This morning, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) released its findings of the government’s response to protests that occurred in February and March. The findings were expected to be critical and hold the government accountable for the abuse that took place. They did not disappoint. Placing significant emphasis on Bahrain’s security services, the report documents the numerous human rights violations that took place. In his address following BICI Chair Cherif Bassiouni’s remarks, King Hamad vowed that he will do everything possible to ensure that the atrocities that took place earlier this year will not be repeated. He must keep this promise.
The government’s decision to submit itself to foreign experts for judgment is unprecedented in the Arab world. Knowing that the results would not be pretty, Bahrain’s government determined that admitting its failures and working toward meaningful reform will not only strengthen the country, but also cleanse its international image. Whether or not the factionalized opposition movement accepts the commission’s results is another story. The BICI has been widely criticized as a “charm offensive”—a disingenuous attempt by the government to placate protestors.
In many ways, Bahrain’s government is fighting an uphill battle. The Shia majority has long clamored for more representation in government as well as a more equitable distribution of resources and opportunities. The government’s response to these demands has been slow. Now that the government is on the brink of making real progress, it may prove too little too late. Deep sectarian divisions spurred by Iranian propaganda have fractured the country, and violence continues. While the protest movement originally started with demands for political and social reform, it was quickly hijacked by extremist elements in the Shia community, mainly al-Wefaq, whose members have called for the removal of the royal family.
Now that the BICI report has been released, the real work must begin. Bahrain’s government will need to build on its pledges of transparency and reform. Although the recommendations of the commission are non-binding, they must be taken seriously. At a time when the country is so bitterly divided, the government must work toward addressing the grievances of its population and greater integration of Bahraini society. Furthermore, continued negotiations with the moderate elements in the opposition movement are needed. Some entities will never be satisfied with the government’s efforts, but those who are willing to move forward and engage in the reconciliation process must be embraced. The BICI is off to a good start, but there is much work to do.