Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Dr. Shaikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al-Khalifa, Chairman, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and National Security, Shura Council Kingdom of Bahrain

Bahrain and the United Kingdom have shared a close cooperative relationship going back over two hundred years. The historical relationship between our countries has instilled in us a shared purpose: we have made common cause in facing pressing regional and global challenges that transcends generations. We both demand good governance of ourselves. We are responsible, and responsive, to the aspirations of our people. And we invite and welcome constructive engagement with our allies, within the framework of mutual respect and mutual benefit. In the customary spirit of good relations between our nations, and in the hope of deepening inter-Parliamentary relations, I am pleased to contribute to the Committee’s discussion on Bahrain-UK relations.

Bahrain’s most recent experiment with democracy dates to 14 February 2001, when 98.4% of our citizens—that is to say all segments of our society—approved a document called the “National Action Charter”. This document put before our people the basic structure of our present governance system. I’d like to commend to you three fundamental tenets:

We established a constitutional monarchy, namely one with the King’s powers limited by legal Charter and royal decrees are subject to Parliamentary rejection.

We approved the principle of separation of powers, namely a belief that a system of checks and balances, with the three branches of government cooperating with one another, best serves the aspirations of our people.

We organized Parliamentary life along bicameral lines, with one of two chambers of Parliament elected, requiring legislation to be passed through a concurrent majority of both houses and not based on the “tyranny of the majority” as John Adams, Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill would put it.

At this stage of our young political life, no friend of democracy should assume that this is unhealthy. Safeguards are indispensable. Some elected MPs have been prone to making anti- democratic proposals to please their crowd, focusing on civil service promotions, dress-codes, restrictions on women, the expulsion of foreigners, and religious control of private life—not on housing or health or education. The upper house has played an integral role in giving a voice to the more vulnerable groups in society. For example, in the first decade under our new Constitution, only one woman was elected to Parliament—while 11 entered by royal appointment. Bahrain’s Parliament has always included a member of our longstanding Jewish community, and of course he/she was not elected. The ambassador in Washington is a Jewish woman, in London the post is occupied by a Christian woman, and in Beijing by a Muslin woman—all of whom came up through the ranks of the upper house.

Yet a decade on, violence has disrupted life in Bahrain. Protesters have claimed—wholly inaccurately—to represent 70% of the people, and expressed their dissatisfaction with this very Constitution that provides all Bahrainis—not just some—with a real stake in our national future. How is one to comprehend it? Was the first decade of the century one of failure for Bahrain?

To the contrary, it was a period of unprecedented progress. Today, our unemployment rate stands at 3.7%, which is to say, our government stepped in to provide employment when the Great Recession hit us. Our GDP per capita is at European levels—just under 30,000 US dollars—which is to say our people are some six times better off than the MENA region average. Our combined gross enrollment of both sexes in education is among the highest in the world, over 90%. We are a small country—half the size of London—but equally rich in diversity. Our population of 1.2 million is multi-ethnic and multi-denominational and around 50% expatriate, a substantial number of whom have lived—and thrived—amongst us for generations. The government protects and affirms women’s and minority rights. Although society is still being modernized, it is tolerant. We have long-term planning in place for the national future. We are one of three GCC governments ranked in the top group of countries providing for human development. According to the most recent UNDP index, our level of human welfare is similar to Portugal, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

This is why the events of last year shocked my country. We now know what happened, thanks to the forensic examination of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.

The chaos began on 14 February, a date carefully chosen for maximum political advantage. The planning had begun some time before and by mid-February media tents had been erected, communication channels established amongst the protest leaders, and ushers primed to “turn out the crowd”. The world’s media was there. One matter disturbs me greatly. Whenever I read of the “thousands” of “activists”, I am forced to remind people to carefully read the BICI study. There, one finds the thousands—yes thousands—of people at these rallies were in fact grade 5–9 students instigated on by politically active university youth.

I remember the 14th well. Over 50 demonstrations and rallies, some comprising hundreds of people, erupted throughout the country. The three main roads controlling the country were paralyzed. There was widespread disruption, rioting, and vandalism. Unprecedented threats were made against various segments of the population. All this was occurring simultaneously in different zones. The police had no experience of the rules of engagement for crowd control of this magnitude and complexity. They were taken completely unaware. Everything was rife with rumor and events spun out of control. It took a month and a half to subside.

By the end of March there had been four types of mortal victims: 13 protestors, 5 torture victims, 5 security men, and 4 uninvolved persons. These last four had been killed by mobs only because they were perceived to be foreigners. There were 8 other fatalities, but the Commission of Inquiry was unable to directly link them to the violence. Each is one life too many. We have announced compensation of US$6.2 million for the families of the civilian victims. We hope they find some comfort.

By the end of March 2011, 226 patients with injuries related to the protests had been admitted to the main hospital. This was less than 7% of the total patient intake during that time. Some 40% of the protest injuries were expatriates injured by the mob. One worker’s tongue was cut off because of his religious denomination and nationality. Three policemen were murdered in very public circumstances, three kidnapped, and over seven hundred assaulted seriously enough to merit medical treatment. Countless complaints of mob violence, vandalism and intimidation were received. The mob tortured many persons—solely because of their religious affiliation or national origin. Some thirty cases of attempted murder were lodged. One was the arson of the University of Bahrain—which I started my career as an assistant teacher of history and rose to become the University Registrar—building with people known to be trapped inside.

These figures from the BICI Report give immediate pause.

