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The Independent Commission Report: A New Start for Bahrain?

Commentary, 29 November 2011
Middle East and North Africa
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's (BICI) report has surprised many with its balanced findings into February's violence. But King Hamad must begin a reform process now instead of setting up another talking shop.

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's report has surprised many with its balanced findings into February's violence. But King Hamad must begin a reform process now instead of setting up another talking shop.

By Michael Stephens, Researcher, RUSI Qatar

Bahrain HomepageThe Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's (BICI) report released on 23 November has surprised many with its hard hitting revelations. Fears abounded that the Commission, led by the world-respected Human Rights Professor Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, was a politicised tool of the Bahraini regime to either whitewash its human rights record, or to be used as a way of rearranging the internal politics of the ruling Khalifa household.

The Report appears to have been neither, and has served to provide Bahrain and its citizens with a highly detailed analysis of the many allegations from both pro- and anti-government protestors of systemic abuses and violence perpetrated in the early months of 2011. At 501 pages, it is a thorough and comprehensive survey that will take some time for all parties involved to digest and fully comprehend, reactions at this early stage are merely cursory and largely reflect an incomplete reading of the findings. Already, those on both sides (particularly on the extreme flanks) have sought to place their spin on the facts presented in an attempt to justify their positions and to reduce claims of liability for their side's actions, whilst using selected facts in the report to accuse the other side of deliberate lying and falsification.

Such political jostling was to be expected; although since King Hamad's announcement of an official commission of enquiry on 29 June, many had hoped that the BICI would prove a panacea to all of Bahrain's problems, especially given the dismal failure of the National Dialogue. The reality of the situation in Bahrain is such that political positions have become so deeply entrenched following the initial outbreaks of violence in February, that it was never likely that disparate forces would coalesce around the BICI, no matter what its findings were. These divisions show little sign of healing and any hopes of rapprochement appear distant, ensuring the continuation of instability.

However there is almost a universal acceptance by all parties of the BICI as an independent and respected body that has provided a depoliticised, sober assessment of the facts. No political society has attacked the BICI for the facts presented in its report, or the integrity of the experts who wrote it. Though accusations from the Shia that the BICI has not gone far enough to probe government irregularities and from the Sunni that is has not questioned the involvement of Iran in great enough depth (this despite the BICI's rejection of Iranian involvement),[1] by and large there has been restraint with regard to criticising the report's integrity.

Blame in Equal Measure

This is no doubt so that interested parties may use the report to bolster their own narrative, but it also indicates a tacit acceptance of wrongdoing. For the Report has admonished both government forces and protestors alike for illegal actions, and at times provides hard hitting criticism. Anti-government protestors are found to be guilty of 'intentional killing' of police officers,[2] and security forces are found to have been responsible for 'fatally shooting protestors'.[3] Allegations of 'deliberate' torture and destruction of religious sites by government forces are also met with reasoned analysis and inference of responsibility when such evidence is sufficient.

In short the thoroughness of the report ensures that no one comes out of the episode with clean hands.

On the Sunni side in particular, some small signs of giving ground have appeared, one particular column from the hard-line pro-Khalifa al-Watan newspaper acknowledged that 'The regime is credited with admitting the existence of shortcomings that necessitate being rectified' and that, 'the state is held responsible for certain inadequacy in the clampdown of security bodies and specific practices that led to some regretful ends'.[4] This is a truly remarkable statement from a paper which has hitherto denied any indications of wrongdoing from the government security apparatus, and whose modus operandi has been to place blame on the main Shia opposition society al-Wefaq  whom they term 'Bahraini Hezbollah' as the instigator of all problems in the country.

Where Next?

Small signs of hope have therefore appeared, and it is heartening that the BICI has produced a Report commensurate with the high standing of the expert personnel responsible for its production. But the substance, although certainly vital in forcing both sides to acknowledge their wrongdoings, is perhaps of less importance than the recommendations for pathways ahead. Indeed the sentiment is best expressed by King Hamad himself who stated: 'The question is then, Members of the Commission: what will we do with your Report, so that we derive maximum benefit from it?'[5]

Indeed, how Bahrain should derive maximum benefit from the Report is a tricky question to answer, because the steps needed to fix the country are both a mixture of short term political reforms, and long term social and economic reforms. Nevertheless reforms must be implemented and implemented soon if there is to be any hope for progress in the beleaguered Kingdom.

