Written by Husain Abdulla*
Protesters in February 2011. Credit: Nick Kristof, New York Times
More than two years after peaceful demonstrators took to the streets to demand reforms, Bahrain’s uprising has not abated. In recent weeks, human rights activists in Bahrain have faced an increase in violence and repression. Naji Fateel, board member of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, was recently sentenced to six months in prison on politically-motivated charges, while Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights who is currently serving a two-year prison sentence for Tweeting about planned protests, went missing for several days after telling his wife in a phone call that he had witnessed prisoners being beaten.
The demands of the opposition movement are hardly unreasonable, which makes the Bahrain government’s recalcitrance all the more suspect. The people of Bahrain want a representative government and an elected prime minister. 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 Bahrain government following the 2011 protests, to be fully implemented. 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 Bahrain government for granting these requests would be negligible.
Unfortunately, reform — the key to Bahrain’s stability and security — is what the Bahrain government seems determined to prevent. As the US 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 Bahrain government frequently did not respect its own laws regarding human rights, let alone the standards set by international human rights treaties.
Another report released by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom similarly found that the Government of Bahrain has so far failed to overcome sectarian divisions by addressing the “ongoing lack of accountability for abuses against the Shi’a community since 2011.” These reports follow a recent request for consultations by the US Department of Labor to address the findings of a 2012 report released by the agency regarding the ongoing “deterioration in the labor rights environment in Bahrain” and “political and sectarian-based discrimination against Shia workers.”
The US 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 US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain gives this small island nation outsized importance when it comes to US foreign policy in the Gulf region. As Deputy Secretary of State William Burnssaid 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.”
The US government must begin to demonstrate its commitment to democracy and human rights in Bahrain 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 US 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.
*This piece is a modified except of an op-ed written by Husain Abdulla, Director of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, and published by Foreign Policy In Focus.