Are these the figures of a confrontation between peaceful unarmed protestors and a furious police force armed to the teeth? Are the police-to-civilian death and injury ratios 1:100, as the emotive expressions “ruthless crackdown” and “massacre” seem to suggest, or even 1:10?

No. These numbers tell a different story. One that concludes either that there was a confrontation of roughly equal forces—or else significant restraint on the part of the police.

I invite you to draw your attention to the BICI Report. The full narrative is in Chapter II. You will find it is different from the running commentary one reads in the papers and popular internet websites.

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The BICI Report set out our shortcomings in responding to this extraordinary situation. We accepted the criticism constructively. The entire nation—or substantial portions of it—acted with great dedication to implement the bulk of the BICI recommendations: an “all in” approach. It was marked by a spirit of cooperation and healing. This was a program of comprehensive government reform—from the security sector to judicial and prosecutorial capacity to labor, media and educational policy. In parallel, we undertook a National Dialogue that involved 400 persons from all segments of society to reach consensus on key issues underlying social differences.

Such a structural response is not found anywhere else in the region or in the world. There is full transparency. All original documents and around 100 pieces of our new legislation and administrative instruction are freely available on the internet. The reform effort continues. The Cabinet directs it and Parliament oversees it. There is no ceiling in our endeavor to continuously improve the life of every Bahraini citizen and resident.

Why do we do this?

The events of last year were such a shock that they prompted internal soul-searching in Bahrain. What had gone wrong? Why did it gone wrong? An ugly form of sectarianism and xenophobia was being introduced into Bahraini society. Like in any society, there are those who believe they can take advantage of the politics of division. We saw religious and denominational symbols increasingly used in political activity—from glorifying mortal victims to political slogans chanted in religious funeral marches to shrouded faces in political rallies to insurgency tactics. Some religious fanatics have taken to calling for violence and interfering in politics; other political activists have openly called for the establishment of an Islamic Republic. This is aimed at tearing down the Bahraini identity as a tolerant and pluralistic society. It is bloc politics of the worst sort.

Those of us in public life knew we had to lead. We did this by taking responsibility for our mistakes as well as by embarking society on a path of national reconciliation and retrenched unity. These are linked—national reconciliation cannot occur with a cover up. That is why we wanted the facts known. Our country accepted its errors and implemented far-reaching reforms to ensure they don’t occur again.

Complementing the internal reform process, Parliament and government have reached out to all segments of society to come together in a dialogue. We adopted laws on freedom of speech found nowhere else in the region. We strengthened Parliamentary powers in a way that gives elected representatives control of the legislative agenda. The amendments also provide the elected House with full oversight over the executive branch. We have made extraordinary budgetary provision for social programs that strengthen social cohesion.

Significant challenges remain. Reforming institutions takes time. There is inherent bureaucratic inertia and entrenched interests. But we are committed and already significant effects of our reforms are being felt. For example, there is a zero tolerance policy on torture. All allegations of mistreatment are promptly investigated. Our penal laws have been amended so as to bring them into line with international standards. Parliament has stepped up and is doing what is required of it.

But challenges reside outside of national institutional life. Some political societies—an anomaly in the region—have boycotted Parliament. They believe that continued unrest on the street affords them a political advantage not provided by dialogue. As the BICI Report notes, this is a frustratingly shortsighted strategy. It is backfiring. We are seeing support for rejectionist stances drop and fewer people coming out in the street to protest. But this new reality has an ugly side. To keep up the momentum and media coverage, the protests are becoming increasingly extreme and vandalistic in nature. The logic is inescapable—non-participation in a political dialogue strengthens the hands of the extremists. Time is to their benefit and against progressive politics.

I cannot emphasize this enough. National reconciliation cannot be dictated. It has to be organic and representative of every segment of society. What is needed is a balanced view of the situation. All parts of society need to step up. All groups with political aspirations must move away from the politics of the street to the politics of the table or else there is dim hope for democracy. Violence does not beget democracy—the European historical experience proves this.

There are some who call upon you to take a punitive stance against Bahrain and speak the language of embargoes and sanctions. Often their claims are highly contestable and sometimes downright dubious. But more fundamentally, does the logic hold: is the cause of progressive reform in Bahrain best served by a cooperative or punitive stance? Maintenance of friendly relations is not an obstacle to helping one another be better.

There are concrete ways by which to upgrade the Bahrain-UK relationship for the benefit of those who prefer cooperation to conflict.

First, let us deepen inter-Parliamentary contacts. Let us expand the ties from individual Parliamentary groups to a more formalized inter-Parliamentary forum. To this end, my Committee on Foreign Affairs extends an invitation to you, our counterparts in the UK. Furthermore, on 12 November 2012, our upper house of Parliament established a standing Committee on Human Rights—the first ever such Parliamentary body in the Arab world. Having these—independent—Committees are strong institutional steps towards instilling a culture of human rights within society. They would serve as useful channels to direct our constructive engagement on a wide-range of issues of mutual interest and foster mutual respect.

Second, my Committee also firmly supports His Majesty King Hamad’s call for an Arab Court of Human Rights. This is a platform to build mutual trust and engagement; and to ensure justice is achieved. Bahrain is sponsoring the initiative within both the GCC and the wider Arab League and my Committee is interested in drawing upon the vast experience of the European Court of Human Rights. In particular, we are interested in learning how the UK Parliament participated in the initiative for the European court.

I look forward to welcoming you to Bahrain.

17 November 2012

Prepared 21st November 2013