x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Bahrain needs a political solution

Bahrain has taken some steps towards improving security policy, but heavy-handed reaction continues. Meanwhile the real problems are still awaiting a political, not a security, solution.

In November, Bahrain's government accepted a critical assessment of its heavy-handed security response to last winter's disorders. The kingdom pledged to do better, and made some specific promises.

But protests and violence continue. On New Year's Day a demonstrating teenager died, reportedly after being hit by a tear-gas canister. And the US has called on Bahrain to investigate the claim of Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who says he was beaten at a protest last Friday. Such cases reveal an underlying problem which is fundamentally about politics, not policing.

To be sure, police practices have been counterproductive. In November the five independent human-rights legal experts of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) said protests had been met by "systematic torture and similar ill-treatment and ... excessive use of force", in the words of one commissioner.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa had, to his credit, ordered the report. Its 513 pages put a seal of undeniable authority on accumulated anecdotal and journalistic evidence about government response to protests in which 35 people, including five policemen, died.

In response to the study, the government promised zero tolerance for abuse of political detainees, reinstatement of civil servants fired for dissent, and the hiring of more police from all segments of society.

In fairness, the government's willingness to make at least some of the security-policy reforms proposed by BICI has been blocked by the opposition parties' refusal to discuss such measures.

But even sweeping security reforms will not solve Bahrain's underlying political problem. The BICI report ended by calling on the government to develop a "national reconciliation programme that addresses the grievances of groups which are or perceive themselves to be deprived of equal political, social, and economic rights".

The commission stopped with that generality, but Bahrain cannot.

In any country, if political problems are not given political solutions, sooner or later the security forces must become the arbiters of order, with results that are rarely permanent and never satisfactory.