Human Rights Go Missing During Secretary Kerry’s Visit to Bahrain

On 7 April, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Foreign Ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) while on his three-day trip to Bahrain. During his meeting with the GCC Foreign Ministers, they discussed regional security concerns mainly in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and Daésh.  An equally important issue in the region, human rights, however, was noticeably absent from Secretary Kerry’s rhetoric.

In his statement to the press, Sec. Kerry, standing alongside Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, stated, “We welcome steps by all sides to create conditions that will provide for greater political involvement for the citizens. And here, as in all nations, we believe that respect for human rights and an inclusive political system are essential in order to allow citizens to be able to reach and live out their full potential.”

Aside from the bland and utterly general nature of his comments, it should be noted that Bahrain does not create conditions “that provide for greater political involvement for [its] citizens.” On the contrary, the Government of Bahrain continues to imprison opposition political activists and dissidents. In June 2015, the government arrested and imprisoned opposition political leader Sheikh Ali Salman for four years. Authorities convicted him of inciting hatred, promoting disobedience, and “insulting” public institutions. Also imprisoned, is the Secretary-General of the National Democratic Action Society, Ebrahim Sharif, whom the government has charged with encouraging the overthrow of the government, and “inciting hatred.”

Nor does the government work to create an inclusive political system; such a system would be tolerant of, rather than oppressive towards, dissent. Instead, the Government of Bahrain has worked assiduously to suppress and criminalize any form of dissent. Recent amendments to the Penal Code, made in March 2015, increased the penalty for “insulting parliament, the Shura Council, security forces, judges or public interest.” Moreover, in September 2015, Bahrain’s cabinet approved regulations which would penalize media outlets for “spreading false or damaging information that could affect foreign relations.” The government also passed a number of recommendations in July 2013, to amend anti-terror legislation that would further restrict the space for dissent. Human rights groups and experts have criticized Bahrain’s anti-terror legislation in particular because its broad definitions allow for its increased use against anyone who disagrees with the government.

Not only has Bahrain closed non-governmental avenues to political involvement, it broadly fails to respect human rights. Arbitrary arrests and torture remain common in the kingdom, as does official impunity; Sec. Kerry neglected to mention these facts.

The Bahraini government continues to both violate human rights and impede its people’s abilities “to reach, and live to, their full potential.” While the US stresses democratic values and the importance of human rights, it remains to be seen what will happen in two weeks, when President Obama is set to meet with GCC leaders and discuss these issues. Will the President step up? Or will he offer an encore of Sec. Kerry’s platitudes, sidestepping “not just American values, but universal values” of human rights?

Tyler Pry is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB

Photo courtesy of Reuters