The BICI report states that 'The Government responded [to the crisis] in a manner that suggests that it was not prepared for such a situation.'[6] This is wholly correct with regards to security. At both the policy and the operational levels, the response was woefully inadequate, and inflamed the situation rather than serving to calm it. Government troops, many of whom hailed from Pakistan, lacked the basic Arabic skills to be able to communicate effectively with protestors, and possessed little in the way of crowd control training. This deficiency in skills needs to be immediately rectified, and proper security praxis installed, combined with extensive crowd control training. Protests in Bahrain will not die down soon, and security forces will need to learn to handle these protests in a correct and appropriate fashion if further bloodshed is to be avoided.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the security dimension is to de-sectarianise the armed forces and police forces almost all of whom are Sunni. Indeed the BICI has recommended that the Government 'establish urgently, and implement vigorously, a programme for the integration into the security forces of personnel from all the communities in Bahrain.'[7] This point must not be overlooked, and if Bahrain is to have any hope of moving on from its bloody past, Shia must be integrated into Armed Force and Police structures and be given the lion's share of patrols in Shia neighbourhoods and villages. If this does not happen, Bahrain will remain bitterly torn apart by sectarian division.

At the political level the BICI has recommended the establishment of a 'National Commission' consisting of persons of high standing from both the Government and opposition to implement the initial recommendations of the report. The King has moved swiftly on this front, announcing on 26 November the establishment of just such a commission which is due to complete its work by February.

Whilst the swiftness of the King's actions are laudable, the establishment of yet another body to implement the findings of the BICI report looks like another ploy for time. Indeed Al-Wefaq have shunned the new commission primarily because they view it as an excuse to delay reforms, a truly damaging blow to the National Commission's credibility.

Granted some recommendations, such as the establishment of an independent Inspector General separate from the Ministry of the Interior, the redrafting of laws, and the development of educational programmes may take some time to accurately construct and implement correctly. But many recommendations such as the commuting of death sentences and allowing opposition figures on to state television can be adopted now without the need for another talking shop. Indeed such concessions would signal goodwill from the King, and ensure to all parties that he and his regime are serious about changing the structural problems that have so caused the political blight in the country.

Appealing for Legitimacy in the International Community

It is important at this juncture to remember two major factors for Bahrain which are for the most part contingent upon the BICI report and the implementation thereof. Firstly is the Bahrain Grand Prix, cancelled in 2011 and scheduled to be on the calendar again for 2012. Second is the deal for $53m of Humvees and tow missiles for the Bahraini Defence Force currently being placed on hold in the United States Congress. The passage of both the Grand Prix and the arms deal are the two barometers by which the Bahraini Government can judge world opinion. Should both be withheld, the country's reputation and economic standing will continue to fall. Should both be authorised, Bahrain stands a good chance of being welcomed once again into the international fold, and potentially reversing its ever falling GDP growth rates.

Continued instability and the failure by the Government to offer serious reform will jeopardise Bahrain's future, and endanger both the Grand Prix and the arms deal. The reform process must therefore begin now, with immediate needs being addressed in tandem with the process of formulating strategies for longer term social and economic programmes being moved into to the conceptual stages.

It is hard, given the consistently inconsistent performance of Bahrain's ruling elite with regard to reform, to express overt hope that positive change will come. Nevertheless if King Hamad, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman, and Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid are serious about changing the direction of their country, and also receive Saudi Arabian acquiescence to that reform, then genuine change is possible.

The impending succession of Prince Nayef to the throne of Saudi Arabia looms large over questions of Shia political mobilisation in the Gulf, particularly given recent unrest in the Eastern Province, and the Saudi government's heavy handed security response. The ability to implement structural reform may therefore be out of Hamad's hands. But structural reform must come, for if not, Bahrain's future will continue to be marred by violence and instability leaving a scar that will take decades to heal. 

The views expressed here are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.



[1] Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Enquiry p378

[2] Ibid. p244

[3] Ibid. p254

[4] Faisal al Sheikh 'How do we read Bassiouni's report?', Al-Watan, 25 November 2011

[5] Reaction Speech HM King Hamad bin Isa, Al Khalifa, 23 November 2011

[6] Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Enquiry p404

[7] Ibid. p413



Michael Stephens
Associate Fellow

Michael Stephens was the Research Fellow for Middle East Studies. He joined RUSI’s London office in September 2010, first in the Nuclear... read more

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