Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

In conversation with M. Sharif Bassiouni - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
Select Page
Mahmud Sharif Bassiouni at his home. Asharq Al-Awsat

Mahmud Sharif Bassiouni at his home. (Asharq Al-Awsat photo)

Siracusa, Asharq Al-Awsat—Mahmud Sharif Bassiouni is the former president of Bahrain’s Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), and is a distinguished research professor of law at DePaul University in Chicago. After studying and specializing in Egypt, France, Switzerland and the United States, he has become known as “the godfather of international criminal law.” He lends his expertise to a number of institutes and organizations, including the International Institute of Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences, over which he now presides, and the International Association of Penal Law (IADP), where he is the honorary president, after formerly filling the role of secretary-general and president.

In 2007, he was awarded the Hague Prize for International Law for his “distinguished contribution in the field of international law.” The winner of the Hague Prize is given the honor of selecting the fundamental principal of law on which the Hague Colloquium will be organized.

Asharq Al-Awsat met Professor Bassiouni at the International Institute of Higher Studies in the Criminal Sciences in Siracusa, Italy.

Asharq Al-Awsat: Over the past week, the institute has hosted an international conference and discussed the formation of standards for national, regional and international inquiry commissions. At the end of the conference, a document under the name of the “Siracusa Guidelines” was issued. This document—as I learned from the corridors of the conference—was developed from the experience of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). First, let me ask you about the nature of the conference, and the document that preceded it [the 1984 Siracusa principles]?

Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni: This conference was held at the headquarters of the International Institute of Higher Studies in the Criminal Sciences in Siracusa, Italy, between March 14 and 17. Seventy international experts in criminal law participated, including judges and prosecutors from international criminal courts, public prosecutors from numerous judicial systems, and a large number of international experts from the United Nations, universities and research centers. Also in attendance were the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, a number of ambassadors—including the head of the Office of International Criminal Justice at US Department of State—and high-level delegates from Bahrain and Qatar, headed by the their public prosecutors.

Q: Why did you decide to hold this conference?

The idea of holding this conference began during Bahrain’s Independent Commission of Inquiry in 2011, when I noticed that there were no standards or rules to establish commissions of inquiry—either nationally or internationally. Thus, the institute started working on a study to evaluate 35 commissions that the United Nations has formed since 2005, including that which dealt with conflict in Syria. After that, I decided to hold this conference and invite experts.

I had prepared a draft of the fundamental principles, called “Siracusa Guidelines” which included the standards that we followed in Bahrain’s Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), and in other commissions that I have participated in. I sent the draft to the participants before they travelled to Italy, so that they had plenty of time to study it and prepare their notes. Following that, all the participants came to the headquarters of the Siracusa institute and discussed the draft over there days before finally agreeing on it.

Q: What are the main principles embodied in the document?

This document includes the standards and procedures that should be applied when a commission of inquiry is established. It guarantees neutrality, transparency, objectivity, impartiality and effectiveness of these committees. The document also lists all the procedures and rules that regulate the establishment of commissions of inquiry and their relations with government or other relevant international bodies. The document also contains methods for forming investigative teams, and highlights the required qualifications and experiences, as well as how to optimally manage committees, write reports and perform tasks.

Q: Can you tell us the reason for linking the Siracusa Guidelines to the work of Bahrain’s Independent Commission of Inquiry?

We [at BICI] were completely supported [in carrying out our investigation]—to the extent that the inquiry team was allowed to visit all prisons and detention centers without prior notice. This prompted global acknowledgement for the professional performance of the committee and its results. The success in Bahrain has gained the attention of legal researchers at many centers worldwide. Last year, there was a comparative study of all the commissions of inquiry, and the BICI was a unique entity in the history of international criminal justice. It was an impressive success and the commission’s report is a real expressive model about the quality of the inquiry and the procedures we used to collect evidences, hear witnesses, inspect the scenes on the ground and write international reports.

All these acts have been freely done and without any control or restriction made by the government, but it allowed us to perform the duty perfectly.

Q: Do you think that the BICI has succeeded?

Thank God, the researchers found that Bahrain’s commission was the best, as it upheld international standards in all its tasks and was distinguishable through its strong professionalism. I have chaired and participated in five international commissions of inquiry over the last 25 years, and I am happy to say that Bahrain’s commission was the best.

Q: Do you think that the BICI’s results have contributed in solving the crisis in Bahrain, particularly through the national dialogue that is currently taking place?

The national dialogue is very important to solve political problems in Bahrain. It is the optimum solution, and the only way to move on from the current situation. Each party should show goodwill and offer appropriate proposals and solutions to resolve the crisis without prerequisites or restrictions that impede the dialogue.

