The National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) is focused on the promotion, development and protection of human rights. In this Interview with The Worldfolio, Dr. Abdulaziz Hassan Abul, Chairman of the NIHR, Mr. Abdulla Ahmed Alderazi, Vice Chairman of the NIHR and Ms. Maria Khoury, Head of Complaints Monitoring & Follow-up Committee of the NIHR speak on the advances Bahrain has made in terms of human rights over the past years and how the NIHR is taking steps forward to protect Human Rights in the Kingdom.
Interview with: Dr. Abdulaziz Hassan Abul, Chairman of the National Institution for Human Rights; & Mr. Abdulla Ahmed Alderazi & Ms. Maria Khoury Vice Chairperson & Head of Complaints Monitoring and Follow-up Committee.
Overall in the last years, Bahrain has made significant progress on human rights and although challenges remain, the government of Bahrain has continued to take steps to implement its human rights and political reform agenda. How do you evaluate the current situation of Bahrain in terms of Human Rights and how has the Kingdom advanced in this area in the last years?
Bahrain started very early to develop its Human Rights journey, even before the establishment of this institution, since His Majesty ascended in 1999. His Majesty opened the door widely and left this healing to everybody; he had this idea of being open to wider cultures. He said, “the sky is the limit”, he particularly used that phrase. His Majesty aims for an open Bahrain, Bahrainis with an open mindset that stands for their country and builds their country the way they aspire towards, in a peaceful manner, based on the law. With a strategic vision, His Majesty pushes Bahrain to move forward, not only for this generation but also for the next generation.
The “Arab spring” started in 2011, however Bahrain started its progress in 1999 and was by that time open to everybody. I don’t think anybody in Bahrain at that time could imagine all that has been achieved in terms of human rights. Human rights is an open issue, it´s not only dealing with political rights or civil rights, it’s about economic rights, social rights, culture rights and so forth.
Since 1999, and even before, Bahrain has dealt with many different aspects and various issues. If we talk about right of housing, Bahrain started dealing with this issue in 1957. We were the first to start building social housing for the labourers and for Bahrain’s low-income citizens. That’s one human rights issue that people overlook sometimes.
People tend to look at political parties, for the activist, for those who have the ambition to lead a country or the government, but what about the ordinary people? We need to ensure that citizens have housing, that a woman has support from the government to take care of her kids or when her husband dies. We have been dealing with these issues, with the core of human rights from a long time ago. We never talk about how to pray, who prays or who is not praying. Neither people who expressly say they do not believe in God, people would not harm them nor say anything about them. They will let them live in peace, nobody will harm them, this is Bahrain. And I’m talking about the past generations; it’s not something of now. Tolerance is part of Bahrain’s culture and its part of our human rights.
If you remember the Arab – Israeli war in 1948, we had Jews here, and Bahrainis gave shelter to the Jews families to protect them. They wouldn’t accept anybody to be harmed, they would provide them with food and shelter for weeks. This is something documented in books. If we look at the health issues, Bahrain is far advanced in Human rights. Human rights are not only the first generation of human rights, but there is much more. The second generation like economic, social and cultural.
Now in Bahrain for example we have a very advanced heart unit, free of charge. Everything is free of charge, from diagnosis to medication. It’s the most advanced in BDF hospital. In case of an emergency, you would be taken there without a question and free of cost. This is part of human rights, the right to live, and this has to be protected.
Looking at the second generation of rights, social welfare is very important. For example, every disabled person in Bahrain receives every month an allowance of 100BD to help him or her - this is by law. In our 2016 report, several topics are mentioned in this regard. We are giving allowances for widows, allowances for orphans and to divorced women among others. There is freedom of religion and all faiths have their places of worship in our Kingdom.
In Bahrain, His Majesty the King started the reform project over sixteen years ago in 2009 the National Institution of Human Rights (NIHR) was established, being the first of its kind in the region. Then after 2011 we had the Police Ombudsman and the special investigation unit. This unit was created to investigate any allegation of torture or mistreatment, any violation of rights based on Istanbul protocol. They are holding policemen accountable and they have the right to refer cases to court, if there are any complaints from citizens or non-citizens and have the power to investigate the cases. From the civil rights side, we have freedom of assembly and freedom of association.
