from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The Non-Existent Progress in Bahrain

June 30, 2015

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The Obama administration has decided to resume military aid to Bahrain, or more exactly to dispense with the limits on such aid that had been imposed after the 2011 crackdown there.

One can make a national security case for doing this. Given the security situation in the region, terrorism, the role of Iran, the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, and other factors, it is possible to argue that the United States does not have the luxury right now of considering internal matters in Bahrain--such as repression. In announcing the resumption, the State Department did say this: "Bahrain is an important and long-standing ally on regional security issues, working closely with us on the counter-ISIL campaign and providing logistical and operational support for countering terrorism and maintaining freedom of navigation."

I don’t agree with this decision because I think the internal situation in Bahrain is a real danger for U.S. security interests. Indifference to repression of the Shia majority there risks the eventual expulsion of the Fifth Fleet, never-ending instability in Bahrain, and the creation of real opportunities for Iranian trouble-making.

But what is most objectionable to me is having the Obama administration mislead about the Bahrain situation. The State Department announcement said this:

While we do not think that the human rights situation in Bahrain is adequate – as our statement on the recent sentencing of Sheikh Ali Salman and the content of our recently-released Human Rights Report make clear – we believe it is important to recognize that the government of Bahrain has made some meaningful progress on human rights reforms and reconciliation. This includes implementation of many key recommendations from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, and the recent release of a number of prisoners charged with crimes related to their political association and expression. These steps contribute to an environment more conducive to reconciliation and progress.

This is nonsense. There has been regression, not progress, on "human rights reforms and reconciliation." Here is a June 26 statement from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:

We are also particularly concerned about two individuals currently in detention in Bahrain, namely Sheikh Ali al-Salman, the Secretary General of al-Wefaq political party and Nabeel Rajab, one of Bahrain’s most prominent and respected human rights defenders.

Sheikh Ali al-Salman was arrested on 28 December 2014. His pre-trial detention has been repeatedly extended since then, and he is expected to be sentenced later this month. Al-Salman and his lawyers say they have consistently been prevented by the court from presenting oral arguments. It is further reported that Al-Salman and his legal representatives have not been provided with any meaningful opportunity to examine the evidence. Back in January, as you may remember, the UN, including the UN Human Rights Office, called for his immediate release. We repeat that call today.

Nabeel Rajab was arrested on 2 April on charges related to insulting a statutory body (in other words, for reporting publicly on what was going on inside Jaw prison) and spreading rumours during wartime. If convicted, Rajab may face up to ten years in prison. He has already been sentenced to six months of detention, a verdict that was confirmed by the Court of Appeal on 14 May.

A lasting resolution to the instability that has plagued Bahrain is not going to be reached solely through reliance on security means or through repressive measures aimed at silencing critical voices. It needs to be through a genuine dialogue between the Government and the opposition without preconditions.

So the government is simply jailing the opposition, not pursuing "reconciliation." The State Department’s own human rights report on Bahrain, released a week ago, says this:

The most serious human rights problems included citizens’ limited ability to change their government peacefully; arrest and detention of protesters (some of whom were violent) on vague charges, occasionally leading to their torture and mistreatment in detention; and lack of due process in trials of political and human rights activists, students, and journalists, including harsh sentences. Other significant human rights problems included arbitrary deprivation of life; impunity for security officers accused of committing human rights violations; arbitrary arrest; violations of privacy; and restrictions on civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and religion.

Does that seem like "reconciliation" and progress?

POMED, the Project on Middle East Democracy, responded to the Obama administration decision with a strong statement:

the political and security situations in Bahrain have continued to deteriorate, there has been no progress at all toward political reconciliation, and the Government of Bahrain has refused to implement the kind of meaningful reform desperately needed in the country. Before today, this reality had been acknowledged by the U.S. administration. The State Department’s Human Rights Report — released only last week — paints a bleak picture, expressing serious concerns with the lack of reform and limitations on the rights to free expression, assembly, association, and religion.

While there have been some modest positive steps taken, these have consistently been outweighed and outnumbered by additional rights abuses. For example, while the recent and long-overdue release of imprisoned opposition leader Ibrahim Sharif is welcome, it has been overshadowed by the recent sentencing of opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman and the continued detention of human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, both imprisoned for peaceful expression of their political views.

When the administration suspended weapons sales in 2011, the message was that sales would not resume in the absence of meaningful political reform. Today’s decision represents a reversal of this policy, sending a negative signal both to Bahraini officials and to the nation’s citizens.

They have it quite right: before the State Department’s words released yesterday, reality on the ground in Bahrain had at least been acknowledged by the United States. Instead, policy is now based on and defended with a misrepresentation of the truth. For Bahrainis and for U.S. national security interests, no good will come of that.