MANAMA, Bahrain – Bahrain took the next step toward implementing recommendations of its National Dialogue, including strengthening the powers of its elected parliament, improving transparency, attacking money laundering and other illegal activities, and improving services for citizens.
HRH Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s Prime Minister, met with ministers to initiate the necessary legislative and legal measures aimed at achieving the political reforms that had been agreed upon and recommended from the National Dialogue held in July.
Under the procedure guiding the process, the Cabinet will approve the final report and then the Prime Minister will submit it to His Majesty the King.
Key reforms include the shifting of the role of Chairman of the National Committee that presides over Parliament from the Upper House (the Shura Council) to the elected Lower House. In addition, the mapping of the voting districts themselves will be reviewed to make sure they fairly represent the voting constituencies.
Additional reforms that will affect Parliament include the implementation of stricter guidelines for appointments to the Shura Council and increasing the legislative and regulatory powers of the Lower House of Parliament.
Those who participated in the National Dialogue heard what the people were saying, saw where the country wants and needs to go, and engaged in focused discussions on how to move forward, noted Fahad Buallay, spokesman for the National Dialogue Committee.
“These recommendations are built on the shared desires and determination of all Bahrainis who have decided to invest in the future of our country,” Buallay said. “We did not always agree on the priority or the need of each individual idea or request. Crucially, however, we all agreed that the moment is now, that the door has been opened for us to be bold, to be sure and to be unrelenting in leading Bahrain to become a more complete, more representative democracy.”
The aim of the National Dialogue was to build consensus about reforms among the approximately 300 participants representing all segments of society. These reforms covered four major policy areas: political, economic, social and rights. The recommendations reached were through consensus and touch dozens of areas in varying specificity.
Political recommendations most likely will get in-depth attention as the improvement of democracy is atop everyone’s wish list – whether debated in parliament, majlises or coffee shops.
The committee noted that with the recommendations the power of parliament and its members will be greatly increased – from granting it enhanced scrutiny over the government to instilling it with greater legislative and monitoring powers. Those recommendations include:
Government should be approved by the elected Parliament. MPs will have the right to reject the entire government, as well as the government’s four-year work plan.
Parliament will have the right to initiate discussions on any theme in addition to the agenda. In addition, ministers will have to be present to answer questions in the Parliament session when issues are being debated related to their individual ministries.
The recommendations also call for electoral constituencies to be reviewed to insure fairness.
As part of the financial larger push for transparency across the board, rules need to be established related to the funding of political societies with full financial disclosure.
These are all forward-looking measures. However, to move forward the committee noted leaders have to address some issues from the immediate past, such as:
Lay-offs and terminations during the recent unrest should be investigated to find a solution to the issues that have arisen from them.
A national body for reconciliation should be created and a national program to promote human rights awareness among official and civil society organizations, with a particular focus among law enforcement personnel, should be instituted.
Judges should be suitably trained on human rights issues, as well as on international treaties and conventions that Bahrain is a signatory to. The Supreme Judiciary Council should be formed by appointment (rather than election) to avoid politicizing the system.
The practice of firing journalists based upon their views or opinions should be made illegal, as should shutting down media without a court order. A more liberal legal environment for journalists should be fostered, a code of ethics for journalists developed and access to information from official authorities should be improved.
The committee also noted that there are reforms needed outside the political system. For example:
Stronger action needs to be taken to fight corruption and increase transparency in public life, with the National Audit Court taking legal action against those who misuse public funds.
An independent authority should be created to oversee and implement comprehensive management policies and financial transparency in the governance of ministries and institutions, in line with international standards.
An independent authority should assess the quality of government services in health, education, housing and protecting the environment.
The implementation of the Bahrain Economic Vision 2030 should be accelerated and diversification of the country’s sources of income needs to be introduced, reducing dependence on oil and boosting sectors such as tourism, industry, and real estate.
Term limits of two terms and one Board membership at any one time should be instituted for Board members of government related organizations and companies.
As Britain’s new ambassador to Bahrain, Iain Lindsay, said, “The effective implementation [of the National Dialogue recommendations] is absolutely critical and an inclusive process of implementation will be absolutely critical in bringing back stability, prosperity and reconciliation.” He applauded the efforts of the National Dialogue, noting that, “there has to be a process of dialogue and that can’t happen on the street.”
Salah Al Jowdar of the Arabic daily newspaper Al Ayam said the National Dialogue was an excellent means for all parties and interested groups to come together and discuss recommendations for the future of the kingdom. “It’s a new beginning for Bahrain,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for moving forward and learning lessons of these past months.”
The government committee noted that the National Dialogue is a serious and responsible path for building the future of the nation, by providing insights and perceptions that create general consensus, and build upon the national gains achieved over the past decade.
“We have put forth mechanisms to meet citizens’ expectations,” Buallay said. “Our limit is consensus among all segments of the society. Our goal is bringing together different points of view to develop common visions that will contribute to further reform and development in all fields.”
Other key recommendations are that the laws related to money laundering and funding illegal activities, as well as laws related to intellectual property and copyright infringement, be reviewed in order to align them with international standards. Individual ministry action plans include a directive to the Ministry of Education to establish a timeframe in which to achieve a more productive educational environment aimed at improving the quality of education; and a directive to the Ministry of Health aimed at improving health services through increasing the number of specialized health centers with the most current equipment for diagnostic and treatment protocols. The Ministry of Health is assessing the existing healthcare centers in order to make sure that they meet the current and projected healthcare needs in Bahrain.