Bahrain today joins the international community in marking this year’s ‘Human Rights Day’, commemorating the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I want to take this opportunity to set out why Bahrain should be proud of how we are contributing.
Our Constitution prohibits torture; our Constitution guarantees the freedom of expression and of the press; our Constitution guarantees the right of free assembly. Whilst our Constitution established Islam as the religion of the state, we recognise the equality of all citizens, regardless of their sex, origin, language, religion or belief and we guarantee the free practice of religion. Our record on sexual equality is noteworthy, including the ongoing participation of women in politics and government, with women making up over 45% of civil servants; there are a number of women in the Nuwab and Shura; we have women’s associations, including the Supreme Council for Women, headed by His Majesty King’s wife, Sheikha Sabeeka. In 2004, we signed the Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and declared the minimum age for voluntary recruitment to the Bahrain Defence Force at 18 years old. In April 2008, Bahrain was one of the first countries to undergo the UN process of a Universal Periodic Review (UPR). And we are unique in the Gulf in permitting political societies.
But we know we are not perfect.
Following the tragic events of earlier in that year, on 29 June 2011, His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, in a brave and unprecedented move, established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The Commission was tasked with investigating and reporting on the events that took place in Bahrain from February 2011; the consequences of those events and for providing a number of recommendations.
Presenting the BICI report on 23 November 2011, to His Majesty and Their Royal Highnesses the Crown Prince and Prime Minister, the Chair of the Commission, the globally renowned judge, Professor Cherif Bassiouni, said, “This is a unique historic and social event because, [also] for the first time, a government, that is still in power, agrees to open all its files, subject itself to criticism, and to facilitate the work of those who seek to evaluate its performance and to identify its faults. This is despite the sensitivity of the situation in the country in which an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and social unrest prevails, and despite the consequences that could arise out of this inquiry.”
The BICI made 26 recommendations. My office, the independent Ministry of Interior Ombudsman, is the first in the region. It is a direct implementation of a BICI recommendation and a milestone of which we should collectively, as Bahrainis, be proud.
Set out by Royal Decree, the Ombudsman has responsibility for investigating complaints, serious incidents and deaths in detention. I have full authority to attend places of detention to gather evidence and carry out interviews; these visits are not pre-notified unless there is a specific administrative need. I have an office located at Jau Prison, which is used by investigators on a regular basis.
Before 2011, only two bodies had authority to enter prisons and places of detention in Bahrain; the courts and the Public Prosecution. It is now the case that the Ombudsman, the National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR), the Prisoner and Detainee Rights Commission and NGO's / Civil Society (such as the International Committee of the Red Cross), also have the necessary authority.
My office, and that of the PDRC, has a duty to refer for criminal investigation all allegations of torture or mistreatment that we become aware of; my office independently investigates any complaint made against a member of the Ministry of the Interior, including complaints about detainee treatment; conditions of detention; individual rights and healthcare services. I also have the authority to initiate an investigation into an alleged serious incident without a complaint.
Since 2012, my office – and that of the PDRC - has undertaken challenging work, never before done here, or in the region. I have led a team in carrying out an inspection of Jau Prison and a report of that inspection was published in September 2013. Since then, the PDRC has taken the lead in carrying out inspections and has carried out unannounced inspections of Dry Dock Detention Centre, Northern Governate Police Directorates, Capital Governate Police Directorates, Southern Governate Police Directorates, The General directorate of Criminal Investigation and Forensic Evidence, The Juvenile Care Centre, The Women’s Reform and Rehabilitation Centre, The Women’s Detention Centre and, recently, a further inspection of Jau Prison.
Allegations of human rights abuses may continue to cast a shadow over Bahrain but my staff and I remain committed to ensuring that all allegations are fully, independently and transparently investigated. There is a growing body of evidence to demonstrate our commitment to access independent evidence and to deliver just and fair outcomes. We have demonstrated that we will act decisively, whenever and wherever we find wrongdoing.
Over the next year, we will continue to develop our capacity and competence, to do justice to this important responsibility with which we have been entrusted.
So, today, on Human Rights Day, just over five years on from BICI, Bahrain knows that not all of its work is done. But we do deserve recognition for the steps we have taken, the legislation that has been passed and the culture we are changing.