By Dr Abdulla Elmadani
A report was released two months ago by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), an independent body established by the monarchy to document the violence against demonstrators who called for reform last spring and provide recommendations for future government policies. It demonstrates that excessive practices were used by the government to rein in demonstrators – including painful and at times lethal human rights abuse.
No government should perpetrate such acts against its citizens. Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has acknowledged the tragedy, begun the process of identifying and prosecuting its perpetrators and called for reform, which are necessary steps.
The tragic confrontations between demonstrators and government forces here last year filled me and my fellow citizens with sorrow. These violent crackdowns left dozens of demonstrators dead and many more wounded, while an unknown number experienced harsh interrogation practices while in prison.
As a Bahraini who has spent his whole life in the country, I believe that the best way to remember and redress this tragedy is for the people and government together to formulate a new strategy of cooperation, and to achieve meaningful political and social reforms that would strengthen the country by empowering all of its citizens.
Many factors caused the protests. Some stemmed from outside our country, others from inside. Some demonstrators voiced Egyptian- and Tunisian-style demands for the downfall of the monarchy, whereas others aired specific grievances that could potentially be redressed without a revolution, as was the case in Morocco and Jordan. These concerns are similar to those which people share throughout the region: corruption among elites; inequality when it comes to economic opportunity; and a lack of checks and balances between the executive, the judiciary and the parliament.
Our tiny country of 1,200,000 people has a native population in which Shia Muslims outnumber Sunni Muslims. Some of the long-term political and social tensions have been ascribed to the fact that a Sunni monarchy governs – but sectarianism by itself does not explain people’s disaffection: there are wealthy and powerful Shia as well as poor and dispossessed Sunnis.
To redress these wrongs in a just way, both government institutions and those who seek change need to take steps forward. The monarchy, for its part, should foster a system of checks and balances in which the existing elected parliament achieves greater authority and the judiciary gains independence from both the legislative and executive branches. It would also be wise for the monarchy to foster the establishment of an anti-corruption body with independent investigative powers.
For these measures to proceed successfully, the public needs to play a role too. Citizens should more actively engage their elected representatives, and develop their own campaigns to press for the redress of their grievances within the framework of the legal system. Our courts, such as they are, have not been sufficiently tested by the public as a means of redress. It is essential that individuals begin to make use of the court system.
Given a new environment in which the monarchy encourages, and marginalised Bahrainis pursue, greater equality within existing government institutions and the legal system, it behoves all elites in the country to enhance these institutions’ and systems’ credibility through measures of their own.
It is widely agreed that the monarchy should end the sort of extra-judicial arrests and violence that occurred during the weeks of confrontation. At the same time, the monarchy should stop the sort of politically motivated mass pardons that followed the confrontation.
The legal system is compromised when criminals escape judicial proceedings, as much as it is compromised when innocent individuals are denied a fair trial. And while the population as a whole turns to legislators and courts to demand that they have equal opportunities – regardless of religious orientation or gender – members of Bahrain’s business elite should encourage each other to submit to the supremacy of the law and the principle of equal accountability under it. We need a full-court press in the struggle against corruption and nepotism.
Such notions of reform may only be the beginning of a long and involved process which will not happen overnight. But let the discussion – and the first steps – begin.
Dr Abdulla Elmadani is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Asian Studies in Bahrain.