The Bassiouni Report: A turning point for international human rights?

Following the publication of hte Bassiouni Report into human rights abuses in Bahrain the eyes of the world have largely turned away from the Gulf state, satisfied that a human rights “process” has run its course. However, substantive abuses continue unabated. By Colin Murray.

The publication of the Bassiouni Report into human rights abuses in Bahrain in late November seemed to offer a turning point for international human rights. Bahrain’s reaction to the welter of international criticism of the actions of its security forces (see Amnesty International’s new report upon the Arab Spring, “Year of Rebellion”, p.32-36 for a useful overview), however, has been very different from those of other Arab governments.

Not only did a regime accused of human rights abuses voluntarily submitted itself to independent scrutiny (which is not new of itself, as the UN Human Rights Committee has the ability to report on the compliance of any state party to the UN with human rights norms under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), but the report was produced by a well-resourced panel of internationally renowned experts embedded within Bahrain itself with extensive access to opposition groups and Bahraini Government reports (the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI)). As the Commission’s 426 page report states (at [9]):

The establishment of an independent national Commission consisting of Commissioners who are not nationals of the country under investigation is unprecedented.

These arrangements helped to ensure the Report’s credibility. With figures like Sir Nigel Rodley (Amnesty International’s first Legal Advisor and for the last decade a member of the UN Human Rights Committee) and Philippe Kirsch (a former President of the International Criminal Court) on the Commission, which was chaired by M. Cherif Bassiouni (to whom Wikipedia awards the portentous epithet “the Father of International Criminal Law”), its findings were always likely to generate headlines.

A combination of the Commission’s composition, remit and protected budget ensured that it would be difficult to dismiss the report as a whitewash, no matter the findings (although, this did not stop one prominent commentator from remarking, before the Report’s publication, that “[W]e will have to wait and see what the Bassiouni Commission report says before making a definitive judgment on how independent a commission paid for by a dictatorship really can be”). In this regard, the Commission clearly represents a more robust  response by a government facing allegations of widespread human rights abuses amid civil unrest than the Parker and Widgery Reports commissioned by Edward Heath’s Government in the early years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland (examining the use of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment against internees and the events of Bloody Sunday respectively). These reports, produced by successive Lord Chief Justices of England and Wales, were roundly criticised as the product of establishment figures who relied overwhelmingly upon Government sources for information.

And, indeed, the product of a robust process in large part affirmed the allegations made against the Bahraini authorities by human rights NGOs operating in the Gulf state. The BICI Report affirmed that human rights standards had been breached by Bahraini authorities in their use of force against demonstrators, leading to loss of life (at [1699]):

In many situations, the security forces violated the principles of necessity and proportionality, which are the generally applicable principles in matters relating to the use of force by law enforcement officials. This is evident in both the choice of the weapons that were used by these forces during confrontations with civilians and the manner in which these weapons were used. The security forces did not, at all times, strictly comply with their legal obligation to target the individuals in a manner that would disable or incapacitate the individual. The available evidence, including forensic and ordnance reports, indicates that on a number of occasions the security forces fired their weapons without taking due care to ensure that individuals were not fatally injured.

Moreover, the Bassiouni Commission provided a damning summary of the human rights abuses involved in the Government of Bahrain’s (GoB’s) detentions of suspected protesters (at [1702]):

The manner in which the security and judicial agencies of the GoB interpreted the National Safety Decree also opened the door for the perpetration of grave violations of human rights, including the arbitrary deprivation of life, torture and arbitrary detention. Detainees were kept for questioning for periods that, in some cases, extended to over two months. They were neither brought before any judicial authorities nor were they presented with any formal charges during this period. Furthermore, the lack of judicial supervision, oversight or inspection of detention facilities operated by these security agencies allowed for the perpetration of human rights violations. Whether the judicial system became overwhelmed by the events of February/ March, or whether it failed to rise to the challenge of the situation as a result of its weaknesses, needs to be determined. In any event, it is clear that the National Safety Decree, as implemented by the Military Attorney General, overtook the national system of justice. A pattern of due process violations occurred at the pre-trial and trial levels that denied most defendants elementary fair trial guarantees.

The BICI Report, and the Bahraini authorities’ response, however, did not satisfy everyone. On the Huffington Post news website Brian Dooley was withering on the King of Bahrain’s response (both the summary of the Report and King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s response were broadcast live to the nation):

The king finally responded with an interestingly defensive line of argument about how the European Court of Human Rights frequently criticizes European states but that the international community doesn’t refer to them as “oppressive governments.” He said he was “dismayed to find” that the mistreatment of prisoners and detainees had occurred, suggesting he hasn’t read many newspapers or watched much TV news this year.

Nonetheless, King Hamad’s defence can only be evaluated by comparison to the responses of governments in comparable situations. This was clearly not an attempt to sweep the events of the spring and summer of 2011 under the carpet. As the Economist concluded:

No other Arab ruler has voluntarily invited such public scrutiny of his government. He hopes that the report will provide a chance of reconciliation in this tiny but strategic Gulf state that is a Western ally and home to the American navy’s Fifth Fleet.

So what were the King’s motives in permitting such a frank report? The Economist’s emphasis on the strategic importance of Bahrain allowed Western states to bring a great deal of pressure on the regime to respond to the allegations of human rights abuses. Commissioning such an extensive report answered such pressure for several crucial months. Moreover, by likening Bahrain to every other state which commits human rights abuses, the King can simultaneously claim Bahrain’s respect for human rights and gain a further opportunity to address the breaches identified in the Report.

This, however, is a decidedly partial retelling of the story. The scale of the human rights abuses at stake do not make the response to the Arab Spring in Bahrain remotely competent to most run-of-the-mill cases before the European Court of Human Rights. The few arrests of security personnel that have taken place in response to the Bassiouni Report (largely of low level security officers, see BICI report at [1696]) may have been trumpeted by Bahrain’s international allies (notably by US Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner), but progress on the Report’s big ticket recommendations (such as the establishment of a permanent and independent Bahraini Human Rights Commission) has been frustratingly slow. As Amnesty have concluded:

A key test of the government’s commitment to turn away from the abuses of 2011 will be the speed and degree to which it implements the recommendations made by the BICI to the King in November.

Moreover, as the remit of the Bassiouni Commission only ran to the investigation of events between 14 February and 15 April 2011, the impression created for any casual observer is that a line can be drawn under events in Bahrain. Instead, violence has continued and sectarian tensions have simmered unabated into 2012. Following the hospitalisation of prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab last Friday, US State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland reiterated that “[t]he United States is deeply concerned by continuing incidents of violence in Bahrain between police and demonstrators.” None of these developments indicate a serious intention on the part of the Bahraini Government to grasp the opportunity for reconciliation offered by the Bassiouni Report.

If the Bassiouni Report can be heralded as a turning point, therefore, the danger is that it represents a moment when governments eager to pay lip service to international human rights recognised that robust human rights processes offer a better opportunity to stifle international criticism in the short term than whitewash inquiries. The eyes of the world have largely turned away from Bahrain, satisfied that a human rights “process” has run its course. Meanwhile, substantive abuses continue unabated.

Originally published on Human Rights in Ireland under a Creative Commons by-nc-nd 3.0 license.


Image top: Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs.