Dr. Mike Diboll: Back again with new research on Bahrain

Dear Readers,

I’m back here on my blog again after some eighteen months away. So, why my silence of the past year and a half? I’ll be frank: in large part it has been necessary to take a break from blogging on Bahrain for me to overcome the mental illnesses — PTSD and Major Depressive Episodes — that arose directly out of my experiences in Bahrain. In the past eighteen months I’ve undergone both Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Psychodynamic Counselling, and feel much better. Since my original PhD preparation was in Comparative Literature, I’ve also taken the opportunity to develop my expertise in the Social Sciences, taking a Masters in Anthropology, and auditing Political Science and International Relations modules. This has enabled me to develop an exciting new research and publication agenda on Bahrain.

I’ll be publish works-in-progress on this website, and welcome constructive and critical feedback. To begin with, I attach a draft of a paper I’m preparing entitled  Narrative and Impunity: an Ethnography of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry  This paper is timely, since as of April 2014 the FCO is claiming:

The government of Bahrain’s work to implement its reform programme, particularly in the judicial and security sectors, continue to suggest that the overall trajectory on human rights will be positive, even if a number of the mechanisms and legal frameworks being put in place will take time to have an impact on the ground. The government of Bahrain continues to implement the recommendations set out in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) in 2011, and those set out in the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR). 

FCO. (2014), Country Case Study: Bahrain — progress on reform implementation [Available at:  https://www.gov.uk/government/case-studies/country-case-study-bahrain-progress-on-reform-implementation] (10th April 2014).

This is flatly contradicted by human rights NGOs, who between December 2011 to-date have consistently reported minimal implementation. My research reviews implementation, and provides ethnographic insights into Bahraini perceptions of the BICI and its implementation. In May 2010 I interviewed one of the BICI Commissioners for my paper, and he suggests that BICI implementation has been minimal, except in purely ‘procedural’ areas. Crucially, he suggests there has been no progress in the key area of ending Bahrain’s culture of impunity, which facilitates human rights abuses, and of democratising Bahrain’s security forces, so that the make-up of those forces more closely resembles the ethno-confessional profile of Bahrain.

My paper studies the BICI in the light of theories of structural and symbolic violence, and examines qualitative data from what I call the ‘BICI ethnos’ in the light of relevant theory from the anthropology of reconciliation and reconstruction, and conflict resolution and peacebuilding case studies from other countries during the 1990s and 2000s. My paper concludes by recommending urgent follow-up of the BICI in the form of an International Criminal Tribunal to prosecute human rights violators, no matter who they may be.

A draft of the paper is given below (for reasons of confidentiality the Appendices referred to are omitted):


Narrative and Impunity: an Ethnography of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry


My concern with Bahrain arises from my work as an academic working in Comparative Literature at the University of Bahrain 2007-11, and my eye-witnessing of key events of the revolution and counter-revolution of 2011. This study will treat the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) as an ethnos, in the sense of it being a social group engaged in the construction of meaning. Like other social groups the BICI ethnos is not a homogeneity, but manifests cross-cutting, differential power relations and differing perspectives and perceptions. To reflect this diversity and provide insight into the often contradictory internal dynamics of narrative-making within this ethnos, this research bring together qualitative data from three opposition activists who submitted evidence and interacted with the BICI, and one of the BICI commissioners, Sir Nigel Rodley. I myself am part of this ethnos, in so far as submitted testimony to the BICI concerning the 13th March 2013 incident at the University of Bahrain (BCHR, 2011a) – I have added an autoethnogrphic note as Appendix 1.

This paper will briefly contextualise the context of the BICI in terms of Bahrain’s history of colonialism and conflict in Bahrain, and will the explore political science scholarship on events in Bahrain since 2011. It then consider ways in which Johan Galtung’s theories of violence and peace might usefully be applied to the situation in Bahrain.  The ethnographic section of this paper will interweave voices from the BICI ethnos with theoretical and ethnographic studies of other Conflict Resolution (CR) ethnoi from the 1990s and 2000s, exploring within a comparative framework possible options for effective CR in Bahrain. The study will conclude by recommending an International Criminal Tribunal to facilitate peacebuilding through the ending of impunity as the most appropriate follow-up to the BICI.

Colonialism and Conflict in Bahrain – an Overview

The Bahrain archipelago has been ruled by the Al Khalifa family since the 1790s, after they invaded from the Arabian mainland. The Al Khalifas entered into a protection agreement with the British East India Company in 1816, Bahrain was formally a British protectorate from 1820, until Britain’s withdrawal from ‘east of Suez’ in 1971. Oil was discovered in 1934, but was largely depleted by the mid-2000s; nevertheless, Bahrain remains a lynchpin of the Anglo-American energy security system in the region, hosting the US Fifth Fleet in a deep water anchorage (formerly a Royal Navy base). Uprisings against the British protectorate occurred in 1921–23, 1934–35, 1938, 1947–48, 1953–56, and 1965. Following independence, significant uprisings occurred after the 1975 suppression of the 1971 democratic constitution. The ‘Bahrain Intifada’ of 1995-2002 saw further unrest and repression. With the failure to implement the reformist 2002 constitution, tensions intensified from the mid-2000s, culminating in the 14th February Revolution of 2011. This was bloodily suppressed by the 17th March Saudi-led invasion, which received strong political support from the UK (Coates Ulrichsen, 2013; Davidson, 2012; Kinnenmont, 2012; Matthiesen, 2013).

Credible NGOs put the death-toll since 2011 at around 100 (Amnesty, 2013; BCHR, 2014b). However, it is necessary to put these figures into context; according to the 2010 census, Bahrain has a population of around 1.2 million (Government of Bahrain, 2010). Approximately half the population are expatriate workers, the social geography of Bahrain means that expatriates are isolated from the violent events: it is the 600,000 Bahraini citizens who are affected by the violence. As a point of comparison, the UK’s population is about a hundred times that of the indigenous population of Bahrain, around 60,000,000. To understand how the death toll is experienced and perceived by Bahrainis, the 100 opposition deaths since 2011 would be the equivalent of 10,000 British deaths.

Following Bahrain’s 1971 independence, links with business, military and policing establishments in the UK prospered. For example, former Colonial Policeman Ian Henderson, the ‘Butcher of Bahrain,’ headed Bahrain’s General Security Directorate for thirty years until 2001. Henderson’s tenure was marked by widespread allegations of systematic torture, Henderson having previously been involved in the suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s (Carlton, 2002). Henderson’s nemesis, Sir Nigel Rodley, was UN Special Rapporteur for Torture in Bahrain during the 1990s and was interviewed for this research in his capacity as a BICI commissioner. Disgraced former Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police followed in Henderson’s footsteps when he was hired as a policing ‘advisor’ in 2012 in response to one of the BICI report’s recommendations (Hasan, 2012; Horne and Lubbock, 2013). In a sharp reversal of British foreign policy since 1971, Britain is currently building a new naval base in Bahrain (Royal Navy, 2014).

Political Science Perspectives

Most of the scholarship undertaken on Bahrain since 2011 has come from political science perspectives, and has focused mainly on the sectarianization of the conflict.

Jane Kinninmont, a Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House, argues that in the current ‘impasse’ in Bahrain the regime is not sufficiently powerful to completely suppress uprising, and the uprising in not powerful enough to overthrow the regime (2012). In this situation, ‘torture and other cruel, inhuman treatment’ has become an ‘integral part of the ongoing crisis’ (Redress, 2013: 1).

Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t (2013) by Toby Matthiesen, a Middle East Politics Research Fellow at Pembroke College Cambridge, charts the Gulf monarchies weathered the storm of the ‘Arab Spring’ (the term is contested and seldom used in Arabic), through the creation of what Matthiesen calls ‘the sectarian Gulf’, where systematic sectarian entrepreneurship is a ‘survival strategy’ for the Gulf regimes (2013, 129). Matthiesen describes how in 2011 a Sunni member of the royally-appointed Consultative Council in Bahrain ‘made some of the grimmest statements I have ever heard about the future of the Middle East’, denouncing Shias as ‘Zoroastrians’, ‘unbelievers’ and ‘Persians’, proclaiming ‘I see the day when a fully-fledged sectarian war will break out in the Gulf . . . this is why we have to get them [the Shia] now’; Matthiesen concludes, ‘This was not a pretext to legitimize a dictatorial regime. He believed this would happen, and his conviction scared me’ (2013, 66-7).

Frederic Wehrey is a  senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; his Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: from the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (2013) notes that Shi’a political actors in the region have largely pursued greater rights through ‘a non-sectarian, nationalist approach’, while Sunni elites governing the ‘institutionally weak’ Gulf states have made ‘calculated attempts’ to discredit Shi’a political actors as proxies of Iran or Hizbollah (2013, 298-302), again, as part of a survival strategy.

Writing about the Gulf region in general, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Research Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, stresses how sectarianism is a ‘social construct’ which fluctuates ‘with the changing nature of social and political identities’, arguing that:

. . . .  government officials have increased levels of sectarian rhetoric across the region. In particular, Saudi Arabia, Bahraini and other Gulf officials turned to the old tactic of blaming Iran for meddling in their internal affairs, thereby externalizing the roots of dissent and deflecting attention from any possible domestic grievances . . . The use of sectarianism as a fear-mongering tactic may well shore up local and international support in the short-term, but at the incalculable cost of widening societal divisions in the long run . . . By fragmenting national identity and fuelling alternative identities along narrower sub-national or broader trans-national lines, a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy risks coming true. (2012, n.p.)

Since the uprising of 14th February 2011, the regime has consistently argued that the Bahrain uprising was instigated by Iran, and has sought to create linkage between the regime’s struggle with its own people and Western geopolitical agendas in the region. However, expert opinion rejects Iranian instigation (Coates Ulrichsen, 2012; Davidson, 2012, 169-174; Kinninmont, 2012, vi), as has the BICI itself:

The evidence presented to the Commission by the [government of Bahrain] on the involvement by the Islamic Republic of Iran in the internal affairs of Bahrain does not establish a discernible link between specific incidents that occurred in Bahrain during February and March 2011 and the Islamic Republic of Iran. (BICI, 2011; 387)

This significantly undermines the regime narrative of the uprising as ‘external interference’ in Bahrain’s internal affairs, exposing this narrative as reckless sectarianism-as-survival-strategy. Christopher Davidson, Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University writes in After the Sheikhs: the Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies (2012) that the Gulf regimes are ‘as strong as the weakest link in their chain’, leading to the ‘inevitable’ collapse of the Gulf monarchies due to an array of internal and external centrifugal factors (2); for Davidson, Bahrain is very much the weakest link with ‘the bleakest future’, and ‘little hope that the ruling family can restore sufficient legitimacy ever to rule again without resort to martial law and extensive repression’ (232).

Kinninmont, Matthiesen and Wehrey have shown how sectarianism has been used by Bahrain and other regional regimes as a ‘survival tactic’ or ‘sectarian shield’ in the post-2011 Gulf; Coates Ulrichsen has shown the potential for this to become a ‘destructive self-fulfilling prophesy’, while Davidson explores in forensic detail the factors contributing to the likelihood of a far-reaching and possibly catastrophic breakdown of the existing political order in the Gulf region. The on-going human rights abuses in Bahrain serious enough in their own right. Further, given the political scientists’ assessments, there is a real possibility of future escalation into a fully-fledged regional sectarian conflict potentially as bloody as Syria, or worse, should the ‘collapse’ anticipated by Davidson and others take place in a sectarianized Gulf. This paper seeks to demonstrate how anthropological perspectives might inform peacebuilding in Bahrain and the wider region.

The BICI, an Overview

The BICI was set up by Royal Orders 28 and 29 on the 29th June 2011 to ‘investigate and report on the events occurring in Bahrain in February/March 2011 … and to make such recommendations as it may deem appropriate’ (King of Bahrain, 2011a). In many respects it resembles a UK Royal Commission, but without public hearings; nevertheless it took in some 9,000 interviews and documents. Perhaps the BICI can best be defined as an example of the British ‘independent inquiry’ model — the exemplar of which must surely be the 1999 Macpherson inquiry into the murder of black British teenager Stephen Lawrence – exported to the Gulf. The BICI had no judicial powers, but was commissioned to make recommendations. The BICI report was prepared in English, from which an Arabic version was derived.

The commission was headed by Professor M. Cherif Bassiouni of DePaul University, who has been involved in investigating human rights abuses in the Former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Libya. He was supported by Professor Sir Nigel Rodley of the University of Essex, Judge Phillipe Kirsch of the Université de Montréal, Dr. Badria Al-Awadhi or the University of Kuwait’s Law School, and Dr. Mahnoush H. Arsanjani, Vice President of the American Society of international Law (BICI, 2011). These were supported by a large number of Arabic-speaking legal experts from outside Bahrain (including Amal Alamuddin, currently engaged to George Clooney). Royal Decree 29 accorded the commissioners ‘. . . the same privileges and immunities as the United Nations Experts referred to in Article VI of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations’; yet controversially it also appointed a government ‘liaison officer’ (King of Bahrain, 2011b). The Commission describes itself a ‘fact-finding’ mission, to ‘help Bahrain society to heal and implement successful, post-conflict transition’. It’s website implicitly compares the BICI to the 1983 Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared, the 1990 Chilean National Commission to Truth and Reconciliation, the 1995 South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the 1997 Guatemala Commission for National Clarification, the 2002 Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the 2004 Morocco Equity and Reconciliation Commission, and the 2011 UN independent International Commission of Inquiry in Libya (BICI, 2011). Although the BICI arguably has more in common with the UK Saville, Macpherson, Hutton or Chilcott inquiries, the implied comparison will lead me to discuss the BICI in the light of scholarly literature on the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions of the 1990s and 2000s.

The BICI evidence-gathering process became the subject of some controversy, with the Nabil Rajab, Head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights objecting to media comments made by the Cherif Bassiouni, with Rajab stating that ‘without completing anywhere near a full investigation’ the BICI was ‘willing to espouse the view of the political establishment whilst playing lip-service to the concept of a fair and independent inquiry’, in a way that ‘defies the very objective of the commission’. Bassiouni replied that this allegation ‘insults the Commissioners and staff who are working 14 to 16 hours a day to serve the cause of human rights in Bahrain’, adding that the BICI welcomed ‘constructive criticism’ and was ‘here for the truth and nothing but the truth’ (BCHR, 2011b).


The BICI report established the historical context of the conflict, and constructed a narrative of events. The report made 26 recommendations covering: Deaths; The Use of Force by Government Actors; Manner of Arrest; Treatment of Persons in Custody; Detention or Prosecution in Connection with Expression, Association and Assembly; Enforced Disappearances; The Demolition of Religious Structures; Terminations of Public and Private Sector Employment; Dismissals of Students and Suspension of Scholarships; Allegations of Violence by Non-Governmental Actors; Allegations of Involvement by Foreign Forces and Foreign Actors, and; Allegations of Media Harassment (BICI, 2011).

The regime found the report uncomfortable reading, and many opposition activists, who were expecting a whitewash, were surprised to find it ‘a devastating portrait of what it called disproportionate and indiscriminate force often used by the security forces to repress protests in February and March’(Bakri, 2011).In the UK press sympathetic columnists argued that ‘King Hamad is proving himself to be extremely adroit in dealing with the protesters’ demands in setting up the Commission at his own initiative’, with the King assuring David Cameron during Downing Street talks that he was ‘committed to implementing a number of reforms’ and to ‘national reconciliation’ (Coughlin, 2011).

On 23rd November 2011 the government of Bahrain stated that had ‘accepted the report, pledged to hold those implicated in wrongdoing accountable, and is committed to implementing the recommendations contained in the report by the end of February 2012’. However, one year later, the Project on Middle East Democracy (Pomed) stated ‘any understanding of the current crisis must include an honest, accurate assessment of the progress in implementation of the BICI recommendations’, commenting that assessing implementation was difficult given ‘the lack of transparent, relevant information from Bahraini government officials’, concluding:

. . . the Government of Bahrain has fully implemented three of the BICI report’s 26 recommendations. Two other recommendations were impossible for us to properly evaluate due to a lack of available information, and 15 recommendations have only been partially implemented. Finally, the government has made no meaningful progress toward six of the recommendations, which are precisely the most important steps that need to be taken – accountability for officials responsible for torture and severe human rights violations, the release of political prisoners, prevention of sectarian incitement, and the relaxation of censorship and controls on free expression. (2012, 1)

That same year, courts were apparently regarding the BICI as ‘a matter of the past’:

During Zainab Al-Khawaja’s court hearing on the 9th of September [2012], the lawyer attempted to present an excerpt from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report as evidence, the judge refused to accept stating that the BICI report was now a matter of the past, and that they are looking towards the future. (BCHR, 2012)

Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) found, also a year later, that ‘only one of the 26 recommendations has been fully implemented’ (2012). As of May 2014, Bahrain Watch, an opposition NGO established specifically to track the implementation of the recommendations, found that all recommendations reported to have been ‘fully implemented’ had since bee ‘violated’ and that only three of the 26 BICI recommendations had been ‘partially’ implemented (2014). Activists in the radical 14th February Revolutionary Youth Movement were never convinced as the veracity or the effectiveness of the BICI, commenting that the report was ‘honey laced with venom’, a ‘treacherous dagger behind the flowers of affection’, full of ‘contradictions, twisted facts, and conspiratorial aspects’ (Al-Shehabi, 2011). The FCO, in line with its ‘exports-led foreign policy’ strong political backers of the Al Khalifa regime, called the BICI ‘an unprecedented and internationally welcomed response’, but nevertheless feel the need to chivvy up the regime on implementation, albeit in more coded language:

We acknowledge that sustained, comprehensive reform will take time, and we urge the Government to build on the steps they have taken and ensure that the recommendations set out in BICI, as well as those in the UN Universal Periodic Review of 2012 which it accepted, are implemented in full soon. (FCO, 2013)

In January 2014 ADHRB found that out of the 176 recommendations of the UN UPR, none had been ‘fully implemented’, in 2 there were ‘perceived progress’ in implementation, 39 had been ‘technically implemented’, 117 ‘not implemented’, and 18 recommendations had ‘not been accepted’ (2014, 4).

In May 2014 Human Rights Watch called the vaunted judicial reforms which the FCO uses to justify its continued support for the repressive regime ‘a disaster’, recommending in its May 2014 report Criminalizing Dissent, Entrenching Impunity: Persistent Failures of the Bahraini Justice System since the BICI Report that the United Nations Human Rights Council:

Adopt a resolution to condemn continued violations of human rights in Bahrain, to call for the release of individuals solely detained for exercising the rights to freedom of expression, association, or peaceful assembly, and to call for the implementation of the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. (HRW, 2014; 4)

The government of Bahrain nonetheless claims the BICI recommendations are ‘being successfully implemented’, citing 26 BICI ‘achievements’ to match the 26 recommendations (BNA, 2013). The Al Khalifa regime is supported in this by the UK FCO, who, in April 2014 claimed:

The government of Bahrain’s work to implement its reform programme, particularly in the judicial and security sectors, continue to suggest that the overall trajectory on human rights will be positive, even if a number of the mechanisms and legal frameworks being put in place will take time to have an impact on the ground. The government of Bahrain continues to implement the recommendations set out in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) in 2011, and those set out in the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR). (FCO, 2014)

This claim is flatly contradicted by the human rights NGOs cited above, and, as we shall read below, by one of the BICI commissioners, who was interviewed for this research in May 2014.

Structural Violence in Bahrain

In his seminal 1969 paper ‘Violence, Peace and Peace Research’, Johan Galtung argues that ‘peace’ consists of ‘social goals’ the necessity of which are acknowledged by ‘many, although not necessarily by most’ in society. Galtung recognizes that the achievement of such peace is ‘difficult but not impossible’, and reaffirms that ‘peace is the absence of violence’ (1969, 167). However, his understanding of violence nuanced: violence is ‘the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is’ (168). A key distinction concerns avoidability: if the cause preventing the potential is avoidable, then violence has occurred. Galtung further distinguishes between direct and indirect violence. If, as has happened in Bahrain, a protester is shot dead by security forces, direct violence has taken place: the killing is the cause preventing that individual from realizing his or her potential, ending everything they were, everything they could have been; further, the killing has negated potential social goals, in this case the achievement of democracy, human rights, and social justice. The killing was avoidable, since the protester could simply have been left to protest, or dealt with in a non-lethal manner.

However, Galtung goes further, defining indirect violence as taking place where resources ‘are monopolized by a group or class or are used for other purposes’ so that ‘the actual level [of development] falls below the potential level’; in such circumstances, ‘violence is present in the system’ (1969, 169). This ‘indirect violence’ take place, for instance, in situations where racism has been institutionalized, such as Apartheid South Africa. In today’s Middle East, it occurs in Israel-Palestine, and in places like Bahrain where members of the ruling family are among the richest people in the world, yet institutionalized sectarianism ensures that, say, a Shia fisherman from Sitra might share ‘a cramped, run-down family home’ with his ‘parents, four brothers and two sisters’, with the four brothers sharing one small room, earning ‘only about $210 per month’ unable to start a family ‘because he was too poor’ (Global Research, 2010): in such circumstances indirect violence has occurred because institutionalized social injustice prevents the fisherman from achieving his potential.

Thus, in Galtung’s typology of violence, structural violence is a form of systemic indirect violence that takes place where ‘inequality then shows up in differential morbidity and mortality rates’ (for example in the health of the fisherman and the mortality of his family), and the social, economic and political structures enforced by state actors ‘deprives people of chances to organize and bring their power to bear against the topdogs, as voting power, bargaining power, striking power, violent power’ (1969, 177). This has clearly happened in Bahrain during the British protectorate, and in the post-colonial crypto-protectorate. For Galtung, positive peace involves not just the absence of direct violence, but also the absence of structural violence (183); thus, peace is a social goal (167).

The BICI report revealed systematic instances of direct violence by state actors in Bahrain. These included systematic human rights abuses by security forces (2011, 281), physical and psychological mistreatment of detainees (298), systematic torture (298, 300), enforced disappearance (316), and ‘unnecessary and excessive force, terror-inspiring behaviour and unnecessary damage to property’ (416). It also uncovered systematic structural violence, such as ‘discrimination of religious grounds’ (2011, 24), gerrymandering (44), and punitive house raids (280). In the light of Galtung’s typology of violence, this interdependence of direct and structural violence is to be expected (1969, 173). Moreover, the naturalizing, and therefore legitimizing, function of structural violence is significant, ‘structural violence is silent, it does not show — it is essentially static, it is the tranquil waters . . . structural violence may be seen as about as natural as the air around us’ (173).

This raises the crucial question as to whether, despite its having exposed the systemic direct and structural state violence in 2011, the BICI report becomes, in its 2014 state of sustained non-implementation, an instrument of structural violence as an integral part of the legitimating structure violence.

Symbolic Violence

Before moving on to the main part of this paper, an ethnographic discussion of the BICI, I will briefly review the concept of symbolic violence, and ways in which this concept might help in understanding the BICI and its role post-2011. The concept of ‘symbolic violence’ is generally regarded as having originated with the French anthropologist and philosopher, Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant see symbolic violence as ‘the violence that is inflicted upon a social agent with his or her complicity’. The idea of ‘complicity’ is further elaborated as ‘the fundamental set of prereflexive assumptions that social agents engage by the mere fact of taking the world for granted’, because ‘their mind is constructed according to cognitive structures that are issued out of the very structure of the world’. Thus, for Bourdieu, ‘gender domination shows better than any other that symbolic violence accomplishes itself through an act of cognition and misrecognition that accomplishes itself beyond – or below – the levels of consciousness and will’ (2003, 273-4).

In certain regards, ‘symbolic violence’ might be seen almost as an opposite of structural violence, as Wacquant critiqued medical anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer’s use of the latter term, ‘structural violence may be strategically useful as a rhetorical tool, but it appears conceptually limited and limiting’; however, Farmer responded to Wacquant’s critique stressing that ‘rhetorical tools might be necessary ‘when the topic is human values and human rights’ (2005, 142), stressing humanity’s need to examine and understand the roots of modern violence and the violation of a broad array of rights, including social and economic rights’ lest we raise a ‘white flag’ to ‘violence and disease’ (188) – in this discussion I tend towards Farmer, since while Wacquant may have worked out with ‘pugs’ at a Chicago South Side gym, Farmer has saved lives in Haiti.

So, how useful is the concept of ‘symbolic violence’ to the study of the BICI in Bahrain? It is hard to imagine the notion of complicity in their own oppression applying to Bahrainis who have lived through the Bahrain Intifada of 1995-2002, or experienced the revolution and counter-revolution of 2011, or who have undergone detention or torture, or defended their village against punitive raids by the state security forces, no matter how nuanced and sophisticated the idea of ‘complicity’ might be. Rather, I would argue, perhaps following Franz Fanon, for the purgative effect of participation in violent confrontation with the forces of state oppression. If any sort of ‘symbolic violence’ was practiced through which the people of the villages were complicit in their own domination, this surely has be burned away in the crucible of struggle.

However, there is a further sense in which symbolic violence might be relevant here. Philippe Bourgois writes of the ‘everyday’ violence of gang rape in the gang culture of New York City’s East Harlem. For Bourgois, ‘crime and violence have been normalised into [the gangsters’] daily lives, becoming an integral part of youthful common sense and self-respect’ (2003, 343), where violent misogyny ‘reflected itself back as a sense of internalized worthlessness’ (346). This sense of symbolic violence, in which ‘cognition and misrecognition’ prereflexively construct the consciousness of the perpetrators of violence rather than the victims, so that they ‘take their world for granted’ seems to be far more relevant to the current context of Bahrain, with its ingrained culture of impunity and institutionalised sectarianism. Indeed, not only does this concept apply to specific perpetrators of actual direct violence in, for example, the security forces; but it also applies to those who might be or become witting or unwitting enablers of violence. It is in this sense that I will use the term ‘symbolic violence’ in relation to the BICI.

Ethnographic Discussion

This section of this paper will discuss the BICI as ethnos – I use the term here to refer to a heterogeneous social group engaged in the construction of meaning. The concept of a BICI ethnos refers not to the BICI commission as a formal body, to its former members, or to the BICI report as text, but to all those who were involved in the BICI’s meaning-constructing activities. In the discussion below, I will first briefly discuss the ethnographic methodology used. I will then, using ethnographic data derived from participants in the BICI ethnos, discuss the issue of a/contextuality and the BICI, comparing the issue of context and the BICI with the issue of context in peacebuilding activities in Sri Lanka, and the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. I will then turn to Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, examining the ways in which the BICI process resembles such commissions, and discussing problems identified in the ethnography in the light of experiences with TRCs in South Africa and elsewhere. I shall then consider the question of commemoration and memorialisation in conflict resolution and peacebuilding, before turning once more to International Tribunals, arguing, in the light of the ethnographic data and international experience, that such tribunals might be the most appropriate way forward for Bahrain.

To gain insight into this ethnos, I interviewed one of the BICI commissioners, Professor Sir Nigel Rodley, and three Bahraini opposition activists who had interacted closely with the BICI during the evidence-gathering process, and have engaged critically with it since then. These I shall call A#, B#, and C#, all of whom I know from my time in Bahrain 2007-2011. A# was in prison, B# was representing her jailed husband, and C# was working as a human rights defender. All are educated to postgraduate level in social science disciplines, A# is a Shia cleric active in civil society organizations in Bahrain, B# an academic and activist, and C# is an exiled activist. I interviewed A# and B# in late May 2014 via Skype, using a semi-structured format that enabled the interviewees to respond in a way that may raise new questions, while retaining structure (Bryman, 2012). C# responded to written questions via e-mail, and I interviewed Sir Nigel Rodley landline to landline, taking contemporaneous notes in Teeline shorthand. I edited all instances where the participants refer to each other out of the transcripts. Transcripts of A# and B#’s interviews appear as Appendices 2 and 3 at the end of this paper. Since I myself have also submitted evidence to the BICI, I have added an autoethnographic note as Appendix 1. In the discussion below I will weave participant data with insights from other CR studies.

Writing of peacebuilding initiatives in Sri Lanka, Oliver Walton warns of ‘the dilemmas and issues associated with the liberal peacebuilding project’, noting how ‘liberalism provided a particular way of thinking about the means to achieving a legitimate state’; however, he stresses the importance of context, ultimately such notions are dependent on ‘time, place and circumstances’ (2007, 30-1). Writing on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia Johanna Selimovic observes that ‘. . . transitional justice mechanisms do not constitute the objective and inevitable exercise they are often portrayed to be’; rather, these ‘entail a dynamic encounter with other local perceptions of truth and justice, which cannot be viewed in isolation from broader social and political processes’ (2010, 59). In this regard, both A# and B# see the BICI as primarily being motivated by extra-Bahraini agendas, in particular the desire of the Al Khalifa state’s chief international backers to achieve a ‘liberal peace’ for their regional ally. A# sees the BICI as being initiated in response to a May 2011 speech by US President Obama:

 . . . there were clear messages that Navi Pillay, the Chair of the Human Rights Council of the UN would take a clear stance in June 2011 on the human rights situation, backed by the United States, and 13 EU countries . . . If I was in Hamad’s position I’d certainly set up a strategy to divert the attention of the international community and tell them that I am willing to fix the human rights situation in Bahrain.

B# sees the BICI project as being incubated by the Bahrain Royal Court’s London-based lawyers, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, working with an unnamed PR firm and the US and UK governments:

You can definitely see the quid pro quo, ‘We’ll use this report to try to de-escalate the situation, let’s exonerate Saudi, let’s exonerate the Peninsular Shield Force [the Saudi/UAE force that intervened in Bahrain]. . . Let’s just make this a Bahrain problem. But the price is that the language is watered down and nobody is blamed. Since the BICI was published we have forensic evidence that the Peninsular Shield was involved in some of the killings, and that’s exactly what the anecdotal evidence at the time was saying . . . but the BICI avoided mentioning this in its recommendations. Why, because it would be difficult for Western companies to carry on arming them with tanks or whatever. Whereas the police, you can sell the Bahrain government ‘training’ as part of a ‘reform package’. It’s an investment opportunity . . . It’s a very smart thing to do. You admit some problems, you say you’re addressing them, you get your allies to help you do that through training, arms and consultancy, it’s a win-win situation.

From A#’s perspective the BICI might be justly criticised for its acontextuality as an ‘off-the-peg’ generic peacebuilding solution brought in from overseas for grand strategy reasons rather than human rights. For B# the BICI process is not innocent at all and its ‘liberal peace’ agenda was deeply compromised from the outset; for her, its status as a top-down initiative backed by the backers of the Al Khalifa regime completely undermined its credibility.

A# recalls how he felt ‘optimistic’ when with commission was announced:

‘. . . the situation [in prison] was terrible we were sleeping on the ground, no beds . . . All of a sudden, things improved. We found out that the King had appointed a commission to investigate the situation.’

Contrastingly, B# felt sceptical from the outset:

. . . my scepticism about Bassiouni started at [the first] meeting. It was supposed to be a private . . . but there was a woman from the government there as his PA – I felt so uncomfortable . . . Then he said that he’d told the King that he would be meeting me. Why would he do that? Does he need the King’s permission? Am I being monitored right now?’

C#’s view of the background to the setting up of the BICI echoes the views of both A# and C#:

There was supposed to be a UN OHCHR fact finding mission, setting up a King’s commission of inquiry was the better choice [for the regime], especially with the understanding that there would be some control like:absolutely no naming of officials; making sure the document could never be used in court in the future against anyone, to make very watered down recommendations that would not make much of a difference even if they were fully implemented (which they were not). 

Sir Nigel Rodley stresses how the BICI was ‘unique’ outside of internationally brokered Peace Agreements, it:

. . . did precisely what NGOs are always asking for: governments to set up independent inquiries involving authoritative outside observers to investigate human rights abuses.

The interview data demonstrates the diversity of perceptions within the BICI ethnos, and the centrality of perception to CR initiatives; the objective-subjective gaze of ethnographic method provides a means to gain insight to this diversity of perception which is difficult to obtain through the more objectivizing disciplines of law and political science. For Selimovic, legal neutrality can be a ‘myth’, the law being ‘a form of politics by other means’; further, ‘the post-conflict divisions that [CR] mechanisms are devised to undo may instead become further entrenched as they are interpreted to reconfirm local narratives’ (2010, 59). Accordingly, A# emphasises the BICI’s positive role in establishing an authoritative narrative:

. . . the BICI has definitely made things CLEARER to the different sections of society. For example, before the BICI we used to shout out and say ’38 [Shia] mosques were demolished [as collective punishments]’, but the media used to deny that had happened, and the government, even the Minister of Justice. They used to say this was a huge lie. But the BICI at least has clarified who is the liar and who is telling the truth when it comes to torture, suppressing the freedom of assembly, mosque demolition, and imprisonment based on opinion [prisoners of conscience].

A# nonetheless sees the BICI as a missed opportunity, ‘some of the recommendations were partially implemented, others not at all … the government could have utilized the BICI as a milestone for reconciliation, but they have failed to do that, unfortunately’. In contrast to A#’s positive appraisal, B# critiques how the narrative was constructed:

I spoke to some of the people who had been in Jaw [maximum security] Prison. They were seen by the commissioners . . . One girl said she tried to explain how she’d been beaten, but they weren’t interested . . . They were acting as mediators, beyond their mandate . . . This affected the language the commissioners used. They tried not to be in the least provocative or challenging.

C# sees the BICI as having made no real difference to the human rights situation in Bahrain; if anything, it has made things worse (although arguably C# implicitly recognizes the positive role of the report’s narrative):

Nothing has been implemented that has actually made a difference to the human rights situation. The human rights violations either are the same or have gotten worse since the BICI report . . . I [wouldn’t say it was] a missed opportunity, it did what it was intended to do: buy time and whitewash violations . . . It only confirmed that the situation was actually worse than what [Bahrain civil society organizations] were able to document, at a time when the government was saying that [civil society organizations] exaggerated and lied about numbers and severity of violations.

For Rodley, the BICI’s ‘short mandate’ affected how evidence was gathered and collected, and emphasises the breadth of the narrative required ‘ranging from jobs and employment to detention and torture’. He contrasts the ‘four months’ the BICI had to investigate Bahrain with the ‘twelve years’ it took for the Saville Inquiry to produce an authoritative narrative of Bloody Sunday. Like A#, he sees construction of narrative as the reports central CR task, but he regrets how ‘having accepted’ much of this narrative, the government of Bahrain seemed ‘not to have absorbed it’. Rodley further stated that the few BICI recommendations that have been implemented have been ‘procedural’, he lamented the absence of progress in two substantive areas: dismantling the culture of impunity around the security forces and key officials, and the reform of the military and armed forces to reflect the ethno-confessional make-up of Bahrain, as has happened, for example, with the transformation of the Royal Ulster Constabulary into the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Writing on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanada, Nigel Eltringham points out that while legal judgements might be ‘monophonic’ the historical record is ‘contrapunctual’ (2009, 73). Echoing this contrapunctuality, Rodley notes the diverse uses to which the BICI narrative in the rhetoric of both governmental and opposition actors. Rodley crucially stresses how ‘discourse’, even in the positive discourse’ of ‘dialogue’ cannot be seen as a goal of CR work: for Rodely CR ultimately about ‘implementation’, and implementation only.  While Rodley is moderately critical of what he perceives as the default anti-regime stance of some human rights NGOs, there is nonetheless a remarkable level agreement between him, these NGOs, A# and B# over both the centrality of implementation, and the lack of progress in this regard since November 2011. That said, B# argues that given the regime’s demonstrated lack of commitment to implementation, this issue has become a meaningless distraction for opposition activists.

