Bahrain’s Civil Society: A Second Take-off
Bahrain’s Civil Society: A second Take-off
In recent years, and for various reasons, the civil society in
Bahrain underwent a state of recession amounting to a stalemate.
This state of affairs is in total contrast to the situation of the
Bahraini civil society as it took off following the Royal reforms
of 2001, which led to the establishment of hundreds of societies
that coloured Bahrain with a rainbow of cultural, social, legal
and other activities.
As the strong presence of the civil society in any country is
an indicator of the vitality of the people and the advancement of
the state’s legislation; and since the activities of the civil society
are of utmost necessity to both the state and the community, we
need to plan for a second take-off of this civil society to enhance
its effectiveness, productivity and impact.
In this context, what is urgently needed is to create the proper
climate for this take-off, whether in terms of the general atmosphere
in the country or the general mood of these societies themselves.
Development of the Legislative Environment
The civil society was established based on the decision-maker’s
conviction that the Kingdom of Bahrain cannot develop and prosper
without the presence of an active civil society, and without opening
the door for all the community’s forces to participate in building
Bahrain, alongside the Government. Article 27 of the Bahraini Constitution
has guaranteed “the freedom to form associations and unions on national
principles, for lawful objectives and by peaceful means, provided
that the fundamentals of the rel?gion and public order are not infringed.
No one can be forced to join any association or union or to continue
as a member.”
On that basis, more than 600 NGOs have been formed, covering
all kinds of activities, with participation from all sectors of
the community. The fact that the Bahraini community has enjoyed
the services of these NGOs illustrates that Bahrain has provided
the main foundations for the establishment of a civil society. First,
Bahrain has guaranteed, both in the Constitution and the National
Action Charter, the right of citizens to freedom of expression and
participation in public affairs; recognized the right ?o form and
to join civil associations, as well as providing a reasonably safe
environment to enable the take-off of the civil society.
However, there is a shortage in legislations necessary for providing
the appropriate environment for restarting the civil society. It
is true that, during the beginnings of civil associations the Government
used to provide some limited financial aid, as an indicator of its
interest in the speedy growth of the civil society. But this nascent
civil society has now grown up and so has its requirements, which
highlights the importance of expanding the space in which these
NGOs operate. This may be achieved through enactment or modification
of some legislation, in line with the growth of civil society and
the needs of the state and in accordance with the international
human rights law.
International human rights law stipulates that a state is not
only required to allow the establishment of a civil society, but
is also required to provide public freedoms, such as the freedoms
of expression and peaceful assembly, and to create a general atmosphere
that is conducive to the development of civil society activity.
Moreover, according to international law, states are also required
to protect and ensure the freedom and safety of civil society activists,
as well as to abstain from arbitrary interference in their affairs.
Without this, the civil society becomes disabled and ineffective,
which renders it incapable of achieving the long-term stability
of the state and the citizen. There is a well-known rule that says
that whenever restrictions upon the civil society are increased,
e.g. by reducing its available working space, the greater are the
prospects of an ensuing conflict and disorder due to frustration
and lack of discharge of societal energies (especially those of
youth) through the right channels.
On the other hand, in many countries, there is a gap between
the constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of peaceful assembly,
expression, association and the right of political participation,
and the practice on the ground, which may sometimes amount to outright
contradiction with constitutional provisions.
To maintain the value of constitutional provisions, in a manner
that enables citizens to see their actual manifestations on the
ground, there is a need for legislation, administrative regulations
and laws that facilitate the process of interpreting theoretical
constitutional texts into lively and applicable provisions. Wherever
a general constitutional text is found, it should be supported by
enactment of relevant legislation, as well as legal interpretations
and regulations that describe its application.
For instance, both the Constitution and the National Action Charter,
recognize the right to freedom of expression. But for this to be
effective, it is necessary to protect this right in the publications
law, for example. Implementation of the freedom of expression should
be clearly visible in the press and television channels. It is possible,
for instance, to allow civil society activists to air ongoing television
programmes outlining existing problems and discussing them with
state officials, including such topics as the environment, human
rights, women’s issues, foreign labour and children issues, among
In contrast, it became apparent that some of the legislation
in the Bahraini NGO law and the press and publications law, may
not be appropriate to the developing needs of today’s civil society
and some may even violate human rights standards. Such legislation
creates obstacles and reduces the public space needed by NGOs. Such
laws need to be reviewed and amended, and may even need to be annulled
in some cases.