Many advances have taken place. Torture is prohibited by the Constitution; there is freedom of expression and formation of political societies. In Bahrain there are more than 600 civil societies. Women associations, children societies, learning disabilities societies, various ailment societies, societies for the disabled, and others beside the human rights association, like NGOs. There are more than 8 NGOs with relations only to human rights. Then you have the political societies and political rights, Bahrain is the only country in the region that has political societies, and is structured as political parties.
The NIHR, is one of the few Institutions in the region that is based on Paris Principles. This sets an example to the rest of countries and shows there is a solid will by the Kingdom to push for the promotion and protection of Human Rights. How is the NIHR conducting studies to further promote Human Rights development?
The Kingdom of Bahrain, through the NIHR, has been able to reshape its human rights landscape. I use the word landscape because the process is not a minor issue. We have been able to strengthen awareness, protection and implement our overall strategy. We do that in the NIHR, through various targeted campaigns, and through training, establishing and redefining standards and protective procedures. We work closely with the POLICE Ombudsman, the Special Investigation on daily basis, with NGO´s and legislations either through the Shura council or the Parliament.
It is important to stress that the structure of the NIHR consists of three major committees and the Secretariat General that does all the background and the backbone work for the 3 committees. The activity of two of these committees, which are the social economic committee and the civil & political rights committee, is to study legislation and existing laws to suggest amendments to the concerned authorities to make sure the laws are always in par with international standards.
The NIHR has proposed several amendments on some laws to Parliament and the Shura Council in order to bring the current laws to international standards.
We have several; one of them is the nationality law. The NIHR proposed an amendment that National Bahraini woman may grant her children citizenship if she is married to a non-Bahraini. The proposal is in the pipeline. Others include and are related to criminal and military courts. In addition, we are proud of a draft proposal that we have sent to the Ministry of Interior to include some amendments to the by-law of the Ministry rehabilitation centres to possibly allow prisoners and detainees compassionate or sympathetic leave out of the centres to condolence, memorial ceremonies or funerals. This is a cultural issue in the region, because here burial is immediate and is usually concluded on the same day of the sad demise unlike western cultures.
Moreover, an issue we accomplished is the alternative punishment. When a verdict is issued to someone, currently if your sentence is for a misdemeanour, it is for example 3 month or less, you can serve through community service. We proposed an amendment to extend this to juveniles (the juvenile age is up to 15 years in Bahrain). There is a request with the Ministry of Justice to increase that age to 18, providing alternatives sentences to them.
NIHR is active in awareness campaigns, and that success is being reflected on the number of complaints or requests for assistance that we are receiving. It´s not because there are more allegations, it´s because people are more aware of the Institution every year. We listen to their allegations, and provide them with advice on where to go if it’s not within our mandate. Not everything we receive at the NIHR is related to allegations; we also address issues with the Environment, Education, Housing and Health, etc.
Shura Council Chairman, Ali bin Saleh Al Saleh, recently praised the responsibilities and duties carried out by the NIHR to develop human rights in the kingdom, promote their principles and promote social awareness on them. What are the tools you have available at NIHR to influence government in promoting reforms and executing them?
We are honoured to meet with His Majesty The King once a year, and I will never forget what HM said to us during the first meeting. He looked at our report, said: ¨is this all you have to say? ¨, and trust me, it was a strong, comprehensive and critical report. It’s important to mention that we - as an institution - work independently by law. We monitor and attend judiciary trials. The NIHR mandate allows us to attend and make sure that trail procedures are just and in accordance to the law.
We train lawyers on Human Rights perspectives, which allow them to have a close relationship with us. Regarding legislation tools, in the last 4 years we gave more than 25 legal advices to the legislative authority for amendments of current laws or introducing new laws.
The procedure is the following: we receive a letter - either from Shura or parliament - asking one of our committee to assist in certain amendments that they require to propose.. We attend their committee meetings and/or we also speak in the public gallery. For example, there was a proposal to establish a law to charge the non-Bahraini for using the public roads and we advised against it because it was not in par with article 20 of the Bahrain traffic law, and it wasn’t aligned with human rights. At the end, His Majesty the King referred the draft law to the Constitutional Court. The Court agreed with NIHR justifications and comments. You either charge everybody, or you charge no one. We have to be as civilized as the rest of the world.
