When the human rights lawyer and professor Sir Nigel Rodley was first approached in mid-2011 to take part in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) he had his doubts. Even today, he is not quite sure how he came to join the group of more than 40 investigators and experts who in November 2011 presented their findings on the events of last year to the Bahrain’s king Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

Our staff had contact with all, including the highest levels of the government

Sir Nigel Rodley, commissioner, Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry

“The short answer is that I don’t know,” says Rodley, now back at work in the UK at the University of Essex’s human rights centre, which he chairs. “I was first contacted indirectly and then directly by the king’s lawyers. I was told that Cherif Bassiouni, whom I have known for decades, was going to be the chair, and then after that he talked to me. But it wasn’t exactly as if I answered an ad in the newspaper; it wasn’t an advertised post.”

Early apprehensions

A month after the BICI report was published, in late December, Rodley, who was one of its four commissioners, feels that enough time has passed for Bahrainis and international observers to digest its contents, and he is now ready to discuss his feelings on the report and the way forward for Bahrain.

Past experiences of government-sponsored independent human rights inquiries had left Sir Nigel, who between 1993 and 2001 was the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, sceptical of their ability to operate without restrictions.

“I had a few questions beforehand,” he says. In 2006, Rodley and 11 other international legal experts were invited by the Sri Lankan government to oversee its investigations into alleged human rights abuses committed during the country’s two decade-long civil war. A little over a year later, he resigned along with other observers after it became clear, he says, that they would not be able to do their job properly. He was initially worried that similar problems could arise in Bahrain.

“There was no international secretariat and we didn’t have the option of using the civil service as we felt that they wouldn’t be perceived as being objective,” he says. Despite his concerns, Rodley says that he decided to take part in the BICI because of his belief that human rights reporting is useful in itself. “Even if, in the end, the report were to be ignored the exercise would have been worthwhile,” he says.

The presence of Bassiouni, the veteran UN war crimes expert, acted to reassure Sir Nigel that the investigation would be as thorough and independent as possible. “The commission’s infrastructure was very much in the hands of Cherif, who has a lot of experience in inquiry missions,” he says. “He has an incredible list of Arab phone contacts, including investigators, judges and prosecutors. There aren’t many people who could get that kind of team together inside a month.”

Government support

Once the BICI team was in the country, he says, many of his doubts were assuaged. “On a day-to-day basis, our staff had contact with all, including the highest levels of the government,” he says

“[Bassiouni] spent a lot of time in Bahrain. He had full access to everybody and he met with the king on a number of occasions. The commissioners had in-depth meetings with the highest levels of officialdom, including the armed forces commander, the head of the National Security Agency and the ministers of justice and interior. There was no problem with access.”

The question of what had been going on the ground was hard to disentangle

It quickly became clear that human rights abuses were being committed by the state security services. “Some of the things that were going on were quite distressing,” Rodley says. “There were some serious human rights abuses taking place. We had access to places of detention and to people who were being held in the places of detention.”

Human rights investigations present a number of challenges for team members, who are effectively present to report on abuses as they happen, says Rodley. “There are two views as to what one should do in that situation,” he says. “One is that you are there to report and the document is the remedy. The other is that you see what you see and communicate that to the government, and end up acting as a kind of ombudsman. There were differing views among us on the role of the commission, although we found ourselves being led towards some real interventions.”

“It can be challenging not to be affected by what one sees and hears in these situations,” he adds. “But just as doctors have to retain some kind of clinical distance and maintain a certain dark humour about it, so do human rights investigators.”

Historic narrative

One of the biggest challenges for the commission, Rodley says, was building up a clear narrative of the historical background that led up to the events of 2011. “Putting together a historical narrative is very hard because everyone has a different starting point,” he says. But this was nothing compared with the challenge of accurately and objectively building up a narrative of the events of February and March 2011.

“The question of what had been going on the ground was particularly hard to disentangle,” he says. “But I think we didn’t do too bad a job. It is clear that what didn’t start out as a sectarian protest movement turned into one, not least because it was portrayed as such.

“The escalation came as a part of the use of lethal force against protesters, who had been largely peaceful, which [in turn] unleashed some pretty nasty things on the side of the demonstrators. Unpleasant things happened on both sides.”

