Op-ed | U.S. Foreign Policy in Bahrain Two Years after the Uprising

By Husain Abdulla*

During his State of the Union address on Tuesday February 12, 2013, President Obama said that the United States will “stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy” in the Middle East.

This statement may come as a surprise to many in Bahrain who have been calling upon the United States to “insist on respect for [their] fundamental human rights” since protests began in the country on February 14, 2011.

For the last two years, Bahrain has struggled amid an unsustainable climate of political turmoil. Since taking to the streets to demand legitimate political reforms, the country’s citizens have faced a brutal crackdown by Bahrain and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) security forces, leading to systemic human rights violations. Hundreds of detainees have been tortured, more than 4,000 public and private sector employees who participated in protests have been wrongfully terminated from their jobs, and over 100 people have been killed.

The U.S. government’s close, long-standing relationship with Bahrain stands against this backdrop. For years, the United States has considered Bahrain to be a key regional ally and bulwark against the growing threat from Iran. The U.S. Naval Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain, conducts regular patrols along regional shipping lanes, assists with missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and serves as a deterrent to any potential Iranian threat.

While Bahrain’s violent crackdown against peaceful protesters is to some degree an embarrassment to the United States, continuing U.S. inaction has helped foment strong anti-U.S. sentiment within Bahrain, and the region. Indeed, as conditions in Bahrain have continued to deteriorate, the United States has received harsh criticism from activists and rights groups for its muted criticism of the Bahrain government’s actions. Many Bahrainis believe, that for the sake of its geopolitical interests, the United States has been complacent toward the human rights abuses that continue to be perpetrated against activists, demonstrators, and other civilians in Bahrain.

The United States must juggle support for political reform in Bahrain with the strategic necessity of maintaining its presence in the Gulf. To do so, the Administration must begin to supplement its use of backdoor diplomacy with public pressure on the Bahrain government to address popular demands for reform. As President Obama observed in his State of the Union address, while the transitional process to democracy in the Middle East will be messy, the United States must “insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people.”

As the Obama Administration begins its second term, a real opportunity exists to effect change in Bahrain. With John Kerry as the new U.S. Secretary of State, human rights defenders have gained a potential ally in the Administration. At the beginning of the uprising, then-Senator Kerry urged the Bahrain government to abstain from violence, calling political reform “critical for the healing process.” Now, in his new position at the State Department, Kerry is in a unique position to push for a tougher line on Bahrain within the Administration while urging the Bahrain government to enact substantive reforms.

Secretary Kerry will soon have an opportunity to act upon a commitment made during his confirmation hearing “not [to] hesitate” to address human rights concerns with U.S. allies. With regard to Bahrain, federal legislation gives the Secretary an even stronger mandate to take action. The Joint Explanatory Statement included in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2013 includes a provision requiring the Secretary of State to report on Bahrain’s implementation of recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission for Inquiry (BICI)—a body commissioned and sanctioned by the king of Bahrain to investigate human rights violations committed during the 2011 uprising, and recommend necessary reforms. So far, Bahrain’s implementation of the BICI’s recommendations has been woefully inadequate.

The U.S. government must impress upon Bahrain the importance of rectifying the human rights violations committed over the past two years. As Senator Kerry said, “the government of Bahrain did the right thing by appointing the [BICI] commission, but what’s important now will be accountability for the grave human rights abuses that have occurred, irreversible reforms, and enforcement.” Whether or not these changes happen will depend, in large part, upon Secretary Kerry’s commitment to human rights and the United States’ willingness to publicly and unapologetically speak out against the abuses committed by its ally.

*Director, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain

This article originally appeared in Muftah.org and has been republished with permission.