In recent weeks, critics of Bahrain’s government have alleged that the Kingdom’s reform process has stalled or even retreated. These accusations ignore the steps Bahrain continues to take to address the concerns of its people and fail to address the opposition’s repeated refusal to condemn violence and sit with the rest of Bahrain in a meaningful dialogue.
Bahrain’s recent political reforms are neither cosmetic nor insignificant. Rather, they are a down payment that signifies the government’s continued commitment to change. During last summer’s National Dialogue, delegates recommended the expansion of the elected parliament’s oversight authority over the government. As a result of the consensus they reached, and the hard work of parliament to put these agreements into action, His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa ratified amendments without reservations. As a result, parliament can now reject the appointed Cabinet and its program, among other significant actions. No one in Bahrain’s government expects that these reforms mark the end of political reform. Indeed, they are the latest in an ongoing program that has spanned over 11 years.
Reforming the security sector remains Bahrain’s top priority, and those who are watching objectively understand that real progress has been made. When Bahrain accepted the conclusions of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, it committed to addressing wrongdoing and correcting serious mistakes. Indeed, the government did many things we are not proud of in the face of increasingly violent demonstrations. Unlike other countries in the region, however, Bahrain has internalized its mistakes and taken steps to prevent further mistreatment.
With the help of former Miami-Dade Police Chief John F. Timoney, Bahrain has taken many practical steps that have improved police performance. After replacing our chief of police, Bahrain adopted a progressive new police code of conduct that compares favorably to international best practices. To prevent future abuse during interrogation, the police installed video cameras that ensure accountability and transparency. Bahrain also understands that accountability for past crimes is essential for reconciliation and healing. The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) has already investigated 159 cases involving 72 security personnel. So far, the SIU has referred 12 cases involving 19 accused personnel, including officers up to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
It is also worth noting that in the face of continuing security reform, protests in Bahrain have become increasingly violent. Every night, Bahraini police officers are assaulted with hundreds of Molotov cocktails and other improvised explosive devices. These attacks increased in number and intensity after Bahrain’s chief Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Isa Qassim, called upon his followers to “crush the police” during a weekly Friday sermon in January. Unlike police officers in the United States, most Bahraini officers do not carry handguns for protection. The policemen who patrol Bahrain’s streets at night only carry non-lethal forms of self-defense. And while mistakes do happen from time to time, the restraint Bahraini police exhibit on a daily basis should be commended.
Following the release of the BICI report, His Majesty the King appointed a National Commission to ensure the BICI’s 26 recommendations were implemented. In its final report on March 20, the National Commission assessed the government’s progress in fulfilling its obligations. And while more work needed to be done, the report outlined a great deal of progress. Under its direction, government employees and most private-sector workers not charged with criminal offenses were reinstated. We began rebuilding demolished places of worship, dismissed free-speech-related court cases and ordered civilian appeals for defendants previously convicted in National Safety Courts.
In order to ensure continued progress, Bahrain’s Minister of Justice established a formal body to coordinate between government ministries and report on both BICI recommendations that have been met and those still in the process of implementation. To date, 18 have been fully implemented. Bahrain’s deputy prime minister has also announced the establishment of a supreme committee to oversee the implementation of recommendations derived from the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review of Bahrain’s human-rights record earlier this month. These steps underscore Bahrain’s real commitment to expedite and guarantee further reform.
Ultimately, comprehensive, multilateral, inclusive dialogue without preconditions is the only way to resolve lingering political issues in Bahrain. While the government has not stopped pursuing such dialogue, members of the political opposition continue to rebuff these efforts. Continued intransigence only serves to further empower extremists whose violent tactics destabilize Bahrain to the benefit of foreign adversaries. The path forward requires meaningful compromise and the government remains committed to a multilateral process to achieve this aim. The only way to honor the legitimate aspirations of Bahrain’s people is to foster exchange between all facets of Bahraini society.
Houda Nonoo has been Bahrain's ambassador to the United States since 2008. She founded the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society in 2004.