Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme (on leave until June 2017)


The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, a royally appointed commission investigating the events of 2011, has published its much-anticipated report.

Initial statements from the press launch suggest the report makes some important acknowledgements of the human rights abuses, including torture, excessive force and deaths in custody, that took place this year. Strikingly, reports from the press launch also say that Cherif Bassiouni, the commission's head, found no evidence of Iranian involvement in the protests, other than coverage by the Iranian media. Bahraini officials have repeatedly accused Iran of fomenting the protests, but do not seem to have shared any evidence of this with their western allies, leading to some scepticism; after all, several Arab governments have attempted to blame protests on “foreign hands”. It will be easier for Bahrain to fix its problems if it recognises their local roots.

Predictably, the report has fallen short of opposition hopes that it would hold senior officials accountable for human rights abuses. Critical local human rights groups note that the commission was appointed by the king and that it was clear from early interviews with Bassiouni, while the investigations were still at their early stages, that he was unlikely to hold senior officials responsible. (He praised the king, crown prince and interior minister, saying they were more reformist than others.) This does not satisfy local opposition activists, who recall that top officials repeatedly praised the actions of the police during the crackdown.

Indeed, by commissioning this report, the government has managed to alleviate the pressure it might otherwise have faced for an international investigation, after Bahrain was designated by the US as a human rights violator, in its list of countries to be scrutinised in front of the UN Human Rights Council in mid-June. The royally appointed commission was announced two weeks after the US statement. On an initial look, the report appears to have more political content than a standard human rights report, saying, for instance, that many problems could have been avoided if opposition groups had accepted the Bahraini crown prince's call for dialogue in March.

On the positive side, this report has the benefit of having government buy-in, which could not have been guaranteed with an international report, at a time when officials have repeatedly dismissed reports by independent international NGOs as biased. It is an unprecedented move for a country that has previously refused to investigate or to punish people for the human rights abuses of the 1990s.

There is now an opportunity for the government to use this as a springboard for reforms that are needed to restore its own legitimacy with much of the population. The report could help to shift the balance of power within the royal family away from the security hardliners who have been growing in power since last September and who gained significantly after the entry of GCC troops in March.

Much will depend on the actions taken in the coming days, both by the government (will there be releases of political prisoners? A cabinet reshuffle? Moves towards greater political representation?) and by the opposition (ideally, laying out an agenda for a genuine, serious national dialogue, and providing the government with incentives for reform, rather than simply dismissing any hope of it).

They will have to take these steps against a backdrop of continued protests; a 16-year-old protester was run over by a police car in the early hours of Sunday morning, and there was another death in disputed circumstances today. Protesters have said they will try to return to the site of the demolished Pearl Roundabout, while journalists have reported heavy use of tear gas in Shia villages. Incidentally, as in Egypt, most of the tear gas canisters say ‘Made in USA'.

Like most observers, I'm still working my way through the 500-page report. But so far it seems like the best available opportunity in a bleak and polarised political scene. The US, UK and other allies will be encouraging the government to carry out wide ranging reforms, from much-needed security service reforms to political reforms, which are even more important. There is a chance for the government and the opposition to seize this opportunity to embark on a serious process of dialogue on political reform.

This article was originally published on the Financial Times Middle East live blog.

Read more:

Bahrain's Re-Reform Movement
Jane Kinninmont, Foreign Affairs, 2011