Eltringham shows how ‘documents are not, however, simply referred to in the courtroom, they are a physical presence intertwined with bodily performance’; the text becoming a ‘prosthesis for bodily communication’, ‘breaking down the distinction between incorporating and inscribing practices’ (2009, 73). This relates closely to what I have written elsewhere about how the ‘embodied’ nature of the opposition struggle in and around Bahrain’s Shia-majority villages contrasts with the logocentricity of state authority (Diboll, 2014).

An alternative approach to a document-led intervention such as the BICI might therefore be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) involving live witness testimony, such as the South African TRC established in 2000. This would bring ‘bodily performance’ and ‘inclusive truth’ into the reconciliation process, and would enable victims to confront perpetrators in controlled, legally supervised circumstances. However, as Annelies Verdoolaege observes, while the South African TRC enabled ‘discursive space’ and ‘linguistic freedom’ through the embodied performance of testimony-giving, it nonetheless involved ‘unequal power relations’ in its court-like environment, which brought about ‘psychological pressure’ for ‘insincere’ expressions of forgiveness on the part of victims and excuses from perpetrators (2006, 76-77). In a similar vein, Catherine Bryne’s interview research on the South African TRC found that, ‘qualitative analysis indicated that a small number of those interviewed viewed it as a positive and empowering experience, although for many others it appeared to be a painful and disempowering process filled with unmet expectations and promises’ (2004, 237). In the Bahraini context, the Western idea that talking about trauma in public is, individually and socially an inherently therapeutic process. Outside of a small number of people who have made a specialist study of these, Freudian psychoanalysis, psychodynamic counselling, cognitive behaviour therapy and the idea of public catharsis have made little impact in a context where, modernisation notwithstanding, family and kinship, community, and faith still play a far greater role in shaping subjectivities than generally is the case in the West.

A further aspect of ‘psychologisation’ concerns psychological pressure to conform to expected behaviours. In this regard B# is uncomfortable with what she perceives as psychologisation in the work of the BICI commissioners:

It was set up like some kind of rehabilitation place, where you’d have some counselling with the investigators, just to get it off your chest, a place to let off steam’.

Her perception provides some insight into the psychological factors underpinning the BICI’s evidence gathering process. It is easy to see how torture victims giving evidence in Jaw Prison might perceive the commissioners as ‘good cops’ to the torturers’ bad cops, and this might affect their performance of evidence-giving. Whereas highly educated activists such as A#, B# and C# might be able to contextualize the role of the BICI commissioners and investigators, it should be remembered that the mass round-up of the ‘national safety’ period of martial law that followed the 2011 counter-revolution led to the incarceration of Bahrainis of all social classes, including people with limited English language skills. Knowing of accounts of Britons such as ‘Butcher of Bahrain’ Ian Henderson attending interrogations and torture sessions in Bahrain’s jails, such people might have good reason to view the commissioners as an extension of the state, this perception powerfully influencing their testimony. Given such psychological factors, and the existence of intensively sectarianized, parallel truth-claims, I think it would be it is unlikely that the TRC can provide practicable model for Bahrain. Moreover, the TRC model presupposes a fall-of-Apartheid scale political transformation, the like of which was stymied in Bahrain by the intervention of 17th March 2011.

However, civil society institutions might provide an alternative. A# was eager to stress the strength of Bahrain’s civil society, and its role in holding the government to account over BICI implementation:

In Bahrain the civil society is very strong, and well-connected with international organisations . . . Civil society organisations are monitoring whether or not the government implements the BICI recommendations, even though we don’t think the report covers many aspects of human rights violations in Bahrain . . . if the government had the right mindset and the persistence it might create the grounds for reconciliation . . . .

A# provided an outline of what he perceived to be a viable reconciliation process: (1) the release of political prisoners; (2) easing tensions by withdrawing the military and the riot police from the Shia-majority villages; (3) ‘the government working with the civil society organisations and with the opposition need to agree on equal citizenship [and] social justice’, and; (4) an end to impunity:

. . . all those who are responsible for human rights violations should be held accountable, especially those in charge of torture and death . . . The King needs to be involved himself – he needs to be responsible, I believe he can play a role in doing that.

Like so much else in Bahrain, the causes for the relative strength of Bahrain’s civil society organisations is contested. For the regime and its loyalists, this is indicative of the regime’s vaunted modernity and tolerance (the FCO peddles a somewhat watered-down version of this line). While for the opposition (and I tend to concur with this analysis), strong, cross-sectarian Bahraini civil society organisations were forged during the sustained, century-long struggle against the British protectorate and the subsequent post-colonial state. Since 2011 government interference and sectarianization have damaged Bahrain civil society, other organisations have been infiltrated, taken over, or banned by the state, and others operate in exile; the Human Rights Watch report Interfere, Restrict, Control: Restrains on Freedom of Association in Bahrain warns how the Bahrain Ministry of Social Development has ‘far exceeded international standards in its restrictive scope and routinely exploited its oversight role to stymie the activities of NGOs and other civil society organizations’ (2013, 1). Nevertheless, civil society still exists there, and could form a basis for contextualised social reconciliation fora, over which ordinary Bahrainis have ownership, which are more appropriate to the Bahrain context than a TRC, or ‘traditionalist’ and ‘re-traditionalized’ conflict resolution approaches.

B# expresses understandable distress at the inappropriate memorialization of the BICI in the absence of meaningful implementation:

On the anniversary of the BICI report [state-run] Bahrain Television shows images of the King sitting there discussing things with Bassiouni, the whole day . . . quotes taken out of context . . . and they’ll spin it so that it’s become part of the ritual of the state’s celebration of the BICI, it’s a national day of celebration now! This is a report that identified systematic torture, what the Hell is this! Red carpet and celebrities as if there is some kind of Oscar party going on. For me personally, this symbolism was really painful. It is ridiculing human rights.  

B#’s exasperation at the state commemoration of the non-implemented BICI returns us to structural violence. In a sense there are now two BICI’s: the actual inquiry of November 2011 which made recommendations that could have formed the basis for reconciliation, and; the November 2014 state-media simulacrum of the-BICI-as-PR, which through its implicit condoning, indeed celebration of non-implementation is an integral part structural state violence. However, while state commemoration of the non-implemented BICI is grossly inappropriate, there are other ways in which commemoration might help the achievement of a lasting social peace in Bahrain. As we have seen, part of A#’s reconciliation formula is to ‘create ease within the country by getting the military and the riot police to back off from the villages’. He continues, ‘I once met with an official, and he said ‘can you guarantee me that Bahrainis will not got back to the Pearl Roundabout?’ The Pearl Roundabout, I told him unfortunately I can’t’. Pearl was cleared of its protester-occupiers with murderous force, then demolished by the regime on 18th March 2011 (state media said this was ‘to ease traffic congestion around the diplomatic and banking area’), an Indian migrant worker was killed in the botched demolition, and the area renamed ‘Al Farouq Junction’, using an agnomen of the third Sunni Caliph ‘Umar ibn Al Khattab, a figure reviled by Shia Muslims. The road junction has never opened.

