Last week, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) hosted events on Capitol Hill and American University (AU) on the prospects for reform in Bahrain and what the United States and the international community can do to address the human rights and political crisis on the ground. The events, held the week of the third anniversary of the 2011 Bahrain uprising, were in partnership with and with participation from: The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Reporters Sans Frontieres, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and Creative Peace Initiatives of AU.
The events occurred at a time when the way forward in Bahrain is more unclear and challenging than ever. The continuing crackdown on human rights defenders, subjecting detainees to enforced disappearance and other ill-treatment, and a further narrowing of the space for freedom of expression has significantly undermined prospects of reconciliation in the country and any claims by the Bahraini government that they are committed to reform. Just last week, Reporters Sans Frontieres released their annual World Press Freedom Index, calling Bahrain the “kingdom of disinformation” for its “master” ability to manipulate coverage of street protests and the ensuing crackdown since 2011.
Although the Crown Prince recently took the step of initiating a dialogue process in the country, many of the panelists and speakers who participated in last week’s events were less than optimistic about its success and the prospects of reform in the country. At the POMED/ADHRB congressional briefing, Dr. Dwight Bashir of USCIRF, who recently returned from an official trip to the country, characterized progress in Bahrain since 2011 as “one step forward and two steps back,” with “arbitrary arrest, detention, and incendiary rhetoric in the media” continuing unabated. The crackdown on protestors and critics of the government has continued to such an extent that the BCHR Acting President Maryam al-Khawaja shared that prisoners are forced to “sleep on the floor or in the hallway” due to overcrowding in Bahraini prisons.
Panelists also discussed what the United States Government (USG) could do to move its ally toward necessary human rights and political reforms. Sarah Margon, Acting Washington Director of Human Rights Watch, recognized that U.S. policy toward Bahrain has failed to support real reform in the country, stating that the Obama Administration “is sending a message that they prioritize defense policy over human rights” in the country. Ms. Margon questioned this policy by stating that it is not only the government-to-government relationship that is important – the USG is also “squandering its relationship with the Bahraini people.” Dr. Bashir also called on members of the House and Senate committees on Appropriations and Armed Services to push the State Department and the Department of Defense toward policy reform in Bahrain.
Members of Congress also marked the three year anniversary by expressing concern over the plight of prisoners of conscience and the continuation of human rights violations in Bahrain. Congressman James P. McGovern (D-MA), Co-Chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission who has adopted prisoner of conscience Nabeel Rajab as part of the Defending Freedoms Project, called on the U.S. Government to “ensure that the Bahraini government adheres to its human rights commitments and enacts meaningful reforms,” stating that “absent such steps, the U.S. must consider contingency planning for the relocation” of the Fifth Fleet.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) urged the Government of Bahrain “to demonstrate the leadership necessary to create conditions for a serious and constructive dialogue,” also stating that “a path of genuine reconciliation and reform is the best route to a stable future for all citizens of Bahrain.” Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA) correctly noted that “rather than see a move toward reform,” in Bahrain, “systematic human rights abuses and restrictions on freedom of expression and association continue.”