The Commission and the King

by Diana Reisman:

The cavernous reception hall of Bahrain’s royal palace overflowed with qaffiyas, jalabiyas, and some Western attire. The press and political elite gathered to witness the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) present a 500-page, velvet-bound report to the King summarizing their findings and recommendations before the royal court.

The buzz of voices stopped and all stood as the King, Crown Prince, and Prime Minister took their places on the dais, across from the five members of the Commission. Chairman of the Commission Chérif Bassiouni addressed the King in Arabic.

“The Commission’s investigations revealed that many detainees were subjected to torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse while in custody,” Bassiouni said solemnly. As Bassiouni reviewed the violations of international law committed by the state to suppress Arab Spring protestors, King Hamad listened quietly.

King Hamad (center) Crown Prince Salman (right) Prime Minister Khalifa (left). (Reisman/TYG)

Most left the ceremony speechless, but some others could not stop talking. In this region of the world, the king serves as the mediator—and ultimate judge—of internal conflict. But for the first time in Bahrain’s history, a king yielded this authority and opened his government’s actions to international appraisal without the prompting of the international community. Bahrain blazed a new, and hopefully successful, trail of conflict resolution.

The island state of Bahrain, a former protectorate of the United Kingdom and current home to the U.S. Fifth Naval Fleet, sits between Saudi Arabia and Iran—and between modernization and tradition. The kingdom reflects the uncertain future facing much of the Middle East as it grapples with changing political tides and citizen demands. The ruling Al-Khalifas are Sunni Muslims, yet some 65 percent of their subjects are Shiites. This has not made governing easy.

Despite becoming a constitutional monarchy in 2001, Bahrain has not reformed quickly enough to satisfy many of its citizens. The Arab Spring reached Bahrain in February of 2011. Only a few thousand Bahrainis gathered in the main roundabout initially, but the government responded quickly and with excessive force.

A young protester died. The next day, thousands more turned out for the victim’s funeral procession and clashed with security forces. Several deaths later, the protesters set up a permanent camp and some attacked Sunni communities and Sunni expatriate workers.

The Crown Prince tried to negotiate to no avail. The King then issued a National Safety Decree establishing martial law. Some two thousand protesters, opposition leaders, and religious leaders were arrested. While police released many without charge, others were tortured, forced to sign confessions, and tried in special courts. Over the course of two months, 30 civilians and five security officers were killed.

In the 21st century, no state is an island, as every revolt in the Arab Spring has demonstrated. Was the situation any different from the Arab Spring in other countries? Radically so: While Bahrain’s crackdown provoked the traditional outrage of human rights groups and engaged the attention of the United Nations, the King’s response was unique. Under mounting pressure, it was the King himself who created BICI. He ordered the Commission to recommend measures to prevent further rights abuses by the government. “I think the role of the King was very important,” said Philippe Kirsch, a Canadian diplomat, BICI Commissioner, and former president of the International Criminal Court. “It is no secret that there were different trends both in the government and in the opposition, some more open to reform and a dialogue than others. It was a courageous act on the part of the

King to put in the hands of an independent inquiry, in effect, a judgment of the way Bahrain authorities conducted themselves, thereby risking, and indeed receiving, serious criticism by the commission of some of that conduct.”

The BICI, assisted by a team of some fifty investigators, technical assistants, and consultants, spent nearly five months gathering information on the crackdown.

They interviewed victims, witnesses, and the accused and then analyzed the evidence in terms of international human rights law. The final report harshly criticized the government’s reaction to the initial peaceful protest. It admonished the security forces for excessive use of lethal force against civilians, for torture, and for securing forced confessions. It also criticized the government for violating its obligation to respect its citizens’ freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. However, the report expressed the view that if the opposition had agreed to negotiate with the Crown Prince, it would have paved the way for significant political and socio-economic reforms and would have averted the violence that ensued.

Following the ceremony, the King and Crown Prince spoke to me, expressing their support of the recommendations. Some members of the opposition were guardedly optimistic as well. But a close advisor to the Court, who declined to speak under his own name, was more cautious. While he described the BICI as “unprecedented” and a positive example to which future international commissions might look, he explained that if the Commission’s effort were to fail, this innovative form of conflict resolution would be dismissed as nothing more than an interesting but unworkable political experiment.

“There had been two main kinds of commissions of inquiry before: purely national commissions, which have existed for a long time with variable results, and a growing number of international commissions set up by international organizations, for example, in the UN system, by the Security Council and the Human Rights Council,” Kirsch remarked. “To my knowledge, BICI was the only one of its kind.”

Last year, the Human Rights Council proposed the UN Independent International Commission in Libya to investigate the violations committed by the Gaddafi regime and other forces involved in the Libyan Civil War. Coincidentally, two experts serving in that commission were members of the BICI. The Moroccan Equity and Reconciliation Commission was established in 2004 and conducted internally; it investigated the crimes committed during “the lead years” following Moroccan independence and compensated the victims. But the Moroccan experiment was composed of Moroccans only.

“BICI was unique in that it was a commission set up nationally but was exclusively composed of foreign, truly independent experts who were not susceptible to be influenced by any groups engaged in domestic politics,” said Kirsch.

And BICI was unique in other ways as well: It had neither the well-trained investigators of the Human Rights Council nor the power to recruit Bahrainis. The BICI had to hire its own external investigators—lawyers, judges, and former police officers—fluent in Arabic from elsewhere in the Middle East, but with little experience in the country and little in this field of work.

Often, the Commission had to respond to violations that were ongoing. A prisoner whom they interviewed in jail was allegedly being tortured. Midnight raids were still being conducted. A trial was in progress with a defendant who had no lawyer. Accurate information became itself a critical factor. In the midst of violent conflicts, the truth is the first casualty. Competing half-truths further inflame the problem.

The Middle East is afire with demand for change. It is also a laboratory for ways to achieve it. The heady victory in Tunisia may be contrasted with the more uncertain futures of Egypt and Libya. The elephant in the room is Iran, whose violent revolution some 30 years ago has not brought democracy, human rights, or economic security to its people. In Bahrain, thanks to the King’s initiative, international law has been invited to produce an accurate record of the latest conflict and to outline a guide for the way forward. If government and opposition take advantage of this opportunity, Bahrain’s experience may prove to be a prime lesson in how to resolve internal conflict peacefully.

Diana Reisman ’14 is a History major in Berkeley College. Contact her at