White House places restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain

Three arms deals to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are currently making their way through Congress. If approved, the deals would supply Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait with 123 new F-15 and F-16 fighter jets and extensive upgrades to existing jets. The arms deal with Bahrain in particular would supply the country with 19 F-16s and is estimated to be worth $4 billion. Last week, the Obama administration added a ‘declaration of concern’ in its draft notification of the Bahrain deal that was sent to Congress. The draft notification is not public but members of Congress and the administration have spoken anonymously about its contents.

The declaration expresses concern over the deteriorating human rights situation in Bahrain. Specifically, it calls for an end to the government crackdown on free speech and a reversal of the dissolution of the main opposition party, Al-Wefaq. It also expresses concern over the continued detainment of prominent Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab and the citizenship revocation of Sheikh Isa Qassim, the leading Shia cleric in Bahrain. Nabeel’s trial is set for this week on Thursday and he is facing up to 15 years in prison on charges related to right to free expression. The Obama administration has not made clear what specific actions it is looking for Bahrain to take in order to approve the deal.

This conditional approval of an arms sale is unusual. Typically, concerns about human rights are taken into consideration at the outset of negotiating a deal, as part of deciding whether to sell arms to a country. This departure from standard procedure may reflect the administration’s view of the seriousness of the declining human rights situation in Bahrain. It could also be a response to the growing domestic pressure on the administration to use its leverage to push for the protection of human rights in Bahrain and other GCC countries. Just recently at the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council (HRC), the High Commissioner for Human Rights himself called the Government of Bahrain “disastrous” for “smashing the voices of its people.” Bahraini authorities’ institutionalization of human rights violations has led to a rapid escalation of abuses in the country. Placing restrictions on these arms sales is crucial for the US government to retain its credibility concerning human rights, and it will send the right message to the Bahraini authorities that these violations must stop.