Summary of a webinar held on 18 February 2022
- Staci Strobl – Professor of Criminal Justice at Shenandoah University, USA
- Jawad Fairooz – former MP & Director, SALAM DHR, UK
- Devin Kenny – GCC Researcher, Amnesty International, Lebanon
- Ghassan Sarhan – Bahraini human rights activist and lawyer, Lebanon
- Dr Andrew McIntosh – Director of Research, SALAM DHR, UK – Moderator
Andrew McIntosh, opened the meeting, stating that the 14 February Pearl Uprising and its legacy is often defined by tragedy. Not only is it associated with violence and repression but also with broken promises. Although it was not without its flaws, the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI Report) provided a roadmap to reform and the possibility of social reconciliation. Most of those reforms, however, have not been implemented after 11 years. This means that the social, economic, and sectarian grievances that led to the 14 February Uprising persist in Bahrain, creating the possibility that unrest will be renewed. Failure to reform and the continuation of practices that keep Bahraini society fundamentally unequal has trapped the country in a cycle of destabilisation.
Staci Strobl, speaking first, set out how and why – approximately – every ten years, significant socio-political upheaval erupts in Bahrain. She described how the system of repression appeared to work in the short term, yet how its underlying character of illegitimacy, and the limitations that entails, serves to perpetuate political crises. She explained that the authority’s establishment of effective Sunni hegemony, manifested in the domination of national, political, and social narratives has long been a core strategy of Al Khalifa rulership. Professor Strobl detailed how this structure of governance, established while the country was under UK control, served to marginalise, ghettoise, and enslave several, long oppressed communities: “They remain victims of the regime’s power structures and have few incentives to accept the current system as it is” she observed. She emphasised that this was not new but a process which has reproduced itself for at least a century, resulting in cycles of unrest and repression.
Jawad Fairooz then explained that when Bahrain gained independence, there was a promise of legitimate government, a partnership that people expected: it is reflected in the wording of the original constitution. But the Al Khalifa family reneged on the promise – even if vague – to abide by this commitment, while “the international community failed to pressure Bahrain to honour its agreements”. Referring to the aftermath of the cyclical unrest referred to by Staci Strobl, Fairooz detailed the missed opportunities for reform, most notably in 1973, 2001, 2006, 2011, and 2017. The government, for example, failed to implement commitments made in the 2011 report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), meant to address grave human rights violations committed by the government and its agents in the first months of 2011, but it is likewise found in the routine failure by the Government of Bahrain (GoB) to abide by commitments made to successive United Nations treaty bodies – in the context of legally binding contracts, or the peer-review Universal Periodic Review (UPR), whereby representatives of other UN member states set out recommendations to their diplomatic counterparts. Jawad Fairooz also argued that “the failure to pressure Bahrain is evident by the fact that the UK and US governments have said if the opposition groups participated in the elections, they would pressure the Bahraini government…”. And yet, in previous years, even with the opposition’s involvement in elections, the GoB failed to reform or engage in reform. Yet the US and UK governments failed to pressure the GoB to implement meaningful political reform. Jawad Fairooz concluded by stating that “despite all the challenges [that] the opposition has faced; it remains committed to peaceful change and I believe that the regime will eventually be forced to make concessions.”
Devin Kenney detailed how several political parties – or associations – and an independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, had been registered or established in the early 2000s before the GoB prohibited them in the 2010s. Alluding again to the cycle of repression and superficial reform, Kenney argued that this constituted an “accordion process”, whereby the authorities carry out – cyclically – limited liberalisation, followed by repression, masking its authoritarian character.
Ghassan Sarhan then set out new restrictive procedural measures under discussion in parliament. They look set to “reduce what little accountability remains in the legal system”, including measures restricting statements deemed to harm (so-called) “public order” or “national interest”.
During the question-and-answer session, Jawad Fairooz addressed a question about how reform could be achieved. He said that “Reform can only come following pressure from countries such as the United States.”
In response to a question about the likelihood of another mass protest or crackdown, Devin Kenney said that nothing was inevitable but that the current situation did not provide for stability.
Ghassan Sarhan, speaking to a question about the most important legal reform, explained that “[A]llowing citizens to directly petition the Supreme Court, as the wording of the constitution is supposed to allow, was needed”. He observed that this issue was not being implemented.
In response to a question whether a new political order, with new parties, would be beneficial, Jawad Fairooz concluded by saying he believed the government was attempting to manufacture an opposition it could control while maintaining bans on parties it considers an electoral threat. He affirmed that such practices could never lead to a genuine democracy being established in the country.