Healing the Nations – Book Now!

The Next Century Foundation’s 
Healing the Nations
Summer Conference

 

The Next Century Foundation is holding a ten-day online conference over the end of July and the first week of August.

Events will be taking place covering all of the Foundation’s key nations and areas.

 
CLICK HERE FOR FULL DETAILS

To book, contact ncfmepp@aol.com with details of which sessions you are planning to attend.
 
Sessions will run in the mode of the NCF’s successful weekly meetings, mixing input from knowledgeable speakers and key players with both breakout room and round table discussions.

This conference provides a unique opportunity to take stock of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and beyond, and gain on-the-ground insights simply unavailable in mainstream reporting.

We would be honoured if you would join us in confronting the key issues in these countries and working towards peace and positive change through constructive discussions – just have as we have for the last three decades.
 

Conference Sessions
(London BST)
   

Thursday 30 July 
11.20 am US/UK 
3 pm Lebanon

Friday 31 July
3 pm Palestine 

Saturday 1 August
3 pm Libya

Sunday 2 August
3 pm China

Monday 3 August
11.30 am Afghanistan 
3 pm Iran 

Tuesday 4 August
11.30 am Iraq
3 pm Syria 

Wednesday 5 August
11.30 am Kashmir 
3 pm Yemen

Thursday 6 August
11.30 am Israel 
3 pm Sudan

Friday 7 August
3 pm Bahrain

Saturday 8 August
3 pm Conclusions
 
 

Image: Sunrise in San’a, Yemen taken by yeowatzup / CC BY

Possible Futures: Bahrain

In this series, Joe Waters will be looking into the political climates of Middle Eastern countries that are not generally explored in depth in mainstream news, with aim of providing a sense of the current political situation in these states, as well as potential forces for change (and whether or not they are likely to prevail). Today’s subject is the frequently overlooked nation of Bahrain. Often lumped in with other Gulf States, it in fact has a very specific political climate of its own – one that combines a generally authoritarian and conservative government with unexpected instances of liberalism. It is hard to work out which of these contrasting approaches is prevailing.

Much like its better-known neighbour Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has a powerful Sunni monarchy (however, unlike Saudi, the majority – arguably about 60% – of its population are Shiites). Its current head of state is King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Perhaps surprisingly though, the prime minister of the nation, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa has been around longer than its king. Having been in post for 60 years, he is actually the longest serving prime minister in the whole world today. Some argue that these two entrenched, senior figures are the roadblock to major change in the country and prevent many conservative policies from being overturned. Indeed, after the failed 2011 uprising, their grip tightened significantly. Sadly, even the country’s single opposition newspaper (quite a unique phenomenon in a fundamentalist state such as this), Al-Wasat, was shut down a couple of years ago. 

Interestingly, however, the winds of change have been blowing in the royal family. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa (not to be confused with his Saudi-Arabian namesake) has spoken positively, with some considerable justification, about the country’s incredibly progressive “Alternative Sentencing” offenders policy, second only to the Netherlands, and claims on his website that he “is committed to providing quality healthcare services to all Bahraini citizens.” He has also supported the International Labour Organisation and attempted to start nationwide conversations on workers’ issues. He would go further if he could. Unfortunately, many of his more visionary efforts are discouraged by the more conservative elements in the Government. Nevertheless, in the persona of the Crown Prince, the country’s oldest and most antiquated institution has already become a force for change. 

It is perhaps ironic that the monarchy of Bahrain is more likely to see a change of personnel than its democratic counterpart. Unfortunately, Bahrain arguably has the most entrenched and ossified opposition movement in the world headed by Ali Salman, the world’s longest serving opposition leader.

