Last Wednesday, June 30, was the UN International Day of Parliamentarism. On this day, we recognize the importance of parliaments as one of the cornerstones of functional democracies. It is through elected, transparent, and reliable parliaments that democracies can prosper and governments can gain the trust of its citizens. It is on this day that BCHR calls on the Government of Bahrain to give more power to elected officials in parliament, as opposed to using it as a public relations tool that has no functional power in the political decisions that happen on the ground.
The political history of Bahrain is rather complex and inextricably intertwined with the legacy of colonial rule and competing foreign powers. There is a point, however, when the idea of a parliament was introduced, following over 200 years of tribal rule by the Al-Khalifa. In 1973, following its independence from Britain, elections were held for a national parliamentary assembly. The council consisted of 40 members, each of which were popularly elected. It should be noted, however, that at the time, women were barred from voting and/or participating in government. The council’s makeup was very diverse in its political and religious leanings, consisting of leftists, conservatives, resistance figures, and loyalists of the Al-Khalifa. Resistance figures such Abdul Amir Al-Jamri, Isa Qassim (who, along with hundreds of others, has had his citizenship revoked by the government), were now sitting at the same table with loyalists and even members from the Al-Khalifa family. In 1974, an overwhelming majority of the parliament’s members objected to passing the State Security Law, which added conditions that were conducive to human rights violations, arbitrary arrests, and repression on the part of the government. Furthermore, members of parliament called for an end of monarchical rule by the Al-Khalifa and the expulsion of the U.S. naval base (which was seen as somewhat of neocolonial endeavor on the part of the US). The parliament was extremely short-lived and was unilaterally dissolved in August of 1975. For the next 25 years, this law was used to perpetrate human rights violations and crush any dissent with impunity. There were numerous uprisings during those years, all met with violence from the government and its security forces.
Following the death of Emir Isa Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa in 1999, his son, Hamad, took power. He abolished the State Security Law and Security Court, pardoned political prisoners, and established a “National Action Charter” that was voted upon, with 98.4% support and high voter turnout. This charter was framed by the now King as an end to the violence and repression and a call for reconciliation and constitutional rule. A bicameral parliament was then reinstated in 2002, consisting of the Council of Representatives (popularly elected) and the Consultative Council (appointed by the king). The parliament itself, however, had an uneven distribution of power. The constitution states that while Representatives may propose drafted laws, only the Consultative council can bring those drafts to a vote. Furthermore, in any legislative dispute, the King has the final say. This resulted in multiple opposition groups boycotting the elections, as the Council of Representatives was seen as simply a public relations ploy that had no actual legal power. Years of false hope and disillusionment led to mass protests calling for democracy in 2011. The human rights situation in the country has only deteriorated, with countless reports of torture and even multiple executions of political prisoners. The recent elections of November of 2018 highlighted just how much of a facade the Bahraini parliament is. There were prohibitions on anyone running from the main opposition parties, such as Wa’ad and Al-Wefaq. Also, anyone who had previously boycotted the election or had received a prison sentence of at least six months (which is rather common) was barred from participation. In summary, the history of the democratic experiment in Bahrain is mired in attempts to undermine it and seems to never have been intended to be actualized by the royal family.
Taking this reality into consideration, The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights calls on the Government of Bahrain to:
- Provide actual legislative power to the popularly elected branch of parliament;
- Provide more transparency with regards to legislation and the political process;
- Allow political parties to freely participate in the political arena and the electoral process;
- Allow members of opposition parties to practice their important role in society.