the recommendation was to some extent disappointing particularly those related to public security matters and the development of a national reconciliation programme due to the continuous use of violence by some rouge elements among the protesters and the lukewarm response by the opposition to the government’s calls for dialogue.

On 19 September 2012, The 21st session of the UN Human Rights Council adopted the outcome of the Universal Periodic Review of Bahrain in which the latter had, out of 176 recommendations, fully accepted 145 recommendations and partially accepted 13 recommendations, which mainly related to criminal justice, prevention of torture, rights of women, protection of children and minorities, the fight against human trafficking, serious consideration to ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the invitation to the Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit Bahrain. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain who headed the country’s delegation, outlined some of the reforms undertaken by his government, which included the establishment of a Special Investigations Unit to investigate police misconduct to achieve accountability; setting up of ombudsman functions with the National Security Agency; payment of compensation to victims; drafting a new labour law; amending the definition of torture in the Penal Code and amending provisions of Royal Decree 46/2009 on the establishment of the National Human Rights Institution (NHRI), as an independent entity to make it more compatible with the Paris Principles. He confirmed that Bahrain welcomes peaceful expression of disagreement but not incitement to hatred and violence which, he added, damages the social fabric of a nation.

An invitation was extended to the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights to send a technical delegation to assess the progress in the Human Rights situation in Bahrain and to provide guidance and technical assistance.

Without being seen as an infringement on the principle of freedom of expression, the Government of Bahrain needs to do more to accelerate the introduction of meaningful reforms to the legislations governing the conduct of the media to ensure that it plays a constructive role in building bridges and promoting reconciliation rather than inciting hatred and divisions. It should also take more bold initiatives to encourage the relevant parties to engage in a serious and genuine dialogue aiming at resolving all outstanding issues and resuming the country’s march towards comprehensive political, economic and social reforms.

Too much attention and criticism have been laid at the door of the Government, and rightly so. However nobody seems to notice the role played by the opposition in aggravating the crisis in Bahrain. It goes without saying that the opposition has genuine grievances and legitimate political and democratic aspirations. The Government’s acceptance of the recommendations of both the BICI’s report and the Human Rights Council UPR’s final review of Bahrain’s report should have gone a long way in satisfying these aspirations, had the opposition chosen to seek cooperation rather than confrontation in order to oversee the full implementation of these recommendations. The truth of the matter is that the opposition has been dominated by a minority of extremists whose sole aim is to dismantle the whole system regardless of the consequences, and despite the fact that the majority of the Bahraini people on both sides of the political and sectarian divide do not share the same objective. Their tactic is simple, incite hatred, and resort to street violence to solicit a response from the security forces, and then wait for the International condemnations that would put more pressure on the government. So as long as the International Human Rights quarters, and in particular the NGOs, continue to single out the Government for criticism, and fail to recognise the well documented abuses, violence and transgressions perpetrated by those rouge elements within the opposition, this vicious circle will continue to put the spanner in the wheels of Bahrain’s progress towards resolving its crisis.

4. The Recommendations

The interest shown by the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee towards Bahrain is plausible, yet we would like to see the esteemed committee taking a more practical approach such as presenting the UK Government with ideas, projects and suggestions on ways to provide the appropriate assistance and support that would allow Bahrain to enhance its capabilities with regard to the respect and protection of Human Rights.

In our view, the UK Government’s attitude towards the crisis in Bahrain has been positive in its acknowledgment of the progress the government has made so far in redressing the transgressions of the past eighteen months, which will undoubtedly encourage the latter to keep moving forward. The UK Government should keep stressing on the Bahraini Government the dire need to expedite the process of implementing the remaining recommendations put forward by the BICI’s report and the UPR’s final review. The Bahraini Government should be advised to establish a National Mechanism that would include all sectors of the Bahraini community, ie the Civil Rights Organisations, to oversee the implementation process.

Based on its history and long running experience in balancing between the respect for Human Rights and combating extremism, violence and terrorism, the UK Governments would be well suited to offer all sorts of technical assistance to help Bahrain improve its capabilities in promoting Human Rights, particularly in the legal, criminal investigation and policing fields. The visits to the UK during last May and June this year by both Bahraini Ministers of Justice and of Interior had witnessed the conclusion of several bilateral agreements that need to be put into effect. In this context we welcome the visit by a delegation from Slynn Foundation to Bahrain on October 2012, in the context of those agreements, to offer support, advice and training to enhance Bahrain’s Judiciary system.

Dialogue remains the only credible conduit through which Bahrain could overcome its predicament. The UK Government could use its influence and good offices to persuade all the parties concerned to renounce the violence and to adhere to a code of conduct that does not allow the use of sectarian rhetoric or incitement, particularly in the Media, in order to create a favourable atmosphere for the negotiation process to start without delay with the aim of reaching a consensual agreement by the Shia, Sunni and the Royal Family.

As long as the extreme elements within the opposition continue to be indulged by the International Community and Human Rights quarters, the opposition will not feel obliged to change tactics and lean towards dialogue. Therefore it is paramount that the International community should make it known that it will not tolerate transgressions by the opposition the same way it does not tolerate them if perpetrated by the Government.

It is also important that the Bahraini Government should realise that denying the NGOs proper access to the country would only serve to confirm the perception that it has something to hide. Cooperation with the International NGOs and all Human Rights entities should represent an essential component of Bahrain’s endeavour to promote its Human Rights standing. In this respect we view the Bahrain’s welcome to a visit by a delegation from Human Rights First in October 2012 as a step in the right direction, and hopefully an indication that a new page in Bahrain’s relations with the International Human Rights Community has just opened.

It would be of a great mutual benefit if representatives from the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee could pay regular visits to Bahrain to examine the situation on the ground in order to reach the right conclusions. It is equally important that the committee should consider inviting representatives of all the parties involved in the Bahraini crisis to any symposium, workshop, seminar or event they intend to organise on the Bahraini question. This would certainly allow the Committee the opportunity to form a clearer picture and have a better understanding of all the angles and aspects of the Bahraini crisis.

17 October 2012

Prepared 21st November 2013