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 others.

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 cheap accusations.

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 and country.

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 and expression.

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.