Additionally, there is a need to enact new laws. For example,
the civil society cannot undertake its role unless sufficient official
information on public affairs is made available to it. Consequently,
there is an urgent need for a greater degree of transparency and
access to information, and a law that allows civil society activists
to access official information and have it disclosed in a manner
that does not compromise the state’s security or personal privacies.
Support & Protection of Civil Society Activists
Among the most important topics being considered, both within
international human rights organizations or UN mechanisms, is the
issue of protection of civil society activists. The importance of
these activists arises from the importance of the civil society
itself, and the vital role it plays. Therefore, these activists
must be protected from any threats, restrictions, assaults or other
violations; whether perpetrated by governments or non-formal entities,
such as extremist religious groups that do not believe in women’s
rights or education, or those groups that do not believe in multiculturalism
or religious freedoms.
It is neither legal nor correct, for civil society activists
to be exposed, for whatever reasons, to threats to their lives,
their families, their livelihood or their reputation. The media
vultures should not be allowed, without accountability, to tear
into the flesh of activists, by levelling false charges against
them. Such arbitrary accusations are essentially criminalized as
they contravene the law. Thus, activists are supposed to strengthen
the law by filing complaints with the judiciary.
On the other hand, activists need to be accorded a higher moral
value, due to the valuable work they undertake and the hazards they
encounter for the benefit of their community.
Giving a value to civil society activists in all fields, not
just human rights, is a tribute to the principles they hold, which
helps to promote a human rights culture in the society, especially
among new generations, as well as helping to promote democracy,
tolerance and coexistence between various segments of the society.
Insulting and persecuting these activists or imposing restrictions
upon them eliminates the favourable environment conducive to the
growth of a human rights culture. What response can we expect from
the new generation when they hear that a certain activist is being
branded as a foreign agent or as someone who implements Western
agendas, defames the country or tampers with its stability? Is this
not a promotion of anti-human rights concepts, such as the notion
that human rights are no more than an illusion ?r a foreign plot?
What value will then be attributed to all the principles of democracy,
tolerance and the human rights culture, if its activists and advocates
are being accused of breaking the law and conspiring with foreigners?
Indeed, what is required is recognition. The decision-makers
should mention the value of the civil society in their speeches
and messages to the community. Prizes and titles need to be awarded
to such effective activists who are keen on the welfare of their
people and country.
As for the charge of defamation of the state, it should be noted
that the societies’ activity is focused on monitoring and detecting
violations against human rights and against the environment, women,
children foreign workers and even the abuse of animals. This is
not a defamation of the state, but is rather an alert to the state
and to the community that there is a problem that needs to be resolved.
However, if there is some claim of a mistake or an irregularity,
the claiming entity or person could be addressed through the media
and required to disclose the evidence confirming his/her allegations
on the relevant issue.
The problem of civil society and human rights activists in Bahrain
is that they are new in this field and many of them are still politically
inclined. This leads to imposing trends that are not necessarily
beneficial to public affairs. Moreover, there may be some exaggerations
and allegations, but these could be handled through a greater degree
of openness, as well as through frank and public debate through
the media. This serves to guide the community and curb behaviours
that are beyond the context of human rights. It also serves to refute
allegations that are not based on facts; without undermining the
basic principle of human rights or reducing the scope of freedom
of expression and also without leading to rude confrontations and
Providing a Safe Environment
Having said that the civil society in Bahrain needs a safe environment,
it should be noted that a safe environment does not mean merely
the protection of civil society activists; it also includes the
state’s duty to create an atmosphere that is conducive to productive
civil society activity.
