The benefits of civil society for Bahrain and for you
Bahrain’s reform programme
When King Hamad came to the throne in 1999, he embarked on an ambitious programme of reforms, manifested in his 2001 constitution; the National Action Charter. As well as providing for a two-chamber Parliament; an amnesty for detained or exiled political figures; and an end to the State Security Law; King Hamad’s reforms also helped create the environment for a vibrant and active civil society.
This occurred through constitutional provisions protecting the rights and freedoms of individuals and also through legislation legalizing and regulating the status of civil society organizations.
The reform programme has gone through a number of phases – for example; in 2012 there were a number of constitutional amendments which increased the powers of elected MPs; and in 2014 there were reforms to constituency boundaries to make the elections system fairer and more representative.
Role of civil society in supporting reform
Reform is never easy and there are always elements of society and the political system itself which resist change. This gives a major role to civil society in encouraging continued reform; mobilizing public support for reforms and monitoring implementation of reforms.
For example, ordinary members of the public cannot simply be expected to understand the complex implications of election boundaries reform and how it will impact their ability to have their voices listened to. Civil society must play a role in explaining these reforms and encouraging a public debate, so that a range of opinions can be factored into the process.
Making the political system more representative, accountable and transparent means that officials have to open themselves up to scrutiny and give away some of their powers to elected representatives. Oversight by civil society organizations and other independent institutions can help ensure that this happens in practice and that there is an informed media and public debate about such a process.
The BICI reforms
After the February-March 2011 unrest, King Hamad commissioned an international tribunal – the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, overseen by Cherif Bassiouni to investigate what happened and recommend reforms to address human rights and institutional shortcomings.
The King accepted the BICI report and its conclusions in full and pledged to implement the 26 recommendations. Many of these recommendations have been implemented, such as the reinstatement of workers and students; the compensation process; and the establishment of an independent Ombudsman and other human rights and oversight bodies. However, a 2014 Citizens for Bahrain review singled out the lack of progress on reconciliation efforts and (at the time) delays in rebuilding religious structures as issues requiring attention.
However, a problem has been that the loudest two voices on the BICI report take opposite positions: The opposition claims that no reforms have been implemented and the Government claims that the report has been implemented in full.
As Citizens for Bahrain’s research has shown, the truth is more complex than this, particularly as some reforms require long-term cultural changes, such as embedding a culture of human rights best practice within the security forces and ensuring zero impunity.
Human rights institutions and civil society
This helps illustrate why the role of civil society is vital. Governments cannot be expected to objectively and impartially monitor themselves. At the same time, the opposition uses the BICI as a propaganda tool to attack and delegitimize the Government, so its claims are untrustworthy and incorrect.
Important work has been done by the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission, the independent Ombudsman Office, National Institution for Human Rights – three institutions whose role arises from the BICI-led reforms. These institutions all monitor human rights issues, investigate alleged abuses, and submit recommendations for addressing shortcomings. In truth, these institutions’ work ensures continuing efforts to take forward the BICI recommendations and go beyond them.
But once again, there needs to be a strong civil society role in stimulating discussion about the activity of these institutions; helping raise awareness of human rights issues in society; and following up on recommendations from all these reports to encourage the authorities to enforce compliance.
Making reform a reality
Discussion of human rights issues should not be left to the opposition. The sectarian segments of the opposition which are boycotting the political process do not support human rights reform; rather they dishonestly use propaganda about human rights to try and undermine the authorities. An anti-democratic cleric-led movement must not be allowed to set the reform and human rights agenda.
This is why nationalist, pro-Bahrain civil society organizations must take ownership of human rights and reform issues; to promote change for the good of Bahrain as a whole and within the context of the Constitutional Monarchy system and the vision for democratization.
A system which fails to change and evolve eventually collapses. That is why we should be committed to King Hamad’s reform vision and actively support the institutions working to make these reforms a reality.
ABC of civil society