That said the problems faced by the opposition are legion. There has been pervasive gerrymandering in all recent elections. This might have changed but the principal opposition party, Al-Wefaq, boycotted a generous power sharing deal in the 2014 elections (offered at the behest of the Crown Prince) and have been on the back foot ever since. In the 2018 elections there was no repeat of the offer, and to add insult to injury, they were barred from standing. This has rendered the party somewhat powerless in recent years, a situation unlikely to change unless there is a new approach before the next election in November 2022. Entering government seems unlikely for the party but, by my reckoning, their boycott achieved little and they should attempt to stand at the next opportunity they get. Even given the electoral crookedness, and in the absence of a repeat of the power sharing deal they were offered before, a show of official opposition would be powerful and they might even gain back some of the eighteen seats they previously held in the Council of Representatives. 

Refusal to engage with the system is understandable given the number of political prisoners in the country, notably Al-Wefaq’s leader Ali Salman. Even the respected Shia religious leader Sheikh Issa Qassim has had his citizenship removed after settling in Iran having left Bahrain (where he had been under house arrest) apparently to visit the UK for medical treatment. Yet, given the political deadlock of most of the last decade, and the recent release of the tub thumping and staggeringly outspoken government critic and opposition populist, Nabeel Rajab, a man who is constantly outspoken about the Bahrain government’s use of torture (a practice that has become far less common in recent years) and critical of the actions of the Saudis in Yemen (Bahrain’s allies and paymasters), a clear gesture of goodwill by the government, the time seems ripe for at least an attempt to parlay with the government, even if only incremental reforms are achieved.

To go about making change, it is necessary to understand the motives (other than habit) behind the rulers of Bahrain. Are they driven simply by religious fundamentalism? No – as always in these situations, the answer is both more complex and rather more predictable. The majority of Bahrain’s GDP is debt; much of their infrastructure relies on huge loans from Saudi Arabia. As a result, the Saudis put pressure on their smaller neighbour not to be too hasty in their steps toward democracy and a Western idea of human rights. The larger country fears that, if its citizens see concrete reforms in a state so close to their own, they will demand greater freedoms themselves.  

If Bahrain did have the gumption to liberalise, perhaps it might just trigger a broader shift in neighbouring states. This small, politically stagnant country might just become a progenitor for a major transformation in the Gulf. Maybe this is blue sky thinking but it feels like, given the depressing uniformity of the debate in Bahrain in recent years, a little imagination is necessary to instigate change of any kind. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking to expect Bahrain to move away from its unhealthy dependence on Saudi Arabia. But to push the boundaries a little could help give the nation a new lease of life – an opportunity to move toward freedom of expression and real, democratic accountability.  

Currently, these ideas seem remote. However, there are concrete steps that can be taken in the here and now. Al-Wefaq can push to be able to stand in the next election and attempt to start a dialogue with the Government. And the government could encourage Al-Wasat newspaper to relaunch, providing some financial support for it to do so. Acting out democracy is not sufficient but maybe, over time, pretence can evolve into reality. It is possible that, with a more empowered Crown Prince and a more active opposition, Bahrain may finally find its way to a brighter future. 

Image: The Saudi Bahrain Bridge taken by Mohamed Ghuloom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

Bahrain’s Elections

  • Note: The following article by Qasim Abdul-Aziz has been supplemented with additional comment from the NCF Secretary General, William Morris:

Bahrain voted last month in the kingdom’s parliamentary election. Bahrain’s justice minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al-Khalifa, has since announced the first set of results for the country’s elections, with a 67 percent voter turnout in the parliamentary elections and 70 percent in the municipals.

Figures are putting this year’s elections at a higher voter turnout than the previous election in 2014 where voter participation reached only 53 percent. Bahrain also saw a record number of female candidates, with 39 standing election to the House of Representatives and 8 for municipal councils.

Despite this, the election has proven to be controversial. Many, both inside and outside of the country, have decried the election as a ‘sham’ and a ‘farce’ due to the lack of opposition groups. Bahrain’s two main opposition groups – the Shi’ite Al-Wefaq party and the secular Wa’ad party – were both prohibited from submitting their respective parliamentary candidates.

