The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) was set up by The King of Bahrain to investigate the events of February and March 2011. It was comprised of 5 commissioners, experts on human rights from the international community, lead by Egyptian Cherif Bassiouni.
It was published in November 2011 and contained a set of recommendations for Bahrain to adhere to. It drew on hundreds of testimonies and contained evidence of “excessive force” by the Government including torture and other malpractices.
The international community, showing the level of respect and credibility it attained around the world, watched the Commission’s work closely.
Since it’s publication the Government of Bahrain claimed to have accepted all recommendations and promised to implement them. Whilst they claim most have now been implemented, many in the country refute that any real progress has been made.
Sir Nigel Rodley was one of the 5 commissioners to the BICI. He is the former UN Special Rapporteur on torture and is currently a Professor of Law at The University of Essex where he is also the Chair of the Human Rights Centre.
In an exclusive interview with Sir Nigel Rodley we discussed the BICI and it’s processes. Since the end of the Commission he is no longer directly involved in Bahrain and therefore unable to provide an analysis on implementation. However his thoughts and experiences of the BICI will be of interest to many of those who were looking to it for answers.
The online news site Bahrain Mirror has exclusive rights to re-print the interview in Arabic. http://bhmirror.no-ip.org/article.php?id=4767&cid=79
All text is an unedited version; word for word the conversation that took place, interlaced with video clips from the interview.
On a personal level, why did you decide to take part in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry?
Well first of all I guess being a professional in this field, the opportunity to participate in what was a first, namely a national commission of inquiry, set up at the national level by a national government but composed wholly of international commissioners. That in it self was a first and potentially a rather good example for others as well, where there is a lack of trust at the national level in the possibility of independent people where things are very polarised. So that was going to be interesting. The fact that we were being asked to look at both violations of international human rights law and in the process indicate areas where international human rights law might also dictate that individuals responsible for the violations be held personally accountable. That too was an interesting dimension of it.
How much did you know about Bahrain beforehand, had you done any work in the past?
Yes at a distance. When I was the UN Special Rapporteur on torture back in the 90’s and up to 2001 I had been seeking a visit to Bahrain because especially in the 90’s we were getting, at the UN, quite a lot of information suggesting that torture was a pretty serious systematic problem, especially in terms of torture of political opposition. So I was seeking a visit because anytime where I saw an extensive practice or apparent extensive practice (of torture) I would seek a visit to a country. Bahrain was one and I never got the visit, the request for a visit was never granted but of course I continued to study and indeed publish the allegations and such responses we got from the Bahrain Government.
Do you think that previous experience was why you were asked to be on that commission?
I don’t know, I’m not sure that it necessarily was, at least not that specifically. I didn’t treat Bahrain differently from any other country member of the UN. Information came in, I transmitted allegations to the authorities, I resumed those allegations and the responses of the authorities, if any, and that was all. I subsequently discovered that there were those in Bahrain that remembered that and had been aware that was happening and that therefore had seemed to give me a certain credibility in some circles in Bahrain. But I can’t say that I had specific knowledge of the situation in Bahrain and even less at what had happened in the intervening years in the decade or so afterwards, that would have had much to do with why I was asked to be on the Commission. I was approached, I don’t think there’s any secret about that, by the King’s lawyers, a firm called Fresh Fields based here in London, as to whether or not I would be willing. I was informed that already Cherif Bassiouni, whom I’d known for decades, had been chosen as the Chair. I sought certain clarifications about independence and publishing the report and all the rest of it, that Cherif had already obtained anyway. And at some point it was decided that I should be invited and I was invited through the royal proclamation.
You hinted about your feelings of independence, it would be understandable for one coming into that, seeing that it was appointed by the King, as potentially having question marks. How sceptical were you and what helped to you get rid of that scepticism?
