20 years later: Bahrainis praise national action charter, demand reform

The document reintroduced constitutional rule and strengthened economic and social rights, including rights for women.

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (R) speaks to British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) during the first Gulf Cooporative Council's (GCC) " GCC British Summit", in Sakhir Palace Bahrain, December 7, 2016. (photo credit: HAMAD I MOHAMMED / REUTERS)
Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (R) speaks to British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) during the first Gulf Cooporative Council's (GCC) " GCC British Summit", in Sakhir Palace Bahrain, December 7, 2016.
(photo credit: HAMAD I MOHAMMED / REUTERS)
Some 98.4% of Bahraini voters approved in a national referendum on Feb. 14-15, 2001 adoption of the National Action Charter, a document put forward by then-Emir Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa – now the country’s king, to end the 1990s uprising and return the country to constitutional rule.
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Today, supporters of the government and the opposition disagree on the degree to which the charter’s sections on political rights and the work of political parties have been realized, but both support implementation of its articles related to economic and social rights.
Hamad sought to carry out political reforms in Bahrain within the project he launched in 2000, one year after taking power following the death of his father, Emir Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa.
The charter has six chapters. Perhaps the most important pertain to the transformation of Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy and the principle of separation of powers, so that there are legislative, executive and judicial authorities. The king is the head of the three authorities.
The charter also approved the organization of political parties and associations, and the establishment of an elected parliament, in addition to reforms in human rights; the abolition of the State Security Law, which was used to crack down on political unrest from 1974 until 2001; justice in the distribution of wealth; and other political, social and economic rights.
The opposition, which called for the vote on the charter, did not participate in the first election in 2002, but did take part in the 2006 vote, winning 18 of the 40 seats in the Council of Representatives, the lower house of the National Assembly.
Redha Faraj, a member from the Shiite community of the appointed Shura Council or Consultative Council, the upper house of the National Assembly, told The Media Line that: “The National Action Charter has had many positive economic impacts on Bahrain, the most important of which is the increase in GDP from $13.2 billion in 2002 to nearly $40 billion in 2020, and the per capita income has also increased for the Bahraini citizen, by 100%, since 2002 until now.”
He continued: “The experience of Bahrain during the past 20 years, despite all the obstacles, deserves to be scientifically documented by specialists who study all aspects and achievements, as the charter contributed to solving many problems before they happened.”
The Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, a Shiite political party that has operated clandestinely since authorities ordered it closed four years ago, said via its official Twitter account that “Bahrain still needs more reforms, and there must be an elected prime minister, in addition to a real exercise of political work, not a formal parliament that is controlled by the government.”
The Bahraini authorities closed Al-Wefaq in a final decision in February 2018, on the charge of “dealing with Iran, accusing it of being a branch of the Iraqi Islamic Dawa Party and receiving orders from Tehran.” Ali Salman, Al-Wefaq’s secretary general, was arrested in December 2014 and sentenced to life in prison in November 2018, on charges of communicating with the State of Qatar and inciting violence and terrorism.
Issa al-Arabi, the president of the Arab Union for Human Rights, told The Media Line that: “The National Charter was a bold step by the king, and with it he preempted the political demands made by the Arab peoples in the Arab Spring in 2011.”
“The charter raised the ceiling on freedoms in Bahrain, and it was a qualitative leap and strengthened human rights in Bahrain, and we have seen [the establishment of] large institutions related to human rights, and work according to these lofty principles,” Arabi said.
Abdulla al-Hawaj, a Shiite businessman and academic who served on the Supreme Committee for the Preparation of the National Action Charter, told local media that “the committee’s discussions in 2000 did not contain anything that was prohibited from presentation, and the committee was free to introduce amendments to the draft charter submitted by the government.”
The committee introduced amendments regarding 70% to 80% of the draft, Hawaj said.
The Al-Menbar National Islamic Society, a Bahraini political party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, affirmed in a statement, a copy of which was obtained by The Media Line, that “the charter moved Bahrain from the stage of disrupting the constitution to a full constitutional life,” when it moved from the previous constitution from 1973 to the National Action Charter.
“The political parties, which constitute the backbone of political life, have greatly contributed to the success of the experiment and the achievement of many national gains that put Bahrain on the path to democracy, and provided a space for freedom of opinion and expression, including freedom of the press, the establishment of political parties, the establishment of the Office of Financial and Administrative Control. and the launch of many economic and educational projects,” the statement added.
The Office of Financial and Administrative Control is tasked with fighting corruption and preserving public funds.
Al-Menbar’s statement added: “We call for a comprehensive and urgent review of all political, economic and social files after the performance in these files witnessed a slight decline, in a way that may not serve the public interest or achieve the principles of the charter or the goals of the reform project.”
Ahlam Janahi, the president of the Bahraini Businesswomen’s Society, told The Media Line that the country’s women have greatly benefited from the National Action Charter over the past 20 years.
Women in Bahrain “have obtained many rights, especially since the establishment of the Supreme Council for Women,” an advisory body to the government, Janahi said. The supreme council “changed laws to be in the interest of women,” she said, adding that society in Bahrain has reached “the stage of empowering women to advance women.”  
“The political, social, cultural and economic rights of women have been strengthened following the National Action Charter, and we now have female cabinet ministers and a female speaker of parliament. The only criteria for employment or appointments in ministries or even government agencies are competence and qualification,” she emphasized.
“We now have more than 50% of the employees in the government being women, and a large proportion of leadership positions are held by women,” Janahi said.