Contrast this with the position at the national elections four years back when, in discussions with the predominantly Sh’ite opposition associated with the “national dialogue” led by the Crown Prince, the opposition was offered a guarantee that it would garner at least 50% of the parliamentary seats. The opposition wanted 50% of the key ministries as well and, when this was denied them, refused to stand. They wanted to bank their gains and stand but the Sh’ite religious leadership of the nation refused to allow them to do so and the leadership of Al-Wefaq was brownbeaten into agreement and withdrew all their candidates.

This of course set the reformists amongst the Sunni leadership on the back foot. Now the neoconservatives had their moment and they took it and political intolerance became the order of the day.

Bahrain is a Shi’ite majority country with a Sunni ruling minority. There are no accurate figures as to the split but it is possibly of the order of 60/40 Shi’ite/Sunni. However, the ruling Al-Khalifa family has overseen a system that favours the Sunni minority in almost all areas of society. Bahrain’s political, social and economic system affords privilege to Sunni citizens – and Sunnis are inevitably prioritised for positions in the police force, the military, and the security service and in general, have higher prospects of employment and wealth.

Bahrain’s Shi’ites have long called for reform, citing grievances disenfranchisement and claiming systemic oppression.

There have none the less been some reforms, particularly of the criminal justice system. And problems such as torture, once sadly commonplace, are now far rarer following the appointment of an effective ombudsman. There is also less imprisonment of young offenders, following the introduction of a groundbreaking restorative justice system similar to that in the Netherlands and way in advance of anything in the UK or USA.

The decision to exclude opposition groups from these elections was however a sad error by the ruling Al-Khalifa family, thereby ostensibly limiting the political sphere and removing any threat to the monarchy. But the reality is that this decision helps reinforce the fractured state of Bahrain and lessens the stability of the nation. Whether the opposition would have stood if they could have stood is another entirely different question and one which we shall now never know the answer to. The leadership of the nation should have challenged the opposition rather than repressed it.

On the plus side, Bahrain should be commended for their relative inclusivity in regard to female participation in these elections, yet strides need to be made for the total inclusivity of all Bahrain’s citizens. In recent years, Bahrain’s government has largely contained dissent from the Shi’ite opposition who had previously staged an uprising and organised mass protests in 2011. The anti-government protests saw scores of people killed, with thousands tortured and arrested. The failure to offer the opposition the chance to stand at these latest elections will have fostered  further discontent. Though the people are less likely to engage in violent mass protest given the failure of that tactic before, low grade terrorism will no doubt continue. The killing of policemen is not a infrequent feature of life in Bahrain. Other actions such as the blocking of roads in the rush hour with burning tires are also commonplace.

The government of Bahrain desperately needs to constructively engage and rebuild their relationship with the Shi’ite populace. Whilst it is true that the country is divided along sectarian lines, it could be argued that this is not to a great extent due to theological differences. Instead the sectarian divide in Bahrain is displayed more through the political, social and economic disparity between Sunni and Shi’ites. Excluding large segments of Bahrain’s population from having a say in their own government is counterproductive and not in the best interests of Bahrain. Perhaps it is time for the old ones to step aside. Bahrain has both the longest serving prime minister and the longest serving opposition leader in the entire world. They are both charming and effective men. Too effective perhaps. They go head to head rather than cooperate for the good of the nation. If Bahrain is indeed concerned about Iranian influence in the region, and in particular amongst its own citizens, enacting social change and addressing the concerns of the people could go a long away to fostering stability.

A start could be made by encouraging an opposition newspaper. Bahrain once arguably had the freest press in the Gulf in so much as it had a respected opposition newspaper – which NOT ONE other Arab monarchy had. It was forced to close last year, an action that marked the low point in Bahrain’s recent history.

The NCF at the UNHRC:

The Next Century Foundation “side” meeting at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 37th Session addressed human rights in North Korea, the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Syrian Arab Republic. The pannelists were Ms. Be Sun Lee, a research officer for the Foundation, and Dr. William Morris the NCF Secretary General.

