The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Bahrain is a state party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Bahrain is not a state party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the state has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Bahrain is a state party to the 2004 Arab Charter of Human Rights. Under Article 24(6) of the Charter, every citizen has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
The 2002 Constitution of Bahrain guarantees the right of peaceful assembly:
Individuals are entitled to assemble privately without a need for permission or prior notice, and no member of the security forces may attend their private meetings.
Public meetings, parades and assemblies are permitted under the rules and conditions laid down by law, but the purposes and means of the meeting must be peaceful and must not be prejudicial to public decency.Art. 28, 2002 Constitution of Bahrain.
Assemblies are extensively controlled and subject to criminal penalties under Articles 178 and 180 of the Penal Code; Law 18/1973 on Public Meetings, Processions and Gatherings; and its amendments under Law 32/2006 and Law 22/2013. Law 22/2013 imposes a blanket ban on all protests in Manama, with the exception of sit-ins in front of state organs if written permission is provided.
Article 8 of Law 18/1973 gives the Director-General of the Police the power to determine whether a gathering is to be considered a public assembly, which requires official notification (and in effect authorisation). Under Article 4 of Law 18/1973, any assembly that has not been notified can be prohibited.
Notified assemblies may only take place in designated public areas and from sunrise to sunset, except by special written permission from the Director-General of the Police. Assemblies that comply with the notification requirements can be prohibited where the objective of the assembly could cause the infringement of public security, public morals or “any other circumstances related to the time and the place, or any other dangerous reason”. Law 32/2006 does give organisers the right to dispute a prohibition of their assembly.
Article 180 of the Penal Code gives discretionary powers to the police to disperse assemblies, allowing any police officer to order the dispersal of a group of five or more people gathering with the intention of rioting. Anyone who remains in place after a dispersal order is liable for imprisonment, with no maximum term specified.
Article 178 of the Penal Code criminalises gatherings of more than five people with the intention to commit a crime or infringe public order. Law 32/2006 lays down criminal sanction for organisers who carry out a prohibited or non-notified assembly of six months’ imprisonment and/or a 100 dinar fine.Art. 13, Law 32/2006.
According to the Government of Bahrain, reporting in its 2017 Universal Periodic Review under the Human Rights Council,
The necessary rules have been established to regulate the right of citizens to assemble and participate in peaceful marches, avoiding disruption of everyday life or traffic and in accordance with international standards in this regard.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the state and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
In 2014, Bahrain amended its domestic law to reflect the provisions of the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.Decree No. 24 of 2014 of the Minister of the Interior.
A 2012 Police Code of Conduct also addresses the use of force by law enforcement in a number of important provisions:
- Force shall not be used except when absolutely necessary or where it is used in self-defence in accordance with the law.
- Police officers commit to the principle of using only such force as is proportional to the danger posed to life or public or private property.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
The 2012 Police Code of Conduct also addresses the use of force by law enforcement in a number of important provisions:
- Deadly force can only be used by an officer where it is the last resort to defend against aggression against the police officer, or where it is necessary in order to save the officer’s life or the lives of others.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2018 Concluding Observations on Bahrain, the Human Rights Committee expressed its concern
that the right to freedom of assembly is severely limited and notes that public gatherings and marches are severely restricted by a 1973 decree on public gatherings and Decree No. 32/2006. In this regard, the Committee notes with concern that participating in public gatherings without government authorization is a crime punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment. The Committee is also concerned about reports that the State party regularly avails itself of legal provisions making assemblies illegal to disperse protests violently and arrest activists, human rights defenders and members of the opposition....
The Committee called on Bahrain to "ensure that the right to freedom of assembly is guaranteed to all individuals without discrimination" as well as to ensure "the prompt, effective and impartial investigation of threats against and harassment and assaults of activists, human rights defenders and members of the opposition and, when appropriate, prosecute the perpetrators of such acts".
Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) was set up by the King of Bahrain on 29 June 2011 to consider respect for human rights during unrest in the country in February and March 2011. The BICI, which was chaired by Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, published its report on 23 November 2011. It found that the security forces had used excessive force, including lethal force, against demonstrators. This use of force
violated the principles of necessity and proportionality, which are the generally applicable legal principles in matters relating to the use of force by law enforcement officials. This is evident in both the choice of weapons that were used by these forces during confrontations with civilians and the manner in which these weapons were used.Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, 2011, para. 1112.
While the Commission did not find evidence of a policy of lethal force, it did conclude that the security forces "used force and firearms in situations where this was unnecessary and in a manner that was disproportionate".Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, 2011, para. 1119.The Commission found that in the use of shotguns, the security forces "did not, at all times, strictly comply with their legal obligation to target the individuals in a manner that would disable or incapacitate the individual."Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, 2011, para. 1115.The Commission further concluded that rubber bullets were fired "in a manner that did not aim to cause minimal injuries to civilians".Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, 2011, para. 1116.The Commission also found that the disproportionate use of tear gas for the dispersion of protesters:
On many occasions, the number of tear gas canisters fired at protesters was disproportionate to the size of the demonstration and the number of participants. In a number of situations, tear gas canisters were fired at private homes, in a manner that was unnecessary and indiscriminate.Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, 2011, para. 1117.
The Commission found that excessive force was used at the checkpoints that were set up on various roads in many areas of Bahrain. Individuals who were suspected of having participated in or sympathised with the protests that occurred in Bahrain were beaten, kicked, and physically harassed.Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, 2011, para. 1118.
Views of Civil Society
According to Freedom House's 2019 report on Bahrain:
Citizens must obtain a permit to hold demonstrations, and a variety of onerous restrictions make it difficult to organize a legal gathering in practice. Police regularly use force to break up political protests, most of which occur in Shiite villages. Participants can face long jail terms, particularly if the demonstrations involve clashes with security personnel.