A particular bone of contention was the role played by staff at Salmaniya Medical Centre in the early days of the protests. In June 2011, 24 doctors and 23 nurses, many of them from Salmaniya, were charged with incitement to overthrow the regime.

“With Salmaniya, it was hard to unravel what went on,” says Rodley. “People have a narrative where the medics were fomenting revolution and were involved in the storage of arms. The other is that they were arrested as a political act in retaliation for merely treating the victims of official use of force.

“We found that, although there was nothing recognisably criminal in their actions, some medical personnel were acting in a way that you wouldn’t expect doctors and other medics to act, such as participating in demonstrations in the hospital precinct and on occasion in the hospital itself. It was not exactly clear to us, even after our inquiries, what had happened.” Rodley points to a film clip, which was widely viewed on video-sharing website YouTube and shown on state broadcaster Bahrain TV, as an example of the difficulties the team faced.

The video shows a Bahraini doctor apparently pulling an injured man from a trolley and dragging him towards the hospital entrance. It remains unclear, he says, whether he was roughly manhandling the patient or reacting quickly to his needs and protecting him from angry protesters.

Regardless, the state’s treatment of medical staff was “unconscionable”, says Rodley. Namely, “…the incommunicado detention of some of [the staff] for weeks or months, bringing them before special courts on political charges based on confessions obtained by torture or similar ill-treatment, and convicting and sentencing them to exorbitant periods of imprisonment.”

He is equally critical of the security apparatus’ use of force against protesters and its treatment of detainees, but stops short of directly apportioning blame to high-ranking officials or members of the ruling family.

“There was not enough time to investigate responsibility at an individual level, [but] there was clearly a set policy at a high official level. The way people were detained and handled as part of a joint operation between the police, the National Security Agency and the armed forces, with the armed forces commander in charge, indicated that these bodies were clearly acting according to a common system of training. This, in turn, suggested that their leadership expected the personnel under them to act in the way they did act.”

In light of its findings, Rodley remains broadly positive about the fact that the report was commissioned in the first place and the king’s decision to have it released at a public event that he both endorsed and attended.

“[Bassiouni] presented a summary of the findings, which made for grim listening,” he says. “And the king, the crown prince and the prime minister sat there and had to take it on the chin; the king responded in a dignified manner. It was quite impressive. I haven’t seen anything like it before.”

The report has come in for some criticism from both sides of the political divide in Bahrain, but the commission did the best job it could under the circumstances, says Rodley.

He feels it is a fair summary of the events of 2011. “I do not expect a report covering the range of material and incidents in a four-month period that ours covered is error-free,” he says. “I’m confident that the big picture is accurate and an honest reflection of the reality we were asked to look into.”

Reconciliation

Rodley expresses concern over reports that political arrests and sectarian abuse have continued since the report was released.

“I am a bit worried by reports suggesting that the law enforcement authorities’ methods haven’t changed with respect to the way they are treating the protestors, but I don’t have any more authoritative information on that than anybody else,” he says.

What happens next, Sir Nigel says, is largely in the hands of the Bahraini people in general and the Al-Khalifa ruling family in particular.

“As someone who has followed the resolution of things in Northern Ireland, a key recommendation is the integration of the security forces,” he says.

“It may not be easy to release and establish the full exoneration of political prisoners, or to prosecute the perpetrators of torture or similarly unlawful treatment and those who used excessive force resulting in death at all levels of responsibility, but these things must be done. This would create an atmosphere, which would allow [national dialogue] talks to go ahead.”

Career history

1963-1970 Completes a bachelor’s degree in law at the University of Leeds in the UK before pursuing a master’s in law at Columbia and New York University in the US

1970-72 Research fellow, Centre for International Studies, New York University

1973-1990 Legal adviser and founding head of legal and intergovernmental organisations office, international secretariat of Amnesty International

1990-present Reader and then professor of law, University of Essex

1993-2001 Special Rapporteur on Torture, UN

1998 Made a knight of the British empire for services to human rights/international law

2001-present Member of UN Human Rights Committee

2003-present Chair, Human Rights Centre, University of Essex