The DPRK

As a national of the Republic of Korea, Be Sun Lee’s covered issues relevant to both the South and the DPRK (North Korea) and suggested that the international community has a definitive role in acting as both mediators and facilitators in addressing these problems. Lee acknowledged the widespread recognition of North Korea as a violator of human rights and cited the many missiles fired in 2017 as “threatening to undermine international security and infringing the universal fundamental human right to freedom from fear”. She also criticised the UN Human Rights Council for a distinct lack of affirmative action. She considers current legal measures established by the UNHRC to prosecute North Korean leaders for alleged crimes against humanity, to have had little effect. Furthermore, Lee believes the economic sanctions against North Korea to be detrimental rather than beneficial. She referenced the negative impact of sanctions on the welfare of the North Korean people but also stressed the provocative effect of such sanctions because they cause outrage in North Korea and contribute to the isolation of the Korean peninsula by the international community. The isolation of North Korea is something that Be Sun Lee feels the North wishes to bring to an end. She believes that the international community should encourage the DPRK by engaging in progressive dialogue. Lee regarded North Korea’s positive presence at the Winter Olympics in Pyeong-Chang as superficial in its significance stating that “underlying antagonism on the Korean peninsula persists”. However, she recognised this as an opportunity for North Korea to move away from isolationism. Lee asserted that the international community really had to reassess their responsibility for contributing to the isolation of North Korea and then think about the role they could have in bringing them out of it.

Communication was emphasised in this meeting as fundamental to a more peaceful future for all Koreans. Without dialogue and communication with North Koreans, including the Diasporas or those who have fled the nation, progress cannot be made. This involves the international community not only encouraging conversation but facilitating it. It also requires the recognition of ideological difference and careful navigation of difficult social, political and economic terrain. The idea of reconciliation and reunification was discussed extensively. Lee opined that there is a possibility of reunification but that it would require the commitment of not just those across the Korean Peninsula, but the international community and the UN. Lee highlighted the fact that there are families on either side of the Korean border who are still desperately waiting for reunification with one another and that it is ordinary civilians who are most affected by any hostile climate. Lee urged the UN and the international community to “collaborate together” to work towards the resolution of this problem.

Whilst North Korea dominated the conversation, Lee presented us with interesting food for thought concerning the welfare of South Koreans, an issue which she considered can sometimes be lost in conversations concerning human rights, and welfare of the Korean peninsula. She discussed the issues surrounding South Korea’s aging population who are growing in number but are without adequate support and care from the nation’s welfare mechanisms. As a result, the suicide rate for this elderly population is very high and, as Lee stressed, a cause for concern. She urged the audience and the UN to give the population of South Korea the attention that it is sometimes denied in light of its provocative and antagonistic neighbour.

The Kingdom of Bahrain

Following Lee’s address on the Korean peninsula, William Morris presented a passionate and engaging view of the current situations in both Bahrain and Syria. Regarding Bahrain, the assertion made was that Bahrain should commit to signing the Optional Protocol on the Convention against Torture, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). Whilst Bahrain is party to the Convention, Morris shared the Next Century Foundation’s view that this was insufficient in itself and that the ratification of OPCAT would signal a definitive and clear commitment to making progress in the area of human rights violations within the nation state. Morris acknowledged that Bahrain’s history concerning human rights has been fraught with trouble. Nevertheless, he highlighted the internal moves made by Bahrain’s government to curtail the use of torture such as the appointment of an Ombudsman as well as a Special Investigations Unit to investigate any allegations. Things were far better in this regard in Bahrain, he stated. Ultimately, the emphasis was on Bahrain’s need to ratify OPCAT in order to ensure greater transparency, accountability and international credibility and emphasise their commitment to seriously address internal human rights violations.

Points raised during the panel’s debate and discussion with the audience saw one audience member asserting that Bahrain must address human rights violations, such as the revoking of citizenship. Focus, they said, must be given to judicial processes and royal decrees rather than concentrating attention on the country’s political sphere. Morris, however, was quick to assert that human rights and politics in Bahrain go hand-in-hand and it is very difficult to address one without the other and in addressing political issues, one can then work towards resolving human rights abuses. Political progress could lead the way to greater transparency. Morris emphasised the need to encourage full participation in the coming national elections in order to promote the betterment of welfare and human rights within the nation. He challenged the opposition to exercise their right to vote and show greater independence from Iran’s influence.

