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. You can access that here:
All text is an unedited version; word for word the conversation that took place, interlaced with video clips from the interview.
How would you rate the level of cooperation you received from firstly the Government side?
It was very good and we had total access to Ministers, Civil Servants, everybody we needed to see, we saw, whether it was the security agency, the military, the judiciary, the prosecution and it there was no problem of access. There was a pretty good element of sharing of information and providing information. Obviously we probably didn’t necessarily get to the bottom of everything that happened or necessarily receive every document that would pinpoint who did what to whom but by the standards of other investigations I have done I really don’t have a complaint, and I don’t think we had a complaint about the level of cooperation.
You didn’t feel at any point there were any red lines? Anything you just couldn’t cross?
No. I simply don’t recall any. I remember some doubts were expressed that certain levels of officialdom would not see us. That turned out not to be the case.
Did you ever feel any hostility from any aspects of the Government or the regime that perhaps there were some groups who thought you shouldn’t be here?
There was certainly an element of that. We had a public meeting very early on in our work to try and explain to people what the whole exercise was about and there were people from civil society on both sides of the so-called sectarian divide. They were already locked into their own discourses and we were trying our best to try and explain how those discourses weren’t terribly helpful and of course in that context one can feel an indirect hostility when those coming from the side that feels society is being destabilised by all the demonstrations, I’m trying to avoid sectarian terminology. They start using languages of treason and traitors and so on….
By this you mean those hostile to the protests?
Exactly, those who were hostile to the protests. Somehow there was something in that language that made us feel that they were wondering what on earth we had to do there. But it was very indirect; I didn’t see any serious manifestations. Of course I don’t read Arabic, I wasn’t reading the local press, I wasn’t watching local television, except little bits of English at 11 O’clock at night, so maybe there was resentment. Let me put it this way: I suspect there was some, if only for the following reason. When we presented the report, one of the things that the King did in his very dignified speech, accepting the report, was to underline really quite explicitly and firmly that countries should not see having an international investigation into what they do as anything abnormal. That is a thing that is part of modern discourse. Europe has the European Court of Human Rights, which creates binding decisions all across Europe and I really got the impression there that he was probably addressing a domestic, mainly domestic, constituency. Maybe a bit in the region too, but a mainly domestic constituency that had wondered why he had essentially opened Bahrain to the kind of scrutiny that we were going to provide and hope to have provided.
Moving away from the Government, what about the opposition how was their cooperation?
It was fine, they presented lots of material. I think one has to be careful of the word opposition, a lot of the material came through NGO’s, and some NGO’s were perhaps more aligned with the opposition than perhaps the authorities. But we also got information from NGO’s on the majority side if you will, from the non-protesting community of things that had happened to them as a result of abuses that had taken place from what they perceived of as the side of the civil population. But no everybody felt free to provide information. Not all the information was unbiased or impartial or complete but then that’s not abnormal either. Everybody was prepared to answer any questions we had for them. The only unfortunate, and it was an unfortunate development, was that a group of students did demonstrate outside the premises of our staff in a very very threatening and hostile way. What it meant was we then had to move, except during the working day, move the staff out of those premises, which was a shame. It also meant that a certain amount of security had to be provided by the authorities. We tried to keep it as lowkey as possible but it’s a nasty little game. You create a problem, which requires a certain amount of security to try to address the problem and then of course the security is invoked as a reason why it might be difficult to cooperate with the commission. Fortunately in the end we got all the cooperation that I think people wanted to give us, but it was an unpleasant little episode that showed that you don’t have all the right on one side.
I think it’s fair to say that there were some within the country, from the opposition side if you like, who were sceptical about the whole process from the beginning. Not including that group of people who showed their scepticism in a more angry way, but the general level of scepticism that existed amongst the population, can you understand that?
Yes sure and again I don’t think there’s anything especially Bahraini about this. When you have a highly polarised society, you treat with extreme scepticism whatever the other side says or does. You’re always looking for the hidden agenda; you’re always looking for the angle that they are trying to play against you. Was I surprised? No. I supposed I might have been a little more hopeful that those who purported to be on the side of the so-called oppressed might have done a little bit of homework to see who it was they were dealing with and maybe given a little bit of credit to those people that they were not going to do anything other than an impartial and independent job.
