The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) was set up by The King of Bahrain to investigate the events of February and March 2011. It was comprised of 5 commissioners, experts on human rights from the international community, lead by Egyptian Cherif Bassiouni.
It was published in November 2011 and contained a set of recommendations for Bahrain to adhere to. It drew on hundreds of testimonies and contained evidence of “excessive force” by the Government including torture and other malpractices.
The international community, showing the level of respect and credibility it attained around the world, watched the Commission’s work closely.
Since it’s publication the Government of Bahrain claimed to have accepted all recommendations and promised to implement them. Whilst they claim most have now been implemented, many in the country refute that any real progress has been made.
Sir Nigel Rodley was one of the 5 commissioners to the BICI. He is the former UN Special Rapporteur on torture and is currently a Professor of Law at The University of Essex where he is also the Chair of the Human Rights Centre.
In an exclusive interview with Sir Nigel Rodley we discussed the BICI and it’s processes. Since the end of the Commission he is no longer directly involved in Bahrain and therefore unable to provide an analysis on implementation. However his thoughts and experiences of the BICI will be of interest to many of those who were looking to it for answers.
The online news site Bahrain Mirror has exclusive rights to re-print the interview in Arabic. You can access that here:
All text is an unedited version; word for word the conversation that took place, interlaced with video clips from the interview.
I know you don’t feel you are in a position to judge how well they’ve implemented but in terms of how you felt at the time, on the 23rd November 2011 (date of publication), did you feel the Government was taking this seriously?
Yes, it was a remarkable event. Thank you for asking me about it, because it was remarkable; I hadn’t experienced anything like it before. Just as it’s establishment was unique, in the way I indicated a national commission of inquiry compromised wholly of internationals, so the mode of the presentation of the report was unique. It was at a public session at one of the royal palaces, I don’t suppose people were walking in off the streets, but non-governmental organisations from all over the world were there. The whole diplomatic corps was there. Upon the dais was a table where the Commission was sat and at another table at which His Majesty the King and the Prime Minister and The Crown Prince were sat. Then there’s a lectern and the Chair of the Commission does a summary of the report, on television and to everybody assembled there. Then the King does a very dignified response of acceptance and taking the report seriously. That was, as I say, giving that message to the folks at home who were doubtful and maybe to some abroad as well, that international investigation is ok, it’s a legitimate form of trying to come to grips with problems. Having people from outside take a fresh, impartial, independent look at things.
So you think that event was necessary?
I think it was a big event, it was on television and I saw for myself that it was repeated afterwards without any editing or anything. It was on live and then repeated for at least 24 hours afterwards. Now that was quite something to open the population to. An event like that where things were said that were certainly not part of what had been said by the mainstream media and then that not being challenged but on the contrary accepted by the Head of State.
Were you ever in any discussion with the Government about how they should go about implementing your recommendations? Did you have any input on that?
No I didn’t.
Did the BICI as a whole?
Not the BICI as a whole. We had a couple of meetings with his Majesty and with the Prime Minister and other Ministers of Government, but that was by way of general lead up. Other meetings did take place with our Chair, especially because he was in Bahrain a lot of the time, whereas the rest of us came in roughly once a month for a few days. Cherif was there all the time and he was having meetings with the King, but certainly the Commission as a whole didn’t have any such discussion either with the King or with anyone else in the Government.
If I can ask you this, I’m not asking you to judge the implementation, but how good do you think their plans for implementation were?
I have no idea what plans they may or may not have had.
We talked about two narratives earlier and it almost seems that there are still two narratives about the level of implementation. The Government on the one hand says we’ve implemented. Opposition groups say you haven’t. Even on the very specific recommendations there seems to be a level of disagreement. How can that come about? It is sad to see that?
It’s certainly disappointing to see that. I even attended an off the record meeting in London which both senior people from the side of officialdom and the establishment and people from the opposition attended. Without saying what anybody said there, it was clear that people on each side of the spectrum were saying things that we had refuted in the report. They are paying lip service to the report having established the facts and then they say things that are simply inconsistent with the facts we established in the report. It’s not easy once people are really motivated, involved, committed, that story becomes part of their being, their essence, and their psychology. It’s very difficult to dispel it. I suppose it didn’t help that the report was 500 pages long as well.
Do you think it’s possible that some of the recommendations were maybe not specific enough? Maybe that’s why there could be a debate?
It’s possible, we’d have to get into what is happening and what positions are being taken in respect of this that or the other recommendation and I just don’t feel I have sufficient information to respond to that. One possibility is that some things are being implemented which are perceived as important perhaps by the side implementing them but are not perceived as important by the other side. That’s a possibility. In other words not all of the recommendations I suppose were as potentially boil lancing as others and it maybe that some were easier to go along with than others without necessarily addressing the misgivings of the other side and some important violations.