The Syrian Arab Republic

With regards to the situation in Syria, William Morris engaged with the very current issue of Eastern Ghouta and urged the UNHCR to validate verbal commitments to Syria through affirmative action. Whilst the UN has encouraged ceasefires in the region, he no longer considers this an adequate response and instead urged that the 500 fighters from the former Gebat al Nusra group should be helped to leave the region and head to the nations in the Arab World that have previously offered them support. If the UN encouraged and facilitated this, Morris believed that a credible ceasefire may have long-term viability and value. Consideration and compassion was expressed towards those in Eastern Ghouta whose suffering is incomprehensible.

Likewise, this same empathy was extended to the people of Afrin region who are also suffering as a result of the conflict in Northern Syria. Morris was greatly critical of the Turkish presence in Northwest Syria where their bombardment of the region is an attempt to eliminate the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters.

OPCAT: progressive steps towards ending torture

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 3 Clustered ID on the 1st of March 2018, Torture.

Mr. President. The Next Century Foundation believes that neither the United Nations nor the Kingdom of Bahrain put sufficient stress on the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) as a step along the road of best practice for dealing with torture. Bahrain has signed the Convention itself but ratifying the Optional Protocol would strengthen their commitment to increased accountability and transparency.

After 1999, and the repeal of the 1974 State Security Act, the use of torture in Bahrain has decreased. There have been many moves made within Bahrain to curtail torture. Between 2011 and 2012 the Bahrain Independent Inquiry itself highlighted instances in which civilians within the country died due to the actions of the security services of whom five individuals died as a result of torture whilst detained by the Ministry of the Interior. Since then, the independent Ministry of Interior Ombudsman’s Office was established and has been operational since 2013. It investigates and works towards preventing and addressing allegations of torture and human rights abuses. Nevertheless, we continue to see allegations concerning the Bahrain government’s alleged use of torture from international media, advocacy groups and charities. Media reports from the likes of ‘The Independent’ newspaper have addressed the pervasive issue of torture throughout this decade. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also expressed their concern.

In 2018, the Next Century Foundation believes it is important that OPCAT is ratified to ensure a continuation of progress by Bahrain. We also hope that the UN would support these sentiments by the better promotion of OPCAT’s ratification and implementation. Thank you.

 

Citizens of Nowhere: Maintaining Civil Liberties when faced with Terror

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 3 Clustered ID on 1st March 2018, the special report on terrorism:

Mr President. The Next Century Foundation understands the tremendous pressure faced by nations that have to combat the nefarious forces of international terrorism but is concerned at the use of suspension of citizenship as a measure to counter extremism. While this pragmatic approach may have advantages in the short term, it is simply a band-aid that masks the underlying problem.

All persons of good conscience stress the importance of creating a society that everyone is a part of regardless of cultural, religious or historical heritage. Two nations that particularly foster and cherish the notions of tolerance and inclusivity are the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Kingdom of Bahrain. Both aspire to build a world in which all citizens are equally valued and whose rights are equally upheld. Both nations have ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. However both nations continue to use the suspension of citizenship as a tool. Citizenship is an inalienable right to which every individual is entitled, and the removal of citizenship should not be wielded as a punishment even when terrorism provokes national outrage. Indeed doing so may further galvanise individuals that are already on the fringes of society into extreme action.

We do not wish to underestimate the difficulty the UK faces with returning UK-born ISIS fighters, nor do we wish to underestimate the anger provoked by instances of bloodshed and sectarian violence in Bahrain. But by depriving individuals of their citizenship, these nations are forsaking civil liberties in the pursuit of security and setting a dangerous precedent. We appeal to both the UK and Bahrain to adopt other more considered measures when it comes to dealing with extremists in their midst.

