Even as it admitted that human rights conditions in the country remain poor, the United States announced Monday it would lift holds on security assistance to Bahrain's Defense Force and National Guard, put in place in 2011 following the state's crackdown on Arab Spring demonstrators.
"It will confirm suspicions across the Middle East that legitimate concerns about human rights abuses and political repression will inevitably be trumped by short-term security concerns."
—Stephen McInerney, Project on Middle East Democracy
"While we do not think that the human rights situation in Bahrain is adequate ... we believe it is important to recognize that the government of Bahrain has made some meaningful progress on human rights reforms and reconciliation," said State Department spokesman John Kirby. It was not immediately clear what sort of aid would be made available, though the State Department said "all arms transfers to Bahrain will continue to undergo review under the U.S. Conventional Arms Transfer Policy."
But Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said the decision to lift aid restrictions was "occurring in the absence of any real or meaningful political reform."
In fact, as the Washington, D.C.-based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) noted in a press release on Monday: "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."
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Just last month, Human Rights Watch called on Bahraini authorities to order an independent investigation into allegations that security forces used excessive force to quell unrest at Jaw Prison in March 2015, and mistreated prisoners in the aftermath.
And in advance of an early-May meeting between President Barack Obama and leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council—of which Bahrain is a member—Human Rights Watch pointed out that Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have all passed draconian legislation since the so-called Arab uprisings of 2011, while five of the six countries (excluding Kuwait) have ratified a joint security agreement that could be used to criminalize criticism of Gulf Cooperation Council countries or rulers.
"GCC rulers have cast a blanket of repression over the region in response to their citizens’ calls for political reform," Margon said at the time. "President Obama should make clear the US doesn’t support the GCC’s stifling of dissent, which is more likely to undermine stability than guarantee it."
Meanwhile, in its most recent human rights assessment, Amnesty International said of Bahrain:
The government continued to stifle and punish dissent and to curtail freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Security forces used excessive force to disperse protests, killing at least two people. Opposition activists sentenced after unfair trials in previous years continued to be held, including prisoners of conscience. Torture of detainees continued and a climate of impunity prevailed.
Of the State Department's announcement, Reuters reports:
While there is no evidence the US decision was directly related to the suicide bombing on a mosque in Kuwait last week, it does come as Gulf monarchies grapple with what appears to be an increased threat from the militant "Islamic State" group.
But POMED executive director Stephen McInerney countered: "Today's announcement will further erode U.S. credibility on human rights issues in Bahrain and across the region. It will confirm suspicions across the Middle East that legitimate concerns about human rights abuses and political repression will inevitably be trumped by short-term security concerns."