The Very Reverend Chris Butt, Dean of St Christopher’s Cathedral, ladies and gentlemen. It is a pleasure and an honour to be asked to speak at this evening’s St Christopher’s dinner. Looking around the room tonight I see a multicultural community, one which very much reflects the country we live in, one which has made people from different cultures and of different faiths very welcome.
I want to talk this evening about a subject which has been close to my heart since I arrived here and one which I know is central to your beliefs, namely reconciliation.
What is reconciliation? Coming from a home where, courtesy of my writer wife, etymology – the study of the origin of words and their development – is a way of life, it would be remiss of me not to briefly explain where the word reconciliation come from.
The verb reconcile comes from the Latin word reconciliare. Conciliare, which has the same roots as concilium - a council or meeting, is commonly understood to mean to bring people together, to unite. So, in essence, reconciliation is the process of bringing people together again, to unite them again.
For many of you, maybe, it may have a mainly religious meaning: reconciliation, in Christian theology, is an element of salvation that refers to the results of atonement. Reconciliation is the end of the estrangement, caused by original sin between God and humanity. John Calvin describes reconciliation as the peace between humanity and God that results from the expiation of religious sin and the propitiation or appeasing of God’s anger. Evangelical theologian Philip Ryken describes reconciliation in this way; “It is part of the message of Salvation that brings us back together with God. … God is the author, Christ is the agent and we are the ambassadors of reconciliation”. The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is of course one of seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.
For all of us, it can have a meaning about relationships: usually reconciliation is thought of as the process of becoming friendly with someone, often a family member, after an estrangement or re-establishing friendly relations between people. But it can also be the act of settling, resolving or accepting differences. Coming to terms with each other.
For me, and the reason I chose this theme for my talk tonight, it is about relationships not just between individuals but also between communities, bringing communities back together with each other, settling or at least accepting their differences. Coming to terms with each other.
This has been a theme of two important aspects of my work since I arrived in Bahrain 4 years ago in August 2011.
First, the clear task I was given by the British Government in the aftermath of the unrest of early 2011 and the particularly difficult period that followed until the establishment in late June 2011 of the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry (known as BICI) was to lead the UK’s re-engagement, or if you like reconciliation, with Bahrain, a partner, an ally and a close friend, but with whom our relations had gone through a tough patch in the first half of 2011.
As one senior British figure put it to me shortly before I arrived here, standing on the touchline with a megaphone saying ‘that’s bad, do better’ is hardly a great coaching technique far less a way of helping a close friend who has got into serious trouble and clearly needs help. Now, that process of reconciliation in our bilateral relationship was made immeasurably easier by three things.
First, the establishment of BICI by His Majesty King Hamad. It represented a recognition that things had gone seriously wrong and that if Bahrain was to move forward there needed to be an independent investigation into what had happened. The British Government and the international community warmly welcomed this landmark investigation. Indeed, President Obama said that BICI would play an essential role in advancing reconciliation in Bahrain.
Second, and more importantly, King Hamad’s acceptance in November 2011 of the recommendations of what was a highly critical report, for example confirming that there had been systemic use of torture. This acceptance of the report was also welcomed by the international community, with for example US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton saying that it was essential for Bahrainis themselves to resolve the issues identified in the report and move forward in a way that promoted reform, reconciliation, and stability. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said much the same but also urged all opposition groups to act on the report’s recommendations, demonstrating their commitment to reconciliation and contributing to the process of renewal. This was an important message. While the BICI report had been mostly critical of the authorities it was also critical, in parts, of the opposition. So, he was saying that, as was the case during the peace process in Northern Ireland, all sides needed to reconcile. Reconciliation in this context cannot be one–sided, it cannot be a unilateral step.
And that brings me to the third element in helping the process of reconciliation in our bilateral relationship. Bahrain had taken its steps and we the UK now took our step. We, and here that very much meant me, reached out to senior Bahrainis on all sides and said that we wanted to help Bahrain to move forward, specifically helping with the implementation of the BICI recommendations. That did not mean ignoring the abuses that had happened and were continuing to occur but a recognition that if we wanted to see the changes recommended in the BICI report, which Bahrain had accepted, it behoved us as a close friend to step forward and offer to engage and help, not least as it was blindingly obvious that Bahrain had, and continues to have, capacity and capability problems. This represented constructive engagement by a critical friend.
Now, given the suspicion about the approach the UK had previously taken this also meant rebuilding trust and confidence. The fact that nearly 4 years on we have in Bahrain the largest programme of British reform support in the region and that here in Bahrain the UK is by far the largest provider of reform support suggests to me that we have rebuilt that relationship, that we are reconciled. And this is reinforced by the views of those who have known this relationship for far longer than me who suggest that it is now better than it has been for many years. My firm view is that this is because it is a relationship based on partnership, working together.