We touched earlier about the varying narratives between the two sides and I guess this was the major point but I want to try to find out how with the 2 narratives, how was it possible to establish the truth? What things did you look at? Most of your information is going to come from people and people have their own take on things. What techniques…
In terms of the events that happened during that month?
Yes, how did you try to establish what was the truth and what was opinion?
It’s the normal way that any investigation does and that is you look for corroboration. First of all you look for evidence of agreement across either side and then you can take that as agreed for starters. Then you look for corroboration, you look for logic, you look for consistency. There’s no special expertise involved here for any particular country it’s just merely a question of having an appropriate amount of scepticism. I can’t think how many times I have been asked in the past, either as UN Special Rapporteur on Torture or currently as a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, well some of these NGO’s that send you this information surely you don’t trust them? And the answer is no of course we don’t. What we do is we look at the information and we look at how well justified it is. That’s even true of organisations that we have a longstanding knowledge and or respect of or respect for such as Amnesty or Human Rights Watch. Even then we are going to look at their information on it’s own merits, even if we might be more disposed to thinking prima facia plausible than from some other sources that may be more politically aligned.
Did you ever feel at any point any pressure to appease one side or another?
Not that I can recall. No I mean I can’t remember doing anything that was done simply for that purpose. It’s a good question and I wish I could be more definitive in my response. One of the problems of thinking about a negative is it’s hard to identify ah there’s the negative! The point about a negative is that it’s negative so it’s not palpable and so one can’t always quite be sure that nothing happened but I don’t recall anything happening.
I guess one way to look at it would be, did you ever feel that we’ve put this in what the opposition has said we now feel that perhaps we should put this in to balance it? Were these sorts of questions ever in your mind?
Only in terms of objectivity. It wasn’t a questioning of balancing for it’s own sake. Let’s put it this way, we would never have distorted the truth for the sake of balance but certainly we needed balance as a dimension of the truth.
Was there anything you felt unhappy with about the process that we haven’t already touched on?
No, look what I was unhappy about was the short amount of time we had to do it. Figure it took ten years or so for the bloody Sunday inquiry in this country. Investigating one incident in one town on one day. We were investigating thousands of incidents all across the country in 4 months. It was actually quite implausible that we should have gotten done as much as we had done. We needed to ask the King for extra time and it was interesting, I’m sure there was a lot of suspicion, about that….
I was going to ask you about this….
Well I’ll answer it now. It was our decision that we needed more time. We wanted a month and the King was reluctant but came back and said 2 weeks and we still pushed harder because we figured we couldn’t manage it and so he said ok one more week. But I really have to stop there, I wasn’t part of the dialogue but that’s what I gather happened. He ended up conceding an extra 3 weeks to us, it was we who were seeking it and we were seeking it in order to come up with a coherent report that wouldn’t have been anything like as good if we had sought to produce it on the 31st October. That extra 3 weeks we had really did make all the difference between was a quality product and not. It was a purely logistical, practical, administrative problem we had. We needed more time to finalise the report and make it look solid. There was no political dimension to it at all.
In terms of the international community, how important do you think the inquiry was in the eyes of the international community? Did you feel like they were monitoring what you were doing?
Yes, we were all very conscious of it. I personally knew that a number of friends of Bahrain, and I’m not going to be more specific than that, were very keen that we should do a good job and a responsible job that would then be the basis of encouraging Bahrain to move forward, by way of implementation of our recommendations. What you just told me before we started this interview, namely what happened at the Human Rights Council with the UPR on Bahrain and how virtually every delegation that spoke, even including the very important neighbour of Saudi Arabia, spoke of the need to implement the recommendations of the Commission. That’s very gratifying and it’s good to know that it has been sufficiently credible for the international community to use it as something of a benchmark. I already knew of course that the High Commissioner for Human Rights had done so, but that doesn’t mean it was aimed at the international community. It was still aimed at Bahrain, it was aimed at addressing serious problems that had occurred, that we were invited to look into, that we did look into and that we saw certain solutions to. Not just our off the cuff solutions but the solutions dictated usually by international human rights law and that’s what we did.
Did you ever feel that perhaps you were shaping foreign policy of various Governments?
No I don’t think I would say that, I think what we were doing was, if we did our job properly, we would have been helping the foreign policy of those states, friends of Bahrain who wanted to help Bahrain move forward, but again that wasn’t why we were doing it, we did what we did because that was what we were mandated to do.
The final part of this interview will be published on Friday 29th June at 10pm (BST)