The ratification of Bahrain’s Constitution, the National Action Charter, on February 14 2001 marked a new era for Bahrain. Exactly a decade later on February 14 2011 Bahrain underwent a bout of demonstrations during which many moderate Bahrainis called for acceleration of the reform process. Thus, the last nine years have witnessed a succession of measures designed to reform Bahrain’s political system, society and economy. Here we look at many of the principal achievements.
Separation of religion and politics
Bahrain’s Shura Council on 6 December 2015 approved amendments to the Political Societies Law, banning active religious clerics from membership of political societies and involvement in political activity. This was an important step in the process of separating religion from politics and ensuring that the religious platform is not exploited for political purposes. The amended law states that any member of a religious political society cannot simultaneously be preaching in mosques or involved in religious activities, even on a voluntary basis.
Annual reports by the National Audit Office have gained large amounts of media, public and political attention; highlighting examples of misuse of funds. MPs and the Public Prosecutor, along with individual government departments have taken the lead in action against officials found to have misused their roles or wasted public money. This process is at the forefront of efforts to prioritize good governance and the rule of law in Bahrain.
Electoral reforms and constitutional amendments
Following complaints that constituency boundaries disfavoured certain demographics, comprehensive reforms of Bahrain’s electoral district boundaries in October 2014, ahead of the elections that year, unified the size of most constituencies and sought to address concerns.
Constitutional amendments in 2012 sought to empower the elected Parliament chamber and provide MPs with greater powers for challenging ministers and taking no-confidence measures if government policies were perceived to not be acting in the public interest. One of these measures gave MPs responsibility for ratifying four-year Government Action Plans. The 2014 Parliament was often criticized for not making full use of these powers for questioning ministers and holding them to account. MPs from the 2018 Parliament have pledged to be more assertive in using these powers.
Supporting the rule of law: BICI recommendations
The King of Bahrain established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to investigate the 2011 protests, in order to understand these events and learn lessons. The King later accepted the conclusions in full and ordered the government to go ahead with implementation of the recommendations, giving rise to a number of important new initiatives. A full summary of implementation of BICI measures can be found on this here.
Establishment of the Special investigations unit
The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) was established by the Public Prosecutor in March 2012 in response to BICI recommendations 1716 and 1722, with a mandate to determine the criminal liability of officials responsible for physical abuse and other illegal acts. Following its investigation, the SIU is empowered bring criminal charges against the suspected perpetrator and refer them for trial before the courts or refer the matter to another government authority to impose disciplinary sanctions. The SIU subsequently oversaw the prosecution of numerous officials accused of abuses.
Establishment of the Ombudsman office
The office of Ombudsman was set up in February 2012 in accordance with BICI recommendations 1717 and 1722. Amnesty International noted that “the Ombudsman is mandated to receive and examine complaints about alleged abuses by police and other officials under Ministry of Interior authority and refer them to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) or other authorities for further investigation and possible prosecution or disciplinary action”. The Ombudsman can also initiate its own investigations and investigates all deaths in custody. The Ombudsman refers cases involving torture and ill-treatment or deaths in custody to the SIU for further investigation and possible prosecution.
Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission
The PDRC was set up in mid-2013 under the auspices of the independent Ombudsman Office to “assess the conditions and treatment of detainees and to deter and help prevent torture, inhumane or degrading treatment in places of custody”. The organization has legal powers to monitor detention centres and work to improve prison conditions and prevent abuses. Regular reports by this Commission have included substantive criticisms and recommendations and the authorities appear to have taken these seriously in taking action.
Installing CCTV cameras in detention centres
CCTV was installed throughout all detention centres, police centres and interrogation rooms after 2011 as a core recommendation of the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry. CCTV has been used for both relatively minor complaints and accusations that detention staff used physical force. This was seen as a straightforward and pragmatic measure for increasing police accountability.
Other human rights progress
Women rights action since 2011
- The Unified Family Law (ratified in August 2017) for the first time provides comprehensive legislation for both the Sunni and Shia communities, in order to protect the legal rights of women and children concerning issues of divorce, inheritance and child custody.
- Enhanced implementation of the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in April 2016.
- A revised 2015 domestic violence law. This was consolidated in December 2017 with a Supreme Council for Women initiative establishing a comprehensive database of all domestic violence cases.
- Proposed amendments to laws concerning rape, in order to ensure that women don’t come under pressure to marry a man accused of raping them. However, while Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon moved forward with similar legislation, proposals emerging from both Bahraini Parliament chambers during mid-2016 have yet to reach the statute books.
- In early 2015 King Hamad issued a decree granting full housing rights for widows, divorcees and un-married women; so that vulnerable females enjoy improved living standards and are prioritized for housing services.
- The selection of Fawzia Zainab as Parliament Speaker after the 2018 elections was a clear sign of how far women’s empowerment has come in Bahrain, along with numerous additional women entering Bahrain’s two chambers of Parliament.
Combatting Human Trafficking
Bahrain has become the first state in the region to be upgraded to having “Tier 1” status in combatting human trafficking, according to the US State Department’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. This is the result of years of efforts to enhance worker protection and stamp out the illegal and degrading trade in human beings. Tier 1 places Bahrain on the same level as states like Britain, Germany and the US in having the highest standards of best practice in this area.
The Labour Market Regulatory Authority which has led Bahrain’s efforts in combatting human trafficking. Consequently, the LMRA’s CEO, Osama Al Absi, was recognized as the GCC’s first “Trafficking in persons report hero”. This coincides with the 10th anniversary of the LMRA’s establishment in 2008.
Investing in infrastructure
A series of massive infrastructure projects are under way in Bahrain, designed to underpin the Kingdom’s strategy of moving away from dependence on oil revenues. Indeed, $32 billion is being invested in a number of signature projects intended to upgrade Bahrain’s infrastructure and facilitate a greatly enhanced and more dynamic private sector which can act as the motor for the nation’s future prosperity.
This $32 billion comes from a range of sources: $7.5 billion from the GCC Development Fund, $10 billion of government funding and $15 billion of private sector funding. Six sectors have been prioritized for funding as projected areas for Bahrain’s future growth and wealth creation: Tourism and hospitality, retail, real estate, finance, infrastructure, and oil and gas services.
Facilitating foreign business
There are multiple reasons why foreign businesses and investors would be wise to focus on Bahrain. The Kingdom has gone to great lengths to cultivate a business-friendly environment; overheads are significantly lower than in neighbouring states; we have a rapidly expanding private sector; and Bahrain has been consistently rated as the favourite country in the world by expat workers. It is no surprise that Bahrain is assessed to be the most open economy in the region, as well as one of the most attractive economies worldwide.
The lack of government-provided housing was a key grievance expressed during the 2011 protests. The 2014-18 Government Action Plan committed to the construction of 40,000 new homes to be allocated to low-income families. The 2018-22 Action Plan further agreed to the building of 25,000 new housing units. The implementation of these huge projects has provided a substantial additional stimulus to the national economy.