It is only through the creation of a more tolerant global society that we can truly combat extremism. Thank you.

 

Freedom of Religion in Iraq and Bahrain

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 3 on 2nd March 2018, the special report on Freedom of Religion:

Mr President. Freedom of Religion is one of Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” and is a basic pillar of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Middle East is riven by a sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiite Islam, the consequences of which have been dire. Levels of hatred in this internecine strife have now reached unprecedented heights.

The Republic of Iraq and the Kingdom of Bahrain are two nations on the faultline of this disturbing rift and both have national elections this year.

The Iraq elections are unlikely to generate full participation from the Sunni community. If the majority of the Sunni community were to boycott these elections out of a sense of vengeful resentment of the Iraq central government it would be a grave error.  New Sunni politicians untainted by the past are emerging in areas like Anbar province. It would be wrong to disempower them at a time when their voices should be heard.

Bahrain’s elections will be held later this year and as in 2014, the Islamic Republic of Iran is likely to put pressure on Bahrain’s Shiite community leaders to encourage the non-participation of the Shiite community as a whole in the forthcoming elections.  This nonparticipation serves no purpose other than to weaken the voice of that community. It is essential that Bahrain’s Shiites participate fully in the forthcoming elections. Thank you.

Press Freedom in Bahrain

The following is a written intervention by the NCF to the United Nations in Geneva:

Freedom of Expression is one of the greatest freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 19 of which states “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

It is sad to see that the Kingdom of Bahrain has fallen to 164th position in the ranking of the 175 nations assessed for the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. This index ranks Bahrain slightly above Sudan, Syria and Saudi Arabia but below all other Arab nations.

The reform program introduced by His Majesty the King of Bahrain has, by and large, been exemplary. The King expressed a particular interest in promoting freedom of expression in Bahrain. It was with the active encouragement of His Majesty the King that Al-Wasat Newspaper was established in Bahrain.

The establishment of Al-Wasat widened freedom of expression, in part by encouraging the people of Bahrain to express their own views in what had thus become a diverse media spectrum.

Many of the interlocutors in the current Universal Periodic Review of the Kingdom of Bahrain have expressed a desire to encourage greater press freedom in Bahrain. Countries making reference to the issue include Montenegro / Slovenia / United Kingdom / Denmark / France / Spain / Mexico / New Zealand / Switzerland / United States of America / Canada / Estonia / Cyprus / State of Palestine / Germany / Iceland / Italy / Lebanon / Australia / Lithuania / Luxemburg / Austria.

We would like to join our voice to theirs. It is sad to note that Al-Wasat Newspaper was closed down by the Government of the Kingdom of Bahrain on 4th June 2017. Whatever the reasons for this action, were this action to be reversed it would be of great benefit to democratic progress in Bahrain, and give the Kingdom of Bahrain a far better image in the eyes of the world at large.

Bahrain was once regarded by some as the best country in the Gulf with regard to freedom of media. It would be to the benefit of all of the nations of the Gulf were Bahrain to maintain the high standards of press freedom for which it was once noted. Bahrain can and should be an example to the region. To allow Al-Wasat Newspaper to again run its presses would be a gracious and positive gesture and one worthy of international acknowledgement.

The Next Century Foundation at the United Nations – Intervention on Human Rights in Myanmar, Bangladesh and India

The Next Century Foundation took part in the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During the General Debate on Item 5 “Human rights bodies and mechanisms” the NCF delivered an oral intervention on the issue of human rights violations of the refugees in Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. The Next Century Foundation urged these States to all sign the Refugee Convention and take the necessary steps in order to improve refugees human rights.

The Next Century Foundation at the United Nations – Intervention on Human Rights in the Syrian Arab Republic

The Next Century Foundation took part in the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During the General Debate on Item 4 “Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention” the NCF delivered an oral intervention on the issue of human rights violations in the Syrian Arab Republic. The Next Century Foundation urged the Syrian Arab Republic to establish a mechanism to monitor prisons and provide safeguards that ensure abuse and torture in the country is brought to an end.