And that brings me to the second important aspect of my work which has involved reconciliation. I remember when I started to talk in 2011 about the importance of reform and reconciliation in establishing sustainable stability and peace in Bahrain some of my local interlocutors were happy to talk about reform but shied away from talk of reconciliation. The wounds of early 2011 were still too raw for some, on all sides. You don’t need me to tell you about the way in which those unhappy events split families and tore apart long-standing friendships. Or that some people on all sides used sectarianism as a weapon. But the words said to me then by a leading member of the Royal Family are as true now as they were then: people of goodwill, he said, have fled the plains of moderation for the foothills of sectarian certainty; we need to lure them back down. And yet reconciliation remains a taboo subject for many groups.
So, amidst our reform programme which covers everything from police reform to penal reform to juvenile justice reform to human rights reform to judicial reform to establishing oversight bodies such as the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman (the first in the region) and the Commission for the Rights of Prisoners and Detainees (again, the first in the region), amidst all that how are we helping the process of reconciliation in Bahrain?
Let me say at the outset that this had to be and has been a Bahraini led process. It is neither possible nor credible to come to another culture in another part of the world and seek to impose a model which was developed in very different circumstances, in our case Northern Ireland. What we can do is to say, as we have always done, this is what we did, this is what worked, this did not work, do you think this is of any help to you? Unlike some of the reform areas we are working on at the request of the Bahraini authorities, reconciliation does not have international treaties, standards or obligations. It is much more personal, it’s about rebuilding trust and confidence. Hence our constant encouragement of confidence building measures, on all sides.
We have been working for around 3 years with an excellent Northern Irish organization, the Causeway Institute for Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution, whose mission is to help bring together groups from within and across divided societies; to promote trust and understanding through dialogue; and to build a sustainable peace as a means of resolving conflict. It is hardly surprising that some of the best expertise in the UK in these areas is to be found in Northern Ireland.
In the last year their work here has been to support civil society participation in reconciliation in Bahrain in order to reduce sectarian tensions and to help build social cohesion, learning from Northern Ireland’s experience. And, as with my own work here, their first task was to build trust and confidence. They reached out to people on all sides and have, I believe, established an enviable reputation as people of warmth and goodwill who only wish the best for Bahrain and who, understandably, have an ability to empathise with the recent experiences of Bahrainis.
In terms of what they have achieved, over 90 Bahrainis from all walks of life and all communities have visited Northern Ireland under the Causeway Institute’s programme. These visits have allowed Bahrainis from across the political and religious divide to experience at first hand the process of reconciliation and dialogue in Northern Ireland. Following their return to Bahrain increasing numbers are organizing workshops for their peers on reconciliation. But we are also seeing greater engagement by young people in these workshops; increased interaction between civil society organizations who were previously mistrustful of one another; improved co-operation between these organizations and government ministries; and more frequent reference to the utility and value of the Northern Ireland experience and lessons learned there.
Let me pay particular tribute to Suhail Algosaibi (son of the famous Saudi poet and diplomat, Ghazi Algosaibi) and the excellent Bahrain Foundation for Reconciliation and Civil Discourse. If more of us were like Suhail the world would be a far better place. His foundation has worked closely with our Northern Irish friends, participating in and organising reconciliation work with what is now a large and strong Causeway Institute alumni network in Bahrain. I was delighted to take part in their first alumni event a few months ago.
Let me finish by referring to some comments Suhail made a year ago in an interview on reconciliation with Citizens for Bahrain, a group of young and moderate Bahrainis. He made the point that reconciliation starts in the home, stressing the role that parents play in perpetuating certain stereotypes in their children. He also noted that during his school years in the late 1980s nobody had paid much attention to whether fellow students were Sunni, Shia or non-Bahraini Asians; “the worst you would see was some teasing” he said. But he went on to note that this coexistence is under threat, tensions have given rise to increasingly divided schools, where Sunnis and Shia go to different schools in different areas. He concluded “If this continues, we will have a major problem; we have to get to work on social reconciliation”.
I fear that a year later the sectarian noises in the region around Bahrain have got far worse which underlines the need for stronger efforts to reconcile Bahrain’s communities. I am delighted to say that the UK has agreed to fund an expanded programme of support from the Causeway Institute here over the next year.
“Keep hope alive;” was Suhail’s final message in a recent TV interview, emphasizing the role that each Bahraini must play in creating a climate where reconciliation becomes possible. I am sure all of us, whatever our nationality, whatever our faith, would say ‘hear, hear’ to that.
Chris, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.