My Statement to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

July 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Updated: August 1, 2012 at 6:00am EST

Today, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission will hold a hearing on the Government of Bahrain’s progress implementing the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. Although no one involved in the ongoing work to implement the Commission’s recommendations was invited to testify, I have submitted a written statement for the record outlining what the meaningful steps Bahrain has taken toward reform thus far.

The full statement is below.


Statement for the Record
Her Excellency Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo
Ambassador of the Kingdom of Bahrain to the United States
Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
Washington, D.C.
August 1, 2012

Thank you for the opportunity to submit this statement for the record.

The Kingdom of Bahrain is proud to be a stalwart ally of the United States and the home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Our friendship with America began over 100 years ago when American missionaries traveled to Bahrain and established a clinic that would become the American Mission Hospital and founded the first church in the Arabian Gulf. Since that time, our two countries have worked closely together to ensure regional security and to advance our mutual interests.

Following the ascension of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in 1999, Bahrain has undertaken an expansive program of political and economic reform unprecedented for the region in which we live. Following the adoption of the National Action Charter in 2001, Bahrain has established a bicameral parliament, held three free and fair elections, enacted progressive labor reform, expanded women’s rights, and undertaken a number of other important initiatives. Our progress as a nation was recognized at the highest levels of American government, including by President George W. Bush. In 2006, Bahrain became the first country in the Arabian Gulf to conclude a free trade agreement with the United States in large part due to the success of our reform program.

The events of February and March 2011, and the period immediately thereafter, remain painful for all Bahrainis. In the government’s efforts to restore law and order after the outbreak of violent protests, many mistakes were made. We particularly regret the unfortunate loss of life of all Bahrainis who mobilized to take advantage of their right to free speech and free expression.

In the end, Bahrain’s government understood that accepting the truth is essential for any society that wishes to emerge united and peaceful from a challenging period. Both during and after the unrest, many serious accusations were levied against the Bahraini government. Many of these accusations were based in truth, but many were hyper sensationalized and false. We understood that for Bahrain to move forward as a country, we needed an honest account of what occurred. From this, Bahrain could work to enact necessary reform.

The decision by His Majesty to form an independent commission to investigate the demonstrations in Bahrain during February and March 2011 was an attempt to honor this principle. It was also the first time a commission of this kind has been formed in the Arab world.

In an internationally televised broadcast, the commission’s chairman, Dr. Cherif Bassiouni, delivered a stinging critique of the government. The truth he revealed was painful to hear, but the full accounting of our mistakes provided an unprecedented opportunity for reform.

Following the release of the report on November 23, 2011, Bahrain has worked earnestly to implement the Commission’s recommendations. To date, Bahrain has fully implemented 18 of the report’s 26 recommendations. Work on seven of them has begun and they are in various stages of implementation. One is not yet applicable.

A variety of bodies have been responsible for implementing the BICI Report’s recommendations. The National Commission, which brought together 20 leading members of Bahraini society was established following the report’s release and submitted its final report in March 2012. In order to ensure continued progress on BICI-implementation, the Ministry of Justice established the BICI Follow up Unit. This unit released its interim report in 2012.

According to information contained in both reports, the following actions have been taken to date:

  • All public sector employees dismissed during the unrest in February and March 2011, with the exception of those charged with criminal acts of violence, were reinstated. Currently 92 percent of all private sector employees who meet the same standard have been reinstated.
  • All students not charged with acts of violence have been reinstated at their schools and regained any scholarships they may have lost.
  • All charges against protestors relating to freedom of speech have been dropped; this affected 343 people. The government of Bahrain amended relevant statutes to expand freedom of expression.
  • The mandate of Bahrain’s National Security Agency (NSA) has been restricted solely to intelligence gathering. It will no longer have the power to arrest and detain individuals on its own authority.
  • An extensive training program for NSA personnel began on Jan. 22, 2012. It includes courses on promoting and respecting human rights and conducting operations in an appropriate and professional manner.
  • A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed between the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). This MOU permits the ICRC to visit Bahraini prisons and empowers it to hold training courses on human rights and international humanitarian law for MOI personnel.
  • A review of all verdicts handed down by the Court of National Safety is ongoing. To date, the death sentences handed down by the court for two individuals convicted of murdering two policemen were overturned.
  • The Supreme Judicial Council special committee is reviewing all convictions in the Court of National Safety with a view of commuting all sentences of people charged with offences involving political expression excepting those who advocated violence.
  • Video cameras have been installed in all detention centers to ensure video and audio recording of all police interrogations.
  • The Ministry of Interior issued an order referring all cases related to deaths, torture, and inhumane treatment by members of the police to the public prosecutor.
  • The Special Investigations Unit has investigated over 122 cases of misconduct. These investigations led to charges against 21 different police officers, including a lieutenant-colonel. These officers were charged with a variety of crimes up to and including murder.
  • John Timoney, former chief of the Miami-Dade Police Department, and John Yates, former assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London, were appointed to oversee a comprehensive reform of Bahrain’s police department.
  • A Police Code of Conduct was developed in compliance with United Nations best practices, including the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
  • The Ministry of Interior is currently implementing an order requiring that the ministry’s Inspector General take all necessary steps to guarantee all suspects to not be held incommunicado, be shown a warrant upon arrest, be given prompt access to legal representation, and be granted family visitation in accordance with the Bahrain Code of Criminal Procedure.
  • A victim’s compensation fund has been established to provide material compensation for abuse and mistreatment. Affected individuals either have the choice to settle their claims bilaterally or to seek redress in Special Compensation Courts (SCC). To date, the Civil Settlement Office at the Ministry of Justice settled 17 claims for compensation totaling $2.6 million.
  • The Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs launched the “Civil Settlement Initiative.” Under this initiative, applicants can settle their claims quickly and in a consensual manner. According to the BICI Follow Up Unit, 17 death cases have been reviewed and approved by the civil settlement office and awarded BD 1,020,000 ($2,600,000). These settlements are in the process of being paid to recipients, without prejudice to any criminal liability.
  • The initial reconstruction of 22 places of worship that were demolished, due to their lacking proper permits, during the unrest in February and March 2011 has begun. As of July 15, 2012 work on five places of worship is nearing completion, eight sites have been prepared for work, and allocation to nine more sites has been granted.
  • Anti-torture laws have been reformed to bring existing Bahraini law into greater compliance with the Paris Protocols.
  • The National Human Rights Institution, an independent organization, was established to serve as a permanent watchdog for human rights in Bahrain and to promote and enhance human rights in the Kingdom.
  • The Information Affairs Authority (IAA) has engaged the French media regulatory firm IMCA to advise it on broadening access to the media, developing professional broadcasting standards, and strengthening the ethical code for people working in the media.
  • IMCA will assist the Government of Bahrain to reform laws and administrative schemes to bring them in accord with the best international standards.
  • An IMCA team, consisting of specialists in new digital technologies, radio broadcasting, and audience measurement and analysis, also provide training to IAA employees and media professionals.
  • The IAA has also been working on a new media law in line with the BICI recommendations and international covenants to protect the freedom of expression and press.
  • The IAA has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Management Consulting Center of Excellence to prepare a media code of conduct for Bahrain Radio and TV, to ensure the respect of a media code of conduct, within a framework of pluralism, neutrality, credibility, rule of law, and preserving national unity. The IAA has already signed training contracts with international media outlets (BBC and Radio France).
  • The IAA has also been tasked with developing a general media strategy aimed at strengthening national unity and offering more balanced coverage of the political opposition parties.
  • The cabinet has approved legislation and legislative amendments to the penal code that will have the following effects:
    • Freedom of speech is now protected to the highest international human rights standards. Political expression can no longer be the basis of convictions.
    • All forms of torture are criminalized, the minimum sentence for torture has been increased, and there is no longer a statute of limitations on bringing claims of torture. The law follows international standards, including recommendations by the U.N. Committee Against Torture.
    • The establishment of an independent and impartial National Human Rights Institution in accordance with the Paris Principles (which represent the international standard for such institutions).
    • The Attorney General will have exclusive jurisdiction for investigating and prosecuting officers for crimes of torture or mistreatment.
    • There can be no derogation from the arrest and detention provisions in the penal code in times of national safety.