Bahraini researcher Amal Khalaf says of the Pearl Roundabout that, ‘Lulu [‘Pearl] has persisted in its presence as a symbol through the violence recalled in its image, from the martyrdom of protestors who died in the square and in the years that followed, to the violence upon the collective memories of Bahrain and the denials of its representation embedded in the roundabout’s image’ (2013, 279). Writing of commemoration in Northern Ireland, Brian Graham and Yvonne Whelan write that ‘the dissonant narratives which the state sought to elide have been written perforce and they point, at best, to accepting another party’s right to be different while using commemoration as one means of continuing the war by other means’ (2007, 494). One way to circumvent the commemoration of violent political death becoming a ‘continuation of war by other means’ in perpetuity would be to acknowledge Pearl’s iconic status in Bahrain’s cultural memory. Pearl would then be rebuilt as a physical manifestation of Habermasian ‘public space’, completely rerouting roads so as to remove any relation between the monument and traffic control. This would then become a public space for all Bahrainis, both an open-air memorial to those who died in the struggle for social justice, and a public space for the manifestation of free assembly and expression. Yet to do this, of course, would require a different Bahrain.

For the time being, the destruction of Pearl serves a symbolic function as an expression of the power of a state that is prepared to destroy even its own national monuments to cling on to power. If the absence of Pearl functions symbolically as an expression of state cultural and social domination over its population, so, arguably, does the state media’s simulacrum of the non-implemented BICI, which in effect says to the Bahrain public ‘We can kill, we can torture; our allies and supporters can investigate us and expose what we are doing; we can accept their findings – but look, we still kill and torture and they do nothing; see, you are under our control and resistance is futile.’ Thus, C# sees the BICI has having legitimized direct and structural violence in Bahrain, and recommends an international criminal tribunal as a way forward:

There are ways in which the BICI has legitimized such impairment the cases the BICI chose to ignore will probably never get the justice they deserve; especially the violations committed by military forces . . . A tribunal could be effective, a new independent fact finding mission is necessary as well.

Rodley clarifies that in 2011 the BICI did not have the mandate or the resources to undertake a quasi-judicial inquiry of the sort that could have led to the prosecution of prominent people on very serious charges. He goes on to say ‘going after figures higher up the pecking order’ rather than ‘mining the coalface’ would require a ‘much more extensive’ commission with ‘international’ oversight. While stressed that he is ‘always in favour of follow-up’ in CR initiatives, he acknowledged the factionalism within the ruling family, outlining how hardline elements within that family have come into ascendancy through their alliance with Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, he stressed that making serious progress on the question of impunity should be a priority in the absence of any domestic or international trials; here there is a consensus between Rodley, A#, B# and C#.

Comparing the two ad hoc (non-permanent) tribunals of the International Criminal Court (for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia), former chief prosecutor at those tribunals Louise Arbour notes that the ‘two ad hoc Tribunals operated ‘against an entrenched “culture of impunity,” where enforcement of humanitarian law is the rare exception and not the rule’ and that criminal justice affirms and reinforces the norms of conduct that are acceptable and denounces those that are not, (1999, 23). She goes on to stress that:

Notwithstanding the immediate challenges of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Tribunals must strive to make a contribution towards eradicating a culture of impunity and must hope to constitute a significant and revolutionary first-step in the establishment of institutions capable of delivering international criminal justice. (1999, 24)

As has been seen above, a vicious culture of impunity exists that implements the Bahrain’s state’s direct violence in a structuralized manner against Bahraini citizens who are either demonstrating peacefully for basic human and civil rights, or who are defending their villages against punitive attacks from mercenary security forces. This impunity has existed before, during and since the BICI process. The BICI has played a positive role in constructing a narrative of events which in large part vindicated the allegations of widespread human rights abuses during the spring of 2011, and has exposed the systematic and structural ways in which impunity operates in Bahrain. Nonetheless, its partial- or non-implementation, indeed the state commemoration of its non-implementation, shows that Bahrain’s ‘culture of impunity’ continues in large part unchanged, aided in large part by the strong political support given to the Al Khalifa regime by the UK FCO, and the FCO’s credulous acceptance of the regime’s claims for reform.

In her ethnographic study of the impact of the Special court for Sierra Leone, Freiderike Mieth argues that ‘by focusing on retributive justice alone institutions such as the Special Court thus leave other injustices untouched’. She also criticizes the Special Court officials ‘ignorance of context’ and ‘bold promises of “justice” and “peace”’ which, in relation to the everyday life problems of many Sierra Leonians seemed ‘grandiose’ and ‘out of place’ (2013, 20-1). In a similar vein, Selimovich, writing on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, stresses that ‘a sole focus on individual justice strengthened discourses of collective innocence and relativized the suffering of the other’; this meant that ‘groups tended to interpret every ICTY sentence against an individual perpetrator as an action directed against the entire group’. However, in Bahrain, rather than distracting attention from the ‘structural’ causes of violence, trials would dismantle the edifice of structural state violence in Bahrain, since that structure is super-structural to the family-state’s infra-structure: the ‘culture of impunity’ which is symbolic of a wider system of structural and institutional inequality, and brining perpetrators to justice, however high-ranking in the current social order, would not simply be ‘retributive’ justice, it would be a significant step in the dismantling of impunity, and the reform of the violent structures and institutions which impunity symbolizes. It would also help undo the work of regime-loyalist sectarian entrepreneurs, precisely by assigning culpability to specific individuals rather than the sectarian ‘Other’. The question of contextuality is of course vitally important; however, the BICI has done much to establish context and a critical mass of legal expertise on post-2011 Bahrain. Moreover, the presence of civil society organizations with considerable legal experience, expertise, and international connections would enable a smoother follow-up phase in a transitional justice process through the provision of ‘grassroots’ Bahraini input into the reform of the judicial system once the international court had done its work, thereby minimizing the dependence on foreign  expertise.

Bahrain’s ‘culture of impunity’ extends to the very pinnacle of the ruling elite, illustrated by the fact that a British court is investigating the diplomatic immunity of the King’s son, Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, as a result of allegations that he has personally participated in torture. This, even as both King and Prince are entertained as guests of the British royal family, attending equestrian galas and visiting Oxford University (Independent, 2014). As David Cameron put it ‘Bahrain’s not Syria’ (BBC News, 2012), still less Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. However, there is a real danger that the murderous suppression of dissent in Bahrain, along with a parallel suppression Saudi Arabia’s neighbouring Shia-majority and oil-rich Eastern Province, have ‘seeded’ a future sectarian conflict on a far vaster scale, just as earlier institutional violence and structural inequalities seeded the very bloody conflicts in Rwanda, Syria and the former Yugoslavia.

Other differences between them notwithstanding, all the participants in this study seem to agree that ending Bahrain’s ‘culture of impunity’ would be the single most effective way of bringing about reconciliation, establishing social justice, and preventing the escalation of sectarian tension in the wider region, and that some kind of follow-up to the BICI is needed. An international criminal tribunal would be an effective way of ending impunity and beginning the process of reconstruction.


The British ‘independent inquiry’ model has achieved some laudable landmarks in the promotion of human rights, the unbiased rule of law, and exposing the institutional and structural violence of British state actors. Salient independent inquiry’ landmarks must surely be the 1998 Saville Inquiry into the 1972 ‘Bloody Sunday’ killings in Northern Ireland, and the 1999 Macpherson Inquiry in to the circumstances surrounding the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, with its insightful definition of ‘institutional racism’, which is of clear relevance to state institutions in Bahrain:

. . . the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people. (UK Government, 2014: 367)

An international criminal tribunal in Bahrain would signal an end to impunity by weeding out witting perpetrators of human rights violations, leaving Bahrain civil society to feed into the reform of ‘unwitting’ institutional prejudice.

