Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday lifted the government's human rights restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain, in a move that Amnesty International called "galling" and "a dangerous signal."
The State Department notified Congress of its intent to proceed with the sale of F-16 fighter jets and other weapons to the Gulf kingdom without the human rights conditions, according to Senate Foreign Relations Committee spokeswoman Micah Johnson. Congress now has two review periods to examine the trade and raise any objections.
Rights groups noted that Bahrain has a history of oppression against dissidents and participation in the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that has bombed thousands of civilians in Yemen—one of the six countries included in President Donald Trump's now-suspended travel ban. (Notably, the Trump administration is also moving to escalate its role in that conflict.)
"While getting weapons from the U.S., Bahrain's government is silencing critics at home and participating in a military coalition that is bombing civilians in Yemen," said Sunjeev Bery, an advocacy director with Amnesty International USA. "This deal sends a dangerous signal to Bahrain and all other countries that engage in serious human rights violations. It is particularly galling to arm these governments while simultaneously barring those fleeing violence entrance to the U.S. These deals place the U.S. at risk of being complicit in war crimes, and discourage other countries, like Saudi Arabia, from addressing their own human rights records."
Reprieve, a legal organization that fights against "extreme human rights violations," also decried the move.
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"President Trump's overtures to Bahrain send a worrying message at a time when the kingdom is stepping up an unprecedented campaign of internal repression," said Maya Foa, a director in the group. "Political protestors have been tortured and sentenced to death on the basis of forced 'confessions'—and the Bahraini government just resumed executions after a 7-year moratorium. Meanwhile, Bahraini authorities continue to threaten dissidents, and subject scores of political detainees to horrific abuses."
Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), told the New York Times, "If they lift the conditions, they're saying we don't think you need to reform, and the Bahrainis have a free pass to continue cracking down."
The Times also noted that ExxonMobil, where Tillerson formerly served as CEO, has close connections with Qatar's national oil company and has partnered with that nation's government to build a gas terminal in the Gulf of Mexico. "As a result," reporters David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt wrote, "the company had a strong interest in keeping the shipping lanes in the region open—for which cooperation with Bahrain is key."
Trump has also been seeking out new ways to confront Iran in the Persian Gulf—and Bahrain is home base for the Navy's Fifth Fleet, making it a "key player in that effort," they add.
Moreover, the decision indicates that Tillerson might use a similar approach with Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration halted "some" arms sales to that nation in 2016 over civilian deaths in Yemen—but Wednesday's move is likely to be seen by Riyadh and other states in the region as a signal that the Trump team will scale back demands to protect protesters and dissidents.