The above mentioned actions demonstrate the Government of Bahrain’s ongoing commitment to implementing progressive reform aimed at addressing issues resulting from the unrest of February and March 2011. The government will not cease working to affect positive change because to do so would be un-Bahraini.

Ultimately, Bahrain’s government understands that we have a political problem that must be resolved through a negotiated accommodation with the political opposition. Unfortunately, the government’s commitment to peaceful dialogue has not been reciprocated by the opposition. Last year during the height of the unrest, His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, repeatedly called on the opposition to join him in meaningful dialogue without preconditions aimed at resolving the crisis. The opposition’s rejection of this offer had material consequences for the situation on the ground and was cited by the BICI report as a serious mistake.

The opposition’s rejection of dialogue continued with their withdrawal from the comprehensive National Dialogue held in July 2011, their boycott of the September 2011 by-elections, and their refusal to participate in the National Commission tasked with implementing the BICI report’s recommendations.

Furthermore, the opposition continues to refuse to condemn violence against police officers – who are frequently targeted in coordinated Molotov cocktail attacks that have left hundreds of officers seriously wounded. These attacks intensified followed a sermon by Ayatollah Isa Qassim in January 2012 in which he called upon his followers to “crush the police.” This activity is utterly reprehensible and must be condemned.

Although the opposition has demonstrated a repeated unwillingness to engage seriously for a redress of their grievances, the Government of Bahrain once again extends an invitation for peaceful, comprehensive, and multilateral dialogue with members of both the Sunni and Shi’a opposition. Only together can we forge a new national unity for the betterment of Bahrain.

Through its actions over the past eight months, the Government of Bahrain has demonstrated its commitment to implementing the recommendations contained in the BICI report. The progress is measurable, verifiable, and significant. Bahrain welcomes the interest of our friends in the U.S. Congress who are eager to share our successes and let us know when we can do more. Together, we can continue to shape the next chapter in the historic relationship between our two countries.

Thank you again for this opportunity.

NUSACC Ambassadors Forum and the Annual NGA Meetings

July 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

As Bahrain’s Ambassador to the United States, a large portion of my job requires me to pay attention to what’s happening in Washington, D.C. Since I arrived almost four years ago, I have always relished the opportunity to travel across the country to interact with the American people and their elected representatives outside the capital. Last Friday, I traveled to Norfolk to participate in the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce’s (NUSACC) Ambassador’s Forum and to Williamsburg to participate in the annual meetings of the National Governor’s Association.

Like the NUSACC event I attended in Boston two years ago, this past weekend provided a great opportunity to update attendees about the current state of affairs in Bahrain. During my speech at the Ambassador’s Forum, I discussed Bahrain’s progressive history and outlined the steps the government is currently undertaking to implement meaningful reform in the wake of last year’s unrest. As I told the attendees, the past year has been challenging, but Bahrain’s government is committed to making the changes necessary to achieve the legitimate aspiration of its people.

Speaking in Norfolk was a particular pleasure because Bahrain feels a special kinship with it as a city. Bahrain has always been proud to host the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and many of the sailors who have served in Bahrain have also served in Norfolk. Events like these are important to continue building ties between our two countries.

Later in the weekend, I participated in the annual meetings of the National Governors Association. Over the course of several days I was able to meet with a number of governors to discuss deepening commercial ties between their states and Bahrain. Our Free Trade Agreement with the United States offers American businesses with a variety of opportunities to access the $1 trillion common Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) market and serves as a job-creator for export-oriented American businesses. I look forward to continuing these discussions in the months and years ahead

Bahrain’s Commitment to Women’s Rights

July 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

Bahrain has a great history of female empowerment. Back in March, in honor of Women’s History Month, I profiled a series of Bahraini women who have made a difference in our society. In addition to reflecting on that important month, I wrote those profiles as a way to demonstrate the full breadth of opportunity available to women in Bahrain to pursue their dreams regardless of their gender. Their success has been made possible by a society and system that has cultivated women as equal contributors. This aspect of Bahrain has always been a distinguishing factor in comparison with many of our regional neighbors.