Well first of all I do feel that the firm of lawyers are a reputable firm and that they probably wouldn’t participate in a sham operation. But more to the point it was other members of the commission. Cherif himself, I knew was not about to be anybody’s puppet; I didn’t know Phillipe Kirsch personally but I knew enough about him and his work and his familiarity with international criminal law to know that he was going to be independent. I did already know Mahnoush Arsanjani who had been in the UN Secretariat. We had worked together. As a member and representative of the treaty bodies, I had engaged with the International Law Commission on certain issues and she was the Secretary of the International Law Commission at that time, so I knew her and I knew she too was wholly independent. I didn’t know directly Badria Elawadi but she was of course certainly independent. So, from the beginning, 3 out of the other 4, I knew personally to be independent and therefore was confident that we should, given the right resources and cooperation, be able to do a credible job.
How did you understand your mandate? Obviously there was a specific mandate, February and March 2011, did you as a commission decide upon that mandate or was that something that was in the briefing?
It was in the briefing, it’s actually in the actual decree creating the commission. The mandate is put as the events that took place in that month, February and March plus it’s consequences and a certain number of incidents were specifically mentioned that required to be investigated. The only area, where I suppose there might have been a question, was what consequences meant. We certainly interpreted the consequences to be the continuing confrontations that were taking place, which were very much the aftermath of what had happened in that month. It was actually quite difficult but we were trying to take on board, if not case-by-case, as much as we could of everything that was happening, up until we handed in the report.
Considering that the emergency law ran until June, did you ever feel that it would have been more helpful to be able to look more extensively the events up until the end of that point or even further maybe?
I’m not quite sure I understand the question.
Did you ever feel perhaps limited by that mandate?
In what respect?
Because the emergency law ran until June and that suggests a very special set of circumstances for the country, do you think it would have been more useful to look at that whole period?
But we did, that’s what I’m saying. We considered the consequences to cover the whole period and so we did. We did also in one of the chapters of the report, make an observation on the state of emergency and the derogations that had been made by Bahrain to in particular the international covenant on civil and political rights. We basically concluded that the measures that were of concern to us were not measures that were, to use the language of the treaty, necessarily required by the exigencies of the situation. In other words any measures that might have been taken under those notices of derogation were in fact excessive, disproportionate and therefore we were going to ignore them.
So looking at when you first started, did you feel that this was a report for Bahrain internally, to help them get over their problems, or did you feel it was something for the international community?
Well both. Certainly for the international community in terms of a potential model, as I said at the beginning. Was it aimed at Bahrain? Yes of course it was aimed at Bahrain, it was a national commission of inquiry and the target audience was the state of Bahrain; all components of the state of Bahrain. Did we see this as a route map towards a political statement of the longstanding community tensions? No we didn’t. We were very clear that was not our role and that we would have needed much different powers and much more involvement in the situation to presume to play any such role, and indeed the mandate explicitly excluded our getting involved in political matters. What we did hope however was that by implementing our recommendations, Bahrain would lay the basis of confidence that might then make it possible for political talks and negotiations and dialogue to go ahead.
So do you think it was a chance for both sides to learn about each other perhaps?
We certainly saw that and that’s something we said explicitly. We were very much aware that there were 2 discourses that were simply going across each other and this isn’t just something that would be the case for Bahrain, it is something that happens in many polarised societies. I kept seeing resonances from Northern Ireland, where one side evokes history to tell one story and another side invokes history to tell another story and the two stories just don’t meet. We at least wanted and felt it was our obligation under the mandate anyway to tell each side’s story to the other side, to try and establish some awareness and therefore some basis for some possible dialogue and communication. By story I mean partly history, it was potted history, but partly history but partly also the events, because there were two totally non-connecting versions of the events that we were asked to investigate. In the end that’s almost arguably the main purpose of a fact-finding body like ours, to find the facts so the usual allegations and counter allegations, often based on total misinformation on either side, could maybe be dispelled somewhat and have an agreed version of what actually happened. I’m not sure it’s happened.
Section 2 of this article will be published on Wednesday 27th June at 10pm (BST)