More than two years after peaceful demonstrators took to the streets to demand reforms, Bahrain’s uprising has not abated. Activists and opposition groups continue to demand the basic human rights and political reforms promised to them by their government. Rather than meet the opposition’s calls for reform, the government of Bahrain has responded by subjecting citizens to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, interrogation, torture, and abuse.
Human rights activists such as Naji Fateel, board member of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, and Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, are frequently subjected to arbitrary arrest and ill treatment. Similarly, medical professionals who have been interrogated, detained, tortured, and convicted for providing medical care to injured protesters remain in prison or have not been allowed to return to work. Educators who have endured similar ill-treatment continue to be fired from their positions or languish in prison, while soccer players who were banned from their clubs for participating in protests remain blacklisted or live in self-imposed exile to continue playing the sport they love.
The demands of the opposition movement are hardly unreasonable, which makes the government's recalcitrance all the more suspect. The people of Bahrain want a representative government and an elected prime minister. They want a representative of the king to participate in the national dialogue. They want an end to human rights abuses and accountability for those who committed them. They want the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), a body commissioned by the Bahraini government following the 2011 protests, to be fully implemented. They want prisoners of conscience, jailed for exercising their rights to free speech and expression, to be released. They want to be able to associate freely in political groups, civil society organizations, unions, and associations. In the grand scheme of things, the financial, moral, and political cost to the Bahraini government for granting these requests would be negligible.
Unfortunately, reform — the key to Bahrain’s stability and security — is what the Bahraini government seems determined to prevent. As the U.S. State Department noted in its 2012 Human Rights Country Report on Bahrain, although the government of Bahrain has made “some” progress in implementing reforms since 2011, that progress has not been significant. The report found that the Bahraini government frequently did not respect its own laws regarding human rights, let alone the standards set by international human rights treaties. Additionally, the report highlighted cases of arbitrary arrest and detention; restrictions placed on freedom of speech, press, and assembly; and the use of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, among other rights abuses.
Bahrain’s response to the 2012 country report has been predictably shrill, a sure sign the U.S. State Department struck a nerve with a regime that has become increasingly sensitive about its image. Unfortunately, the Bahraini government seems unable or unwilling to recognize that the best way to improve its image is to undertake the reforms that the king promised in 2011.
Instead, the government continues to dispense the same argument it has been making since 2011: that the opposition is to blame for ongoing strife and sectarian divisions in the country — a rift that the government itself is largely responsible for. As the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted in its 2013 annual report, the government of Bahrain must overcome sectarian divisions by addressing the “ongoing lack of accountability for abuses against the Shi’a community since 2011.”
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This conclusion was also reflected in a report issued by the U.S. Department of Labor in December 2012, in which the agency noted the ongoing “deterioration in the labor rights environment in Bahrain" and "political and sectarian-based discrimination against Shia workers.” The agency recently requested formal consultations with the Bahraini government to address allegations of ongoing labor rights violations following the 2011 crackdown.
The U.S. government’s increasing interest in Bahrain may seem unusual given its size (its population and area are about the same as Rhode Island’s), but the presence of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain gives this small island nation outsized importance when it comes to U.S. foreign policy in the Gulf region. As Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said in a speech at Princeton University this May, the United States does not “have the luxury of pivoting away from the Middle East, which sometimes has a nasty way of reminding us of its relevance.”
Several analysts have echoed this sentiment, including former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, who recently raised concerns regarding the increasing instability in Bahrain. If the situation continues to deteriorate, they argue, Bahrain may no longer be a viable location to host the Fifth Fleet. Although the Defense Department has yet to create a “Plan B” to relocate the fleet, it appears at least to recognize the threat such instability could pose. In March, then-head of U.S. Central Command General James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that dialogue and reform in Bahrain are “key to ensuring the country’s stability and security,” which are needed in light of simmering tensions between Iran and the West.
The relationship between the United States and Bahrain grows more complicated by the day. These tensions—and the Bahraini government’s unfaltering intransigence toward reform—will put American diplomacy to the test in the coming weeks and months. It is a test we cannot afford to fail. As President Barack Obama said in his 2013 State of the Union Address, “[i]n the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy. The process will be messy, … but we can—and will—insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people.”
The U.S. government can begin to demonstrate its commitment to democracy and human rights in the Middle East by making foreign aid and military assistance contingent upon the government of Bahrain’s full and satisfactory implementation of the BICI recommendations. In the meantime, the Defense Department should begin developing a contingency plan to relocate the Fifth Fleet in the event that the security situation in Bahrain makes the fleet’s presence there untenable. Finally, the U.S. Department of Labor should insist that Bahrain adequately address legitimate concerns regarding its ongoing violations of international labor laws. Although the path to reform in Bahrain may be messy, the consequences of failure are worse, for Bahrain and for America.