In Bahrain , women serve in all levels of society and enjoy unprecedented opportunities among our peers in the Middle East . Bahrain established its first school for girls in 1928. Today, the literacy rate among all women in Bahrain is over 90 percent, and reaches 100 percent for women aged 18-25. Bahrain appointed its first female cabinet minister in 2004 and, in 2006, a Bahraini woman was elected to serve as the president of the UN General Assembly. In 2006, the first woman was elected to serve in the lower house of parliament and today, four women serve in Bahrain’s Council of Representatives and 11 serve in the appointed Shura Council.

Bahraini women were first given the right to vote in municipal elections in 1934 – only 14 years after women were granted the franchise in the United States. In addition to unprecedented political rights, women enjoy a great deal of personal freedom. Women are free to choose how they dress in Bahrain , are permitted to drive, and are not restricted in the professions they may choose. Today, women serve in a variety of critical positions, including as members of parliament, CEOs of corporations, media figures, and in a variety of diplomatic roles. I often say that my story – that of a Jewish woman who rose to become a business owner, a parliamentarian, and now Ambassador to the United States – could only be possible in Bahrain and I sincerely believe this to be the case.

Bahrain has much further to travel down its path of reform, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that for many years, Bahrain has been the most tolerant and progressive state in the Arabian Gulf. The government of Bahrain will continue its commitment to women’s rights and will oppose all efforts to erode the hard won progress it has made.

 

The Growing U.S.-Bahrain Commercial Relationship: Ties that Bind

July 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

Because of its strategic location in the Arabian Gulf, Bahrain has been a hub of trade and commerce for thousands of years. From its legacy as an outpost on the historic trade European-Indian trade route, Bahrain has developed a multicultural, progressive system that ideally suits it to the role of a modern center of global commerce. And while Bahrain serves as a nexus for regional and international trade, it has always had a special commercial relationship with the United States.

Bahrain is a key point of entry into the $1 trillion common market of the Gulf Cooperation Council and has a number of unique advantages for companies looking to do business there. It has no corporate taxes and a business-friendly regulatory structure that makes it easy to do business across a wide variety of sectors.

When a company invests in Bahrain, Bahrain also invests in the company by providing complimentary, skills-based training through Tamkeen, which means empowerment, to ensure the local workforce has the necessary expertise to meet the company’s high expectations for quality.

In addition to these policies, Bahrain has an unrivaled regional advantage in its human capital. The government provides universal, free education through high school and heavily subsidizes higher education. Bahrain also has an abundant supply of highly skilled workers who are trained for the most demanding jobs in the modern economy.

Bahrain and the United States have been close friends for many years. Over 100 years ago, American missionaries came to Bahrain and established both a clinic that would become the American Mission Hospital, and the first church in the Arabian Gulf. Today, the partnership between our two countries is deep and multifaceted. As the home of the American naval presence in the Gulf for over 60 years, Bahrain has long been a cornerstone of regional security and a vital contributor to American national security.

But our relationship is much more than a mutually beneficial security arrangement. Bahrain and the United States also share an enduring commercial relationship that stretches back to 1932, when the Standard Oil Company of California (SOCAL) first discovered oil on the Arab side of the Gulf in Bahrain. Today, many American oil companies, such as Occidental Petroleum, still work in Bahrain. They have also made crucial investments in our downstream refining and petrochemical factories and employ thousands of Bahraini workers.

Bahrain is home to much more than just American oil companies. American banks, like Citigroup, and financial services companies, such as American Express, house their regional headquarters in Bahrain. American food and beverage companies also base their Middle East operations in Bahrain. At a Kraft factory outside of Manama, our capital, Bahrainis produce American cheese singles that are sold in stores across the United States.

The depth of our commercial relationship intensified in 2005, when Bahrain became the first country in the Gulf to sign a free trade agreement with the United States. Through the FTA, Bahrain has drastically increased its exports to the United States and American service companies have scaled their operations in the Kingdom. Today, Bahraini exports to the U.S. total over $500 million and account for nearly four percent of our total exports. The opportunities for both Bahraini and American companies under this agreement are virtually limitless.

The close commercial partnership between Bahrain and the United States is one critical facet of the longstanding alliance between our two countries. As Bahrain continues the path of reform it began over 11 years ago, we look forward to continuing to be the home of many American companies for years to come.

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