Q: Is there a relation between the works of the BICI and the dialogue? If so, what form does it take?

We must not mix the national dialogue with the report that we [at the BICI] have presented. As I have frequently said, it is considered a unique commission of inquiry, and its goal is restricted to investigating the events that happened in early 2011. A national commission was established by the president of the Shura Council to implement the recommendations of the commission. After that, the minister of justice was assigned to establish a special agency to follow up the implementation process. Consequently, the measures taken by the government are a part of the solution—but we shouldn’t mix the recommendations of the report with the political process in any way.

I call on those discussing the events not to make the report an obstacle on the way of resolving the crisis. The report concluded with a set of clear and specific recommendations, which are public and have nothing to do with the political process. The Bahraini government courageously accepted the report and vowed to implement all of our recommendations.

Q: Did you evaluate or follow up the steps of Bahraini government? To what extent is it committed to the recommendations of your commission’s report?

Yes, definitely. In January, 2012, His Majesty the King tasked me with assessing the steps taken by government and [to give my opinion about] whether they are on the right track. At that time, I wrote in my report that the government had already begun to take important steps and measures that will help seriously achieve the recommendations.

Q: What is the ideal model for holding dialogue between the government and the opposition?

In general, there is no single ideal way to hold national dialogue, as there are various different methods. It depends on the parties involved in the dialogue, which will be held possibly through the working papers of the parties concerned.

Q: Are you satisfied with the way in which dialogue in Bahrain between the various parties is being conducted?

To my knowledge, the dialogue in Bahrain is based on only the political side, so there is only one area available for discussion. But the basics of dialogue are such that there are representatives from all parties, that every party presents a working paper of its perceptions and its plans to resolve the crisis.

In other cases—when dialogue includes several topics—participants should be divided into separate groups or specialized committees, and each one of them takes charge of certain files—covering economy, policy, social issues, education, the media, and so on. It should be an open dialogue, and each party ought to present its own solutions transparently and freely. It is necessary to discuss every topic as a different problem, because each problem has a solution.

Everyone should remember that the report and recommendations were announced officially and publicly in front of the international community, and that the international media has printed and distributed them broadly, both inside and outside of Bahrain. Also, we shouldn’t forget that His Majesty the King and the government courageously and transparently accepted the recommendations. All of this suggests a sense of responsibility and earnestness regarding their implementation. Furthermore, [the way the government has delegated the task of implementing the recommendations] shows a seriousness to carry out these recommendations.

Q: These were political measures. Have you actually found a commitment on the ground to implement the committee’s recommendations?

All students have returned to school or university, and over 98% of employees have resumed work. On a social level, this is a good indication. The judiciary had convicted policemen, which means that justice is being applied in Bahrain. It is very important that the special unit started its investigation with senior officials and officers with ranks as high as a brigadier. This is the core issue of accountability, and is another very good indication that the government is serious about implementing recommendations.

I have also learned that a complaint bureau was established in the Ministry of the Interior, and many of the security leaders in the ministry have been changed. But I think that the international community expects more changes within the Interior Ministry. There are many things from the recommendations that have been implemented, such as radical changes in the leadership of the National Security Agency, the establishment of the Office of the General Inspector, legislative and constitutional amendments, and the training of officers, judges and prosecutors.

Q: Are there any recommendations that the Bahraini government has not adhered to?

Despite good indications, there are other recommendations that have not been implemented yet because they take a long time to be carried out. These include the completion of the investigations conducted by the Special Unit, the rebuilding of mosques and places of worship, development of the media, redesigning school and university curricula, and compensation being paid to all victims. All these recommendations take a long time, so it will be a while before we can safely say that they have been fulfilled.

I think now might be an appropriate time for the government to make a new and comprehensive process of evaluation, in order to know that recommendations are being enforced on the ground. Civil society should participate in this process, but, as I said before, the national dialogue and this assessment should not be mixed together, since they are completely independent of one another. When the government reaches the truth over what has been implemented, it should determine what future steps are required to complete each recommendation. Alternatively, His Majesty the King could ask the government to specify a time limit for the completion of each recommendation.

In my view, the government should also continue to develop the processes of justice, and the judicial system on the whole.

The government is playing an important and necessary role in increasing the efficiency of judges and prosecutors. These should continue, because the world is witnessing significant developments in terms of justice, and there are daily changes. We may find ourselves, in the near, being asked to respond to these developments by activating the judicial system in accordance with the best practices and standards.