Transparencies, openness, are key in further enabling the development of Human Right protection. How from the NIHR are you ensuring these values? Is the NIHR represented fairly?
The law assures that there is proper representation of women, minorities, academia, Human Rights, and Universities. The selection of the committee is done by His Majesty the King. Currently, we have 2 members of the Shura Council participating, and previously there were 4. His Majesty the King is responding to the recommendation of the accreditation subcommittee, by reducing the number, but keeping the link.
The consultation committee can consult across the board with different NGO´s and then make contributions and suggest amendments and pass it to His Majesty the King. The current members by law is eleven commissioners, and none of these are full time. The consultation process is mainly done in a friendly manner in order to make sure that there is a representation of the full society on the board; we have submitted a suggestion to have 4 more members in the committee to the Commissioners.
Talking about the institution´s independence, there is also an important point to mention: despite the parliament having to approve the NIHR budget, we have full empowerment on where to allocate it. Nevertheless, we decided as a council, it´s not one man´s decision in order to guarantee fairness and transparency.
Bahrain and the UK share more than 200 years of relationship. In the past three years with NI-CO’s assistance, as part of the Bahrain-UK technical cooperation program, Bahrain has been able to reshape its human rights landscape and strengthen protections and guarantees. How would you evaluate the cooperation of both countries in terms of Human Rights and can you share some examples of cooperation between both countries that have enhanced the promotion and protection of human rights?
Bahrain and the UK have a joint interest on maintaining the security and the prosperity of the relationship, and to emphasize the need to respect the rights of all citizens and to raise the awareness of Human Rights. Both Abdulla and I are commissioners of the Prisoners & Detainees Rights Commission. We have been trained by HMPI in the UK and we have the right to inspect the prisons, and or any places of detentions including police stations and verify treatment and conditions. Full technical support and training came from Her Majesty´s Prison Inspectorate in the UK. We were all trained on how to inspect and we continue to build on that learning experience, and we will pass our experience on to others. This training and cooperation is one of the aspects of mutual interest and joint efforts that stem from a long-term friendship with the UK.
The second aspect of technical assistance started very early after the appointment of the NIHR commission, in 2013. Through the collaboration of the embassy and other institutions in the UK the whole commission went to two and a half week training and workshops held at Nottingham University Law Centre, which is one of the most renowned institutions in the world. Currently both, the government of Bahrain and the UK, enjoy the technical assistance with the NI-CO (Northern Ireland Cooperation Oversees). Our premise is always open to be used to train those who are working in detention centres in the Health services that are given inside prisons.
For the British audience readers, I would like to mention that NIHR officials have been invited to visit the House of Commons. In addition, the British-Bahraini personal relationship is excellent. We have many British institutions here - schools, social/sport clubs, cathedrals and so forth. At the same time, there are British expats who decided to stay here and retire in Bahrain. In addition, many Bahraini’s were educated in the UK, and here in Bahrain we have several academic institutions that have strong connections with Top Universities in the UK.
Ms Maria: The Church of England is represented in Bahrain with the St. Cristopher’s cathedral that is located opposite of the Police fort, in the heart of Manana.
The perception of Bahrain outside of the world has suffered lately from several media attacks; how would you like the UK audience to perceive Bahrain?
It´s not fair to the Kingdom. Anybody that comes to visit this beautiful country will realize immediately that it has nothing to do with the rumours that the media has generated with its negative propaganda. Bahrain is a friendly and safe country. Of course, we have problems like every country, but we are dealing with them in a very positive way.
The international audience must perceive Bahrain´s safety and the kindness of its people. Bahrain has a very rich 5000-year history. It´s a land of unity, where many Kings and Queens have come here to be buried. I spent several years studying in the UK myself, and had the pleasure to receive many British friends in our country and they were amazed.
I would like them to perceive us as a unique mix of cultures that has reached this point by the passion and sincere efforts it´s people. We are absolutely not what the modern media wants to portrait us. We are a very rich mix culture; we have the Sunnis, the Shias, the Christians, the Jews, and Hindus etc. This is what and who we are, and we would like to be perceived that way. We have the passion as a nation to continue another 200 years of delightful friendship with the UK and its wonderful people as a nation of unity and solidarity.