However, when it comes to the Middle East, the picture is not quite so laudable. The 2003 Hutton Inquiry into the death of Home Office biological weapons expert and UN weapons inspector David Kelly was largely dismissed as a ‘whitewash’ (The Independent, 2004). Still more seriously, the 2009 Chilcott Inquiry into Britain’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War still has not presented its findings as of June 2014, and the word ‘whitewash’ is again coming to the fore with the news that only the ‘gist’ of vital communications that took place between former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former US President George Bush will ever be made public. There is perhaps a case for both men to be prosecuted for war crimes.

B# and C#’s strong skepticism over the BICI recalls Tony Blair’s advice to disgraced Murdoch newspaper editor Rebekah Brooks over how to deal with the phone-hacking scandal and forestall possible criminal proceedings, which lays bare the anatomy of a very British approach to cover up:

Form an independent unit that has an outside junior counsel . . . a great and good type, a serious forensic criminal barrister, internal counsel, proper fact checkers etc in it. Get them to investigate . . . and publish a Hutton style report . . . Publish part one of the report at same time as the police closes its inquiry and clear you and accept short comings . . . . (The Guardian, 2014)

While I have no doubt as to the sincerity, diligence and sheer hard-work of the BICI commissioners, the Hutton and perhaps the Chicott inquiries suggest that the ‘independent inquiry’ model may be an ill-suited and an inadequate vehicle for the investigation of events outside of the UK, particularly in a Middle Eastern region where a complex and intertwined array of UK and trans-Atlantic commercial, defense, diplomatic, economic, geo-political, military and energy security agendas strongly shape British political stances to social change events on the ground in the countries concerned, particularly in a country as historically intertwined with the UK as is Bahrain. This inadequacy is not because commissioners and investigators in any way lack integrity and can be personally ‘got at’; rather, it is because of the compromised location of such inquiries in the wider set of structural relations between the trans-Atlantic West and its regional allies in the Gulf.

As B# relates, it is quite likely that as of June 2011 some kind of decisive UN action on Bahrain was on the cards. It is quite likely, I think, that the Obama administration in the US would have been more relaxed about this taking place than Britain, since the US naval base on Bahrain notwithstanding, the Al Khalifa state in Bahrain is probably more crucial as a territorial base for the projection of British ‘export-led foreign policy’ interests and influence than it is for American interests: come what may in 2011, the US naval base would probably have stayed, whereas British interests would have been greatly diminished by the fall of the Al Khalifa state.

Testimony from A#, B# and C# provides the following opposition narrative of the geo-political context for the export to Bahrain (in a region where bilateral Western-GCC relations rigidly follow the exporter-importer, seller-buyer, centre-periphery models) of the British ‘independent inquiry’ as a conflict resolution model:

Western advisors, lawyers and PR experts working for the Al Khalifa regime developed, in collaboration US State Department and the UK FCO a framework in which an adaptation of the British ‘independent inquiry’ model would forestall a more formal UN intervention. Both the Al Khalifa state’s UK and US allies would have seen the BICI as the catalyst for substantive reforms that would have seen some sort of constitutional monarchy arrangement emerge with a reformed democratic political system leading to enhanced popular sovereignty and re-invigorated civil society. However, the factionalized nature of the Al Khalifa ruling elite led to the marginalization of ‘reformist’ elements within the ruling family and the ascendancy of strongly pro-Saudi hardliners grouped around the Prime Minister, who were able to gamble, in the event successfully, that the Al Khalifa state’s trans-Atlantic backers would put their energy security, export and geo-political interests before democracy and human rights in Bahrain. The result was that the BICI went ahead, but that rather than acting for a catalyst for anything, its state-promoted simulacrum functions symbolically and structurally in the violence-enabling system of the post-2011 Al Khalifa state. While this unsatisfactory state of affairs seems to have left a bad taste in American mouths, the Obama regime nonetheless went along with this state of affairs, to their considerable discredit in the region. However, seeing the Saudi intervention n in Bahrain as a business opportunity, the current British government, however, has embraced this state of affairs enthusiastically, and through its insistence on taking simulacrum-reform at face value is complicit in the on-going violence.

Historians will eventually establish how closely this narrative accords with actual events. However, all the participants in this ethnography seem to agree that some sort of effective follow-up is urgently required.

This paper recommends as a matter of urgency an internationally supported follow-up of the BICI, followed by International Criminal Trials of persons implicated in extra-judicial killings and torture in Bahrain, however prominent or well-connected some of those persons might be. Trials would powerfully signal an end to impunity, thereby doing more than any of the measure for reconciliation, and desectarianization in Bahrain, promoting peace as a social goal, diminishing the potential for a Syria-like sectarian disaster in the region. After such trials, opposition and civil society groups, assisted where appropriate by international supervision and expertise, could then work to reform both political representation and the judicial system in Bahrain during a transitional period. The rebuilding of the Pearl Monument and the re-routing of the roads around it to create a public space that is both a symbolic monument to the coming-into-being of a new Bahrain and a commemorative public space allowing the emergence of a Habermasian ‘public sphere’ should follow.

This paper contributes to a wider body of literature which uses ethnographic methods and participant narratives to critique conflict resolution and peacebuilding activities; while this approach has been used extensively in other contexts, there is clearly room for its wider application in the post-‘Arab Spring’ Arabic-speaking Middle East and North Africa. However, the ‘impact’ regime which arises from the UK government’s ‘Research Excellence Framework’, which stipulates that ‘excellent’ research which will attract government funding will have concrete economic ‘impacts’ as well as merely academic ‘outputs’, has led to a situation where social researchers in fields such as Anthropology and Development Studies have sought close collaboration with organizations such as the FCO or FCO-supported GONGOs as a form of ‘impact’. In a situation such as Bahrain this sort of collaboration is to be avoided. As we have seen, the FCO continues to systematically over-state the extent to which ‘reform’ is taking place in Bahrain, particularly with regards to the implementation of the BICI:

The government of Bahrain’s work to implement its reform programme, . . . continue [sic] to suggest that the overall trajectory on human rights will be positive . . . The government of Bahrain continues to implement the recommendations set out in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) in 2011, and those set out in the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR). (FCO, April 2014)

This assertion is contradicted by the evidence presented above, including interview evidence from one of the BICI commissioners (interview conducted in late May 2014). In institutionally denying the lack of implementation of the BICI recommendations and the continuing human rights abuses in Bahrain, the FCO is making itself complicit in these abuses as enabling component of the Al Khalifa state’s apparatus of structural violence. At the British Society for Middle East Studies 2014 annual conference, held at the University of Sussex in June 2014, the following panel concludes the proceedings:

A question of impact:  Increasing engagement between academics and policy makers, a roundtable discussion with Foreign Commonwealth Office representatives. (BRISMES, 2014).

This paper will conclude with a plea to practitioners in Middle Eastern Studies and related fields not to succumb to complicity in structural violence in pursuit of REF ‘impact’.



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———– —  —————  —-   ———–  ——  — ———— (2014), A Follow-Up Report on Bahrain’s UPR Second Cycle. [Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/second-anniversary-of-bahraini-independent-commission-of-inquiry-report] [Retrieved: 22nd May 2014].

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Arbour, L. (1999), ‘The Prosecution of International Crimes: Prospects and Pitfalls’, Journal of Law and Policy, Vol. 1, 13.

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