Selective defense of democracy

America’s role as a champion in Ukraine’s fight for its own right to self-determination and freedom from tyranny has been so strong that the World War II title of “the arsenal of democracy,” has returned. This is right and as it should be. There is no invisible hand that creates democracy and keeps it alive; it is a conscious choice and decision and we either choose to give it our support or we decide to ignore it.

There are powerful and moving examples of the United States’ defense and promotion of democracy. Where the US has been committed to fostering democracy and responsible membership in the international community, i.e. Germany and Japan after WWII, it has fostered the establishment of some of the world’s strongest leading countries, economies, and our closest friends and reliable partners. The nature of these countries – that is their strength in the international community and in the global economy – have made the world a better place. When the U.S. has made commitments to democracy, equality, human rights, and self-determination remarkable progress in the quality of humanity has been the result.

Despite these achievements, democracy should never be taken for granted. The mass suffering being witnessed in Ukraine provides a tragic and decidedly unneeded reminder of the very real consequences of authoritarian rule that is unwilling to establish conditions under which justice and peace are maintained and faith in fundamental human rights is reaffirmed. While there remains a great deal of uncertainty, there is no need, and certainly no justification, to refrain from asserting that the invasion of Ukraine can only be described as an unequivocal contravention of international law and a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty.

Ukraine wants democracy and deserves it. But its right to self-determination is being challenged by an enemy of democracy – an authoritarian government. Russia has no right to roll its military into a sovereign country and extinguish democracy where it can. It has been over two months since Russia engaged in its latest and most egregious act of aggression and proved once again the dangers inherent to autocratic governance structures. The notion that authoritarian states promote geopolitical stability has once again been exposed as an utter falsity, a myth perpetuated by dictators and tyrants who view the spread of democracy with fear and disdain. As reports of atrocities and grievous abuses begin to emerge from the fog of war, the world is left to confront both the fragility and universality of democracy.

The international community, led by the United States, has been unwavering in its condemnations of Putin’s reckless irrationality, with a resoluteness that parallels the enduring resilience of the Ukrainian people. Since February 24, 2022, political leaders from around the world have correctly framed this moment as struggle not just for self-determination in Ukraine, but for the soul of democracy everywhere. At a time when dissension characterizes the American political discourse, the myriad comments that have been made denouncing Russian aggression and promoting universal values are illustrative of a truly remarkable reality. These quotes exhibit unanimous support for Ukrainian democracy and a robust promotion of the need to defend international peace and security that transcends politicalinterests or ideological distinction. Indeed, the defense of democracy in Ukraine will be the standard by which all threats and defenses of democracy will be measured. Never, after thiseffort to protect the desire of a people in their pursuit ofdemocratic government, will the U.S. and the democratic world be able to justify ignoring an attack on democracy as it did in Bahrain in 2011.

There is an uncomfortable and unavoidable hypocrisy in the choice of U.S. leaders in 2011 to ignore the Bahraini dictator’s violent attempts at suppressing the peaceful pro-democracy movement there and then, to continue to ignore the military invasion of that country by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to finish what the Bahraini king had started. Acknowledgments by U.S. leaders that “wherever they are, people have certain universal rights including the right to peaceful assembly” and condemning violence by governments against peaceful protestors means nothing if the U.S. and its arsenal of democracy stays home when dictators kill pro-democracy activists.

To the Bahrainis standing in the streets, their peaceful pro-democracy protest was their moment to move Bahrain away from the medieval government of their dictator and toward the same values and institutions of the West. To the Saudi, UAE, and Bahraini dictators the pro-democracy protests were a threat. The success of these dictators to crush the peaceful pro-democracy movement in 2011 has not crushed the dream of Bahrainis to transform their country into a democracy.

In the aftermath of the Bahraini government’s violent suppression of the pro-democracy movement in 2011, there emerged a cautious optimism that this period of mass mobilization may have catalyzed those within the government to begin taking seriously the issue of civil and political reform. It is rather demoralizing, therefore, in light of the ongoing struggle in Ukraine, to have to acknowledge that Bahrain exemplifies the true nature of autocrats – what happens when the universality of democracy is forgotten. From 2017 onward, the Bahraini government has only intensified its repressive tactics in an effort to eradicate all forms of dissent: human rights defenders and members of the opposition have been forced into exile orimprisoned within Bahrain; the nation’s independent media outlets have been forcibly closed; torture remains central to the kingdom’s deeply flawed criminal justice system; and the state has resumed the use of capital punishment after a seven-year moratorium.

While it is true that these abuses have received considerably less coverage than those elsewhere in the world, they are not unknown, nor is there dispute over their occurrence. In the recently released 2021 country report on Bahrain, the State Department called attention to numerous human rights violations and restrictions on fundamental freedoms, including “torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government; harsh and life threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; [and] arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy”. The report addressed the ongoing attempts of the Bahraini government to silence voices of dissent and notes with concern the “serious restrictions on free expression and media, including censorship, and the existence of criminal libel laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations”. Additionally, the report highlighted the issue of political prisoners, which the Bahraini government refuses to acknowledge.

Even amidst the deteriorating human rights situation, the spirit of the Bahraini people preservers. That dream of democratic reforms in Bahrain is still there but is today being crushed by the silence of the West. The silence and blind eye turned by the U.S. and its democratic allies has allowed the dictator in Bahrain the freedom to continue torturing democracy activists without consequences and to outlaw freedom of speech, the right of peaceful assembly, and the right to freedom of association. The silence of the West is generating freedom for dictators in Bahrain to commit greater and more human rights abuses.Notably, the illegitimacy of the government’s authority is no longer confined to within Bahrain’s borders. Emboldened by a culture of impunity that has been tolerated by Western allies for far too long, Bahraini authorities have displayed an increasing willingness to attack pro-democracy networks which operate abroad, often through the arbitrary revocation of citizenship, the illegal retrieval of sensitive information, and the targeting of family members still residing in Bahrain.

Though Bahrain has been excluded in the commitments of past U.S. leaders to supporting pro-democracy movements, the past does not have to be prologue. The desire for democracy in Bahrain is still there and can still be given our support. The strategic importance of Bahrain to the U.S. makes support for the oppressed there an imperative. The violence and repression of Bahrain’s dictator is creating instability. This instability is a threat and one which increases the consequences of other threats from malevolent actors in the region.

The support for democracy in Bahrain does not come at the cost of security cooperation or the prosperity generated by other initiatives. It is a false choice that support for democracy and regional security are an ‘either or’ proposition. This reductive binary is the narrative of a dictator intent on wielding total, unchecked, abusive power. To accept this narrative is to cede power to an enemy of democracy. Worse yet, to accept this narrative would allow Bahraini authorities to continue operate under false guise of a democratic government. Given the upcoming parliamentary elections in November, continued inaction would only assist the Government of Bahrain in itsefforts to dismantle civil society and suppress democratic reforms through “serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation”. There can be no chance of free and fair elections if individuals continue to be imprisoned for their peaceful and pro-democracy dissent.

Laudably, the US and the broader international community has acknowledged the responsibility to speak out against the attack on democracy in Ukraine. However, to stay silent and turn away from the murder and suppression of democracy activists in Bahrain weakens the US and its democratic allies all around the world. Consistency in our defense of democracy is a strength no other earthly power can stand up against.