Despite human rights violations, US-Bahrain security cooperation continues

Over the last few months the Bahraini government has stepped up its domestic repression by imprisoning and exiling human rights defenders, shutting down the largest political opposition society, and arresting and imprisoning dozens of Bahrainis who exercise their right to free expression and freedom of assembly. Following the citizenship revocation of Sheikh Isa Qassim in June, a 24-hour round-the-clock sit-in began in Duraz, the hometown of the prominent leader of Bahrain’s Shia community. The sit-in continues today despite growing efforts by the Bahraini authorities to silence and intimidate protesters. Despite this increased repression, the United States continues to provide security assistance and military training to the Bahraini security forces.

The Kingdom of Bahrain plays a strategic role in the U.S.’s geopolitical interests in the Gulf region as Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and supports U.S.-led military coalitions. The security assistance and military training between Bahrain and the U.S. goes back decades as the two countries signed a formal Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) in 1991. Currently there are over 8,000 U.S. military personnel deployed in the gulf kingdom focused on implementing various security related missions.

For fiscal year 2015, the U.S. allocated a total of $7.5 million to support the development of Bahrain’s security assistance program. The main recipient of U.S. military assistance has been the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF), Bahrain’s regular military force. During the 2011 pro-democracy movement, the BDF violently suppressed the peaceful demonstrations. In response to the violence, the King established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to investigate the Bahraini authorities’ violations in 2011. The commission issued 26 recommendations including one specifically calling for the de-sectarianization of the BDF. Security services continue to predominantly recruit from the Sunni sect, either from the local Bahraini community, or more recently, from foreign Sunni communities in Jordan, Egypt and Pakistan. Although officially the Bahraini government states that they do document the sectarian affiliation of service members, estimates suggest that 7,000 to 10,000 out of 25,000 members of the public police force are Pakistani Sunnis.

In response to the 2011 violent repression by security forces, the U.S. Department of State enacted and arms hold on both the BDF and the Ministry of Interior. In 2015, the arms hold was partially lifted as US officials stated that Bahrain had made and pointed to the recent release of prominent opposition leader Ebrahim Sharif. On 12 July 2015, after the release of the arms hold for the BDF, Bahraini forces re-arrested Sharif. Courts charged him with “inciting violence” and “promoting political change” in response to a peaceful speech Sharif gave days prior.

The U.S. military directly trains members of the BDF as small amounts of International Military Education And Training (IMET) funds are provided to Bahrain to “inculcate principles of civilian control of the military, democracy, and interoperability with U.S. forces.” The U.S. Department of State finds that approximately 250 BDF students attend U.S. military schools each year. For FY2015, the U.S. almost $600,000 of IMET resources to train 100 Bahraini students. THE IMET program along with other U.S. training programs provides members of the Bahraini armed forces to study alongside U.S. military personnel at U.S. educational institutions. For FY2017, the Obama administration has request $800,000 for the IMET program for Bahrain.

In response to the ongoing repression, last year the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have both introduced bills to reinstate a hold on the sale of small arms to the Government Bahrain until the country implements all 26 human rights recommendations outlined in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI).

Bahrainis have witnessed an escalation in repression during the summer of 2016. Prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab remains in jail, the government continues to place members of civil society under travel bans, while sustaining its targeting of the Shia community. In an effort to stop these violations, the United States should recommit to conditioning U.S. arms transfers, as well as military assistance, to the kingdom until the Bahraini government commits to guaranteeing and protecting human rights for all in Bahrain.

Mobashra Tazamal is an advocacy fellow at ADHRB