United States Ambassador Justin Hicks Siberell is a career diplomat and counterterrorism expert who is ending his nearly three-year posting in Manama, Bahrain. Before his ambassadorship, he served in missions in five countries across three continents and served as acting Counterterrorism Coordinator for the State Department. Far from a political appointee, Ambassador Siberell is an expert on these issues and a talented diplomat, however, as noble as his intentions seem, they appear to be out of touch with the current pressing needs of Bahrainis and the US-Bahraini alliance. There is a reason Ambassador Siberell was selected for this position: counterterrorism efforts are imperative in the region. However, Ambassador Siberell has promised to do more, and so far, his promises seem to be as hollow as Bahrain’s political reforms.
Ambassador Siberell’s failure to address any of Bahrain’s human rights issues is all too apparent in his public statements. He is quick to celebrate a new arms deal or give his condolences when there is an act or terror in the region, however, he has not once commented on the most dire issue in Bahrain: the government’s continued abuse of its own people. Ambassador Siberell’s actions show that he values his relationship with the Bahraini ruling family more than doing his duty to represent American principles in Bahrain. As one of the founding nations of the modern democratic tradition, we have a responsibility to carry our democratic values wherever we go and Ambassador Siberell has plainly failed to do so.
In his confirmation hearing Ambassador Siberell acknowledged that security and morality in American foreign policy are not mutually exclusive. “Enhancing our security cooperation with Bahrain does not diminish the enduring emphasis we place on human rights issues. Indeed, our counterterrorism and military cooperation with Bahrain is paired with a clear understanding that Bahrain’s own long-term stability and security depend on it achieving political reconciliation and upholding its commitments to universal human rights.” This understanding was apparently not as clear as the Ambassador had once thought for joint military drills and arms sales have only increased since Ambassador Siberell began his tenure but reports of torture by Bahraini forces have risen in tandem and the 2018 elections came and passed with zero political reconciliation.
Ambassador Siberell also stated that he will “continue to urge the government of Bahrain to take steps to ensure inclusive elections,” a promise for which there is zero evidence of ever being fulfilled. Without mincing words, he ended his opening statement at his hearing by stating that “ I will work to ensure that we continue to have an open and honest dialogue with Bahrain on the full range of issues affecting our bilateral relationship, including human rights.” Hindsight has revealed this to be just another lie told in front of the United States Senate.
After ensuring solidarity with human rights defenders during his confirmation, he immediately made an about-face and began praising the Bahraini ruling family and his new home in Manama, calling it a “land of religious freedom.” This is the same land that is the majority of Shia, and yet ruled by the iron fist of the minority Sunni ruling family. In a symposium on human rights last month, Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Joe Stork, made it abundantly clear that the dire state of human rights in Bahrain has only been further deteriorating.
Freedoms in Bahrain today, he states, are even more sparse than when he first started working there 25 years ago. Even since the beginning of the Trump administration, any remaining members of the political opposition have been arrested and arbitrary arrests and beatings from security forces have increased. Additionally, in the last three years, arms sales to Bahrain have skyrocketed to almost a billion dollars a year, numbers not previously seen since before the 2011 protests. All the while, Ambassador Siberell lives in comfort in one of the grandest cities in the Middle East while large number of innocent Bahraini citizens rot in prison for their political activism. The ruling family apparently appreciates his work, or lack thereof; on July 1st, King Hamad Al Khalifa granted Ambassador Siberell the Order of the Bahrain First Class for improving relations between the two countries. Siberell, in the words of Joe Stork, “is no friend to human rights.” Hopefully his replacement in Manama will strike a tougher tone towards Bahrain’s countless human rights violations.