So do you feel there are some recommendations that are harder to implement than others?
Yes sure. I’m not going to go through them but it is obvious that bringing criminal cases against all those at whatever level have been responsible for extra-judicial killings, homicides, who have been responsible for torture and so on, that doesn’t come overnight. Because they are difficult to implement doesn’t mean they can’t be implemented or shouldn’t be implemented, they can and they should but it also isn’t easy for a law enforcement and judicial apparatus to retool itself to be able to do something as unusual to it’s normal working habits as that.
Did you believe that these recommendations could be implemented immediately or did you think it could take 3 months, 6, months, a year or a longer period of time?
A short period of time. Not immediately because we even envisaged the creation of a couple of independent bodies to help plot implementation of some more specific recommendations. So by definition, they had to be put in place and they had to be given their mandate and then they had to do their work in order to make things happen. But we didn’t, I think, see it as a matter of years; it would be a matter of months rather than years.
Would it be fair to say that after 6 months it’s long enough for them to have implemented everything?
I don’t think I’m prepared to say that. But I will say it’s long enough to have ensured the expunging of all criminal records of people who were charged and or convicted of the sorts of crimes that made them prisoners of conscience.
Does it worry you that some of those political prisoners are still in prison?
I’m going to leave my last answer as my response to this.
What’s the overall impact of the BICI on Bahrain?
You tell me. I’m aware there is a feeling that the recommendations haven’t been implemented in full, we’ve already hinted at one area. I’m aware, because I read the newspapers that demonstrations are continuing and that certainly there haven’t been the sort of developments necessary to permit broader more long time political talks to get going with a view to resolving the political stalemate that there has been, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been settled yet in Bahrain. But as I say it wasn’t our intention to come up with a blueprint for that, it was at best we saw it as a positive side effect and would like to think the Government itself, when setting us up, saw as a positive possible side effect that we would lay the basis for confidence building measures that might then lead to the longer term political resolution of the problem. To the extent that there still are problems, either of non-implementation or of continuation of some problems, that had already manifested themselves before then obviously it’s a limited impact. But one thing I have learned in this area of work, because it is a political area of work and it maybe politically impartial, it may be politically neutral but in the end international human rights issues operate within the political domain and it’s up to politicians to either respect or fail to respect human rights and to deliver peace or not deliver peace, it’s a political thing. That doesn’t happen overnight, political solutions don’t come about overnight, political confrontations don’t end overnight and human rights problems don’t end overnight. If they did then the world be a much nicer place than it is.
If, and this is a hypothetical question, if Bahrain implemented all of the recommendations in full tomorrow, what would Bahrain look like?
I don’t know how to answer that question. It would look like a society that is functioning normally, that is not pathological in its approach to issues. In a way there’s a disconnect in the question because even if all our recommendations were implemented that is not of itself a solution to the political schism in Bahrain. As long as that political schism isn’t resolved there’s still going to be an element of political pathology in the country. We couldn’t solve that and that’s always what’s going to be mainly visible. The human rights violations tend to be less visible to the world outside.
In your experience of past conflicts and situations that you’ve been involved in do you perhaps have any advice as to how Bahrain can overcome that political schism that you were not mandated to look at?
Well in a way I have nothing to say other than what we said at the time of handing over the report. Full implementation would be a really good step forward but at the same time I would really hate to see disputes of what is and isn’t full implementation, as a means of avoiding engagement in the quest for longer term political solution. I’d hate that to be a kind of hostage for a political settlement, to be a hostage to this or that interpretation of our report.
What’s your proudest thing about the BICI?
That we managed it at all. I was proud to have been appointed for the reason of the promise it held both professionally and to make a contribution to Bahrain and to make a contribution to the quiver of problem-solving arrows that may be available to the national community in solving intransigent disputes at the national level. But primarily proud of the product itself, which was not easy to produce. We had a lot of people working on it of course and it wasn’t just the commissioners. On the contrary there were a lot of staff people who worked on it as well and who did the basic hard labour. People whose judgement I respect and people who haven’t suspended their political faculties have described the report very generously as a pretty good product. I even had one quite senior person call it the gold standard for such a report and under the circumstances, which it was produced, yes that’s a source of some pride. But the real pride will come when it has all been implemented.
You must have become endeared to Bahrain and it’s people along the way, I know I have. Do you have any message to them?
Yes I became very fond of Bahrain. A lot of my friends know that. In the short time I was there and one of thing things, again resonances of Northern Ireland, is how nice the people are to somebody from the outside and how virulently they see each other inside, once the tribal elements take over. I suppose all I could possibly say is for me in the end the niceness is what lingers and I just hope that eventually the communities will be able to see the niceness in each other as well.
This interview took place on 20th June 2012, at The University of Essex. Our gratitude to Sir Nigel Rodley for agreeing to speak with us and taking the time to do so.