Manama: Seventeen years ago today, Bahrain issued its National Action Charter, which became the country’s bedrock. It is a comprehensive document that transformed Bahrain years ahead of the so-called Arab Spring, through home-grown ideas.
The 2001 document was drafted by the people and for the people. It’s just 4,548 words in Arabic, but clearly spells out the way forward to enhance the political, social, economic dimensions of the country. It contains all details, from basis of government to the protection of individual freedoms, equality, freedom of belief, expression and publishing, democratic life and principles of the free market.
Ask any Bahraini woman, and she will highlight how the Charter gave women the right to vote and run in parliamentary and municipal elections.
Ask any member of the Christian and Jewish minorities in Bahrain, and they will emphasise how the Charter enabled them to be represented for the first time in the bicameral parliament. “All citizens are equal before the law in terms of rights and duties, without distinction of race, origin, language, religion or belief,” the Charter reads.
Ask any political figure, regardless of their affiliations, and they will explain how the Charter opened up new possibilities for them. The idea of the Charter was conceived after the death of the Emir Shaikh Eisa Bin Salman Al Khalifa in March 1999, when his eldest son, King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa succeeded him.
The development was described by Mohammad Al Mutawa, a veteran politician who is currently the Minister of Cabinet Affairs, as the third major landmark in Bahrain’s modern history.
“The first landmark was in 1869 when the people of Bahrain asked former Ruler Shaikh Eisa Bin Ali to lead the country and put an end to political instability. He did establish stability and accomplished a great deal for the country,” Al Mutawa said earlier this month at a seminar in Manama.
“The second was one century later, in April 1970, when the people and the ruler, Shaikh Eisa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, stood together to stress the independence and Arab identity of Bahrain.”
Iran had made claims to Bahrain, and the United Nations was approached to send a mission to assess the will of Bahrainis regarding their sovereignty following the withdrawal of the British from the Arabian Gulf.
The referendum resulted in a UN Document that stated “the overwhelming majority of the people of Bahrain are in favour of their territory being officially recognised as an independent country of complete sovereignty”.
The third landmark was when Hamad Bin Eisa became the ruler of Bahrain.
“He had a vision based on deep conviction and a thorough assessment of the situation,” Al Mutawa said. “From my knowledge about His Majesty, I can say that he believes that those who do not comprehend history deeply cannot foresee the future. He did read history and decided to go for a comprehensive reform project. He conducted a series of meetings with citizens and had a clear perception of what the people wanted.”
King Hamad realised the Shura Council in Bahrain at that time did not fulfil the ambition of Bahrainis or his own ambition for the people of Bahrain, Al Mutawa added.
As an alternative, he considered the systems embraced by major democracies across the world, and developed a penchant for a bicameral legislature made up of the Council of Representatives and the Shura Council.
The drive to lay the foundations for a modern state with advanced constitutional institutions, laws and systems was launched.
On November 22, 2000, King Hamad called for the formation of the Supreme National Committee to draft the National Action Charter and, the following day, he discussed with its 44 members the high significance of their historic mission.
The committee convened for the first time on December 4. For about three weeks, some of Bahrain’s brightest minds worked together to put together the document that would usher in a modern state.
“Most of the members had progressive ideas that were largely consistent with the aspirations of all progressive people in Bahrain. The committee represented all sectors of the society, including the economy, human rights, vocations and religion,” Al Mutawa, a member of the committee, recalled.
Jamal Fakhro, another member, said the work of the committee was a “beautiful exercise in democratic practices”.
“All members discussed every single item, and there were agreements and divergences. Arguments and counterarguments marked the debates, followed by voting. Many of the points were approved unanimously.”
When an agreement could not be reached by the committee members, the matter was taken to King Hamad who always sided with the more progressive stance, Al Mutawa said.
“In one instance, there was a suggestion to submit the Charter once it was ready to a popular congress made up of around 500 people for approval; however, King Hamad insisted that the draft be put to a popular referendum to ensure that all people have their say,” Al Mutawa recalled.
The framers of the final draft of the Charter presented their work to King Hamad on December 23.
“This is an outstanding day in the history of Bahrain ... We can confidently say your completion of the draft of the National Action Charter represents an advanced step in the process of the political modernisation of the state and its institutions to meet the aspirations of the people of Bahrain ...,” King Hamad told the committee members.
The draft was put to a referendum on February 14 and 98.4 per cent of the people approved it. King Hamad ratified the Charter on February 16.
In 2002, the Charter was converted into a constitutional reality by the constitution and into a working reality by the state institutions.
Political societies and NGOs quickly mushroomed.
Recently, Fakhro advised his peers at the Shura Council to draw inspiration from the Charter in their quest to move forward.