The key to a safe environment is to create one in which citizens
feel that they are exercising a legal right firmly rooted in the
Constitution and the National Action Charter, which both stress
that citizens are entitled to the freedoms of opinion, expression,
peaceful assembly, forming associations and participation in public
affairs, including political affairs (e.g. through elections) and
social affairs (e.g. through civil societies). The citizens’ awareness
of these rights provides them with a safe cover to participate in
the development of their country politically, socially, culturally
and economically. Thus, citizens will feel that their participation
has a solid base in constitutional provisions, which provide all
of them with channels to accommodate their energies. This will ultimately
serve the interests of citizens as well as those of their society
The availability of space for freedom of expression provides
the civil society with a greater opportunity to attract the community’s
energies, particularly among the youth, as well as providing a greater
degree of safety. This reflects positively on the vitality and performance
of activists. However, when the space allowed for freedom of opinion
and expression is narrowed, including limiting freedom of expression
in public and private media, in such a way that public issues cannot
be openly discussed and differing views heard, a proportional decline
in the level of safety available for the civil society ensues, coupled
with a decline in its opportunities to influence and build-up energies.
Consequently, youth energies will start to seep into other outlets
for expressing their opinions, albeit through aliases.
Contrary to the common misconception held by some, expanding
the space available for freedom of expression does not destabilize
security or generate political tension and turmoil. Quite the contrary,
it is the reduction of the freedom of expression that causes such
tension and turmoil. Restricting the freedom of expression is not
conducive to the growth of civil society or to the promotion and
dissemination the human rights culture in the community. Moreover,
this neither serves in the detection of violations, nor in remedying
errors and developing policies and practices.
A safe environment means that the civil society is given the
opportunity to express its opinions through peaceful assembly i.e.
it can hold public symposia and meetings, as well as mass demonstrations,
where necessary. These freedoms, at their various levels, are available
in Bahrain, more than any other GCC country. In fact, it can be
said that Bahrain is at the forefront of Arab countries with respect
to the application of this right.
The value of peaceful assembly is clear to the civil society.
There are issues that ought to be highlighted and the people mobilized
to remedy them, as well as trained on how they can organize themselves
and mobilize their energies to achieve a certain target, no matter
how limited, to serve public interests or the interests of certain
segments of the society.
However, peaceful assembly has other benefits. It serves as a
key factor in venting congestion, creating stability and keeping
the society’s energies away from violent practices and away from
extremist and radical ideas. On the other hand, a stable political
environment provides an abundance of safe space for civil society
activism. It is difficult for the civil society to be active in
a stifling political atmosphere. Political dictatorships, by default,
do not allow the establishment of a true civil society, and if one
does emerge against their will, it will be subject to scrutiny,
censorship and restrictions.
A safe political environment is also one in which citizens enjoy
the opportunity of political participation through elections, for
the purpose of having a role in the decision-making process through
their representatives, as well as a role in the accountability and
control of state institutions and their performance. This serves
to ensure the normal progress of these institutions, as well as
the protection of public freedoms, due to the presence of the political
representation of citizens in the parliament?
Proper popular representation in public affairs ensures the protection
of civil society, both through legislation issued by the representatives
of the people and through control of the performance of the executive
branch. The popular will, embodied in the parliament, as is the
case in other countries, can involve the civil society in decision-making.
The parliament in Australia, for example, has formed joint human
rights committees, that included representatives of the civil society,
not only for consultation, but also for legislation.
Another important factor, in the context of providing a suitable
environment for civil society activity is the existence of an independent
and effective judicial system that is capable of curbing the infringement
of the executive authority, or forcing it to annul its decisions,
whenever they contravene national laws and international standards.
The civil society will always need a protective umbrella, provided
primarily by the judiciary. In the presence of an independent judicial
authority, the degree of protection remains high, even if violations
by the executive branch existed. This is because the judiciary can
protect human rights defenders in the courts, and treat them with
due fairness. The judiciary can also assess the legality of some
of the measures and actions taken by the executive branch against
the civil society.
In Turkey, for example, the Constitutional Court has rejected
a previously impose government ban on Twitter and YouTube (imposed
on the grounds of protecting national security). The Court’s concluded
that the government ban violated the right to the freedom of information
In this context, national human rights institutions, can also
contribute to a safe environment for civil society, which is a duty
incumbent upon them, according to Paris Principles.