The recent departure of the US Ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain, Justin Hicks Siberell, has prompted questions in Congress about America’s moral and strategic role in the Middle East. A career diplomat and counterterrorism expert, Ambassador Siberell worked closely with the Bahraini government to ensure regional security from the lens of counterterrorism. However, despite these counterterrorism efforts, Ambassador Siberell did nothing to stop the Bahraini government from arbitrarily incarcerating large numbers of its citizens and violating countless other domestic and international human rights laws; instead he was constantly celebrating new arms deals and national security advancements.
There is no dispute about the fact that the current US policy toward Bahrain lacks any regards to human rights or serious political reforms. In confirming the next ambassador to Bahrain, the US Senate needs assurances that they will prioritize stopping further de-liberalization, protecting civil liberties, and creating real accountability to ensure basic human rights, and as importantly genuine political stability.
Counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East are still relevant and necessary, but should not come at the expense of Bahrainis’ human rights. The first step in creating a more stable and sustainable environment in Bahrain is the prioritization of these basic rights. This means pressuring the Bahraini government to end its persecution of its citizens. It also means ending arbitrary arrests, and ending the practice of beating, torturing, and raping detainees to obtain coerced confessions for often nonexistent crimes. Bahraini detention centers should meet international standards and have adequate facilities, which would be a drastic change from their current conditions, which include horrors like undrinkable water and maggot-infested food. The new ambassador to Bahrain should fight against detainees being locked in cells for 23 hours per day and denied access to family visitation. The Senate should only confirm a nominated ambassador who pledges to actively pursue human rights as a priority, not as an afterthought.
When the US Ambassador to Bahrain makes clear that laws should revolve around the freedom of the Kingdom’s citizens, civil liberties have room to grow. The future ambassador should ensure that the Bahraini government guarantees its citizens the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association. These fundamental rights, along with the freedom of an independent press, are the characteristics of a healthy and stable society. The new ambassador must prioritize the individual right to a speedy and fair trial where due process is respected and guaranteed according to international legal standard, rather than mass trials with the only evidence being confessions coerced from torture. Only when the new ambassador prioritizes these values can the Senate should confirm the new post.
Once basic freedoms are established, the new ambassador to Bahrain must ensure accountability–within Bahrain and within the international system. Domestically, the Ombudsman and Special Investigations Unit (SIU) must be wholly independent and effective. The new Ambassador should use US leverages like withholding funds, training security forces, authorizing any sale of American weapon or technology, and others till real improvement can be measured when it comes human rights conditions on the ground. With the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet Base in Manama, funding of the Bahraini security forces and almost a billion dollars a year in arms sales, the United States wields tremendous leverage over Bahrain; it is time for the United States to finally use its diplomatic might to hold the government of Bahrain accountable for its human rights violations.
Human rights and regional security are not mutually exclusive. The new ambassador to Bahrain must find the strategic balance between the two. The Senate must only confirm a nominee who will guarantee that they will be pressuring the Bahraini government to secure human rights, civil liberties, accountability, and stability for its citizens.