After the UK’s withdrawal from Bahrain on 15 August 1971, and deceleration of the independency, Bahrain and the UK signed a treaty of friendship. Bahrain became an independent Arab Muslim state, on the ground that the Al-Khalifa family would be the rulers, but the understanding that the system of governance be a democratic one, where all sovereignty and powers lie with the people, as stated in the 1973 Constitution’s first article, under subsection 1(d) “The system of rule in the Kingdom of Bahrain will be democratic with sovereignty to the people who will be the source of all authority. Sovereignty will be excited as outlined in this Constitution”. This understanding was recognised between Al-Khalifa family, the UK, and the United Nations.
Though this was never realized, with the then ruler Esa Alkhalifa dissolving the newly formed National Assembly within two years, imposing martial law (State Security Law of 1974), and never allowing the return of such an assembly until his death in 1999.
The UK watched on as Bahrain ground to a halt during this time, with no democratic reforms in sight, opting for quiet diplomacy as a means to treat the issue.
Following the ascension of the current King Hamad Alkhalifa to power after his father’s death, promises were made through a National Action Charter, for democratic reforms to take place in the country. This would include the return of the dissolved National Assembly as well as the 1973 constitution. Many argue that this never actually materialized, with the new Parliament split into tiers, with an Upper Chamber, unelected and solely appointed by the King, capable of overruling the Lower Chamber. The 1973 constitution did not return, with a replacement pushed by the King put in place, which is now known as the 2002 constitution.
Newly formed institutions were highly vetted and ensured that they do not criticize the current rulership, with threats of dissolution and prosecution in event that they stepped out of line. This was actualized after the 2011 uprising, with the Ministry of Interior ordering the shutdown of daily newspaper Al-Wasat, human rights NGOs like Bahrain Center for Human Rights, political parties like Al-Wefaq and Wa’ad, as well as many long established NGOs like Tow’iya and Al-Risala.
UK Involvement and “Reforms” in Bahrain
The UK, since leaving Bahrain, has taken a highly influential role in the country, with its influence and technical consultancy taken aboard across almost all of Bahrain’s official structure, from the judiciary to the state prisons and security. The UK is seen as “strategic partner of choice” to help implement reforms procedures in the country, as illustrated in the recommendations stated in the Bahrain Independent Commission Inquiry (BICI) which was published at the end of 2011.
Within that time, new national mechanisms appeared in Bahrain including an Ombudsman, a Prisoners and Detainees commission, as well as a number of other institutions installed by the UK through its funding and technical assistance support.
Former UK Ambassador to Bahrain, Iain Lindsay, confirmed that the UK attempts to establish structures to prevent torture and other abuses.
Yet, little to nothing has changed in Bahrain’s human rights situation, nor has Bahrain moved to a democratic or reformist direction.
Bahrain has endeavoured within the time of BICI publication up until today to arbitrarily strip the nationality of over 300 Bahrainis, the vast majority of the victims being opposition members, activists, journalists, and scholars, and MP’s – with the most recent victim being highest religious authority in country Sheikh Isa Qassim. The authorities have imprisoned over 3500 political prisoners in two prisons, Jau Prison and Dry Dock, in extremely cramped and inhumane conditions, with no reprieve in sight. The vast majority facing life in prison and nationality revocation.
Five years ago, at the start of the uprising, Bahraini businessman Karim Fakhrawi died whilst in police custody after attending to a summons, with his death blamed on a health condition despite having severe torture injuries. Just last week, Bahraini Hasan Al-Hayki died in police custody, with his death blamed on a health condition. The UK Foreign Office has so far injected 2 million pounds worth of support to fund the prison ombudsman, yet torture and inhuman or degrading treatment remains a recurrent issue and well documented. A total of 3.87million has been provided by the UK in technical assistance.
Members of Bahrain’s security force that are implicated in ultra vires killings and human rights abuses are routinely found innocent by Bahraini courts, whilst the breadth of the opposition are found guilty, with Sheikh Ali Salman having his sentence intensified following an appeal. Human rights defenders are still seen as criminals, with Nabeel Rajab back in prison, and Abdulhadi Khawaja continues his life sentence with no more legal appeals available.
The Bahraini authorities through this have made it impossible for national dialogue to take place, as the opposition wholly remains behind bars and all active dissidents pursued and prosecuted.
The human rights situation may be considered worse in certain aspects than that prior to the uprising in 2011, especially in relation to nationality revocation, death in custody, forced exiles, civil society activities, and freedoms of expression and opinion.
Full implementation of BICI and UNHRC recommendations are far from being a reality, with chair of BICI, Dr Sherif Bessiouni denying that the recommendations have been implemented.
The international community at large seems critical of Bahrain, with UN Secretary-General of UN Ban Ki Moon airing criticisms a number of times over the last 5 years, as well as the UN Human Rights Council and other foreign departments of some countries.
The UK Foreign Affairs Committee strongly criticized the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s approach to Bahrain in 2014, stating they see “little to no progress that Bahrain has made enough progress in implementing political reform and safeguarding human rights”. The FAC reiterated the fact that Bahrain should be publically referred to as a country of concern, on a list with other countries identified as countries of concern. But former Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, recently described Bahrain as “moving in the right direction”, with a need to maintain quiet diplomacy, despite ample evidence that Bahrain in many aspects is transgressing, and using reform promises, minor cosmetic reforms and procedure to conceal the extent of the crisis in the country.
1- For the UK to designate Bahrain as a country of concern.
2- For the UK to use its strong influence on Bahrain to more strongly enforce human rights conventions.
3- For the UK to use its strong influence to require Bahrain to release all prisoners of conscience.
4- For the UK to prevent Bahraini officials implicated in human rights abuses from entering the UK until fairly prosecuted.
5- For the UK to compel Bahrain to cease nationality revocation and negate nationality revocation decisions that have occurred since 2012.
6- For the UK to require Bahrain to abide by the first condition that allowed the ruling family to remain as rulers, by ensuring democratic transformation and that the people are the source of all powers.